To plays, Troilus and Cressida, All’s Well

be legitimate is, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, to “conform to
the laws or rules; to be able to be defended with logic or justification; to
be valid.”1
Thus to be legitimate is to be legal, lawful, licensed, and valid; to be true.
On the other hand, to be illegitimate is to be defined as “not authorized by
the law; not in accordance with accepted standards or rules,” or rather, to be
illegal, illicit, criminal, unsanctioned; to be false.2 Questions of legitimacy
are particularly consequential when examining problematic texts, such as the
‘problem plays’ of William Shakespeare. The following analysis will discuss the
ways in which these plays, Troilus and
Cressida, All’s Well That Ends Well,
and Measure for Measure engage, both
directly and indirectly, with ideas about and the concept of legitimacy.
Looking at their identities, character, and relationships, this assessment will
attempt to explore what effects notions of legitimacy or illegitimacy have on
the various dramatis personae of these works, as well as the influence exerted
on the genre and definition of problem plays overall.Whether
a character’s identity is legitimate, or even legitimately their own and how
these things are decided is an issue that must be addressed first and foremost.
The idea of anything or anyone being legitimate is a complex one, for the
reason that “what is illegitimate cannot define itself or exist of itself,
since it is defined by and in relation to what is legitimate.”3 As Peter Hyland puts it:
“bastards do not make themselves.”4 Thersites, of Troilus and Cressida, embodies one of
the purer conceptions of the ‘illegitimate’, perhaps more so than nearly any
other character that will be discussed in this study, in that Thersites is, by
birth, a bastard. Because of this both his existence and his identity are, in
effect, defined as being intrinsically and inescapably false. He is the
“perverted product” of infidelity, diseased by his representation of “disease
within the system.”5
To be a bastard was, in 17th century England, to be an outsider, a
form of the “other” deprived of a socially, and in some cases legally (such as
those regarding property rights), authorized identity. They are an “incarnation
of the disruptive anti-social energies associated with their begetting,”
defined by their status as a “symbolic denizen of that realm of unredeemed
nature.”6 Thersites confesses to his
bastardy amidst a confrontation with Margareton, the only other bastard in the
play. To him Thersites defines himself as “bastard begot, bastard instructed,
bastard in mind, bastard in valour, in everything illegitimate,” and, whether
due to cowardice or some form of logical reasoning, submits that, as “one bear
will not bite another, … wherefore should one bastard?”7 This brief scene makes
little sense given that other than a mention of him by Agamemnon, this is the
only physical appearance of the “bastard Margareton,” and it looks as though
his sole purpose in the play is merely to give Thersites an opening for his own
revelation of his illegitimate origins.8 In Measure for Measure, the legitimacy of certain characters’
identities hinge on who they are meant to be and who they actually are. This is
especially true in the case of the Duke, who spends much of the play pretending
to be a friar. Through his taking on the illegitimate identity of Friar
Lodowick, the Duke is able to, “from behind the scenes, manipulate other
characters much as a dramatist would,” furthering both his private and public
As the Friar, the Duke takes on powers that are not his own, just as Angelo
does by acting in his stead, but these powers are, again, in themselves
fraudulent. There is no such thing as a “substitute priest,” and therefore not
only is his identity illegitimate, but so too are any absolutions or spiritual
counsel he gives.10 From the opposite
standpoint, Angelo, one of the Duke’s two deputies, through the latter’s
appointment of him as his surrogate, Angelo himself takes on a sort of
illegitimate identity. When appointing Angelo as his substitute over Escalus,
the Duke instructs Angelo thus: “In our remove, be thou at full ourself.”11 Where the Duke became a
false friar, Angelo becomes a false Duke. This identity, this role, it could be
argued, is also somewhat counterfeit given the fact that it was not Angelo’s
originally, it has been given or transposed to him by another. A similar
‘illegitimacy by proxy’ situation exists within All’s Well That Ends Well, found in the bed-trick exchange of
Helena for Diana, wherein Helena temporarily takes on Diana’s identity to
mislead her reluctant and unwitting husband. This taking on of a new role or
identity is crucial for Helena to accomplish the impossible tasks Bertram has
set for her. To win her husband, she must become other than she is: “the
devoted would-be wife must refashion herself as sexual object.”12 Just as well, Diana
effectively takes on a slice of Helena’s person, in that she serves as the
woman’s “sexualized double.”13 Under her instructions,
Diana becomes her agent and sets up the deception in which Helena would in a
way assume her identity in what would have been Diana’s act of prostitution, in
this way tricking Bertram’s lust into “playing with what it loathes for that
which is away.”14Yet
another form of illegitimacy in Shakespeare’s problem plays is found within the
character of the persons in each work; their nature, their disposition. In Troilus and Cressida, Cressida’s
character, throughout the course of the play, one of, if not her most defining
features. Whether Cressida is truthful or false in this sense dictates whether
she herself is deemed legitimate or illegitimate. When making her vows which
bind her Troilus, Cressida at once swears herself to be true to him, declaring
the consequence of her failure, and sets herself up for her inevitable failure:                                    Cressida: Prophet may you be!
                                                   If I be false, or swerve a hair from truth,
                                                   When time is old and hath forgot itself,
