Troilus and Cressida by William Shakespeare

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Introduction

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Troilus and Cressida

Troilus and Cressida, a love story set against the backdrop of the Trojan War, has been classified as one of Shakespeare's “problem” plays. The difficulty in properly categorizing the play's genre has plagued critics of Troilus and Cressida throughout its publication history—on the Quarto title page it is dubbed a history, in the Quarto epistle it is labeled comedy, and in its Folio edition it is classified as tragedy. Modern critics continue to debate the proper generic designation of the play, and often look to its style and structure for clues in resolving this issue. Ambiguity is a problem for the play in other ways as well, including characterization and Shakespeare's treatment of gender relations, two topics that form the basis of much critical discussion. Shakespeare's treatment of historical and legendary elements of the Trojan War is another area of critical study, as well as Elizabethan attitudes toward this history and the parallels between the play and Elizabethan politics. Considered to be Shakespeare's most pessimistic play, Troilus and Cressida has not been always been popular on the stage; however, twentieth-century productions have proven successful.

Shakespeare's Cressida has often been dismissed as a shallow, cold, calculating prostitute; however, some recent evaluations challenge this perception of her character. Grant L. Voth and Oliver H. Evans (1975) are among those critics who find Cressida to be more complex than is often acknowledged. Voth and Evans examine Cressida's progress throughout the play, observing her journey from a position of awareness to deception and once again to awareness. The critics maintain that the decisions Cressida makes are more challenging and better motivated than is usually assumed. Stephen J. Lynch (see Further Reading) argues that while Cressida's sexuality is often the focus of critical studies, it is her perceptive and accurate wit that is most important in the play. Lynch asserts that Cressida correctly understands her own nature and that of the world surrounding her. The relationship of Cressida and Troilus is another area of critical examination, particularly in terms of the way this relationship relates to the issues concerning gender. David McCandless (1997) contends that the play leaves the issue of sexual difference unresolved and that Shakespeare portrayed the Trojan War as an arena of emasculation. McCandless sees Troilus as an image of male subjectivity and demonstrates how Troilus seeks to purify sex by configuring it in terms of the consumption of maternal sustenance. According to McCandless, Troilus's view of sex is as an exclusively oral, de-phallicized experience, one in which Cressida is transformed into a symbol of the maternal body. At the same time, McCandless argues, Troilus finds the sex act to be autoerotic and incapable of satisfying desire; the female body thus becomes a mere receptacle. Taking another approach to the gender issues at work in the play, Daniel Juan Gil (2001) demonstrates that the Greek and Trojan warriors in Troilus and Cressida have grown weary of the establishment of homosocial bonds through the bodies of women. Supporting his contentions with a study of Renaissance thinking on the nature of personal identity and the definition of the self, Gil argues that the warriors want to distinguish personal sexual identity from social relationships and experience.

Shakespeare's treatment of historical and legendary elements of the Trojan War is another area of critical study. Heather James (1997) explores the Elizabethan attitudes reflected in Shakespeare's treatment of history and legend in Troilus and Cressida, explaining that at the time the play was written the legend of the Trojan War and its warriors and lovers were viewed with mixed emotions by Elizabethans. James asserts that Shakespeare's refusal to retain any authority or integrity in terms of the Troy legend or Troilus reflects Elizabethan cynicism regarding the...

(The entire section is 99,949 words.)