Troilus and Cressida (Vol. 59)
Troilus and Cressida
For further information on the critical and stage history of Troilus and Cressida, see SC, Volumes 3, 18, 27, and 43.
The story of the Trojan War and of the unfortunate lovers Troilus and Cressida is one that had been told and retold numerous times before Shakespeare adapted it into a play. Significantly, Shakespeare's own particular treatment of this classical myth is controversial to the extent that over the centuries, critics have argued about its standing as one of the playwright's “problem” plays. Central to this debate are the ambivalent actions of the characters, the play's early placement as a comedy in Shakespeare's canon, the play's possible relevance to Renaissance England, and what many scholars have described as an unsatisfactory conclusion to the play's final act. Kristina Faber (1990) deals with the issues of genre and conclusion simultaneously when she argues that Troilus and Cressida is in fact not a comedy but a tragedy that is problematic since its catastrophes—the betrayal of Troilus and the death of Hector—offer no catharsis at the end because neither character is sympathetic. David Bevington (1998) traces the play's problematical nature back to its creation in the closing years of the sixteenth century, when playwrights were quarreling over the guidelines for proper literary form and politicians were jockeying for influence over the aging Queen Elizabeth; the critic speculates whether the actions in the play might be a reflection of both of these occurrences.
Perhaps most compelling to critics have been the ambiguities of the characters themselves. Cressida, for example, was maligned by early scholars not only for betraying Troilus but also for being manipulative of and promiscuous with men in general. Later, this view was reversed so that Cressida became a victim of the war and of male dominance. M. M. Burns (1980) and Grace Tiffany (1993) take issue with each of these interpretations. Tiffany sees Cressida as a character with a will of her own who surrenders on her own to male authority when she fails to make her voice heard. Alternatively, Burns proposes that the actual character in the play is the war itself, which does irreparable violence to the relationships between men, such as Troilus and Ulysses, and women, such as Cressida. Stephen J. Lynch (1986) switches the perspective to Troilus, arguing that his innocence and idealism are actually selfishness and that his supposed betrayal by Cressida results from his lack of “self-knowledge.” Elaine Eldridge (1986), on the other hand, asserts that the dynamics of the play revolve around the Trojan “headstrong trio” of Hector, Troilus, and Cressida, each of whom is contending with one or the other over the questions of love and honor. Peter Hyland (1993) focuses on another character entirely—Thersites—who is set apart from the rest by his bitter remarks as well as by his illegitimate birth. The “voice” of Thersites, Hyland observes, is of special interest today “because it represents … the real and painful impotence of the great mass of the dispossessed whose voices we now never hear at all.”
Another source of interest to scholars is the powerful imagery of Troilus and Cressida. Juliet Dusinberre (1983) traces the references to beauty in the play, most of which reside in Helen and the fairness or foulness of women and of people's actions. Dusinberre concludes that authentic beauty exists not in the mythical Helen and her tenuous existence within the corrupt world of warring nations, but in the linguistic creation of “the play itself.” Stephen X. Mead (1992) comments on the prevalence of monetary imagery in the play. He contends that Shakespeare's use of “terms of coinage, currency, exchange rates, counterfeiting, and minting practices” emphasizes the theme of morals as a commodity in Troilus and Cressida, even while it underscores the Renaissance obsession with its unstable economy. David Hillman (1997) also sees Shakespeare's imagery as a link between Renaissance life and the world of the play. After acknowledging the mythical, abstract status of Helen and of the oft-told story of the Trojan War, Hillman suggests that the playwright drew upon the preoccupations of his own time concerning digestive disorders as a means of grounding the play in reality. In a discussion of Renaissance politics and power, Christopher Flannery (1981) illustrates the political significance of the play's language when he asserts that Shakespeare crafted Troilus and Cressida knowing full well that its language, as well as that of all his drama and poetry, could be used by his own generation and those that followed it as an instrument of political change.
