Troilus and Cressida
The story of the Trojan War and of the unfortunate lovers Troilus and Cressida is one that had been told and retold numerous times before Shakespeare adapted it into a play. Significantly, Shakespeare's own particular treatment of this classical myth is controversial to the extent that over the centuries, critics have argued about its standing as one of the playwright's “problem” plays. Central to this debate are the ambivalent actions of the characters, the play's early placement as a comedy in Shakespeare's canon, the play's possible relevance to Renaissance England, and what many scholars have described as an unsatisfactory conclusion to the play's final act. Kristina Faber (1990) deals with the issues of genre and conclusion simultaneously when she argues that Troilus and Cressida is in fact not a comedy but a tragedy that is problematic since its catastrophes—the betrayal of Troilus and the death of Hector—offer no catharsis at the end because neither character is sympathetic. David Bevington (1998) traces the play's problematical nature back to its creation in the closing years of the sixteenth century, when playwrights were quarreling over the guidelines for proper literary form and politicians were jockeying for influence over the aging Queen Elizabeth; the critic speculates whether the actions in the play might be a reflection of both of these occurrences.
Perhaps most compelling to critics have been the ambiguities of the characters themselves. Cressida, for example, was maligned by early scholars not only for betraying Troilus but also for being manipulative of and promiscuous with men in general. Later, this view was reversed so that Cressida became a victim of the war and of male dominance. M. M. Burns (1980) and Grace Tiffany (1993) take issue with each of these interpretations. Tiffany sees Cressida as a character with a will of her own who surrenders on her own to male authority when she fails to make her voice heard. Alternatively, Burns proposes that the actual character in the play is the war itself, which does irreparable violence to the relationships between men, such as Troilus and Ulysses, and women, such as Cressida. Stephen J. Lynch (1986) switches the perspective to Troilus, arguing that his innocence and idealism are actually selfishness and that his supposed betrayal by Cressida results from his lack of “self-knowledge.” Elaine Eldridge (1986), on the other hand, asserts that the dynamics of the play revolve around the Trojan “headstrong trio” of Hector, Troilus, and Cressida, each of whom is contending with one or the other over the questions of love and honor. Peter Hyland (1993) focuses on another character entirely—Thersites—who is set apart from the rest by his bitter remarks as well as by his illegitimate birth. The “voice” of Thersites, Hyland observes, is of special interest today “because it represents … the real and painful impotence of the great mass of the dispossessed whose voices we now never hear at all.”
Another source of interest to scholars is the powerful imagery of Troilus and Cressida. Juliet Dusinberre (1983) traces the references to beauty in the play, most of which reside in Helen and the fairness or foulness of women and of people's actions. Dusinberre concludes that authentic beauty exists not in the mythical Helen and her tenuous existence within the corrupt world of warring nations, but in the linguistic creation of “the play itself.” Stephen X. Mead (1992) comments on the prevalence of monetary imagery in the play. He contends that Shakespeare's use of “terms of coinage, currency, exchange rates, counterfeiting, and minting practices” emphasizes the theme of morals as a commodity in Troilus and Cressida, even while it underscores the Renaissance obsession with its unstable economy. David Hillman (1997) also sees Shakespeare's imagery as a link between Renaissance life and the world of the play. After acknowledging the mythical, abstract status of Helen and of the oft-told story of the Trojan War, Hillman suggests that the playwright drew upon the preoccupations of his own time concerning digestive disorders as a means of grounding the play in reality. In a discussion of Renaissance politics and power, Christopher Flannery (1981) illustrates the political significance of the play's language when he asserts that Shakespeare crafted Troilus and Cressida knowing full well that its language, as well as that of all his drama and poetry, could be used by his own generation and those that followed it as an instrument of political change.
The theme of sexuality resonates for those who have made a close study of Troilus and Cressida. Barbara Hodgdon (1990), for instance, is interested in the ways in which twentieth-century directors have dealt with the male characters in the play, who debase Cressida by treating her as an object worth only being stared at or dominated. Several directors, Hodgdon notes, have made skillful use of costume and staging to emphasize the sexual tension that pervades the play. James O'Rourke (1992) refers to Troilus and Cressida's “systematic critique of sexuality in a patriarchal culture” and observes that within the play, the words “whore” and “woman” become synonyms for one another. At the same time, O'Rourke is unwilling to blame either Troilus or Cressida for the disintegration of their romantic love. Finally, Michael Yogev (1998) draws upon the psychoanalytical texts of Sigmund Freud to demonstrate the falseness of the codes of chivalry and heroism in the play—codes which ultimately allow the fearful male characters to separate themselves from and dominate the female characters, whom they see as threats to their sexual identity.