(Shakespearean Criticism)

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.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Introduction to Troilus and Cressida, by William Shakespeare, edited by David Bevington, Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1998, pp. 1-29.

[In the following excerpt, Bevington presents the debates surrounding the historical context of Troilus and Cressida and discusses whether or not Shakespeare was using the play to mock some of his fellow playwrights; Bevington also takes a close look at the classical subject matter of the play itself and how it has been interpreted in twentieth-century productions.]


An enigmatic publicity blurb inserted in a revised Quarto edition of Troilus and Cressida in 1609, addressed to ‘an ever reader’ from ‘a never writer’, offers to the ‘eternal reader’ a ‘new play, never staled with the stage, never clapper-clawed with the palms of the vulgar, and yet passing full of the palm comical’. In praising the dramatist as a writer of such ‘dexterity and power of wit’ that even those who are ‘most displeased with plays’ are sure to be ‘pleased with his comedies’, this publisher's preface goes out of its way to flatter a discriminating readership that prefers literature to stage performance. The appeal is neoclassical, learned, even academic in its insistence that the play deserves to be ranked ‘as well as the best comedy in Terence or Plautus’. The potential buyer is urged to acquire a copy before the dramatist's comedies are ‘out of sale’. The publisher represents himself as having made such a collectors' item available to his select reading public against considerable odds, ‘since by the grand possessors' wills I believe you should have prayed for them rather than been prayed’. He does not say who these ‘grand possessors’ were who wished to keep back Troilus and Cressida from the cognoscenti, but his animus appears to be directed at the acting company. The dramatist is not named, although his name does appear on both versions or ‘states’ of the 1609 Quarto title-page: ‘Written by William Shakespeare’.

Seldom has the publication of a book been surrounded with so many mysteries. We learn from this preface that Shakespeare was a name with which to sell books by 1609, and that some readers at least associated him with high culture. We do not learn, however, why publication was delayed some years after it was registered on 7 February 1603, or why a Quarto edition was finally published in 1609 in two states with two different title-pages and front matter, one advertising the play as having been acted by the King's Majesty's servants (Shakespeare's acting company) at their public theatre, the Globe, the other insisting that the play was never acted. Folio publication presents a puzzle as well. Why was the compositorial work on Troilus and Cressida evidently held up in the printing of the First Folio in 1622-3, leaving the play unlisted in the ‘Catalogue’ or table of contents, unpaginated for the most part and oddly placed between the histories and the tragedies?

Some details of textual history and bibliographical anomalies can be examined later on, but the puzzles themselves are essential to our understanding of the play's ambivalent status and genre. As many readers have observed,1 the prefatory note ‘to an ever reader’ presents the play as a comedy, ‘passing full of the palm comical’, worthy of comparison with the best of Terence and Plautus. The two Quarto title-pages (see Figs 13 and 14, pp. 124-5) offer the play as ‘The Historie of Troylus and Cresseida’ and ‘The Famous Historie of Troylus and Cresseid’. The first page in the Folio text calls it ‘The Tragedie of Troylus and Cressida’, and places it first among that volume's tragedies—or else last among the histories; the ‘Catalogue’ or table of contents for the Folio does not make clear to which category it belongs. The evidently last-minute decision to insert the play in an anomalous location between the histories and the tragedies appears to underscore the play's generic indeterminacy. Even the original publishers of Quarto and Folio seem not to have known what to call it.