                                                   When waterdrops have worn the stones of
                                                   And blind oblivion swallowed cities up,
                                                   And mighty states characterless are grated
                                                   To dusty nothing, yet let memory,
                                                   Upbraid my falsehood! When they’ve said ‘As
                                                   As air, as water, wind, or sandy earth,
                                                   As fox to lamb, or wolf to heifer’s calf,
                                                   Pard to the hind, or stepdame to her son’,
                                                   Yea, let them say, to stick the heart of
                                                   ‘As false as Cressid’.15When Cressida is seen to
betray Troilus with Diomedes, she is split in two: Troilus’s Cressida and
“Diomed’s Cressida.”16 Not only that, but she
has also confirmed her initial evaluation of her own character; that within her
their resided two “selves” divided. The one a “kind of self” which resided with
Troilus. The other an “unkind” self which, when the “error of her eye directs
her mind,” she gives over to Diomedes.17 Consequently, the
question is raised as to which version or versions of Cressida are
illegitimated by this, this upset in a system in which there exists an
insistence on absolute nature and truth. Illegitimacy as derived from the
splitting of character occurs as well with Cressida’s own father, Calchas.
Calchas is, or was, a Trojan priest who has defected from his home and its
people and left to side with the enemy Greeks; he has, due to his prophetic
visions regarding the fall of Troy, “abandoned Troy, left his possessions,”
and “incurred a traitor’s name.”18 In this light, he goes
from being simply a Trojan turncoat, “becoming as new into the world” an
illegitimate Greek, a status for which he is willing to bargain away his
daughter in exchange for the warrior Antenor, so to please the leaders of the
Greeks. Additionally, the character of Angelo from Measure for Measure might
also be seen as illegitimate in some sense with regards to his public propriety
and private corruption, and the intermingling of the two. Angelo, who has been
flouted as being a “man of stricture and firm abstinence,” one who “stands at a
guard with envy; scarce confesses that his blood flows, or that his appetite is
more to bread than stone.”19 He is made out to be
incredibly pious and strictly adherent to both moral and legal codes. However,
this changes following his condemnation of Claudio, when the man’s sister
approaches him to plea for her brother’s life. At this time his eye and mind
are turned, affected by Isabella’s modesty and her virtue more so than he
believes he could ever be by any woman’s lightness, “vigour, art, and nature.”20 He who supposedly never
felt “the wanton stings and motions of the sense” is now victim to the most
dangerous of temptations, being that which “doth goad one on to sin in loving
Still he, for the most part, maintains his own piety despite the circumstances
which have called it into question and now in effect illegitimatize it in
favour of the more immoral inclinations and desires he now exhibits. Thus the
saintly in Angelo is replaced by the sinful.A
third form of the illegitimate in Shakespeare’s problem plays comes with the
relationships of the characters in each of the works, many of which fail to
meet all of the standard requirements for what would by either moral or legal
statutes constitute a genuine union. This is evident, first of all, in Troilus and Cressida, in the
relationship between the title characters. There is no courting or any such
flirtations involved in the affair between Troilus and Cressida until just
before they are married, though both have beforehand either in discussion or in
private admitted their attraction to and affections for one another. It is then
in a seemingly secret ceremony known to only a select few, primarily the couple
in question and Pandarus, their go-between and the one who brings the pair
together and oversees their union, that Troilus and Cressida are brought
together. Immediately after they are united, the news is delivered that
Cressida is to be taken to the Greek camp, and Troilus himself is to deliver
her, and with no true resistance shown by either party, the exchange of
Cressida for Antenor is carried out and no one is given any clue as to the
romantic connections existing between the two lovers. It is this secrecy that
brings into question the legitimacy of their apparent marriage. Troilus and Cressida is a play
frequently interrupted by bouts of “disruptive envy,” such as those which
involve characters like Ajax or Achilles, but moreover, in the context of this
review, they are also seen within the scope of the formation of the love
triangle existing between Troilus, Cressida, and, now, Diomedes.22 We have already discussed
in part the nature of Troilus and Cressida’s legitimate-illegitimate
relationship, and now must address the affair between Cressida and Diomedes.
Where the former pair, by all appearances, seem to have married (though in
secret) and consummated their union, the same cannot fully confidently be said
of the latter. The progression of the relationship between Diomedes and
Cressida appears to have occurred rapidly, where with the capturing of a sleeve
is seen to cement this transference of Cressida’s affections:                                    Diomedes: Nay, do not snatch it
from me.
He that takes that doth take my heart withal.
I had your heart before. This follows it.
aside I did swear patience.
You shall not have it, Diomed, faith, you shall not.
                                                   I’ll give you something else.
I will have this. Whose was it?
It is no matter.
Come, tell me whose it was.
‘Twas one’s that loved me better than you will.
                                                  But now you have it, take it. …Cressida:
Good night. I prithee, come. –
                           Troilus, farewell! One eye yet looks on
                           But with my heart the other eye doth see.
                           Ah, poor our sex! This fault in us I find:
                           The error of our eye directs our mind.
                           What error leads must err. O, then conclude:
                           Minds swayed by eyes are full of turpitude.23Regarding both of
Cressida’s romantic entanglements, there exist in each aspects of both
legitimacy and illegitimacy, as well as questions as to which is more lawful
and true: the marriage done in secret but already consummated or the public
tryst but for which consummation is at the end of the play not completely
clear. Another case in which the legitimacy of a marriage is brought into
question due to issues with its private and public existences and statuses is
that of Claudio and Juliet from Measure
for Measure. Prior to the start of the play, it appears the pair were
married, though without a religious ceremony or other customary rites and
observances. Following this, on accusation of unchastity and fornication, both
were arrested and taken to prison to await trial and possible execution at the
hands of the Duke’s deputy, Angelo. However, it seems that at least Claudio
holds to the notion that the marriage was genuine:                                    Claudio: Thus stands it with me.
Upon a true contract
                                                   I got
possession of Julietta’s bed –
                                                  You know the lady, she is fast my wife,
                                                  Save that we do the denunciation lack
                                                  Of outward order. This we came not to
                                                  Only for propagation of a dower
                                                  Remaining in the coffer of her friends,
                                                  From whom we thought it meet to hide our love
                                                  Till time had made them for us. But it
                                                  The stealth of our most mutual entertainment
                                                  With character too gross is writ on Juliet.24For lack of public
announcement, dowry, and church service, Claudio and Juliet’s marriage is
deemed illegitimate and unlawful, and the child with which Juliet is pregnant,
out of wedlock as far as the law is concerned, the bastard product of sinful
fornication. However, if by the most basic rights and standards the two are
married, is their marriage truly illegitimate? Are there truly any laws being
broken? Lastly, some amount of special attention must be paid to the debate
regarding the legitimacy and logistics of the marriage between Helena and
Bertram of All’s Well That Ends Well.
This is a marriage in which the lines between legitimate and illegitimate have
been blurred, and what might work in its favour in one respect could severely
damage it in another. Outwardly, the marriage between Helena and Bertram
appears more or less genuine, if forced on Bertram’s part. Already one runs
into a roadblock. Is a forced marriage really a marriage? Moving past that, it
is still a union blessed and in large part orchestrated by their king. However,
until the bed-trick occurs, it is a marriage that is not consummated. And in
the 17th century, the consummation of a marriage was one of the
cornerstones by which it was validated, for without it, the union could be
annulled. So when Bertram swears “Although before the solemn priest I have
sworn, I will not bed her,” he is in effect saying that, in a situation which
stands as a polar opposite to that of the previously discussed Claudio and
Juliet, where they were married in flesh but not in soul, Bertram, though
married now to Helen in the eyes of the Church, will not ‘marry’ her by way of
Even when the marriage is finally consummated, it does not easily and
resolutely stand as genuine wedlock, for it came in the form of what can almost
be called an act of prostitution, or even of a type of rape, in that it
occurred in a bed-trick, with Bertram believing himself to be bedding Diana,
and not his wife whom he had no desire to have sex with.26To
finish, it might be pertinent to examine the legitimacy or otherwise of the
problem play genre itself. First, what exactly defines a problem play? Given
that there are so many widely varying interpretations, is it possible to single
out one or even a small number to compile and claim that they are legitimate
and all of the rest are false? If these problem plays are problematic in part
for their dissatisfactory endings, could it be that their categorization is
just as unsatisfying? Discussions of genre, especially when concerning these
plays, tends to be somewhat uneasy, for while other genre titles (comedy,
history, tragedy, and so on) state fairly clearly and understandably the kinds
of pieces they encompass, the term ‘problem plays’ as well as the accompanying
criteria for categorization of works is often at best unclear and at worst
incomprehensibly vague. In
his article “Legitimacy in Interpretation: The Bastard Voice in Troilus and Cressida,” Peter Hyland
predicates that “Illegitimacy is defined by authority and is, furthermore, a
category which authority needs to legitimate itself;” the two cannot be
separated as the one cannot exist without the other.27 For something to be
legitimate, there must be something else that stands in contrast and thus helps
to authorize its definition as authentic or genuine. Examples of this, and of
the various parameters by which the legitimacy or otherwise of the characters
of William Shakespeare’s problem plays, Measure
for Measure, All’s Well That Ends
Well, and Troilus and Cressida, their
identities, their temperaments and dispositions, and their relationships are
determined. Similar notions can also be applied to the questions surrounding
the validity of the ‘problem play’ genre itself and what it constitutes.

