Troilus and Cressida Essay - Troilus and Cressida (Vol. 71)

Troilus and Cressida (Vol. 71)

Introduction

Troilus and Cressida

For further information on the critical and stage history of Troilus and Cressida, see SC, Volumes 3, 18, 27, 43, and 59.

Troilus and Cressida, a love story set against the backdrop of the Trojan War, has been classified as one of Shakespeare's “problem” plays. The difficulty in properly categorizing the play's genre has plagued critics of Troilus and Cressida throughout its publication history—on the Quarto title page it is dubbed a history, in the Quarto epistle it is labeled comedy, and in its Folio edition it is classified as tragedy. Modern critics continue to debate the proper generic designation of the play, and often look to its style and structure for clues in resolving this issue. Ambiguity is a problem for the play in other ways as well, including characterization and Shakespeare's treatment of gender relations, two topics that form the basis of much critical discussion. Shakespeare's treatment of historical and legendary elements of the Trojan War is another area of critical study, as well as Elizabethan attitudes toward this history and the parallels between the play and Elizabethan politics. Considered to be Shakespeare's most pessimistic play, Troilus and Cressida has not been always been popular on the stage; however, twentieth-century productions have proven successful.

Shakespeare's Cressida has often been dismissed as a shallow, cold, calculating prostitute; however, some recent evaluations challenge this perception of her character. Grant L. Voth and Oliver H. Evans (1975) are among those critics who find Cressida to be more complex than is often acknowledged. Voth and Evans examine Cressida's progress throughout the play, observing her journey from a position of awareness to deception and once again to awareness. The critics maintain that the decisions Cressida makes are more challenging and better motivated than is usually assumed. Stephen J. Lynch (see Further Reading) argues that while Cressida's sexuality is often the focus of critical studies, it is her perceptive and accurate wit that is most important in the play. Lynch asserts that Cressida correctly understands her own nature and that of the world surrounding her. The relationship of Cressida and Troilus is another area of critical examination, particularly in terms of the way this relationship relates to the issues concerning gender. David McCandless (1997) contends that the play leaves the issue of sexual difference unresolved and that Shakespeare portrayed the Trojan War as an arena of emasculation. McCandless sees Troilus as an image of male subjectivity and demonstrates how Troilus seeks to purify sex by configuring it in terms of the consumption of maternal sustenance. According to McCandless, Troilus's view of sex is as an exclusively oral, de-phallicized experience, one in which Cressida is transformed into a symbol of the maternal body. At the same time, McCandless argues, Troilus finds the sex act to be autoerotic and incapable of satisfying desire; the female body thus becomes a mere receptacle. Taking another approach to the gender issues at work in the play, Daniel Juan Gil (2001) demonstrates that the Greek and Trojan warriors in Troilus and Cressida have grown weary of the establishment of homosocial bonds through the bodies of women. Supporting his contentions with a study of Renaissance thinking on the nature of personal identity and the definition of the self, Gil argues that the warriors want to distinguish personal sexual identity from social relationships and experience.

Shakespeare's treatment of historical and legendary elements of the Trojan War is another area of critical study. Heather James (1997) explores the Elizabethan attitudes reflected in Shakespeare's treatment of history and legend in Troilus and Cressida, explaining that at the time the play was written the legend of the Trojan War and its warriors and lovers were viewed with mixed emotions by Elizabethans. James asserts that Shakespeare's refusal to retain any authority or integrity in terms of the Troy legend or Troilus reflects Elizabethan cynicism regarding the political exploitation of history and legend. James also relates elements of the play to the Essex rebellion (1601), and finds that Essex's ambition and chivalry are reflected in Shakespeare's Achilles and Hector. Essex's treasonous actions, James further observes, are comparable to Achilles and Ulysses' exposure of him. Like Heather James, James E. Savage (1964) finds correlations between the play and Elizabethan politics, particularly those events concerning the Earl of Essex. Savage identifies Hector, rather than Achilles, as Essex's allegorical counterpart, and suggests that in this play Shakespeare was speculating on the dangers of factionalism and the inevitability of Essex's fate. Just as James and Savage both find that the play refers in some way to Essex, Mario Domenichelli (see Further Reading) argues that Troilus and Cressida deals directly with Essex's effort to secure the aristocracy's role in the government of England. Domenichelli further claims that the play may be understood as a comment on the hopelessness of the revival of chivalry in Elizabethan times, a revival extinguished by the failure of Essex's revolt and his ensuing execution.

