Troilus and Cressida Essay - Troilus and Cressida (Vol. 83)

Troilus and Cressida (Vol. 83)


Troilus and Cressida

Troilus and Cressida (c. 1602), considered by many to be Shakespeare's most pessimistic work, has been classified as one of Shakespeare's “problem” plays. This story of the Trojan War and the doomed lovers Troilus and Cressida is one that has been told and retold numerous times before Shakespeare adapted it into a play, most notably by Shakespeare's two principal sources: Homer's Iliad (George Chapman's 1598 translation) and Geoffrey Chaucer's poem Troilus and Criseyde (c. 1385). The play, which presents a love won and lost during the interminable and morally corrosive battles of the Trojan War, ends the same way it begins: in chaos and disillusion. The difficulty in properly categorizing the play's genre has plagued critics of Troilus and Cressida throughout its publication history—early publications of the play labeled it first as a history, then as a comedy, and later as a tragedy—and modern critics continue to debate the proper generic designation of the play. The ambiguous nature of the play is also reflected in Shakespeare's characterization, especially Cressida, who has been viewed as either unfaithful and promiscuous or as a victim of the war and of male dominance. Troilus and Cressida has not been always been popular on the stage; however, modern directors have found the play's profound examination of love and war particularly compelling for twenty-first century audiences.

In his discussion of women in Shakespeare's “problem” plays, Nicholas Marsh (2003) focuses on a single passage from Troilus and Cressida (I.ii.249-86) which, he contends, shows Cressida to be both a tease and a sincere lover. Marsh explains that this apparent contradiction in fact reveals, on one hand, the stereotypical male view of women as temptresses, and on the other, Cressida's genuine feelings for Troilus. According to the critic, Cressida's vacillation in her feelings for Troilus are seen by her lover as proof that she has transformed herself from an angel into a “whore.” Marsh concludes that Troilus's either/or attitude toward women is stereotypical, and that Troilus and Cressida maintains its position as a problem play precisely because Cressida never falls neatly into either category. Laurie E. Maguire (2002) explains Cressida's submission to Diomedes, contending that she is a victim of Diomedes' abuse and manipulation and that “Cressida consequently behaves as do most abused women: she submits.” In his discussion of the theme of ethics in the play, Michael G. Bielmeier (2001) uses the philosophical works of Kierkegaard to demonstrate that Cressida and the bastard Thersites are the most ethical characters in the war-torn world of Troilus and Cressida. The critic argues that unlike the hopelessly idealistic Troilus, Cressida and Thersites behave according to the ethical norms that their society has set for them; they “accept the facts that the universe is neither noble nor just, that ease of survival comes to those who abide by society's ethics, however repugnant, and that wisdom resides in expecting little more from life than lechery and war.”

Troilus and Cressida's often crude satire of war has held enormous appeal for modern audiences and directors. Matt Wolf (1999) praises Trevor Nunn's 1999 National Theatre production of the play, contending that Nunn “yanks us … right inside this play's singularly hellish heart.” In his review of Michael Bogdanov's 2000 Bell Shakespeare Company production of Troilus + Cressida, Douglas McQueen-Thomson (2000) notes that this rendition tapped into humanity's “base appetites” by using television screens as part of the scenery, turning the warrior Achilles and his companion Patroclus into rap artists in drag, and portraying Pandarus as a dirty-minded “game-show host.” McQueen-Thomson contends that the staging successfully combined “audacious, challenging production with intelligent, coherent interpretation, proving the strengths of theatre as a political medium.” Martin F. Kohn (2003) remarks that the timeless and interlocking themes of lust and violence in Richard Monette's 2003 Stratford Festival staging of Troilus and Cressida effectively demonstrated the madness of war. Kohn also praises Bernard Hopkins's bawdy, bisexual performance as Pandarus as vital to this rendition of the play. Lyn Gardner (2003) reviews Andrew Hilton's 2003 stage production of Troilus and Cressida and remarks on the relevancy of the play for the twenty-first century. According to the critic, the production offered “not just a sharp reminder that war involves, as the clown Thersites puts it, ‘too much blood and too little brain’ but also that war corrupts even those who begin it with honourable intent and what they perceive as just cause.”