The theme of sexuality resonates for those who have made a close study of Troilus and Cressida. Barbara Hodgdon (1990), for instance, is interested in the ways in which twentieth-century directors have dealt with the male characters in the play, who debase Cressida by treating her as an object worth only being stared at or dominated. Several directors, Hodgdon notes, have made skillful use of costume and staging to emphasize the sexual tension that pervades the play. James O'Rourke (1992) refers to Troilus and Cressida's “systematic critique of sexuality in a patriarchal culture” and observes that within the play, the words “whore” and “woman” become synonyms for one another. At the same time, O'Rourke is unwilling to blame either Troilus or Cressida for the disintegration of their romantic love. Finally, Michael Yogev (1998) draws upon the psychoanalytical texts of Sigmund Freud to demonstrate the falseness of the codes of chivalry and heroism in the play—codes which ultimately allow the fearful male characters to separate themselves from and dominate the female characters, whom they see as threats to their sexual identity.
Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: Introduction to Troilus and Cressida, by William Shakespeare, edited by David Bevington, Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1998, pp. 1-29.
[In the following excerpt, Bevington presents the debates surrounding the historical context of Troilus and Cressida and discusses whether or not Shakespeare was using the play to mock some of his fellow playwrights; Bevington also takes a close look at the classical subject matter of the play itself and how it has been interpreted in twentieth-century productions.]
‘A NEW PLAY, NEVER STALED WITH THE STAGE’: GENRE AND THE QUESTION OF ORIGINAL PERFORMANCE
An enigmatic publicity blurb inserted in a revised Quarto edition of Troilus and Cressida in 1609, addressed to ‘an ever reader’ from ‘a never writer’, offers to the ‘eternal reader’ a ‘new play, never staled with the stage, never clapper-clawed with the palms of the vulgar, and yet passing full of the palm comical’. In praising the dramatist as a writer of such ‘dexterity and power of wit’ that even those who are ‘most displeased with plays’ are sure to be ‘pleased with his comedies’, this publisher's preface goes out of its way to flatter a discriminating readership that prefers literature to stage performance. The appeal is neoclassical, learned, even academic in its insistence that the play deserves to be ranked ‘as well as the best comedy in...
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Criticism: Character Studies
SOURCE: “Troilus and Cressida: The Worst of Both Worlds,” in Shakespeare Studies, Vol. 13, 1980, pp. 105-30.
[In the following essay, Burns suggests that the play's negative portrayal of Cressida is in fact meant to reflect critically on those characters who condemn her and, more generally, to demonstrate the corrosive effects of war upon humanity.]
One of the better-known scenes in Troilus and Cressida is IV,v, in which Cressida enters the Greek camp and is kissed in “particular” and “in general” (IV.v.20-21)1 by the leaders of the Greek army. Given Aristotle's dictum that all knowledge comes through either generals or particulars, these parameters of knowledge which Ulysses tries punningly to manipulate may be greatly significant in the play: certainly, readers often think that they “know” Cressida through this scene. More than Cressida's character alone enters into question here, however; when Ulysses obfuscates the difference between the “general” and the “particular” in human interaction, he undermines the very possibility of that interaction. To discriminate particular individuals and identify with them among the faceless mass of humanity, on one hand, and to abstract—to learn—from individuals about general human nature, on the other, are the dual process through which people relate to each other. I believe that Troilus and Cressida...
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SOURCE: “In Defense of Cressida: Character As Metaphor,” in Women's Studies, Vol. 7, No. 3, 1980, pp. 1-17.
[In the following essay, Okerlund analyzes the reassessments of Troilus, Cressida, Ulysses, and Pandarus that have occurred continuously since Troilus and Cressida was first produced, and concludes that our final judgment of these characters should be that none is evil or good in his or her own right, but that all are embodiments of human nature.]
Fashions in literary criticism change. Not only do the theoretical stances shift from the new criticism to contextualism to Freudianism to historicism to formalism to Marxism to the newly-heralded reader-response criticism (to restrict examples to only a few decades of the twentieth century), but the sense of the meaning, or achievement, of an individual literary work can change just as dramatically. Perhaps no work better illustrates this critical reality than Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida. Until well into the twentieth century, something of a consensus of interpretation existed—particularly regarding characterizations in this drama: Cressida was a prostitute deserving only scorn for the evils she perpetrated (a character assessment corroborated by citations of her Renaissance reputation),1 Troilus was a naive, but honorable young knight abused by that disreputable, fickle woman (corroborated by theories of courtly...