Critics are also interested in the controversy regarding the proper generic designation of Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida. Within a few years of its initial publication, the play had been labeled variously as history, comedy, and tragedy. Modern critics such as J. C. Oates (1966) continue this debate. Oates asserts that several factors, including the use and rejection of the elements of ritual, the opposition to the values of tragedy, and the anachronistic placing of a tragic hero within an anti-tragic environment, all serve to undermine the play's designation as tragedy. Camille Slights (1974) finds that through the effects of the play's paralleling of scenes and the love and war plots, Shakespeare created what may be called a tragic satire. Other critics suggest that Shakespeare was attempting to design an entirely new dramatic form. Marvin Glasser (1986) demonstrates that in London's theatrical world during the late sixteenth century, novelty of form and structure were more important than the soundness of a play's plot. Glasser goes on to examine the resemblance of the formal effects of Troilus and Cressida to the visual effects found in paintings contemporary with the play. For example, Glasser cites the similarities between Shakespeare's use of various perspectives in a scene and the use of varying visual perspectives in paintings of the time. Such innovations, Glasser explains, were reactions to the changing notions of time and space, which led to a new understanding concerning the relationship between subject and object. Like Glasser, Jean-Pierre Maquerlot (1995) observes the parallels between literary and visual art during this time period. Maquerlot contends that Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida employs techniques similar to those used in contemporary Mannerist paintings. Just as Mannerist paintings portray the image of a stark world with no shadows, background, or perspectives, Shakespeare's depiction of the world of the play is similarly drawn according to such a desperate and relentless view. The characters as well, Maquerlot notes, are depicted in a way that accords with the Mannerist method of “ironic separation,” that is, in sometimes contradictory positions. Maquerlot explains that Shakespeare was attempting to portray the Trojan War as presented by Homer, as well as the love story of Troilus and Cressida as depicted by Chaucer, in a way that highlighted the modern disillusionment with the ideal of chivalry.

Shakespeare's ambiguities in tone and characterization have presented modern directors with unique challenges in staging Troilus and Cressida. The Royal Shakespeare Company's 1996 production directed by Ian Judge received mixed reviews on the effectiveness of the staging and on individual performances. Paul Taylor (1996) praises a few “sequences of real power” in the production, as well as Victoria Hamilton's persuasive performance as Cressida. Taylor also finds that the characters of Hector and Ulysses were strikingly portrayed, but contends that Richard McCabe's Thersites was overly ingratiating, and Joseph Fiennes's Troilus “distinctly irritating.” David Murray (1996) reviews the same production, and, like Taylor, faults Fiennes's whining performance as Troilus. Murray additionally disparages Hamilton's Cressida, but finds the production as a whole effectively and consistently staged. In Tom Markus's production of Troilus and Cressida for the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, the director set the play during the American Civil War. Critiquing the production, Alan Dumas (1997) does not view this change in setting to be particularly effective, although he does praise the staging of the play's action sequences. Sandra Brooks-Dillard (1997) discusses Markus's production as well, describing it as a strong staging filled with exceptional performances by the actors. Other productions have received mixed reviews, including Sir Peter Hall's staging for the American Place Theatre in New York, a production which reviewer Michael Sommers (2001) found to be disappointingly ambivalent. Kenneth Albers's direction of the play for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival was characterized, observes critic Steven Winn (2001), by “missed opportunities.”

Criticism: Character Studies

SOURCE: Voth, Grant L. and Oliver H. Evans. “Cressida and the World of the Play.” Shakespeare Studies 8 (1975): 231-39.