Troilus and Cressida has struck many critics as in a genre, or mélange of genres, all to itself. To S.T. Coleridge, ‘there is no one of Shakspere's plays harder to characterize’; one scarcely knows ‘what to say of it’. Hazlitt finds Troilus ‘the most loose and desultory of our author's plays’; Swinburne declares it to be a hybrid that ‘at once defies and derides all definitive comment’.2 Yeats and Jan Kott refer to it as a tragicomedy. Northrop Frye argues that the play is hard to fit into the usual Shakespearean categories—comedy, history, tragedy and romance—‘because it has so many elements of all four’. L.C. Knights argues a kinship to the morality play.3

Those who see the play as a tragedy of ‘defeated potential’ and ‘tragic waste’ readily concede that it lacks catharsis and does not invite deep sympathy for its characters.4 Defenders of the play as a ‘history’ of the Trojan war emphasize its episodic structure and mixture of comedy with high seriousness, and point out that a number of history plays like King John and Richard II contain elements of tragedy,5 but must also confront the fact that the so-called tragedies (such as Julius Caesar and Coriolanus) are often historical. ‘Satirical comedy’ or ‘problem play’ are useful terms in analysing the play's insistent mocking and raillery,6 but are too easy or too nebulous for some observers; general agreement as to what constitutes a ‘problem play’ is hard to find.7 If any consensus is to be found, it is that Troilus and Cressida is an experimental play, characterized throughout by an intermingling of mode, tone, genre and style. Such an open-ended play needs to be read inclusively, rather than being racked on some Procrustean bed of generic classification.8

The experimentalism of Troilus can be seen in context when we compare it with other works written during the pivotal years of Shakespeare's development, from about 1599 to 1603. Hamlet (c. 1599-1601), like Troilus, expresses disillusionment about human frailty and sexual inconstancy; so do the Sonnets, hard to date with any precision but at times close to Troilus in their exploration of the disabling consequences of female desertion. Henry V, in 1599, is an astonishing prelude to Troilus, as though seeming to measure the vast distance between the real if complex heroism of a charismatic English monarch and the fallen idols of the ancient classical world. Julius Caesar, also produced in 1599, gives a more sardonic anticipation of disillusionment with its ironic perception that republican efforts to forestall a dictatorship, however idealistically intended, lead ultimately to a collapse of the very senatorial freedoms that Brutus has conspired and fought for. Measure for Measure (1603-4) and All's Well That Ends Well (some time around 1601-5) are well matched with Troilus as ‘problem’ plays in their depiction of male inabilities to come to terms with sexual desire and, especially in Measure for Measure, a sense of social moral decline. In its experimentation and bleakness, Troilus anticipates Timon of Athens.9 Whether performed (if it was performed) in public or possibly at one of the Inns of Court, or both, Troilus would presumably have found a receptive audience for its experimental dramaturgy and disillusioning ambiance; we should not assume that public audiences would not have been fascinated by its mordant dramatization of hotly contemporary issues. At the same time, the play is manifestly difficult, controversial, even avant-garde.


Another aspect of Troilus's generic instability and obscure early stage history can be seen when we look at the play in its immediate historical environment: the last years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth. Troilus takes on the dimensions of a fin-de-siècle work, exploring the disillusionment of troubled times. Two issues may be of particular relevance. The first is the play's putative role in the so-called ‘War of the Theatres’, to the extent that such a ‘war’ in fact existed among Ben Jonson, John Marston, Thomas Dekker and others about the competitive merits of ‘public’ and ‘private’ acting companies, popular morality versus the avant-garde and the like—the ‘Rival Traditions’ characterized by Alfred Harbage.10 The second concerns the career of Robert Devereux, second Earl of Essex, and his catastrophic attempt at a coup d'état in 1601. Is Troilus's depiction of insolent and divided leadership in time of war a reflection of contemporary disillusionment with some of England's governing elite? These questions depend upon, and can perhaps help determine, the dates of the play's composition and (if it was in fact performed) its performance(s).