Many critics have commented on the link between Renaissance England and the world of Troilus and Cressida. Matthew A. Greenfield (2000) traces the development of English nationalism in the play. Greenfield notes that England attempted to build national pride by connecting its ancestry as a nation to the heroic and ancient city of Troy; however, Shakespeare's depiction of Troy as decadent and corrupt undercut these efforts. Mario Domenichelli (2000) alleges that in his cynical portrayal of the duel between Hector and Achilles in Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare documented the end of the chivalric code in Renaissance England. In addition, Domenichelli states that by transforming the heroic Hector's death into a pointless and ignoble one, Shakespeare also overturned the traditional rules of tragedy. Gary Spear (1993) examines the themes of masculinity and effeminacy in Troilus and Cressida in order to explore “the cultural fictions of male power.” Spear asserts that the soldiers in this overlong war feel that their masculinity is threatened because of their failure to win the war, and that their solution to this “effeminization” is to diminish the women in the play by treating them as commodities. Similarly, C. C. Barfoot (1988) examines the human relationships in Troilus and Cressida in relation to the “mercantile metaphor” that runs throughout the play. This metaphor, the critic contends, “suggests that we are all traders in our relationships, and, as victims and perpetrators, susceptible to the inevitable treachery that trade brings in its wake.”

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

SOURCE: Jago, David M. “The Uniqueness of Troilus and Cressida.Shakespeare Quarterly 29, no. 1 (winter 1978): 20-7.

[In the following essay, Jago contends that Troilus and Cressida is unique because it stands outside “the popular traditions Shakespeare normally followed”; Jago demonstrates this point by contrasting the play with Romeo and Juliet.]

One of the distinguishing features of Shakespeare's work is the dramatist's ability to create plays out of very different kinds of source-material and to define in each play an entirely independent moral atmosphere, closely connected with the source. It is this variety of moral outlooks that makes it so difficult to give critical consideration to more than one of Shakespeare's plays at a time. Troilus and Cressida, however, is remarkable for the degree to which its dissimilarity from other plays can be located in the author's treatment of source material, rather than in the material itself. There is no single and coherent background source for Troilus and Cressida which explains its marked atmosphere in the way, for instance, the pastoral tradition underlying the play defines the atmosphere of As You Like It.

Troilus and Cressida is also remarkable in being outside—indeed, directly opposed to—the popular traditions Shakespeare normally followed. The foreword to the 1609 quarto, itself unparalleled in the extant texts, emphasizes this: instead of its ability to please every level of the audience simultaneously by means appropriate to their different tastes, the feature held up for admiration is the play's lack of stage success and its suitability for appreciation by the connoisseur in the retirement of his study. Although the contorted nature of its prose, as well as its ascription to “a never writer,” separates it entirely from Shakespeare himself, the foreword is nevertheless perfectly just in its definition of the play as “never clapper-clawed with the palms of the vulgar, and yet passing full of the palm comical.” For the play is equally calculated to irritate a theatre audience and to interest a reflective reader.

These two points—the independence of the moral universe created by Shakespeare in each of his plays, and the deliberately unsatisfying effect of Troilus and Cressida on the stage—are closely linked, as may be demonstrated most clearly by contrasting Troilus with Romeo and Juliet. The superficial similarity of the two plays—each has a pair of lovers at its center—does not alter the fact that the two plays are opposite in their impact. It is tempting, but unrewarding, to explain this in terms of temperament: to say that Troilus is weaker than Romeo, or that he becomes fixated in the Rosaline-stage of development; or to say that Cressida is simply a prostitute by temperament and thus unable to carry out the role of an ingénue. Such an argument is unfair to the later pair of lovers and distorts our reading of Troilus and Cressida. For what gives Romeo and Juliet its unending romantic appeal is the very unrealistic way in which the health of the state is made dependent upon the fortunes of a single youthful pair of lovers, whereas Troilus and Cressida presents the much more familiar picture of young people having to take their sexual pleasures only in ways that do not conflict with society's concerns.