[In the following essay, Voth and Evans challenge critics who dismiss Cressida as a calculating prostitute, contending that a close study of her character reveals the difficulty of her decisions and the motivation behind her actions.]

Despite the range and diversity of critical approaches to and estimates of Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, one judgment has remained constant: Cressida is a mere prostitute, a cold and calculating woman; she is Falsehood in Love.1 Even her defenders (and she has had a few) have qualified their admiration of her wit, beauty, and charm by finding her too frail to fulfill Troilus's idealization of her or to answer his love in kind.2 Whatever else critics have disagreed about in reading the play, such estimates of Cressida's character have seldom been called into question.

One of the reasons for her dismissal by the critics has been their desire to talk about Troilus. His role and character, unlike Cressida's, have been fully discussed, and responses to him have ranged from unqualified admiration to disdain.3 Such exclusive attention to Troilus, however helpful it has been in illuminating his part in the play, has not been entirely fair to Cressida. Her character is not as static as critics have described it, nor is her behavior as vicious as it has been judged; she does change during the course of the play, and, in context, her decisions are both more difficult and better motivated than has been assumed.

Cressida's movement in the play is from awareness to self-deception and back to awareness again, a counterpoint to Troilus's movement, whether it be from innocence to awareness or from ignorance to animal rage. Cressida begins her career as one totally at home in the world of the play. A realist and a cynic, she knows what men value in women in spite of what they sometimes say they admire. But in the course of her affair with Troilus, she is seduced by him from her initial position and persuaded to believe in his inadequate “ideal” vision. Finally, back in the real world of the Greek generals and Diomedes, she reluctantly returns to her initial and more accurate, if less attractive, understanding of the way things go in the world. There is thus a complexity in Cressida's character and role which has not very often been recognized, and which deserves more attention than it has received.

To understand this complexity, however, it is necessary to understand the nature of the world assumed by Troilus and Cressida. It is, to begin with, a world stripped of metaphysical and temporal dimensions; and it is thus a world in which there is no absolute universal order, as there is in both Shakespearean comedy and tragedy, with which man can harmonize or against which he can struggle. The top of the chain of being is omitted in the play, and its omission, coupled with the absence of temporal dimensions, severely limits the scope and significance of the action.4 In this play there is no possibility of a universal order reasserting its claim, and it can end, therefore, only in what Dryden describes as “a confusion of drums and trumpets, excursions and alarms.”5

A consequence of this single-dimension reality is the loss of the multiple perspectives which characterize Shakespeare's other plays. In the comedies, for example, love is seen both realistically and idealistically, and we are made to recognize the claims of both.6 But in the confined world of Troilus and Cressida, there is only one perspective: the entire world of the play is hopelessly corrupt, and the knight whose sumptuous armor covers a “most putrified core” (V.-viii.1)7 is a symbol for that world.8

Since there is no higher reality to offer hope of redemption, the juxtaposition of the armor and the putrified core presents us not with the tension of two perspectives but with an ironic contrast between appearance and reality. The contrast is already presented in the Prologue, in which the magnificent walls of Troy, with their “massy staples / And corresponsive and fulfilling bolts” (Prologue, ll. 17-18) are shown to contain nothing more than the truth that “ravish'd Helen, Menalaus' queen, / With wanton Paris sleeps” (Prologue, ll. 9-10); and we discover very quickly that the “brave pavillions” (Prologue, l. 15) of the Greeks hide the reality of Achilles, Patroclus, Ajax, and Thersites. Such contrasts, which run throughout the play, can be seen at their most extreme in Pandarus' “complimental assault” (III.i.43) upon Paris, Helen, and their court:

Fair be to you, my lord, and to all this fair company! Fair desires, in all fair measure, fairly guide them, especially to you, fair queen! Fair thoughts be your fair pillow!

(III.i.46-49)

Here, in the corruption which lies at the center of the entire play, the excessive language, like the knight's sumptuous armor, only contrasts more markedly with the decay it attempts to hide.