The ‘War of the Theatres’, a major fascination in the ‘old’ historicism of the late nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries, has been cut down to size more recently. At its height, the supposed ‘stage quarrel’ was imagined to have dominated the London scene in the years 1597-1603 or thereabouts and to have brought into the fray virtually every practising playwright.11 The matter has been blown out of proportion. Still, the remark of an actor playing Will Kempe (in Part 2 of the anonymous The Return from Parnassus, acted at Cambridge University during the Christmas season of 1601-2), that ‘our fellow Shakespeare puts them all down, ay, and Ben Jonson, too’, has potential implications for Troilus. Did Shakespeare in fact ‘put down’ Jonson and others? ‘O, that Ben Jonson is a pestilent fellow!’ continues Kempe in his imagined conversation with Richard Burbage. ‘And he brought up Horace giving the poets a pill, but our fellow Shakespeare hath given him a purge that made him beray his credit’ (1809-13). The offensive ‘Horace’ who attacks other poets and playwrights is patently Jonson himself, whom Dekker and perhaps Marston had pilloried in Satiromastix (1601) by way of satirical riposte to Jonson's Cynthia's Revels (1600). In Act 5 of Jonson's The Poetaster (1601, written quickly by Jonson to anticipate Satiromastix), the poets Crispinus and Demetrius (thinly disguised lampoonings of Marston and Dekker) are arraigned for slandering Horace, whereupon Crispinus is administered emetic ‘pills’ by Horace and proceeds to vomit up scraps of Marston's recognizably eccentric dramatic language.12 The ‘pill’ mentioned by Kempe is thus clearly identified, with its resulting purgative effect; but did Shakespeare then carry the attack further with his own ‘purge’?

Jonson did take a swipe or two at Shakespeare in Every Man Out of His Humour, 1599. He parodied ‘O judgement! Thou art fled to brutish beasts, / And men have lost their reason’ (JC 3.2.106-7; compare ‘Reason long since is fled to animals, you know’, Every Man Out 3.4.33), and mockingly quoted ‘Et tu, Brutè’ in an absurd context (JC 3.1.78; Every Man Out 5.6.79), evidently in wry dismay at Shakespeare's amateurism as a neoclassicist. His chorus figures sardonically question how it comes about ‘that in some one play we see so many seas, countries, and kingdoms passed over with such admirable dexterity?’ (Induction, 281-6). The motto of the clown Sogliardo in Every Man Out, ‘Not without mustard’ (3.4.86), may glance at the motto Non sans droict on the coat of arms that Shakespeare had obtained for his father and himself in 1599.13 Might this have elicited some response from Shakespeare? Jonson did at any rate append an ‘apologetical dialogue’ to The Poetaster in 1601, regretfully commenting that ‘Some better natures’ among the players had ‘run in that vile line’ of attack on him (ll. 141-52). Jonson, who elsewhere consistently views Shakespeare as of a gentle nature, seems to suggest that the latter was never the main target of his anger, and that Shakespeare's brief succumbing to the vituperative tactics of Marston and Dekker was much to be regretted.14

Could Jonson have taken the view, in 1601, that the portrait of Ajax in Troilus was modelled on him? The pun on Ajax and ‘a jakes’ or privy (see, for example, 3.3.247 and note), made notorious at this time by John Harington's scatological The Metamorphosis of Ajax (1596), might seem to be implicitly critical of ‘the very basis of the cathartic theory of comedy that Jonson was currently proposing’.15 Alexander's description of Ajax to Cressida as a man into whom Nature has discordantly ‘crowded humours’ of lion, bear, elephant, folly, discretion, and melancholy (1.2.19-30) might suggest a parody of the Jonsonian character sketch. The likening of Ajax to a bear could point to Jonson's shambling bulk, while ‘slow as the elephant’ might suggest Jonson's well-known laboriousness of style and slow pace of production. (Jonson berated Shakespeare for never blotting a line in his writing.) The virulent revilings of Ajax and Thersites against each other might conjure up the notorious quarrelling of Jonson and Marston. Thersites' ‘gleeful morbidity’ and his colourful ravings at the depraved sexuality he finds so fascinating have reminded several critics of Marston.16