There is this further difference between the plays: Romeo and Juliet is dominated by the concept of marriage, a concept wholly absent from Troilus and Cressida. In the earlier play, Juliet's marriage is of urgent importance, both from the lovers' point of view and from the point of view of Juliet's parents. From the moment of their first meeting, the lovers see their relationship as eternal. And one function of Friar Lawrence within the play—sanctioning their love and giving it the controlling definition of the Christian form of marriage—is to prevent the audience from seeing the lovers' sense of eternity as merely the pleasing but insubstantial idealism of adolescence. Similarly, the man the Capulets choose as a husband for their daughter has no disqualification except that Juliet is not romantically in love with him. There are no villains in Romeo and Juliet (with perhaps the partial exception of Tybalt). Although Romeo finally kills Paris, it is in an honorable fight, as Romeo acknowledges when he lays Paris to rest within the monument alongside Juliet:

                                                                                          O give me thy hand,
One writ with me in sour misfortune's book!
I'll bury thee in a triumphant grave.

(V. iii. 81-83)1

The central feature of Romeo and Juliet is the fact that the union of the lovers comes to symbolize the political harmony essential to the well-being of the state. This feature remains unaltered even if one concedes the criticism2 that Shakespeare tried, and failed, to involve the audience as strongly in the fortunes of Verona as in the fortunes of the lovers. Prince Escalus, the representative of civil order, is a remote and abstract figure; but without his presence, the play would seem trivial to a spectator unwilling to allow himself to be overwhelmed by the language of the lovers. The play is extraordinarily skillful in presenting desirable impossibilities as though they were daily occurrences. One instance is the way in which Romeo transforms the state without consciously seeking to do so, thereby becoming entangled in the inevitable deviousness of politics. Public life is placed firmly in subordination to the private moral world of the individual. The play thus sidesteps a problem that constantly exercised Renaissance thinkers: the difficulty of defining the relationship between public and private morality. Look after private morality, the play states with unconvincing optimism, and public morality will look after itself.

Troilus and Cressida inverts this pattern. In this play, the lovers are not the sole focus of interest; the political and military maneuvers of the warring armies occupy a statistically greater portion of the action. Such an imbalance was inevitable if Shakespeare was to express the way the relationship of the lovers is first distorted and then swept away by external events. The fact that every other character in Romeo and Juliet is directly relevant to the fortunes of the lovers is one means of representing the supreme moral value of their love.3 If Troilus and Cressida were given so prominent a role, the ultimate effect of the play would be quite different. The point of Troilus and Cressida is not that men are dominated by corrupt love, but that sexual emotion is cast aside by men in their roles as social beings as soon as it threatens to hinder society's main preoccupation: honor, either personal or national. Just as the presence of Escalus, however little he himself involves us, is an essential element in the emotional impact of the lovers in Romeo and Juliet, so Ulysses' machinations to draw Achilles once more onto the battlefield have deadly implications for the lovers in Troilus and Cressida—not in a direct narrative relationship, but in Ulysses' instinctive assumptions about priorities. The sheer demand upon our attention by the Greek and Trojan leaders distracts us from the plight of the lovers and thereby influences our response to them.

The arguments of Troilus and of Paris at the Trojan Council have been said4 to show that the Trojans, in contrast to the intellectual Greeks, depend upon instinct and passion. An important aspect of Troilus' argument, however, is his implicit admission that a man's private judgment is valid only within his own personal frame of reference. His challenge, “What's aught, but as 'tis valued?” (II. ii. 52), implies a solipsistic world; it is part of Troilus' argument that any objective, and therefore public, valuation is impossible. Similarly, Paris' arguments are dismissed by Priam on the grounds that they are based solely upon self-interest: “You have the honey still, but these the gall” (II. ii. 144). Even at their best, then, the Trojans are but a jangle of warring individualities. The general social pattern, whereby each man desperately tries to keep his own affairs secret while being covertly watched with prurient curiosity by the rest, is clearly conveyed in III. i, where Pandarus asks Paris to cover up for Troilus' absence from dinner. It is an open secret where Troilus will be, but it is part of the social game that the proprieties—just—be maintained.

