Troilus and Cressida (Vol. 43)
Troilus and Cressida
For further information on the critical and stage history of Troilus and Cressida, see SC, Volumes 3, 18, and 27.
Troilus and Cressida is regarded by many critics as one of Shakespeare's "problem plays," principally because the major characters, such as the two lovers, are ambiguous, while characters like Pandarus and Thersites are positively unpleasant. Further, the ending to the play is irresolute, and the genre—whether tragedy or comedy—is difficult to establish. Rosalie L. Colie (1974) asserts that in Troilus and Cressida, "Shakespeare has attacked literature itself at its very source, turning upside down the Homeric values" by turning the myth into a satire.
Cressida's behavior and whether or not she is a sympathetic character have long been subject to debate. Arnold Stein (1969) suggests that her infidelity to Troilus results from her shallowness coupled with a lack of appreciation for past ties. On the other hand, Grant L. Voth and Oliver H. Evans (1975) describe Cressida as a realist who behaves in the only way she can when confronted by a corrupt society where, as Gayle Greene (1980) observes, both women and men are treated as pawns in a mercenary and relativistic wartime environment.
Conversely, while Troilus has in the past been regarded sympathetically as the betrayed, idealistic lover, René Girard (1985) dismisses him as "a remarkable example of bad faith" who feels betrayed by Cressida only after "he has pushed [her] into the arms of Diomed." Similarly, Stephen L. Lynch (1986) condemns Troilus for his egotism and "lack of self-knowledge."
Closely connected with the behavior of the two lovers is the theme of desire, which becomes problematic in its own right under the influence of the war being waged between Troy and Greece. As Carol Cook (1986) observes, the war intensifies desire through the objectification of women. Both sides, for instance, desire Helen of Troy—who has become their excuse for battle. Meanwhile, Cressida is desirable as an exchangeable commodity from one camp (that of the Trojan Troilus) to the other (the Greek Diomed and her deserting father, Calchas).
Inevitably within the setting of this problematical play, male and female characterization and desire become inextricable from and corrupted by the violence of war. Emil Roy (1973) and Lorraine Helms (1989) depict a feminine Troy under threat of "penetration" from a masculine Greece. Like Helms, Marianne Novy (1984) observes that, as a result of the war, love is replaced by lust, and men on both sides of the conflict seek to avoid "womanish" behavior and to prove their prowess violently whether it be on the battlefield or in their treatment and attitude toward women. Interestingly several critics, such as Eric S. Mallin (1990), have speculated that the clearly misogynistic tone of the play reflects the English people's anxieties about their future in light of their aging and childless queen, Elizabeth I. In connection with this, Mallin and other critics also focus on the homoerotic aspects of the play, where men like Achilles value the love of fellow warriors over that of women.
Arnold Stein (essay date 1969)
SOURCE: "Troilus and Cressida: The Disjunctive Imagination," in ELH, Vol. 36, No. 1, March, 1969, pp. 145-67.
[In the essay below, Stein examines Shakespeare's use of dramatic imagination in Troilus and Cressida, and places the play within the genre of tragedy, calling it 'our most helpful definition of the play. "]
The dramatic experience we get from Troilus and Cressida is hard to place in relation to our memory of the experience we get from other plays. I am thinking in particular of the unsparing consistency of this play, of its texture, of its dark side without depth or vehemence, of the general destruction that does not find significant victims. The play has about it the quality of a nightmare we have somehow got used to, because it was translated long ago into the familiar and the everyday.
We must make, as with any play, an effort to learn the particular language, and no matter how much is new, we may ordinarily count on the effective presence of the familiar and conventional; no poet invents a whole human history, as if his lovers and chivalric heroes were the first of their kind, existing apart from all human and literary experience. By Shakespeare's time the story of Troilus and Cressida had become little more than another famous example of bad human dealing, of betrayal in love. The audience would...
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Gayle Greene (essay date 1980)
SOURCE: "Shakespeare's Cressida: 'A Kind of Self'," in The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, edited by Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Greene and Carol Thomas Neely, University of Illinois Press, 1980, pp. 133-49.
[In the essay that follows, Greene argues that Cressida, by basing her identity on male desires and definitions, becomes "the sum total of 'opinions' of men whose opinions are in themselves societally determined, and she is thus only a representative of her world. "]
"Let it not be believ'd for womanhood!"