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SOURCE: “‘Yet in the Trial Much Opinion Dwells’: The Combat Between Hector and Ajax in Troilus and Cressida,” in English Studies, Vol. 65, No. 1, February, 1984, pp. 1-10.
[In the following essay, Nass describes Troilus and Cressida as a play which focuses on the search for authentic, individual identity as well as for loyalty and love within the chaos of war.]
Critics of Troilus and Cressida often regard the combat between Hector and Ajax (IV.v.) as a dramatic failure or as yet one more jarring episode in Shakespeare's satiric and unsettling portrayal of the Trojan War. Reuben A. Brower speaks for the majority when he observes, with disappointment, that ‘the effect of the scene is lamely anti-climactic’. Daniel Seltzer confirms this judgment from a theatrical perspective, describing the duel as ‘a red-herring for the director, … dramatically uninteresting compared to other portions of the scene … [and] especially pale compared to the byplay between Achilles and Hector’. T. McAlindon, on the contrary, declares the aborted combat to be an artful ploy and asserts that ‘the anticlimax was part of Shakespeare's whole conception of the play’. The neologisms, Latinate diction, and elaborate conceits so prominent in Hector's speeches are, McAlindon states, deliberate stylistic effects ‘debasing Hector's inherently respectable motive for...
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SOURCE: “Moral Order in Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida: The Case of the Trojans,” in Anglia, Vol. 104, Nos. 1-2, 1986, pp. 33-44.
[In the following essay, Eldridge examines the characters of Hector, Cressida, and Troilus, asserting that their common heritage as Trojans has more to do with their behavior than do the play's themes of love and war.]
An established critical doctrine claims there is no discernible moral order within Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida1. To say that is to say that the characters do wrong without punishment or suffer without cause. I would like to suggest a way of looking at the play that will show it less morally chaotic than so many readers have found it. The first step in this process—observing Cressida is a Trojan—is small but crucial. Critics have traditionally divided Troilus and Cressida into the Greeks and the Trojans or the love story and the war story, either ignoring Cressida or dismissing her as a slut2. While it is true that Cressida is tangential to the war story, that fact by no means relegates her to an inconsequential role in the love story. As Empson points out, “her case has to be taken as seriously as the whole war because it involves the same sanctions and occupies an equal position in the play”3. Yet too often Cressida is described as “a chatty, vulgar little piece”, “a wanton”, a...
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SOURCE: “The Idealism of Shakespeare's Troilus,” in South Atlantic Review, Vol. 51, No. 1, January, 1986, pp. 19-29.
[In the following essay, Lynch argues that the so-called idealism of Troilus is not as pure as some commentators have suggested, but is instead as self-absorbed and corrupt as the world Troilus himself inhabits.]
Troilus inhabits a world of near total corruption where honor serves ambition and love seems little more than lust. Yet within the confines of this bleak and hostile world, Troilus appears extraordinarily idealistic. He describes his will as “infinite,” his desire as “boundless,” and his truth as a “winnowed purity in love” (3.2.82-83, 167). Even after the betrayal scene he claims, “Never did young man fancy / With so eternal and so fix'd a soul” (5.2.165-66). Several commentators have interpreted this hero as a rare and noble exception to the characters that surround him (see, for example, Knight 60; Nowottny 291-93; Biswas 113). Yet when examined closely, the idealism of Troilus, however lofty and extreme, seems very much in keeping with the nature of his world. Though he makes repeated claims to purity and eternal constancy, he puts great emphasis on sensuality, and his actions are more moody and erratic than constant and true. Moreover, his energy and devotion seem concentrated not so much on Cressida as on an image of himself as a superlative and immortal...
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SOURCE: “Legitimacy in Interpretation: The Bastard Voice in Troilus and Cressida,” in Mosaic, Vol. 26, No. 1, Winter, 1993, pp. 1-13.
[In the following essay, Hyland contends that the bastard, Thersites—though not always fair in his assessment of what is occurring around him—is nevertheless an important antidote to authoritarianism in the play by virtue of his apparent insignificance.]