Troilus lacks conviction in his passion. In the opening scene it is clear that he cannot win Cressida for himself; he does not possess the courage to ask for what, as it soon transpires, she is very ready to give him. Pandarus' role may thus be contrasted with that of Friar Lawrence. The function of the elderly priest is to supply those qualities traditionally lacking in youth: rationality and prudence. When Romeo collapses in despair upon hearing his sentence of banishment, Friar Lawrence severely rebukes him and at once contrives a plot which may save the lovers and which, in their immaturity, they are incapable of contriving for themselves. Friar Lawrence has played no part in bringing the lovers together; since passion and courage are the prerogatives of youth, Romeo has been able to supply those qualities. By contrast, Pandarus has to encourage Troilus' sexual ardor and must himself supply qualities that normally accompany youthful impetuosity rather than aged counsel. Verona is a world in which physical courage between males is the quality that events most consistently demand; there sexuality, existing within clear boundaries, is a force that takes a definite direction. In Troy, on the other hand, sexuality pervades everything and yet lacks anything like Verona's healthy directness.

Even in seeking his love, then, Troilus betrays inadequacy. And when, after gaining Cressida for his mistress, he comes under pressure to abandon her for reasons of state, he does so without hesitation. At this point in the play, IV. i-iv, the system of the open secret is shown in full operation. Paris sends Aeneas ahead to ensure that all is respectable in Cressida's household when he arrives with the Grecian envoy, Diomedes. When Troilus receives Aeneas' warning, his immediate reaction is to beg for society's complicity:

How my achievements mock me!
I will go meet them; and, my lord Aeneas,
We met by chance: you did not find me...

(The entire section is 4380 words.)

Criticism: Character Studies

Michael G. Bielmeier (essay date winter 2001)

SOURCE: Bielmeier, Michael G. “Ethics and Anxiety in Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida.Christianity & Literature 50, no. 2 (winter 2001): 225-45.

[In the following essay, Bielmeier uses the philosophical works of Kierkegaard to demonstrate that Cressida and the bastard Thersites are the most ethical characters in the war-torn world of Troilus and Cressida.]

In his seminal study titled Shakespeare, Our Contemporary, Ian Kott evaluates Troilus and Cressida from the prevailing European existential perspective of the mid-twentieth century. He sees the play as “a dispute about the existence of a moral order in a cruel and irrational...

(The entire section is 8505 words.)

Laurie E. Maguire (essay date 2002)

SOURCE: Maguire, Laurie E. “Performing Anger: The Anatomy of Abuse(s) in Troilus and Cressida.Renaissance Drama n.s. 31 (2002): 153-83.

[In the following essay, Maguire explains Cressida's submission to Diomedes, contending that she is a victim of Diomedes' abuse and manipulation and that “Cressida consequently behaves as do most abused women: she submits.”]

Fortune is a woman, and it is necessary to beat her and maul her when you want to keep her under control.

—Machiavelli, The Prince1

Shakespeare's Cressida has been heavily criticized for her transfer of...

(The entire section is 12589 words.)

Nicholas Marsh (essay date 2003)

SOURCE: Marsh, Nicholas. “Women.” In Shakespeare: Three Problem Plays, pp. 82-115. Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

[In the following excerpt, Marsh focuses on a single passage from Troilus and Cressida (I.ii.249-86) which, he contends, shows Cressida to be both a tease and a sincere lover. Marsh explains that this apparent contradiction in fact reveals, on one hand, the stereotypical male view of women as temptresses, and on the other, Cressida's genuine feelings for Troilus.]


The extract we have chosen to study shows Cressida in two contexts: first in her uncle's...

(The entire section is 4020 words.)