That human nature is not "natural," but is, rather, shaped by social forces and values, is an understanding we have long had in relation to men but one which has been more difficult to grasp with regard to women. Troilus and Cressida may seem the last place to look for such insights, informed as it is with a loathing of humanity, an aversion to sex and the physical, and more misogyny than is usual with Shakespeare. Cressida is the clearest representative of woman's "frailty" in his plays, the "frailty" that Hamlet says is woman's "name." Whereas Hero, Desdemona, Hermione, and Imogen redeem woman from the general curse, Cressida is a type of Eve whose error will "soil our mothers" and "square the general sex."1 Proverbial in literary tradition as a source, standard, and symbol of...
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René Girard (essay date 1985)
SOURCE: "The Politics of Desire in Troilus and Cressida," in Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, edited by Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman, Methuen, 1985, pp. 188-209.
[In the following essay, Girard examines the presence of mimetic desire in Troilus and Cressida and states that the purpose of the play is "to show that lechery and war are one. "]
In Act IV, Scene ii, Troilus and Cressida are getting up after their first and only night together. More than ever, Cressida speaks the language of love. She has not changed, or, if she has, the change goes in the direction of more love, not less.
Troilus has definitely changed, but in the other direction. He no longer speaks like a man in love:
Troilus: Dear, trouble not yourself; the morn is cold.
Cressida: Then, sweet my lord, I'll call mine uncle down;
He shall unbolt the gates.
Troilus: Trouble him not;
To bed, to bed! Sleep kill those pretty eyes,
And give as soft attachment to thy senses
As infants empty of all thought.
Cressida: Good morrow, then.
Troilus: I prithee now, to bed.
This concern for Cressida's health is a transparent excuse. Troilus wants to...
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Marianne Novy (essay date 1984)
SOURCE: "Violence, Love, and Gender in Romeo and Juliet and Troilus and Cressida" in Love 's Argument: Gender Relations in Shakespeare, The University of North Carolina Press, 1984, pp. 110-22.
[Below, Novy suggests that the apparently comedic, love-centered world of Troilus and Cressida is in fact lust-centered, and that it ultimately resembles a tragedy in its violent focus on war and the male characters' brutal rejection of "womanish" ways.]
.. . In Troilus and Cressida, the private world of the lovers contrasts with the military world less than usual in Shakespeare because both are so satirically treated. In both worlds we see self-centeredness, competition, mercantile values, appetite.2 The war has stopped in the first part of the play, and the idleness of the soldiers and the "open" sexuality of the women, both satirized, make the genders less polarized than usual. But when the war revives and Cressida is exchanged, she submits with the weakness expected of her, while Troilus responds to her infidelity with a savage determination to define his masculinity by violence.3 . . .
In Troilus and Cressida, .. . the lovers' world has all too much in common with the larger world of their society. Shakespeare juxtaposes the titular love affair to the analogous story of the...
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Adelman, Janet. ""Is Thy Union Here?': Union and Its Discontents in Broil's and Cressida and Othello" In Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare's Plays, Hamlet to The Tempest, pp. 38-75. New York: Routledge, 1992.
Analyzes Troilus's desire for Cressida, and finds that "Cressida becomes a whore to keep him pure."
Burns, M. M. "Troil's and Cressida: The Worst of Both Worlds." Shakespeare Studies: An Annual Gathering of Research, Criticism, and Reviews. Vol. XIII, edited by J. Leeds Barroll III, pp. 105-30. New York: Burt Franklin Co., 1980.
Contends that Troilus and Cressida is a play in which "people of both sexes are subjected to pressures which destroy their essential humanity."
Kimbrough, Robert. "The Concerns of Love and Lust." In Shakespeare's Troilus & Cressida and Its Setting, pp. 75-111. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1964.
Focuses on Shakespeare's characterization of the three main figures of the play: Pandarus, Broil's, and Cressida.
Knights, L. C. "The Theme of Appearance and Reality in Troilus and Cressida." In Some Shakespearean Themes and An Approach to 'Hamlet', pp. 55-73. Stanford University Press, 1966.
Examines the meaning of time and appearances in Troilus and Cressida and suggests that the...
(The entire section is 507 words.)