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 political exploitation of history and legend. James also relates elements of the play to the Essex rebellion (1601), and finds that Essex's ambition and chivalry are reflected in Shakespeare's Achilles and Hector. Essex's treasonous actions, James further observes, are comparable to Achilles and Ulysses' exposure of him. Like Heather James, James E. Savage (1964) finds correlations between the play and Elizabethan politics, particularly those events concerning the Earl of Essex. Savage identifies Hector, rather than Achilles, as Essex's allegorical counterpart, and suggests that in this play Shakespeare was speculating on the dangers of factionalism and the inevitability of Essex's fate. Just as James and Savage both find that the play refers in some way to Essex, Mario Domenichelli (see Further Reading) argues that Troilus and Cressida deals directly with Essex's effort to secure the aristocracy's role in the government of England. Domenichelli further claims that the play may be understood as a comment on the hopelessness of the revival of chivalry in Elizabethan times, a revival extinguished by the failure of Essex's revolt and his ensuing execution.
Critics are also interested in the controversy regarding the proper generic designation of Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida. Within a few years of its initial publication, the play had been labeled variously as history, comedy, and tragedy. Modern critics such as J. C. Oates (1966) continue this debate. Oates asserts that several factors, including the use and rejection of the elements of ritual, the opposition to the values of tragedy, and the anachronistic placing of a tragic hero within an anti-tragic environment, all serve to undermine the play's designation as tragedy. Camille Slights (1974) finds that through the effects of the play's paralleling of scenes and the love and war plots, Shakespeare created what may be called a tragic satire. Other critics suggest that Shakespeare was attempting to design an entirely new dramatic form. Marvin Glasser (1986) demonstrates that in London's theatrical world during the late sixteenth century, novelty of form and structure were more important than the soundness of a play's plot. Glasser goes on to examine the resemblance of the formal effects of Troilus and Cressida to the visual effects found in paintings contemporary with the play. For example, Glasser cites the similarities between Shakespeare's use of various perspectives in a scene and the use of varying visual perspectives in paintings of the time. Such innovations, Glasser explains, were reactions to the changing notions of time and space, which led to a new understanding concerning the relationship between subject and object. Like Glasser, Jean-Pierre Maquerlot (1995) observes the parallels between literary and visual art during this time period. Maquerlot contends that Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida employs techniques similar to those used in contemporary Mannerist paintings. Just as Mannerist paintings portray the image of a stark world with no shadows, background, or perspectives, Shakespeare's depiction of the world of the play is similarly drawn according to such a desperate and relentless view. The characters as well, Maquerlot notes, are depicted in a way that accords with the Mannerist method of “ironic separation,” that is, in sometimes contradictory positions. Maquerlot explains that Shakespeare was attempting to portray the Trojan War as presented by Homer, as well as the love story of Troilus and Cressida as depicted by Chaucer, in a way that highlighted the modern disillusionment with the ideal of chivalry.
Shakespeare's ambiguities in tone and characterization have presented modern directors with unique challenges in staging Troilus and Cressida. The Royal Shakespeare Company's 1996 production directed by Ian Judge received mixed reviews on the effectiveness of the staging and on individual performances. Paul Taylor (1996) praises a few “sequences of real power” in the production, as well as Victoria Hamilton's persuasive performance as Cressida. Taylor also finds that the characters of Hector and Ulysses were strikingly portrayed, but contends that Richard McCabe's Thersites was overly ingratiating, and Joseph Fiennes's Troilus “distinctly irritating.” David Murray (1996) reviews the same production, and, like Taylor, faults Fiennes's whining performance as Troilus. Murray additionally disparages Hamilton's Cressida, but finds the production as a whole effectively and consistently staged. In Tom Markus's production of Troilus and Cressida for the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, the director set the play during the American Civil War. Critiquing the production, Alan Dumas (1997) does not view this change in setting to be particularly effective, although he does praise the staging of the play's action sequences. Sandra Brooks-Dillard (1997) discusses Markus's production as well, describing it as a strong staging filled with exceptional performances by the actors. Other productions have received mixed reviews, including Sir Peter Hall's staging for the American Place Theatre in New York, a production which reviewer Michael Sommers (2001) found to be disappointingly ambivalent. Kenneth Albers's direction of the play for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival was characterized, observes critic Steven Winn (2001), by “missed opportunities.”