Troilus and Cressida Troilus And Cressida (Vol. 27)
by William Shakespeare

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(Shakespearean Criticism)


Troilus and Cressida has traditionally been considered one of Shakespeare's most problematic works. Its ambiguous nature has been apparent ever since its earliest publication, when it was designated as a history on the Quarto title-page, a comedy in the Quarto epistle, and a tragedy in the Folio. In recent decades the question of genre has continued to exercise commentators, with many scholars asserting that the play is best viewed as a satire. Troilus and Cressida has, moreover, been recognized as perhaps Shakespeare's most intellectually rigorous drama—a work constantly engaged in the task of reassessing traditional concepts and values. Consequently, modern criticism has tended to focus on the play's unique use of language, especially as a means of portraying character.

Contemporary scholars maintain that Shakespeare primarily uses two forms of language in Troilus and Cressida: the language of love and the language of war. In particular, critics have commented on the discrepancy between the emotions that the title characters feel for each other and their failure to communicate them. Lawrence D. Green (1984), for example, has noted that "Troilus tries consciously to maintain the stance of one smitten with noble love, but the stance is not in accord with his actions or the cruder attitude that emerges in his less conscious moments." Similarly, R. A. Foakes (1971) has pointed out that Cressida's "flippancy and wit in conversing with Pandarus are a means of defence against his pressure on her to yield to Troilus; and yet at the same time her readiness to engage in bawdy talk shows her familiarity in word and thought, if not in deed, with what he would bring her to do." Commentators have shown that the language of war, by contrast, possesses a much more formal tone, especially as demonstrated in both the Greek and Trojan council scenes. In examining the Greek discussions of strategy, Reuben A. Brower (1971) observed a pronounced display of pompous language, and characterized Agamemnon's opening speech as "the speech of a super-epic hero, whose 'promis'd largeness' of vocabulary and awkward Latinity are a smoke screen for an absence of thought." Brower additionally noted that other members of the Greek council are equally bombastic: "Ulysses speaks within the heroic tone, using proper forms of address and high-sounding epithets," and Nestor, "in pomp of rhythm and in epic dilations." Similarly, the Trojans, while devoting more attention to love and honor in their deliberations, are also preoccupied with achieving rhetorical effects. Robert Ornstein (1960) has called the debate between Troilus and Hector "purely theoretical, a courtly charade that ends with Hector's announcement that he has sent his personal challenge to the Greeks." Patricia Thomson (1969) has observed that Troilus speaks with command and determination when addressing his brothers, quite unlike his naive diction when talking to Cressida. The critic further notes that "though Troilus in the council scene is recognizably the same hyperbolist, … his language as lover undergoes a change when he is at last brought together with Cressida."

One of the most fertile areas of critical debate in recent decades has been the presentation of character in Troilus and Cressida. In speaking of Cressida, Arlene N. Oker-lund (1980) has observed that "until well into the twentieth century, something of a consensus of interpretation existed … Cressida was a prostitute deserving only scorn for the evils she perpetrated… , Troilus was a naive, but honorable young knight abused by that disreputable, fickle woman." Recently, however, commentators have begun to reassess these opinions. Critics now tend to defend Cressida as a sexual pawn in the mercenary world of the play, who can only find self-worth through the praises of men. Additionally, while Cressida's declaration, "Yet hold I off … Men prize the thing ungain'd more than it is" [I.ii.289], has traditionally been...

(The entire section is 70,052 words.)