1 Oxford English Dictionary online,
accessed 29 December 2017

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2 OED, ‘Illegitimate’,
accessed 29 December 2017

3 Peter Hyland, “Legitimacy in Interpretation: The Bastard
Voice in ‘Troilus and Cressida,’ Mosaic:
A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature 26, no. 1 (1993):
pp. 1-13, p. 4
accessed 30 December 2017

Hyland, p. 4

Hyland, p. 7

6 Michael Neill, “‘In Everything Illegitimate’: Imagining
the Bastard in Renaissance Drama,” The
Yearbook of English Studies 23 (1993): pp. 270-92, p. 270
accessed 30 December 2017

William Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, ed. by David Bevington (London; New York:
Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, 2015), V.viii.9-12

Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, V.v.7

9 Normand N. Holland, “Measure for Measure: The Duke and the
Prince,” Comparative Literature 11,
no. 1 (1959): pp. 16-20, p. 16   accessed 2 January 2018

10 Alexander Leggatt, “Substitution in ‘Measure for
Measure,'” Shakespeare Quarterly 39,
no. 3 (1988): pp. 342-59, p. 357
accessed 2 January 2018

William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure, ed. by Brian Gibbons (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2006) I.i.43

12 David McCandless, “Helena’s Bed-Trick: Gender and
Performance in All’s Well That Ends Well,” Shakespeare
Quarterly 45, no. 1 (1994): pp. 449-68, p. 456
accessed 2 January 2018

McCandless, p. 450

William Shakespeare, All’s Well That Ends
Well, ed. by Susan Snyder (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2008) IV.iv.24-25

Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, III.ii.178-191

Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, V.ii.144

Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, V.ii.116

Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, III.iii.5-6

Shakespeare, Measure for Measure, I.iii.13
; I.iii.52-54

William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure,

William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure,
I.iv.59 ; II.ii.186-187

Hyland, p. 9

Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida,
V.ii.87-97 ; V.ii.112-118

Shakespeare, Measure for Measure, I.ii.126-136

Shakespeare, All’s Well That Ends Well, II.iii.271-272

McCandless, p. 450

Hyland, p. 6