William Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida is a play filled with marked variations of tone. The language ranges across the gamut from satirical to anticlimactic to dignified to tragic. This explains, to some extent, the level of difficulty that commentators have had in classifying the work. A close reading of the word choice and sense of tone in the play contributes a great deal to a better understanding of its meaning. Analysis of particular word choice should be, in fact, a very important consideration when attempting to understand Shakespeare's works. He is known to often make use of neologisms and his style thus reveals a familiarity with the intricate emotional weight that diction brings to literature.
Whenever relatively obscure words appear in a work with any frequency a careful reader must ask what significance they have been given in the context in which they are used. This is the case with the verb "tickle," which makes a number of high profile appearances in Troilus and Cressida. In fact, of the twenty-one instances that Shakespeare uses a form of the word "tickle" in his entire canon, six appear in this single play. It is a word that fits the character of the play well.
The play begins with a prologue composed in a prosodically and semantically harsh style describing the war-torn scene at Troy. "Orgulous" princes have their "high blood chafed," longing to "ransack" the city; the gates of Troy are "massy," the walls "strong" within which lies the "ravished" Helen; the Greek ships "disgorge" fresh young men who pitch their "brave pavilions" on the Dardan plains (Pro. 2–15). The strikingly extravagant register of this description ("orgulous" is an obscure word even in 1600) is interrupted by a more pleasing, colloquial and gentle phrase. The feeling of anticipation on both sides of the war is personified and imagined to be "tickling" the "skittish spirits" of the soldiers (Pro. 20):
"Now expectation, tickling skittish spirits,
On one and other side, Trojan and Greek,
Sets all on hazard" (Pro. 20–23)
Expectation "tickling skittish spirits" eloquently captures the feeling of the armies during the time of truce that is the setting of the play as well as those of the lovers who lend their name to the title. At the same time, the phrase provides a marked contrast to the tone of all the lines that precede it. This showcases the contrastive power that tone can bring to a piece of literature and helps to set the mood of the play, which is neither a comedy nor a tragedy but maintains interwoven elements of both. Expectation doesn't "rouse" or "provoke" the men's spirits, words that might be expected with the harsh tone of the prologue, it merely "tickles" them.
In addition, the phrase as a whole introduces the sexualized tone that dominates many passages in the play. According to the OED, "skittish" describes a disposition characterized by levity, frivolity, or excessive liveliness. It also carries the meaning, more familiar in...