Troilus and Cressida (Vol. 83)
Troilus and Cressida
For further information on the critical and stage history of Troilus and Cressida, see SC, Volumes 3, 18, 27, 43, 59, and 71.
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...
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Criticism: Character Studies
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 world.” He further states that the characters are aware of the “absurd” nature of the world in which they live and that they must “give it a purpose in order to preserve the sense of the world's existence and a scale of values” (77).1 A Kierkegaardian existentialist reading, however, differs rather dramatically from Kott's.2 From a Kierkegaardian perspective there are culturally established and clearly defined de facto ethical standards in the play, base and repugnant though they may be. Such a reading establishes Troilus as an incorrigible aesthete vainly seeking to deny or annul the Trojan universals. A Kierkegaardian view also reshapes our perception of Cressida and Thersites, fashioning them as exemplars...
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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 allegiance from Troilus to Diomedes. Just twenty-four hours after consummating a relationship with Troilus, the man she has loved for “many weary months,” she accepts the advances of her Greek guard, Diomedes, and cements the relationship with a gift—the love token that Troilus had given her on parting. In Cressida's defense, critics note that her change of affection does not mean that her earlier love for Troilus was insincere, nor does one change of allegiance constitute promiscuity or prostitution.2 They further note that the realities of wartime deem such behavior “at worst pragmatic.”3 But such defenses of Cressida are primarily exculpatory, agreeing that Cressida has transgressed, and self-consciously...
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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.]
ANALYSIS: TROILUS AND CRESSIDA, 1, II, 249-86
The extract we have chosen to study shows Cressida in two contexts: first in her uncle's company, then alone.
You are such another woman! one knows not at what ward you lie.
Upon my back to defend my belly, upon my wit, to defend my wiles, upon my secrecy to defend mine honesty, my mask to defend my beauty, and you to defend all these; and at all these wards I lie, at a thousand watches.
Say one of your watches.
Nay, I'll watch you for that; and that's one of the chiefest of them too. If I cannot ward what I would not have hit, I can watch you for telling how I took the blow—unless it swell past hiding, and then it's past watching.
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Criticism: Production Reviews
SOURCE: Wolf, Matt. “Troilus and Cressida.” Variety (22-28 March 1999): 47.
[In the following review, Wolf praises Trevor Nunn's 1999 National Theatre staging of Troilus and Cressida, contending that Nunn “yanks us … right inside this play's singularly hellish heart.”]
Cressida (Sophie Okonedo) spins slowly—and woundingly—at the end of Trevor Nunn's new staging of Troilus and Cressida, but this bruising play's damaged heroine isn't the only one left reeling at the close of a nearly four-hour production. The first of six shows at the National this year (Candide is next) to incorporate a resident ensemble, this Troilus is a reminder not only of the dark, savage power of this most contemporary of Shakespeare plays but, importantly, of the no less fierce lucidity of a director who—on form—remains a virtually matchless classicist.
Is Nunn's Troilus perfect? Not quite—it misses the nerve-jangling glimpse into the abyss achieved by Howard Davies' Royal Shakespeare Co. production (under Nunn's RSC stewardship), with Clive Merrison as a definitive Pandarus, more than a decade ago.
But after a halting start, the National's first-ever stab at an unclassifiable play (is Troilus satire? tragedy? threnody?) builds to a haunting whole that finds the sorrowful immediacy in Shakespeare's blighted vision without having...
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SOURCE: McQueen-Thomson, Douglas. “Bogdanov's Troilus + Cressida.” Arena Magazine (October/November 2000): 54-5.
[In the following review, McQueen-Thomson contends that Michael Bogdanov's 2000 Bell Shakespeare Company production of Troilus + Cressida successfully combined “audacious, challenging production with intelligent, coherent interpretation, proving the strengths of theatre as a political medium.”]
The Bell Shakespeare Company (BSC), launched in August 1990, is celebrating its tenth birthday with Troilus + Cressida, directed by Michael Bogdanov. Company founder and Artistic Director, John Bell, has aspired to create ‘a world-class Shakespeare company’. Bogdanov's Troilus + Cressida shows that Bell has largely succeeded in this aim. The BSC stands out for its willingness to both embrace multiple Australian cultural concerns and risk bold interpretations. The presence of this world-class Shakespeare company indicates that Australian theatre has largely been freed both from the thrall of the mother country and from the equally pernicious flipside of the cultural cringe—singular, parochial nationalism.
