17 September: What’s aught but as ’tis valued

This, the title, is of course from everyone’s favourite play, good old Troilus and Cressida. We had that as our set play in the Cambridge tripos back in the days, so I feel nostalgic about it. I actually quite like it, less in the ‘oh, beautiful’ way, but rather ‘oh, interesting!’. Questions of honour, loyalty, the curious deflation upon fulfilling desire, how the past (or what we think it is) reaches into the present, the entrappings of myth, creating a perpetual loop, the tricks language can be made to play, and of course, most prominently, the relativity (or not?) of value.

Nothing has intrinsic value, Troilus says at the beginning of the play, discussing whether or not to persue the war with his brother Hector who wants to give Helen back to the Greeks. We assign value to something, and so, if we say Helen is worth all the pain and awfulness of war (though is he really convinced that it is so? does it matter?), she is. If we say the annotations and underlinings of the first folio in the Free Library of Philadelphia are made by Milton, then they are so.

Perhaps.

An old supervisor of mine, Jason Scott-Warren from Gonville and Caius, Cambridge, has published a blog entry on the Cambrige Centre for Material Culture website a week ago which has made big waves in the scholarly world (and had, dare I say it, a small ripple effect in the cultural scene beyond that, see a Guardian article on the discovery). Having read Claire Bourne’s article describing the marginalia in the book which she locates anywhere between 1625 and 1660, Jason had a look at the handwriting and had a stroke of insight (if he’s right) that the hand looks like Milton’s in the few witnesses we have of him.

The reader of the folio made meticulous corrections to spellings, metrical irregularities, and general textual lacunae such as supplying missing lines from other quarto editions of plays. A proper editor. There are also some mark-ups and underlinings, probably referring to commonplacing, or general highlighting of nice passages. More thoughts, wordish criticism, is absent.

Jason provides some photos of the annotator’s hand and habits of forming letters, and tries to parse these with photos of Milton’s hand. Yes, things do look similar. But is it enough? Is palaeographical evidence sufficient for such a remarkable allegation? Maybe it is. Maybe the informed opinion of experts is enough, and goodness we need to listen to experts in today’s anti-education world. But maybe the wish is father to the thought. A little bit at least.

To Troilus’ case for the relativity of worth (one man’s beautiful is another man’s ugly), Hector replies, not less passionately,

But value dwells not in particular will;
It holds his estimate and dignity
As well wherein ’tis precious of itself
As in the prizer.

There’s something timeless and absolute in things that are worthwhile – and at the same time we choose to invest in it, or not. It’s both, Hector says. Troilus and Paris continue to press for war with, perhaps, somewhat unconvincing unsavoury metaphors (and different designs: Paris wants sex, Troilus wants occasions for glory), and Hector eventually gives in, a bit too fast. He, too, is a soldier, after all. He, too, is trapped in his story that already has an end for him in store.

What is aught but as ’tis valued? If we want this to be Milton’s copy of Shakespeare, we will find proof enough for it in his writings.

What irks me, though, is why do we jump to the conclusion that the hand is a man’s straightaway?

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