Troilus and Cressida
Troilus and Cressida (c. 1602), considered by many to be Shakespeare's most pessimistic work, has been classified as one of Shakespeare's “problem” plays. This story of the Trojan War and the doomed lovers Troilus and Cressida is one that has been told and retold numerous times before Shakespeare adapted it into a play, most notably by Shakespeare's two principal sources: Homer's Iliad (George Chapman's 1598 translation) and Geoffrey Chaucer's poem Troilus and Criseyde (c. 1385). The play, which presents a love won and lost during the interminable and morally corrosive battles of the Trojan War, ends the same way it begins: in chaos and disillusion. The difficulty in properly categorizing the play's genre has plagued critics of Troilus and Cressida throughout its publication history—early publications of the play labeled it first as a history, then as a comedy, and later as a tragedy—and modern critics continue to debate the proper generic designation of the play. The ambiguous nature of the play is also reflected in Shakespeare's characterization, especially Cressida, who has been viewed as either unfaithful and promiscuous or as a victim of the war and of male dominance. Troilus and Cressida has not been always been popular on the stage; however, modern directors have found the play's profound examination of love and war particularly compelling for twenty-first century audiences.
In his discussion of women in Shakespeare's “problem” plays, Nicholas Marsh (2003) focuses on a single passage from Troilus and Cressida (I.ii.249-86) which, he contends, shows Cressida to be both a tease and a sincere lover. Marsh explains that this apparent contradiction in fact reveals, on one hand, the stereotypical male view of women as temptresses, and on the other, Cressida's genuine feelings for Troilus. According to the critic, Cressida's vacillation in her feelings for Troilus are seen by her lover as proof that she has transformed herself from an angel into a “whore.” Marsh concludes that Troilus's either/or attitude toward women is stereotypical, and that Troilus and Cressida maintains its position as a problem play precisely because Cressida never falls neatly into either category. Laurie E. Maguire (2002) explains Cressida's submission to Diomedes, contending that she is a victim of Diomedes' abuse and manipulation and that “Cressida consequently behaves as do most abused women: she submits.” In his discussion of the theme of ethics in the play, Michael G. Bielmeier (2001) uses the philosophical works of Kierkegaard to demonstrate that Cressida and the bastard Thersites are the most ethical characters in the war-torn world of Troilus and Cressida. The critic argues that unlike the hopelessly idealistic Troilus, Cressida and Thersites behave according to the ethical norms that their society has set for them; they “accept the facts that the universe is neither noble nor just, that ease of survival comes to those who abide by society's ethics, however repugnant, and that wisdom resides in expecting little more from life than lechery and war.”
Troilus and Cressida's often crude satire of war has held enormous appeal for modern audiences and directors. Matt Wolf (1999) praises Trevor Nunn's 1999 National Theatre production of the play, contending that Nunn “yanks us … right inside this play's singularly hellish heart.” In his review of Michael Bogdanov's 2000 Bell Shakespeare Company production of Troilus + Cressida, Douglas McQueen-Thomson (2000) notes that this rendition tapped into humanity's “base appetites” by using television screens as part of the scenery, turning the warrior Achilles and his companion Patroclus into rap artists in drag, and portraying Pandarus as a dirty-minded “game-show host.” McQueen-Thomson contends that the staging successfully combined “audacious, challenging production with intelligent, coherent interpretation, proving the strengths of theatre as a political medium.” Martin F. Kohn (2003) remarks that the timeless and interlocking themes of lust and violence in Richard Monette's 2003 Stratford Festival staging of Troilus and Cressida effectively demonstrated the madness of war. Kohn also praises Bernard Hopkins's bawdy, bisexual performance as Pandarus as vital to this rendition of the play. Lyn Gardner (2003) reviews Andrew Hilton's 2003 stage production of Troilus and Cressida and remarks on the relevancy of the play for the twenty-first century. According to the critic, the production offered “not just a sharp reminder that war involves, as the clown Thersites puts it, ‘too much blood and too little brain’ but also that war corrupts even those who begin it with honourable intent and what they perceive as just cause.”
Many critics have commented on the link between Renaissance England and the world of Troilus and Cressida. Matthew A. Greenfield (2000) traces the development of English nationalism in the play. Greenfield notes that England attempted to build national pride by connecting its ancestry as a nation to the heroic and ancient city of Troy; however, Shakespeare's depiction of Troy as decadent and corrupt undercut these efforts. Mario Domenichelli (2000) alleges that in his cynical portrayal of the duel between Hector and Achilles in Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare documented the end of the chivalric code in Renaissance England. In addition, Domenichelli states that by transforming the heroic Hector's death into a pointless and ignoble one, Shakespeare also overturned the traditional rules of tragedy. Gary Spear (1993) examines the themes of masculinity and effeminacy in Troilus and Cressida in order to explore “the cultural fictions of male power.” Spear asserts that the soldiers in this overlong war feel that their masculinity is threatened because of their failure to win the war, and that their solution to this “effeminization” is to diminish the women in the play by treating them as commodities. Similarly, C. C. Barfoot (1988) examines the human relationships in Troilus and Cressida in relation to the “mercantile metaphor” that runs throughout the play. This metaphor, the critic contends, “suggests that we are all traders in our relationships, and, as victims and perpetrators, susceptible to the inevitable treachery that trade brings in its wake.”