The BSC has not become precisely the group that was originally envisaged. One of their first—and most widely publicised—goals was to perform in a transportable replica Globe Theatre, complete with three-tiered seating. Fortunately,...
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SOURCE: Gardner, Lyn. “Men Fall in Love with War in Bristol: Troilus and Cressida.” Guardian (13 February 2003): 25.
[In the following review of Andrew Hilton's 2003 stage production of Troilus and Cressida, Gardner remarks on the relevancy of the play for the twenty-first century but notes that while Hilton's play was expertly performed, his uncut version was too long to be completely appealing to modern audiences.]
There is probably no more pertinent a time for a revival of Shakespeare's story of the Trojan war than now. It offers 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. After ten long years of fighting, the moral landscape of Shakespeare's play is one of futility and corruption. Even heroes such as Hector make bad judgments, or, like Achilles, turn to petulance and treachery.
With its Edwardian setting, Andrew Hilton's production leaves the audience to make its own connections between the world of the play and our own, and while you might regret the missed opportunity to make a strong political point, the evening has many other things to recommend it.
There is never a line in a Hilton production that isn't crystal clear, a word that you don't understand. He...
(The entire section is 454 words.)
SOURCE: Kohn, Martin F. “Sex, Violence, and Shakespeare.” Detroit Free Press (24 August 2003): 7E.
[In the following review, Kohn asserts that Richard Monette's 2003 Stratford Festival production 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.]
For his startling, energized staging of Troilus and Cressida, Richard Monette has taken as his text these summarizing lines: “Lechery, lechery; still wars and lechery.” In other words, what we have here is the Trojan War with a lot more horsing around.
Now, the line goes on to say, “Nothing else holds fashion.” What some ears may hear is “Lechery, lechery … nothing else old-fashioned.” That works, too. The depiction of battles and bawdiness is as ancient as, well, battles and bawdiness, but there is little else old-fashioned about Monette's interpretation.
Speaking of things misheard, unsuspecting audiences may be under the impression that Shakespeare's play is about Troilus and Cressida, a pair of Trojan lovers. It is not. It is mostly about the folly of war and the mythological warriors on either side: Achilles, Ulysses, Ajax, Hector, Paris, Aeneas. And thanks to a stunning performance by Bernard Hopkins, the play is very much about Pandarus, the go-between who...
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SOURCE: Barfoot, C. C. “Troilus and Cressida: ‘Praise Us As We Are Tasted.’” Shakespeare Quarterly 39, no. 1 (spring 1988): 45-57.
[In the following essay, Barfoot 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.”]
In his famous outburst towards the end of the harrowing scene in which he observes Cressida seducing Diomedes (or allowing herself to be seduced by him), Troilus shifts violently from a faith or belief in “rule in unity” to a recognition of the need henceforth to live with “bifold authority.”1 In this speech Troilus's experience as a lover is brought into line with the experience of others in the play as warriors: that is, “wars and lechery” may teach one the same kind of lesson. Troilus may be right in a general way when he asks, during the Trojan debate, “What's aught but as 'tis valued?” (II.ii.53), but what he is on the verge of learning in V.ii is that the state of the valuer does not remain constant, nor do the circumstances of the valuation. He comes to realize that the person valued is able to rate him or herself differently from the valuation attributed by...
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SOURCE: Spear, Gary. “Shakespeare's ‘Manly’ Parts: Masculinity and Effeminacy in Troilus and Cressida.” Shakespeare Quarterly 44, no. 4 (winter 1993): 409-22.
[In the following essay, Spear examines the themes of masculinity and effeminacy in Troilus and Cressida in order to explore “the cultural fictions of male power.”]