Particular roman-à-clef identifications seem far-fetched and too reliant on analogies that can instead be explained by the play's internal dynamics.17 Still, Jonson's apparent sensitivity and Kempe's allegation that Shakespeare had administered Jonson and others some kind of ‘purge’ could point to the way in which Troilus deliberately employs a consciously different kind of social critique from that of Jonsonian humours comedy. Beginning with a clear reference to the ‘armed Prologue’ of Jonson's The Poetaster (l. 2), the Prologue of Troilus insists that he comes as ‘A Prologue armed, but not in confidence / Of author's pen or actor's voice’ (23-4). He thus introduces a play that will not choose the Jonsonian path of authorial self-assertion and certitude. Shakespeare's play chooses instead to explore disillusionment and multiple perspectives in an experimental way that implicitly criticizes Jonson's more dogmatic approach. As James Bednarz argues, Shakespeare in effect negates ‘the first principles on which Jonson had grounded his perspective—the self-confident conviction that he was capable of obtaining a knowledge of truth’.18 Shakespeare may be addressing other satirists as well, like Marston, George Chapman and Joseph Hall, whose work had enjoyed so much notoriety in the late 1590s in non-dramatic publishing as well as on stage; venomed spleens like theirs had been subjected by Shakespeare to a quizzical crossfire of debate about the merits and social dangers of formal satire by Jaques and Duke Senior in As You Like It (2.7.42-87).19 If Troilus seems to lack the ‘purge’ that Kempe crows about in Part 2 of The Return from Parnassus, the forbearance is thoroughly in line with all that we know about Shakespeare, and might well have encouraged Shakespeare's company to take the view that Shakespeare had had the last word in this now ended Poets' War.

The circumstances of the debate tend, at any rate, to confirm a date for Troilus. The Poetaster and Satiromastix were performed in 1601; Satiromastix was registered for publication on 11 November 1601. The second part of The Return from Parnassus, announcing Shakespeare's ‘purge’ of Jonson, was acted at Cambridge in the Christmas season of 1601-2. ‘The booke of Troilus and Cresseda as yt is acted by my lo: Chamberlens Men’ was entered in the Stationers' Register on 7 February 1603. The Prologue's reference in Troilus to a ‘Prologue armed’ (Folio text only) seemingly alludes to The Poetaster. This evidence points to a date of composition of some version of the play, including the Folio Prologue, in late 1601.20

Troilus and Cressida's seeming comment on the Earl of Essex and his ill-fated rebellion of 1601 may also illuminate the play's experimental nature and the topical pertinence of its date of performance. Essex was often compared with Achilles in the last years of Elizabeth's reign. Both were controversial and notorious figures, at once mistrusted and admired. Achilles was suspect in Troy-sympathizing Elizabethan England simply because he was Greek; he was, moreover, truculent in refusing to fight alongside his fellow generals and treacherous in his slaying of Hector. On the other hand, he is, in the Iliad, an almost godlike figure whose mighty wrath is Homer's announced theme. George Chapman, whose translation of Seven Books of the Iliads in 1598 Shakespeare must have known, found in Achilles an admirable hero worthy of comparison with Essex, as though Homer, by ‘sacred prophecy’, did but ‘prefigure’ in Achilles the Earl of Essex as the ‘now living instance of the Achillean virtues’. Nor was Chapman the first to laud Essex thus; Hugh Platt had done so in 1594, and Vincentio Saviolo had called him ‘the English Achilles’ in 1595.21