Such irony is available, of course, only to the reader, not to the characters in the play. For them, the eloquent and rhetorical language is an attempt to establish values in their world, to cloak reality in a “fair” cover, to make things more glorious by calling them by different names. Their language, strained and hyperbolic, becomes the sumptuous armor with which the citizens of Troy and of the Greek camp attempt to cover over the putrified core. In spite of their efforts, however, the hollow and botchy core within, like the disconcerting truth that the whole war is being fought over a “placket” (II.iii.21), keeps reasserting itself; like everything else in the play, the language carries within its sumptuous armor a “most putrified core.”

While this is true of most of the language in the play, it is particularly true of Troilus' language, and his idealism should, therefore, be viewed with some suspicion. His verbal projections onto the world of the play, ideal as they may seem, are undermined by the same imagery of disease, mercantilism, and decay present in all the language of the play.9 He sees himself, for example, as a courtly lover, but his conceit of the festering wound love has given him undercuts his expression of that sentiment and links his attitude to his corrupt world (I.i.51-64); his deliberately poetic description of Cressida as a pearl, Pandarus as a ship, and himself as the merchant (I.i.103-7) reduces Cressida to an object, whose possession is his aim; and his well-known anticipation speech (III.ii.19-30), with its insistent undercurrent of such sense-words as taste, palate, ruder powers, and love's thrice repured nectar, belies the ideal aspirations which it professes and indicates that the source of Troilus' vision, in spite of his own disclaimers, is the desire to “wallow” in Cressida's “lily beds” (III.ii.13).

Troilus' attempts to project an ideal vision upon the sordid business of the war are likewise unsuccessful, for once again his imagery shows the extent to which his own projections participate in the decaying world he is trying to make “fair without.” In the Trojan council scene, Helen becomes for Troilus the pearl (II.ii.81-82), the silk cloth, and the exotic food (II.ii.69-72) which traders bring back from their voyages; and the Trojan nation becomes a pack of thieves who, having stolen the pearl of great price, have now become too cowardly to keep it (II.ii.94-96). The adaptation of Marlowe's line ironically indicates the baseness of all of Troilus' vision, for it is Helen's “price,” not her “face,” which has launched the thousand ships, and the net result has been that crowned kings have become “merchants” (II.ii.83).

Thus while Troilus spends most of the play projecting on the world his own valuation of it—“What's aught, but as 'tis valued?” (II.ii.53)—his imagery consistently reveals that the core of his vision is as corrupt as the real world of the play. That world is the one in which, as Thersites notes, Menalaus and Paris are simply “cuckold and cuckold maker” (V.viii.9), in which the argument of the war is “a cuckold and a whore” (II.iii.78), and in which “nothing else holds fashion” except “lechery, lechery, still wars and lechery” (V.ii.196-97).10 No verbal projection of Troilus' own devising can make that world less sordid; in such a world, in fact, the best Troilus' idealism can do is to bring upon himself a catastrophic disillusionment and to lead Hector, indirectly, to his death.

It is in this world, and in contrast to this Troilus, that we must see Cressida. At home in the world of the play, she has no illusions about the “enterprise” (I.ii.309) of love. She knows that once men have achieved their end, they no longer “beseech,” but “command” (I.ii.319); she knows that

Things won are done, joy's soul lies in the doing:
That she belov'd knows nought that knows not this:
Men prize the thing ungain'd, more than it is.

(I.ii.313-15)

Unattractive and calculating as this may appear to us, given the world of the play, it is a more legitimate approach to love than is Troilus' corrupt idealism.

But there is more to Cressida's calculating posture than a simple desire to delay gratification and thereby to retain control of the situation, for in her wiliness there is also an element of self-defense. During her scene with Pandarus, while he tries to convince her of Troilus' worth, Cressida deliberately misunderstands him, confusing his metaphors...

(The entire section is 4055 words.)