A pivotal moment from Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida serves as my starting point for a discussion of the problematics of effeminacy in early modern culture. In Act 3, scene 3, after being taunted by Ulysses about Ajax's growing popularity and esteem, Achilles is in turn chastised by his male “varlet,” Patroclus, who chides him for being “an effeminate man / In time of action,” a deplorable, inverted condition as loathsome, says Patroclus, as its apparent corollary, “A woman impudent and mannish grown” (3.3.216-20).1 So compelling is the charge that Achilles can answer it only by recontextualizing this effeminacy as a source of strength and power, by claiming a “woman's longing, / An appetite that I am sick withal, / To see great Hector” (ll. 236-37). This complex exchange, referencing multiple slippages between literal, sexed bodies and gendered discourses of power, figures masculinity as fully realized only in tension with historically and socially specific notions of effeminacy. As a recontextualization of socially...
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SOURCE: Greenfield, Matthew A. “Fragments of Nationalism in Troilus and Cressida.” Shakespeare Quarterly 51, no. 2 (summer 2000): 181-200.
[In the following essay, Greenfield argues that by depicting Troy as decadent and corrupt in Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare undercut England's efforts to build national pride by connecting its ancestry as a nation to the heroic and ancient city of Troy.]
Literary critics largely agree that Shakespeare's history plays raised troubling questions about who qualified as a member of the national community.1 Problematic cases include: the Scots, the Welsh, and the Irish; bastards; ethnic half-breeds; foreign brides; women generally; and sometimes all non-aristocrats. Still, though, despite these questions and anxieties, Shakespeare's tetralogies and the other English history plays move toward closures in which the nation heals and the dream of community reasserts its claim.
Troilus and Cressida explores a more pessimistic political argument. If Shakespeare's histories maintain an investment in some idea of national community, Troilus and Cressida works programmatically to reveal the nation as a collection of fictions. Where the histories construct genealogies for England, projecting a new social formation backward into the past, Troilus and Cressida attacks the very idea of genealogy. In King John...
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SOURCE: Domenichelli, Mario. “Renaissance Chivalry and ‘Handsome Death’ in Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida.” In Shakespeare and Intertextuality: The Transition of Cultures between Italy and England in the Early Modern Period, edited by Michele Marrapodi, pp. 85-99. Rome: Bulzoni Editore, 2000.
[In the following essay, Domenichelli 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.]
Voltaire did not like Shakespeare. Certainly, as he wrote in his Lettre sur les Anglais, the English bard was “a vigorous genius, a fecund, a natural, a sublime genius”; however, unfortunately, he had “no notion of good taste, no knowledge of rules”.1 As Voltaire wrote D'Alembert in 1776, “cet abominable Shakespeare […] n'est en verité qu'un Gilles de village […] qui n'a pas écrit deux lignes honnêtes”.2 The fact is that in that same year Pierre Letourneur published the first two volumes of his translation of Shakespeare, and Voltaire had consequently dismissed the English Bard as a “vilain singe”.3 Voltaire took the publishing event as a...
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Apfelbaum, Roger. “‘What Verse for It? What Instance for It?’: Authority, Closure, and the Endings of Troilus and Cressida in Text and Performance.” Critical Survey 9, no. 3 (1997): 91-109.
Examines the critical history regarding the problematical double ending of Troilus and Cressida in its Quarto and Folio versions, as well as the ways in which stage directors have dealt with it.
Barrow, Craig, and Diana Barrow. “The 1999 Alabama Shakespeare Festival's Troilus and Cressida.” Upstart Crow 19 (1999): 184-88.
Positively reviews Kent Gash's 1999 Alabama Shakespeare Festival staging of Troilus and Cressida, contending that the performance resolved the tricky issue of genre by presenting the play as a struggle between passion and reason.
Bradbrook, M. C. “What Shakespeare Did to Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde.” Shakespeare Quarterly 9, no. 3 (summer 1958): 311-19.
Asserts that in Troilus and Cressida Shakespeare intentionally subverted Chaucer's poetic world of tragic “grandeur” into one of cynicism and “squalor.”
Bredbeck, Gregory W. “Constructing Patroclus: The High and Low Discourses of Renaissance Sodomy.” In The Performance of Power: Theatrical Discourse and Politics, edited by Sue-Ellen Case...
(The entire section is 685 words.)