Chapman's comparison of Essex and Achilles, both known for arrogant dissension, was bound to be controversial. Even though Essex's star might still appear to be rising in 1598, his career as a politician had been turbulent. He had turned the Accession Day festivities of 1595, nominally intended to laud Queen Elizabeth on the anniversary of her coming to the English throne, into unabashed propaganda for himself in his candidacy to become leading adviser to the crown. Avidly anti-Spanish and interventionist in military affairs, he had led the successful attack on Cádiz in 1596 and the failed attack on the Azores in 1597, only to be passed over for supreme command in the aftermath of those raids. His surly withdrawal from court in 1597 for an extended period drew notices of disapproval. ‘I have lately heard the different censures of many about thy absence in this high Court of Parliament’, wrote a concerned follower to Essex; ‘some, earnestly expecting the worthy advancement of thy most noble house and posterity, wish their service might ransom thy contentment; others, who make daily use of thy absence, confess thy worthiness, and in words only wish with the rest’. Essex's open impatience and ‘discontentment’ ended temporarily when the Queen relented in late 1597 by appointing him Earl Marshal.22 He quarrelled with Elizabeth over his personal right to ransom the prisoners he had taken, like Hotspur in 1 Henry IV. Much as Achilles does with Queen Hecuba in Troilus, Essex secretly corresponded with Spain and Scotland over the question of the English succession.

Elizabeth's uncertainties and vacillations in dealing with Essex did not end with his appointment as Lord Marshal. Claiming to be an heir of Edward III, Essex offered himself as the saviour of English interests in Ireland against the rebel Tyrone in 1598, to the enthusiastic cheering of many hawkish Englishmen, including Edmund Spenser. Shakespeare seems to have joined in the praise. The chorus to Act 5 of Henry V, acted probably in 1599, applauds ‘the General of our gracious Empress’ who may in good time, ‘from Ireland coming’, bring ‘rebellion broached on his sword’. The allusion is, for Shakespeare, unusually explicit in its topicality, and seemingly dates from the interval of time between March of 1599, when Essex hopefully set forth to Ireland, and late September of that same year, when he returned in utter failure to stand trial before a specially constituted court for abandoning his station and for contracting a dishonourable treaty with Tyrone.23

By the time Shakespeare had completed Troilus and Cressida, probably in late 1601, Essex had been arrested and executed for treason. Having persuaded Lord Mountjoy (who was to become Essex's more victorious successor as Lord Deputy of Ireland later in 1601), the Earl of Southampton and others to join him in a conspiracy to rid the Queen of her...

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M. M. Burns (essay date 1980)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Troilus and Cressida: The Worst of Both Worlds,” in Shakespeare Studies, Vol. 13, 1980, pp. 105-30.

[In the following essay, Burns suggests that the play's negative portrayal of Cressida is in fact meant to reflect critically on those characters who condemn her and, more generally, to demonstrate the corrosive effects of war upon humanity.]

One of the better-known scenes in Troilus and Cressida is IV,v, in which Cressida enters the Greek camp and is kissed in “particular” and “in general” (IV.v.20-21)1 by the leaders of the Greek army. Given Aristotle's dictum that all knowledge comes through either generals or particulars,...

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Arlene N. Okerlund (essay date 1980)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “In Defense of Cressida: Character As Metaphor,” in Women's Studies, Vol. 7, No. 3, 1980, pp. 1-17.

[In the following essay, Okerlund analyzes the reassessments of Troilus, Cressida, Ulysses, and Pandarus that have occurred continuously since Troilus and Cressida was first produced, and concludes that our final judgment of these characters should be that none is evil or good in his or her own right, but that all are embodiments of human nature.]

Fashions in literary criticism change. Not only do the theoretical stances shift from the new criticism to contextualism to Freudianism to historicism to formalism to Marxism to the newly-heralded...

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Barry Nass (essay date 1984)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘Yet in the Trial Much Opinion Dwells’: The Combat Between Hector and Ajax in Troilus and Cressida,” in English Studies, Vol. 65, No. 1, February, 1984, pp. 1-10.

[In the following essay, Nass describes Troilus and Cressida as a play which focuses on the search for authentic, individual identity as well as for loyalty and love within the chaos of war.]

Critics of Troilus and Cressida often regard the combat between Hector and Ajax (IV.v.) as a dramatic failure or as yet one more jarring episode in Shakespeare's satiric and unsettling portrayal of the Trojan War. Reuben A. Brower speaks for the majority when he observes, with...

