Introduction: Troilus and Cressida
The siege of Troy provides the backdrop for Troilus and Cressida, but – like Chaucer in Troilus and Criseyde – Shakespeare opens by claiming that he “leaps o’er…those broils” of the war itself. But, again like Chaucer, Shakespeare finds some parts of the war unavoidable: the play is just as much about the petty rivalries of the Greek camp as it is about the doomed love affairs of the two eponymous Trojans. Love and war are inseparable and mutually destructive forces. The recapture of the “face that launched a thousand ships” is shown to lose its noble veneer, to be replaced by a lecherous act which has turned “crowned kings to merchants”.
The problems with classifying Troilus and Cressida are best exemplified in one of its final scenes: as the Trojan Cressida, transferred to the Greek camp, succumbs to the advances of the Greek Diomede, she is overlooked by two parties. One is Thersites, the sour fool whose relentless commentary on the perverse world of “wars and lechery”, where Greeks dine with the Trojans they will kill the next day, drives the play’s bitterly humorous satire. The other party consists of Ulysses and the spurned Troilus, whom Shakespeare endows with the sincere poetry of love that gives the play its heart and its tragic energy.
Shunted between classification as a comedy (in one of the Quarto editions) and a tragedy (in the First Folio), the play is a satisfying fit in neither. Were it written today, its ending would perhaps have been described as a descent into meaningless violence and the audience is left neither with catharsis nor reassurance that “all is mended”, instead having Pandarus bequeath them his “diseases”.
Although the immediate reception of the play remains unclear, this work only fully captured public and academic interest in the twentieth century, and is still often considered difficult and ‘elitist’. However, its refreshing anti-war stance when compared to the history cycle has made it popular production in contemporary peace-time, and audience’s unfamiliarity with it allows directors freedom in their interpretations.
Contributed by Jack Belloli