One of the most significant aspects of radical academic activity over the past few years has been the liberation of previously suppressed voices into a new pluralism. In the field of literary interpretation these voices have brought issues of gender, race and class into the reading of texts, problematizing anew the question of authority or legitimacy in interpretation, and suggesting the possibility of a new openness in reading. At the same time there has been a growing recognition that there are no ideologically pure readings, and that the reader has to be aware of his/her own biases. This has, however, also resulted in acute attention to the biases of other readers. Literary studies have become more politicized than ever before, and there is the risk that they will turn into a site of contestation on which the urge to silence or exclude opposing voices is pursued with increasing vigor.
This struggle over the liberation or exclusion of voices in contemporary culture is inevitably reflected...
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SOURCE: “Not Saying No: Female Self-Erasure in Troilus and Cressida,” in Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. 35, No. 1, Spring, 1993, pp. 44-56.
[In the following essay, Tiffany asserts that Cressida has been misread by most critics as either reprehensible or victimized, when in fact she is the product of a patriarchal culture still present today that misunderstands women who do not communicate forcefully.]
One half of me is yours, the other half yours, Mine own, I would say; but if mine, then yours, And so all yours.
—Portia, The Merchant of Venice III.ii.16-181
Like Shakespeare's Trojans and Greeks, scholarly evaluators of Shakespeare's Cressida divide themselves into two warring camps that only seem radically opposed. In fact, both camps share a common perspective and language that produce a disturbing vision of woman as passive creation of her patriarchal culture. Cressida as wanton and Cressida as victim present two sides of the same interpretive coin: both notions result from and re-create the idea of Cressida as a creature formed by male perceptions and values; thus both notions, by privileging male determination of female identity, reinforce female subjectivity. Missing from both categories of interpretation is an acknowledgment of female responsibility for self-creation within, but in defiance of, a patriarchal...
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SOURCE: “Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida: Of War and Lechery,” in Colby Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 2, June, 1990, pp. 133-48.
[In the following essay, Faber remarks that while Troilus and Cressida has been regarded by many critics as a “problem comedy,” it is better described as a problem tragedy for which Shakespeare could not or chose not to provide a satisfactory conclusion.]
Commentators have generally agreed that Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida is one of his “problem plays.” Others include All's Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure, and sometimes Julius Caesar; less frequently, Hamlet and Timon of Athens are named. For critics, identifying the actual “problem” in a problem play, determining what causes the difficulty, and theorizing about how to solve it have traditionally represented three separate analytic tasks. I would like to treat all three as interrelated aspects of one critical misconception about Troilus and Cressida—that it is a “problem comedy”—and offer an alternative explanation, though no solution, for the underlying “problem” of this play.1
The original problem seems to be the peculiar effect Troilus and Cressida and the other problem plays have on their audiences (Boas 345). At the end of these plays viewers may feel ambivalent, confused, dissatisfied,...
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Criticism: Language And Imagery
SOURCE: “Troilus and Cressida and the Definition of Beauty,” in Shakespeare Survey, Vol. 36, 1983, pp. 85-95.
[In the following essay, Dusinberre maintains that Shakespeare's concept of beauty resides not in the bodies of such women as Helen or Cressida, but instead in the power of language to represent beauty truthfully—something which is impossible to accomplish in the corrupt world of Troilus and Cressida.]
The problem of how to define beauty is central to Troilus and Cressida. Shakespeare depicts Helen as incapable of acquiring symbolic stature and this creates in the play questions about the nature of beauty.1
In the world of Troilus and Cressida beauty is defined by the beautiful woman, whether it be Helen or Cressida. But the idea of Helen as the archetype of beauty seems to have been challenged very early by shifts in perspective. The poet Stesichorus was legendary for a poem defaming Helen, for which the gods blinded him. He recanted and recovered, as Plato records in both The Republic and Phaedrus. Stesichorus' palinode asserted that the Helen story was a fabrication:
False, false the tale Thou never didst sail in the well-decked ships Nor come to the towers of Troy.(2)
Dio Chrysostom, a first-century critic of Homer, declared that Homer was a beggar who told lies for a...