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Elaine Eldridge (essay date 1986)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Moral Order in Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida: The Case of the Trojans,” in Anglia, Vol. 104, Nos. 1-2, 1986, pp. 33-44.

[In the following essay, Eldridge examines the characters of Hector, Cressida, and Troilus, asserting that their common heritage as Trojans has more to do with their behavior than do the play's themes of love and war.]

An established critical doctrine claims there is no discernible moral order within Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida1. To say that is to say that the characters do wrong without punishment or suffer without cause. I would like to suggest a way of looking at the play that will show it less...

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Stephen J. Lynch (essay date 1986)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Idealism of Shakespeare's Troilus,” in South Atlantic Review, Vol. 51, No. 1, January, 1986, pp. 19-29.

[In the following essay, Lynch argues that the so-called idealism of Troilus is not as pure as some commentators have suggested, but is instead as self-absorbed and corrupt as the world Troilus himself inhabits.]

Troilus inhabits a world of near total corruption where honor serves ambition and love seems little more than lust. Yet within the confines of this bleak and hostile world, Troilus appears extraordinarily idealistic. He describes his will as “infinite,” his desire as “boundless,” and his truth as a “winnowed purity in love”...

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Peter Hyland (essay date 1993)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Legitimacy in Interpretation: The Bastard Voice in Troilus and Cressida,” in Mosaic, Vol. 26, No. 1, Winter, 1993, pp. 1-13.

[In the following essay, Hyland contends that the bastard, Thersites—though not always fair in his assessment of what is occurring around him—is nevertheless an important antidote to authoritarianism in the play by virtue of his apparent insignificance.]

One of the most significant aspects of radical academic activity over the past few years has been the liberation of previously suppressed voices into a new pluralism. In the field of literary interpretation these voices have brought issues of gender, race and class into...

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Grace Tiffany (essay date 1993)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Not Saying No: Female Self-Erasure in Troilus and Cressida,” in Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. 35, No. 1, Spring, 1993, pp. 44-56.

[In the following essay, Tiffany asserts that Cressida has been misread by most critics as either reprehensible or victimized, when in fact she is the product of a patriarchal culture still present today that misunderstands women who do not communicate forcefully.]

One half of me is yours, the other half yours,
Mine own, I would say; but if mine, then yours,
And so all yours.

—Portia, The Merchant of Venice III.ii.16-181

Like Shakespeare's Trojans and...

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Criticism: Genre

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida: Of War and Lechery,” in Colby Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 2, June, 1990, pp. 133-48.

[In the following essay, Faber remarks that while Troilus and Cressida has been regarded by many critics as a “problem comedy,” it is better described as a problem tragedy for which Shakespeare could not or chose not to provide a satisfactory conclusion.]

Commentators have generally agreed that Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida is one of his “problem plays.” Others include All's Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure, and sometimes Julius Caesar; less frequently, Hamlet and Timon of...

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Juliet Dusinberre (essay date 1983)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Troilus and Cressida and the Definition of Beauty,” in Shakespeare Survey, Vol. 36, 1983, pp. 85-95.

[In the following essay, Dusinberre maintains that Shakespeare's concept of beauty resides not in the bodies of such women as Helen or Cressida, but instead in the power of language to represent beauty truthfully—something which is impossible to accomplish in the corrupt world of Troilus and Cressida.]

The problem of how to define beauty is central to Troilus and Cressida. Shakespeare depicts Helen as incapable of acquiring symbolic stature and this creates in the play questions about the nature of beauty.1


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Stephen X. Mead (essay date 1992)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘Thou Art Chang'd’: Public Value and Personal Identity in Troilus and Cressida,” in Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Vol. 22, No. 2, Spring, 1992, pp. 237-59.

