c. 1190 BC | Troy

Face Value

Shakespeare negotiates the worth of Helen.

[The palace. Enter Priam, Hector, Troilus, Paris, and Helenus.]

Priam: After so many hours, lives, speeches spent,
 Thus once again says Nestor from the Greeks:
 “Deliver Helen, and all damage else,
 As honor, loss of time, travail, expense,
 Wounds, friends, and what else dear that is consumed
 In hot digestion of this cormorant war,
 Shall be struck off.” Hector, what say you to’t?

Hector: Though no man lesser fears the Greeks than I
 As far as toucheth my particular,
 Yet, dread Priam,
 There is no lady of more softer bowels,
 More spongy to suck in the sense of fear,
 More ready to cry out “Who knows what follows?”
 Than Hector is. The wound of peace is surety,
 Surety secure; but modest doubt is called
 The beacon of the wise, the tent that searches
 To th’ bottom of the worst. Let Helen go.
 Since the first sword was drawn about this question
 Every tithe soul ’mongst many thousand dismes
 Hath been as dear as Helen, I mean of ours;
 If we have lost so many tenths of ours
 To guard a thing not ours, nor worth to us
 (Had it our name) the value of one ten,
 What merit’s in that reason which denies
 The yielding of her up?

Troilus:                                Fie, fie, my brother,
 Weigh you the worth and honor of a king
 So great as our dread father in a scale
 Of common ounces? Will you with counters sum
 The past-proportion of his infinite,
 And buckle in a waist most fathomless
 With spans and inches so diminutive
 As fears and reasons? Fie, for godly shame.

Hector: Brother, she is not worth what she doth cost
 The keeping.

Troilus:              What’s aught but as ’tis valued?

Hector: But value dwells not in particular will;
 It holds his estimate and dignity
 As well wherein ’tis precious of itself
 As in the prizer. ’Tis mad idolatry
 To make the service greater than the god,
 And the will dotes that is inclinable
 To what infectiously itself affects,
 Without some image of th’ affected merit.

Troilus: I take today a wife, and my election
 Is led on in the conduct of my will,
 My will enkindled by mine eyes and ears,
 Two traded pilots ’twixt the dangerous shores
 Of will and judgment: how may I avoid,
 Although my will distaste what it elected,
 The wife I chose? There can be no evasion
 To blench from this and to stand firm by honor.
 We turn not back the silks upon the merchant
 When we have soiled them, nor the remainder viands
 We do not throw in unrespective sieve
 Because we now are full. It was thought meet
 Paris should do some vengeance on the Greeks;
 Your breath with full consent bellied his sails;
 The seas and winds, old wranglers, took a truce
 And did him service; he touched the ports desired
 And for an old aunt whom the Greeks held captive
 He brought a Grecian queen, whose youth and freshness
 Wrinkles Apollo’s and makes stale the morning.
 Why keep we her? The Grecians keep our aunt.
 Is she worth keeping? Why, she is a pearl
 Whose price hath launched above a thousand ships
 And turned crowned kings to merchants.
 If you’ll avouch ’twas wisdom Paris went
 (As you must needs for you all cried “Go, go”),
 If you’ll confess he brought home worthy prize
 (As you must needs for you all clapped your hands
 And cried “Inestimable!”), why do you now
 The issue of your proper wisdoms rate,
 And do a deed that never Fortune did:
 Beggar the estimation which you prized
 Richer than sea and land? O theft most base,
 That we have stol’n what we do fear to keep;
 But thieves unworthy of a thing so stol’n,
 That in their country did them that disgrace
 We fear to warrant in our native place.


William Shakespeare

From Troilus and Cressida. Written around 1601, Shakespeare’s tragedy has been said to contain references to the Earl of Essex, executed for treason earlier that year, who had often been compared with Achilles. Elsewhere in the play, which takes place toward the end of the Trojan War, Paris criticizes Diomedes, a Greek prince, for devaluing Helen. “You do as chapmen do,” Paris says, “Dispraise the thing that you desire to buy: / But we in silence hold this virtue well, / We’ll but commend what we intend to sell.”