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SOURCE: “‘Thou Art Chang'd’: Public Value and Personal Identity in Troilus and Cressida,” in Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Vol. 22, No. 2, Spring, 1992, pp. 237-59.
[In the following essay, Mead suggests that the instability of the Renaissance economy is reflected in the metaphors of coinage used in Troilus and Cressida to describe the shifting moral stances and unreliable characters within the play.]
There are two sorts of wealth-getting … that which consists of exchange is justly censured; for it is unnatural, and a mode by which men gain from one another.
As a dramatist and businessman, Shakespeare knew the vagaries of the theater business and the shifting faces of currency in the Elizabethan economy. Even in a period in which money was a frequent topic on the stage, Shakespeare distinguishes himself by using terms of coinage, currency, exchange rates, counterfeiting, and minting practices to dramatize the mutability of supposedly absolute ideals. With the concurrent phenomena of New World exploration (and the resultant import of precious metals), increased competition in the European trade markets, trade imbalances with Asia, shifting exchange rates at Antwerp, and the depletion of domestic treasure, even the common merchant, businessman, or theater owner would...
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SOURCE: “The Gastric Epic: Troilus and Cressida,” in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 48, No. 3, Fall, 1997, pp. 295-313.
[In the following essay, Hillman contends that Shakespeare wrote and produced Troilus and Cressida with a view to concentrating on the grossly physical aspects of the human body in order to bring life to a tale that had already been frequently told and whose language had thus been rendered abstract through overtelling.]
Ignorance in physiologicis—that damned ‘idealism.’
Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo1
1. THE MATTER OF TROY
Why did Shakespeare write Troilus and Cressida? Why, that is, did he turn his attention to a story that was so overdetermined as to have become, by the end of the sixteenth century, little more than a compilation of clichés? The Trojan story was enormously popular during the decades preceding composition of the play,2 and the most obvious motive suggested by this popularity is the play's commercial potential (written by an already-famous playwright, reworking material that was all the rage in contemporary London). While this motive is called into question by the Epistle attached to the play's Quarto in the second state,3 the pervasiveness and mass appeal of the matter of Troy was, I believe, nevertheless a decisive factor in Shakespeare's choice...
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SOURCE: “Troilus and Cressida: Poetry or Philosophy?” in Shakespeare as Political Thinker, edited by John Alvis and Thomas G. West, Carolina Academic Press, 1981, pp. 145-56.
[In the following essay, Flannery remarks that in Troilus and Cressida Shakespeare demonstrated his understanding of the politically subversive nature of poetry when he portrayed Achilles' insubordinate use of language.]
There was an article in the Chinese Communist Party newspaper, the People's Daily, not long ago, which is helpful in understanding the relationship between poetry and politics with particular reference to Shakespeare.1 In the article, which, of course, expresses the authoritative views of the party leadership, the music of Beethoven and Schubert was blacklisted because of their “bourgeois and capitalist mentality,” and because their music did not “reflect the class spirit.” Beethoven's Sonata No. 17 was compared to one of Shakespeare's plays which, the article proclaimed, “only serves to disseminate the filthy nature of the bourgeoisie.” Acceptable music or poetry, the piece continued, would glorify “the Red sun of Chairman Mao Tse-Tung and the Chinese Communist Party in the heart of the Chinese People.” Every form of art “must be an instrument of the class struggle.”
No serious person would characterize the mind and poetic genius of...
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SOURCE: “He Do Cressida in Different Voices,” in English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 20, No. 2, Spring, 1990, pp. 254-86.
[In the following essay, Hodgdon refers to several different stage adaptations of Troilus and Cressida to demonstrate how the play was constructed to keep Cressida in particular, and, through her representation, Renaissance women in general, under male control.]