[In the following essay, Mead suggests that the instability of the Renaissance economy is reflected in the metaphors of coinage used in Troilus and Cressida to describe the shifting moral stances and unreliable characters within the play.]

There are two sorts of wealth-getting … that which consists of exchange is justly censured; for it is unnatural, and a mode by which men gain from one another.


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David Hillman (essay date 1997)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Gastric Epic: Troilus and Cressida,” in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 48, No. 3, Fall, 1997, pp. 295-313.

[In the following essay, Hillman contends that Shakespeare wrote and produced Troilus and Cressida with a view to concentrating on the grossly physical aspects of the human body in order to bring life to a tale that had already been frequently told and whose language had thus been rendered abstract through overtelling.]

Ignorance in physiologicis—that damned ‘idealism.’

Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo1


Why did Shakespeare write Troilus...

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Criticism: Politics

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Troilus and Cressida: Poetry or Philosophy?” in Shakespeare as Political Thinker, edited by John Alvis and Thomas G. West, Carolina Academic Press, 1981, pp. 145-56.

[In the following essay, Flannery remarks that in Troilus and Cressida Shakespeare demonstrated his understanding of the politically subversive nature of poetry when he portrayed Achilles' insubordinate use of language.]

There was an article in the Chinese Communist Party newspaper, the People's Daily, not long ago, which is helpful in understanding the relationship between poetry and politics with particular reference to Shakespeare.1 In the article, which, of...

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Barbara Hodgdon (essay date 1990)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “He Do Cressida in Different Voices,” in English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 20, No. 2, Spring, 1990, pp. 254-86.

[In the following essay, Hodgdon refers to several different stage adaptations of Troilus and Cressida to demonstrate how the play was constructed to keep Cressida in particular, and, through her representation, Renaissance women in general, under male control.]

When Trojan Hector visits the Greek camp, Troilus and Cressida represents his meeting with Achilles as an exchange of male gazes, powerful speaking looks through which each constructs, or attempts to deconstruct, the identity of the other:

Achilles. Now,...

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James O'Rourke (essay date 1992)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘Rule in Unity’ and Otherwise: Love and Sex in Troilus and Cressida,” in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 43, No. 2, Summer, 1992, pp. 139-58.

[In the following essay, O'Rourke proposes that with Troilus and Cressida Shakespeare gave us universal characters that we can recognize as cynical sexual clichés even as we sympathize with them as romantic lovers.]

Troilus and Cressida is not only a notoriously slippery play (comedy, tragedy, or history?) but one founded on a familiar contradiction. The play's relentless vulgarity constructs a scathing critique of the dominant forms of sexuality in Western culture, but at the same time the partners in...

(The entire section is 11039 words.)

Michael Yogev (essay date 1998)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘War and Lechery Confound All’: Identity and Agency in Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida,” in Strands Afar Remote: Israeli Perspectives on Shakespeare, edited by Avraham Oz, Associated University Presses, 1998, pp. 87-112.

[In the following essay, Yogev observes that the courtly and chivalric codes found in earlier versions of the story of Troilus and Cressida are intentionally subverted in Shakespeare's play into opportunities for male sexual aggression and exploitation.]

Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida has occasioned a number of critical discussions of the psychodynamics of identity formation as well as poststructuralist accounts of...

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Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)


Adamson, Jane. “Drama in the Mind: Entertaining Ideas in Troilus and Cressida.Critical Review 27 (1985): 3-17.

Examines the language of Troilus and Cressida in light of the play's confusing mixture of dramatic and tragic action.

Barfoot, C C. “Troilus and Cressida: ‘Praise Us as We Are Tasted.’” Shakespeare Quarterly 39, No. 1 (Spring 1988): 45-57.

Explores the shifting definition of human values in the play.

Clarke, Larry R. “‘Mars His Heart Inflam'd with Venus’: Ideology and Eros in Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida.Modern...

(The entire section is 671 words.)