illustrated scene of Toilus and Cressida, in profile, looking at one another with the setting sun in the background

Troilus and Cressida

by William Shakespeare

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Critical Evaluation

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In the Folio of 1623, Troilus and Cressida is described as a tragedy; in the Quarto it is called a history; in most structural respects it seems to be a comedy, though a very grim and bitter one. Critics have frequently classified it, with Measure for Measure (pr. c. 1604, pb. 1623) and All’s Well That Ends Well (pr. c. 1602-1603, pb. 1623), as a “problem play,” perhaps as much because the play poses a problem in literary taxonomy as because it sets out to examine a problematic thesis. Probably written between Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (pr. c. 1600-1601, pb. 1603) and Othello, the Moor of Venice (pr. 1604, pb. 1622), during the period of the great tragedies, the play is so full of gloom and venom, so lacking in the playfulness and idealism of the earlier comedies, that critics have attributed its tone and manner either to a period of personal disillusionment in William Shakespeare’s life or to his preoccupation at that time with tragic themes.

There is no external and little internal evidence for the biographical conclusion. It may be, however, that, in Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare was affected by the surrounding tragedies. It is as if he took the moral ambiguities and potential chaos of the worlds of the tragedies and ruled out the possibility of redemption and transcendence through heroic suffering. He peoples this tenuous world with blowhards, cynics, and poltroons and ruthlessly lets them muddle through for themselves. The world of King Lear (pr. c. 1605-1606, pb. 1608), for example, is on the brink of chaos, but at least there is the sublimity of Lear to salvage it. The world of Troilus and Cressida has no one to shore up its structure and challenge disintegration.

Although there were many contemporary versions of the relevant Homeric materials available to Shakespeare, it is clear that he was also familiar with the story as told by Chaucer in Troilus and Criseyde (c. 1382). Chaucer’s world, however, was full of innocence, brilliance, and hope. If the medieval Criseyde behaves shabbily, it is only the result of feminine weakness and long importuning. If Chaucer’s Troilus is naïve and a victim of courtly idealism, at least he can finally sort things out from an Olympian perspective. Shakespeare does not give his lovers, or the rest of the Greek heroes, this sympathy or opportunity but drags them through a drab and seamy degradation.

Shakespeare begins with characters traditionally honored for their nobility, but he does nothing to develop them even for a fall. He simply betrays them, to show them up, and thereby to represent the extreme precariousness of their world. The bloom of courtly love is gone as is the Christian optimism of the Middle Ages. Shakespeare seems to be reflecting not a personal situation but a late Renaissance malaise as he has his characters impotently preside at the dissolution of the revered old order.

In Chaucer, Troilus’s love and woe are instrumental in his maturation and, ultimately, in his salvation. Shakespeare’s Troilus is more frankly sensual and his liaison is correspondingly sordid. He does not benefit from an ennobling passion, nor is he allowed to transcend his folly. He is not even accorded the dignity of a significant death. He fights on in pointless, imperceptive frenzy.

Cressida is also debased. She falls from courtly heroine to common whore. Perhaps Shakespeare borrowed her degradation from Robert Henryson’s highly moralistic Testament of Cresseid (1532), in which the heroine sinks to prostitution. In any case, she does not have the initial austerity and later reserve that dignify the passion and fall of...

(This entire section contains 995 words.)

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Chaucer’s Criseyde. Her language and her every movement suggest that she is more of a slut than a courtly heroine. Even as she enters the Greek camp, her promiscuous behavior betrays her, and her quick submission to Diomedes confirms what is suspected all along. As if the lovers cannot behave foully enough by themselves, Shakespeare provides them with Pandarus, as go-between and commentator, to further sully the relationship.

In Chaucer, the Trojan War provides a fatalistic backdrop that enhances the progress of the tragic love. In Shakespeare, the circumambient Homeric heroes serve only to discredit themselves and to amplify the chaos. Mark Van Doren pointed out that, if Pandarus’s role is to degrade the lovers, “the role of Thersites is to cheapen the heroes.” They, however, do not need much help from their interlocutor. For example, when Ulysses gives his famous speech on order, one is more struck by the pointless bombast and strangulated rhetoric than by erudition. One is led to suspect that this world is out of touch with its ordering principles and that it is vainly trying to recapture them or to preserve their appearance with tortured language. Similarly, when Achilles delivers his set speech in act 3, it has all of the bitterness but none of the grace of Lear’s corresponding speech. This Achilles is a petulant sybarite, and the world is in trouble if he is its hero. The bombast, the irritability, and the inconsequentiality are all-pervasive. Agamemnon and Nestor are nothing more than windbags. When the Greeks meet to discuss plans, or the Trojans meet to discuss returning Helen, the conferences both quickly degenerate into pompous vacuity.

The moral and political disintegration is reflected in the shrill and strident language of the play. The diction, which is jawbreakingly full of inkhornisms, and the rhetorical excesses reinforce the notion that the characters are spinning out of control, no longer able to gain control of their language, no longer able even to give verbal order to their frustrations. The result is a play that can easily seem tedious. Consequently, Troilus and Cressida is rarely performed. It has, however, fascinated the critics. What all of this suggests is that the play is more interesting than appealing, more intriguing than satisfying, as it chronicles the demise of a world in which no one is left with the moral stature to make a last stand.

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