‘Troilus and Cressida’ by William Shakespeare – A Decidedly Un-Heroic Play

 

‘Troilus and Cressida’ by William Shakespeare, a play  (1601-1602) – 114 pages

William Shakespeare started the drama ‘Troilus and Cressida’ in 1601 shortly after he had finished ‘Hamlet’ and only a couple of years before he started ‘Othello’, ‘King Lear’, and ‘Macbeth’.  There is little doubt that Shakespeare was operating at his peak during this period.  However ‘Troilus and Cressida’ has never attained the stature of these four other dramas.  Why not?  While I discuss ‘Troilus and Cressida’, I will attempt to answer that question.

‘Troilus and Cressida’ takes place in ancient Greek times during the seventh year of the Trojan War.  Besides Homer, one of Shakespeare’s primary sources for the play was the epic poem ‘Troilus and Criseyde’ written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the mid-1380s.  In Shakespeare’s time, the Greek love story of Troilus and Cressida was as famous as that of Romeo and Juliet.

In the play, there are scenes of human passion and of human battle.  Neither in passion nor in battle do the characters act heroicly or divinely or even honorably.  In both cases, these people act all too human.  That is why ‘Troilus and Cressida’ is sometimes considered a modern play.

We start with the character Pandarus.  His name Pandarus is actually the derivation for the modern verb “to pander”. Pandarus is Cressida’s uncle.  After he finds out that Troilus has the hots for Cressida, he keeps praising Troilus to Cressida until he accomplishes his goal which is to get Cressida in bed with Troilus.  Afterwards Troilus and Cressida pledge undying love to each other.  However, soon Cressida’s father makes a deal with the Greeks to trade Cressida for a Trojan soldier held prisoner by the Greeks.  Cressida is taken to the Greek camp where she is warmly welcomed.  Unbeknownst to her, Troilus is watching as she becomes increasingly drawn toward one of the Greek soldiers Diomedes, and Troilus watches as she gives Diomedes the sleeve which Troilus had given her as a token of his undying love.  Troilus, of course, is outraged at her faithlessness.

At the outset of the battle scenes, the Greeks are depending on Achilles to lead the fighting against the Trojans, but Achilles just lays in his tent with his buddy Patroclus and has “grown dainty of his worth”:

“The Great Achilles, whose opinion crowns
The sinew and the forehand of our host,
Having his ear full of his airy fame,
Grows dainty of his worth,
And in his tent
Lies mocking our designs.  With him Patroclus
Upon a lazy bed the livelong day
Breaks scurrile jests.”

Instead the Greek leaders decide to pick the fool Ajax to lead the fighting in the hopes that Achilles will get jealous and step in to take over.

Meanwhile the Trojans begin to realize it is ridiculous for both sides to have so many men killed in fighting just for the sake of this one beautiful woman Helen.  The Trojans propose to return Helen to the Greeks and stop the war, but the Greeks don’t accept their offer.

The war continues and the Trojan warrior Hector defeats Ajax easily and among the scores of Greeks he slays is Achilles’ buddy Patroclus.  This finally rouses Achilles to battle.  However Achilles’ behavior is by no means heroic.  Achilles has his men attack and kill Hector while Hector is resting with his armor off.  Then he ties Hector’s body to the back of his horse and drags the body over rough land.

In ‘Troilus and Cressida’, there is no honor or fidelity in either love or battle.  This is Shakespeare’s most cynical but perhaps also his most realistic play. If people act so poorly, how can anything that happens to them be tragic? Joyce Carol Oates has written of ‘Troilus and Cressida’ that “no darker commentary on the predicament of man has ever been written”.

“There is no help;
The bitter disposition of the time
Will have it so.”

Why hasn’t ‘Troilus and Cressida’ achieved more popularity? Perhaps people are more comfortable and enthusiastic with the romance and undying love of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ than with the bitter cynicism and darker realism of ‘Troilus and Cressida”.

 

Grade:   A

 

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