Criticism: Production Reviews

Paul Taylor (review date 26 July 1996)

SOURCE: Taylor, Paul. Review of Troilus and Cressida. The Independent (26 July 1996): 6.

[In the following review of the Royal Shakespeare Company's Troilus and Cressida, directed by Ian Judge, Taylor comments on the production's more powerful sequences and praises a few individual performances, including Victoria Hamilton's Cressida, Louis Hilyer's Hector, and Phillip Voss's Ulysses.]

Ian Judge is a director who could bring out the feelgood factor in Oedipus Rex. He's the man who converted the complex tonalities of Twelfth Night into a crudely reassuring, tourist-friendly entertainment, replete with a cosy Stratford skyline of half-timbered...

(The entire section is 584 words.)

David Murray (review date 6 December 1996)

SOURCE: Murray, David. “All Sweat and Tangas: Theatre.” The Financial Times (6 December 1996): 17.

[In the following review, Murray assesses the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Troilus and Cressida, directed by Ian Judge. Murray's review is mixed as he finds fault with Joseph Fiennes's whining Troilus and with Victoria Hamilton's shallow Cressida, but praises several of the other male roles and states that as a whole the production offered a “defensible” take on the play.]

Ian Judge's RSC production of Troilus and Cressida has come up from Stratford-on-Avon to the Barbican. Troilus is not among the favoured Shakespeare plays that...

(The entire section is 511 words.)

Alan Dumas (review date 18 July 1997)

SOURCE: Dumas, Alan. “Troilus Sends Bard Off to Civil War.” Rocky Mountain News (18 July 1997): 16D.

[In the following review, Dumas discusses the Colorado Shakespeare Festival production of Troilus and Cressida, directed by Tom Markus. Although he finds the cast “functional,” Dumas is not impressed by the director's change of the play's setting from the Trojan War to the American Civil War.]

Update the language and it would be easy to believe that Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida was written during the cynical 1960s.

There are moments of pitch-black comedy—anti-romantic, anti-war, anti-authoritarian and subversive in...

(The entire section is 711 words.)

Sandra Brooks-Dillard (review date 1 August 1997)

SOURCE: Brooks-Dillard, Sandra. “Smartly Staged Troilus and Cressida Disparages War.” The Denver Post (1 August 1997): F-09.

[In the following review of Troilus and Cressida directed by Tom Markus for the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, Brooks-Dillard praises the strength of the production as a whole and also comments on the excellence of the players' performances.]

Troilus and Cressida, one of Shakespeare's lesser-known plays, gets a bang-up production at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, thanks to strong staging, striking images, excellent performances and the creative vision of director Tom Markus.

As the play starts, the...

(The entire section is 547 words.)

Michael Sommers (review date 19 April 2001)

SOURCE: Sommers, Michael. “Shakespeare's Tough Nut Stays in Shell.” The Star Ledger (19 April 2001): 63.

[In the following review of Troilus and Cressida directed by Sir Peter Hall at the American Place Theatre in New York, Sommers finds the production “ambivalent” and praises only a few individual performances.]

The great warrior Achilles is dismissed as “a fusty nut with no kernel” by someone in Troilus and Cressida, and if it's badly produced, Shakespeare's strange episode from the Trojan Wars could easily be described in like terms.

A corrosively cynical behind-the-scenes look at legendary heroes, Troilus and...

(The entire section is 525 words.)

Steven Winn (review date 19 June 2001)

SOURCE: Winn, Steven. “Troilus Triumphs in Ashland; Cynical Comedy is Best of Opening Trio at Summer Shakespeare Festival.” San Francisco Chronicle (19 June 2001): E1.

[In the following review, Winn critiques the staging of Troilus and Cressida directed by Kenneth Albers for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, maintaining that despite the production's “missed opportunities,” it was the best of the outdoor shows at the festival.]

Theater happens in a big way at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. That can be a mixed blessing with the country's largest repertory company, which opened its prime summer season over the weekend with three outdoor Shakespeare...

(The entire section is 458 words.)