Troilus and Cressida
Troilus and Cressida is regarded by many critics as one of Shakespeare's "problem plays," principally because the major characters, such as the two lovers, are ambiguous, while characters like Pandarus and Thersites are positively unpleasant. Further, the ending to the play is irresolute, and the genre—whether tragedy or comedy—is difficult to establish. Rosalie L. Colie (1974) asserts that in Troilus and Cressida, "Shakespeare has attacked literature itself at its very source, turning upside down the Homeric values" by turning the myth into a satire.
Cressida's behavior and whether or not she is a sympathetic character have long been subject to debate. Arnold Stein (1969) suggests that her infidelity to Troilus results from her shallowness coupled with a lack of appreciation for past ties. On the other hand, Grant L. Voth and Oliver H. Evans (1975) describe Cressida as a realist who behaves in the only way she can when confronted by a corrupt society where, as Gayle Greene (1980) observes, both women and men are treated as pawns in a mercenary and relativistic wartime environment.
Conversely, while Troilus has in the past been regarded sympathetically as the betrayed, idealistic lover, René Girard (1985) dismisses him as "a remarkable example of bad faith" who feels betrayed by Cressida only after "he has pushed [her] into the arms of Diomed." Similarly, Stephen L. Lynch (1986) condemns Troilus for his egotism and "lack of self-knowledge."
Closely connected with the behavior of the two lovers is the theme of desire, which becomes problematic in its own right under the influence of the war being waged between Troy and Greece. As Carol Cook (1986) observes, the war intensifies desire through the objectification of women. Both sides, for instance, desire Helen of Troy—who has become their excuse for battle. Meanwhile, Cressida is desirable as an exchangeable commodity from one camp (that of the Trojan Troilus) to the other (the Greek Diomed and her deserting father, Calchas).
Inevitably within the setting of this problematical play, male and female characterization and desire become inextricable from and corrupted by the violence of war. Emil Roy (1973) and Lorraine Helms (1989) depict a feminine Troy under threat of "penetration" from a masculine Greece. Like Helms, Marianne Novy (1984) observes that, as a result of the war, love is replaced by lust, and men on both sides of the conflict seek to avoid "womanish" behavior and to prove their prowess violently whether it be on the battlefield or in their treatment and attitude toward women. Interestingly several critics, such as Eric S. Mallin (1990), have speculated that the clearly misogynistic tone of the play reflects the English people's anxieties about their future in light of their aging and childless queen, Elizabeth I. In connection with this, Mallin and other critics also focus on the homoerotic aspects of the play, where men like Achilles value the love of fellow warriors over that of women.
Arnold Stein (essay date 1969)
SOURCE: "Troilus and Cressida: The Disjunctive Imagination," in ELH, Vol. 36, No. 1, March, 1969, pp. 145-67.
[In the essay below, Stein examines Shakespeare's use of dramatic imagination in Troilus and Cressida, and places the play within the genre of tragedy, calling it 'our most helpful definition of the play. "]
The dramatic experience we get from Troilus and Cressida is hard to place in relation to our memory of the experience we get from other plays. I am thinking in particular of the unsparing consistency of this play, of its texture, of its dark side without depth or vehemence, of the general destruction that does not find significant victims. The play has about it the quality of a nightmare we have somehow got used to, because it was translated long ago into the familiar and the everyday.
We must make, as with any play, an effort to learn the particular language, and no matter how much is new, we may ordinarily count on the effective...
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