Troilus and Cressida

William Shakespeare wrote a play about the Trojan War.  Well, that’s just awesome.   So why is it never performed that often?

Because it's weird, that's why.

You know, the ancient pseudo-mythical decade-long conflict that even rivals World War II in pop culture.  Even if you never read Homer’s Iliad or Virgil’s Aeneid, you know the general story.  But the details of that conflict have been re-imagined and repeatedly analyzed for centuries, and the literary giant William Shakespeare is among the writers who have expanded on the myth.  It’s different from Pericles, which just has an unusual structure that abandons the traditional focus on plot over character.  And it’s different from Henry VIII, which is just bad.  Troilus and Cressida suffers from a similar problem as Two Noble Kinsmen, where it can’t decide if it is a tragedy or a comedy – even though this play excels at both.  The heartbreak and the laughter are of equal power, and it is worth reading simply for the beauty of the language.  The difficulty seems to be that, despite the well-known and powerful setting, Shakespeare is truly focusing on the young Trojan lovers Troilus and Cressida instead of what a normal audience is really interested in: the War.

Crazy, absurdly pointless war.

If Shakespeare kept the war in the background, that would be one thing; like how The Good the Bad and the Ugly is set during the American Civil war even though the military conflict is purely tangential to the plot.  But instead, Shakespeare makes some really daring choices about how these characters appear.  Chief among them is the death of Trojan Prince Hector, whom Achilles famously slays in revenge for the death of his “masculine whore”, fellow soldier Patroclus.  Well, that’s a major choice already: Achilles and Patroclus are absolutely lovers in Shakespeare’s text, whereas every other classic text in the world is intriguingly ambiguous about it.  But what is downright shocking is the brutal manner of Hector’s death, which does not involve noble combat at all but instead has Achilles watch as the Myrmidons beat the Prince to a pulp onstage.   Furthermore, the Myrmidons are traditionally considered to be warrior elite alongside Achilles, yet here they are described as “his mangled Myrmidons,  That noseless, handless, hack’d and chipp’d” monstrous unit of brutal things, and these are the ones that descend upon the one great hope of Troy.

Take THAT, how-I-thought-the-story-was-supposed-to-end!

Then we have the other eternal question of the war: was Helen raped or did she go willingly to Troy with Paris?  Again, Shakespeare’s choice is fascinating.  She only appears in one scene – though she is often the topic of conversation – and there she seems awkward while Paris and Pandarus are really creepy, repeating weird shit like “Sweet queen, sweet queen! that’s a sweet queen, i’ faith.”  And then of course there’s the time Paris admits at the dinner table “Sir, I propose not merely to myself The pleasures such a beauty brings with it; But I would have the soil of her fair rape Wiped off, in honourable keeping her.”  Yup.  Among the many disturbingly casual behaviors that the Trojans and Greeks have towards this war, there is a discussion at the Trojan royal family’s dinner table where they debate the merits of returning Helen to her rightful husband, Menelaus, or not.  At this dinner table, it is decided that glory and honor in combat is better than admitting that Paris did the wrong thing.  Yup.

Kinda like Ben Roethlisberger

Yet, despite the fact that this “seven years’ siege” continues with a stalemate, daily combat becoming almost like a friendly sport with an audience, the Greeks do not have much respect for Helen or her Greek husband.  Diomedes, the man who winds up as Cressida’s lover, compares Helen’s two suitors this way: “He, like a puling cuckold, would drink up The lees and dregs of a flat tamed piece; You, like a lecher, out of whorish loins Are pleased to breed out your inheritors: Both merits poised, each weighs nor less nor more; But he as he, the heavier for a whore.” Not only is Shakespeare attacking the idea of heroism in this play, but he is also attacking the idea of love.  The love story that actually frames these episodes of the Trojan war ends in betrayal, but not any sort of cathartic death.   He is presenting the audience with a social disconnect between the absurdity of war and why it is allegedly fought.

Oh, and I should also mention that the gods are entirely spliced out of the story as well.

On top of all these cynical dramatic moments is one of my favorite characters in all of Shakespeare: Thersites, a crazy Greek bastard who’s like Falstaff and Apemantus rolled into one.  Actually, yes, I’m going to share some of my favorite lines in the play from this clown: “I am a bastard too; I love bastards,” spoken to a rival on the battlefield, “Ajax, who wears his wit in his belly and his guts in his head,” describing his former master, and my personal favorite insult: “you whoreson indistinguishable cur.” He pretty much just runs around the place throwing insults and laughing maniacally while Ajax beats the crap out of him.

And thereby secretly making him a role model...

But, as I said, the story at the center of this play is a shattered love story.  And since it’s Valentine’s Day, and “Lechery, lechery; still, wars and lechery; nothing else holds fashion,” let’s talk about that love story for a hot minute.  Troilus is a Prince, the youngest son of King Priam, but he falls in love with Cressida, whose father has defected to the Greeks.  Randomly, the politicians organize a prisoner swap and she is brought to the Greeks to be with her father.  Troilus, who was chief among the warhawks in Troy, is pretty sucky at combat, and is unable to defeat the Greek Diomedes who now holds the girl’s attention.  The same day, Hector is killed, and Troilus exhorts: “No space of earth shall sunder our two hates: I’ll haunt thee like a wicked conscience still, That mouldeth goblins swift as frenzy’s thoughts. Strike a free march to Troy! with comfort go: Hope of revenge shall hide our inward woe.”  Cressida’s creepy uncle, who arranged for the kids to be together, laments his poor match in the final speech of the play.  Again, the weight of the play is off, and the heartbreak of Troilus is not as momentous as the heartbreak of the city over Hector.  The end feels sudden and incomplete… but then again that is exactly how Troilus must feel.

Not that things traditionally turn out well for his character anyways

So I rephrase my original question: SHOULD this play be performed more often?  In my opinion, it should only be done if the artists are willing to play against audience expectation and really give it the focus that Shakespeare intended: the young lovers.  Granted, that is hard to do (even I didn’t focus on them during this entry), but that is the only way to go if it is going to be a self-sufficient production.  They are an interesting pair, with Troilus as “skilless as unpractised infancy” in all things, including both love and war, and then Cressida is only just discovering the power that she can have over men.  There are plenty of plays set during the Trojan War, this is the one that you can only do if you are willing to focus on these lovers set against a momentously well known tragedy.

Like the Titanic, for example.

So those are some of my thoughts for this week.  There is so much more that could be discussed, and feel free to throw stuff into the comments section if you want, but it seemed like a good anti-Valentine’s Day play to write on.  Only two more plays from Shakespeare and then I start my further exploration of his contemporaries.  Until then, here’s a great quote on the topic of painful love: “when my heart, As wedged with a sigh, would rive in twain, Lest Hector or my father should perceive me, I have, as when the sun doth light a storm, Buried this sigh in wrinkle of a smile.”

Also, I realized that I referenced a disproportionate number of Brad Pitt movies for some reason... huh.


3 Responses to “Troilus and Cressida”
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  1. […] Troilus and Cressida […]

  2. […] or, the Trojan War, an original piece that is edited together from Iphigenia at Aulis by Euripedes, Troilus and Cressida by Shakespeare, and Trojan Women by Seneca.  The name of Achilles, greatest soldier of all time, […]

  3. […] role of Thersites, the slave of Homer’s Iliad, clown of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, is also the protagonist of The Trojan War.  As he invokes the power of the goddess Thetis as his […]

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