When Trojan Hector visits the Greek camp, Troilus and Cressida represents his meeting with Achilles as an exchange of male gazes, powerful speaking looks through which each constructs, or attempts to deconstruct, the identity of the other:
Achilles. Now, Hector, I have fed mine eyes on thee; I have with exact view perused thee, Hector, And quoted joint by joint. … Hector. Stand fair, I prithee; let me look on thee. Achilles. Behold thy fill. Hector. Nay, I have done already. Achilles. Thou art too brief. I will the second time, As I would buy thee, view thee limb by limb. Hector. O, like a book of sport thou'lt read me o'er; But there's more in me than thou understand'st. Why dost thou so oppress me with thine eye?
Among many other references to sight and bodily display,2 this passage stands as an especially blatant instance of how Shakespeare's playtext consistently turns the act of...
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SOURCE: “‘Rule in Unity’ and Otherwise: Love and Sex in Troilus and Cressida,” in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 43, No. 2, Summer, 1992, pp. 139-58.
[In the following essay, O'Rourke proposes that with Troilus and Cressida Shakespeare gave us universal characters that we can recognize as cynical sexual clichés even as we sympathize with them as romantic lovers.]
Troilus and Cressida is not only a notoriously slippery play (comedy, tragedy, or history?) but one founded on a familiar contradiction. The play's relentless vulgarity constructs a scathing critique of the dominant forms of sexuality in Western culture, but at the same time the partners in its central romantic couple engage the sympathies of even the most sophisticated readers. When Cressida reflects sadly that “Men prize the thing ungained more than it is” (1.2.291),1 and when Troilus wryly observes that Helen's reputation for beauty derives from the amount of blood shed over her (1.1.93-94), they appeal to our own knowingness about sexuality and expose the sexual clichés and conventions of their, and our, culture. But the complicity engendered by this shared knowledge has the paradoxical effect of making an audience identify with Troilus and/or Cressida as they reenact those conventions. Despite their worldly-wise cynicism, Troilus and Cressida, as they enter into the romantic partnership, idealize each...
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SOURCE: “‘War and Lechery Confound All’: Identity and Agency in Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida,” in Strands Afar Remote: Israeli Perspectives on Shakespeare, edited by Avraham Oz, Associated University Presses, 1998, pp. 87-112.
[In the following essay, Yogev observes that the courtly and chivalric codes found in earlier versions of the story of Troilus and Cressida are intentionally subverted in Shakespeare's play into opportunities for male sexual aggression and exploitation.]
Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida has occasioned a number of critical discussions of the psychodynamics of identity formation as well as poststructuralist accounts of how its powerfully ambiguous and enigmatic language subverts identity.1 To my knowledge, however, these two approaches have not been combined to analyze the way in which language and “heroic” activity at once constitute and subvert the identities of the protagonists in Shakespeare's bitter drama. Like Chaucer and Boccaccio before him, Shakespeare juxtaposes the martial plot of the Trojan War with the amorous tale of Troilus and Cressida. But in sharp contrast to his sources, Shakespeare lends neither Troilus or Cressida any tragic depth of character nor even the very qualified comic closure we may find in such figures as Angelo and Isabella from Measure for Measure. Instead, Shakespeare reduces this medieval love...
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Adamson, Jane. “Drama in the Mind: Entertaining Ideas in Troilus and Cressida.” Critical Review 27 (1985): 3-17.
Examines the language of Troilus and Cressida in light of the play's confusing mixture of dramatic and tragic action.
Barfoot, C C. “Troilus and Cressida: ‘Praise Us as We Are Tasted.’” Shakespeare Quarterly 39, No. 1 (Spring 1988): 45-57.
Explores the shifting definition of human values in the play.
Clarke, Larry R. “‘Mars His Heart Inflam'd with Venus’: Ideology and Eros in Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida.” Modern Language Quarterly 50, No. 3 (September 1989): 209-26.
Draws comparisons between the Trojans in Troilus and Cressida, whom he sees as representative of the aristocratic class of Renaissance England, and the Greeks, whom he sees as representative of the Renaissance bourgeoisie.
Engle, Lars. “Always Already in the Market: The Politics of Evaluation in Troilus and Cressida.” In Shakespearean Pragmatism: Market of His Time, pp. 147-63. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1993.
Argues that Troilus and Cressida is tonally unpleasant because it reflects the economic instability and moral flux of a newly emerging capitalism in Renaissance...
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