Troilus and Cressida
This is one of the oddest of Shakespeare’s plays, and I have to admit it’s one of the ones I like least. I put it first largely for that reason. Much of it seems rather aimless; there are gratuitously bawdy bits; there’s almost nobody one can admire; and there are long disquisitions about things that seem to lead nowhere, either dramatically or philosophically. But there are people who like it a lot, and you may well be among them. It’s definitely one of those plays that offers more to the second and third view. Some of what it has to say about time is penetrating and rich.
Moreover, for those who have taken Western Literature to Dante (or those who haven’t, but have encountered Homer and/or Vergil in one form or another), it has some allusive interest, inasmuch as it takes a very different view of the Trojan War. It’s a story about a pair of Trojan lovers separated by the vicissitudes of war, and that’s the chief focus of the narrative. It does not primarily concern itself with the outcome of the war, and it does not present a romantic vision of love at all. At the same time, however, the main events of the Iliad are unfolding, more or less in the background — even the deaths of Patroclus and Hector (though presented very differently from what you’ll recall from the Iliad).
Things to consider while reading Troilus and Cressida
Shakespearean drama as a medium for political discourse. You might have seen this in Richard II, King Lear, and Macbeth, among others; how does it work here in a comic context?
Troilus and Cressida and what has come before
- Obviously, since this is the first play in this summer’s sequence, there’s nothing that has come before directly. But you might have read a number of things in either Summer Shakespeare I, Summer Shakespeare II, or elsewhere.
- How does this play square up against others of the historical comedies and tragedies set in the ancient world. Are we on the same wave-length as, say, Julius Caesar or Antony and Cleopatra?
- How does this compare with any of the other comedies you have read? It is very different, to be sure, from the more farcical ones (e.g., The Comedy of Errors, The Taming of the Shrew); it’s similarly out of step with the sunnier but more serious comedies (Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, Twelfth Night); nor is it really much akin to the “problem comedies” like All’s Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure. Where do you fit this in? Even if you don’t find somewhere plausible to put it, going through the process of doing the comparisons will make you a lot more familiar with the underlying character of the play.
- The chief source here is Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, discussed at Wikipedia here, and the whole text is available at The Online Medieval and Classical Library here.
- John Lydgate’s Troy Book.
- Caxton’s translation of a mediaeval French source entitled the Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye.
Themes that emerge in the play (only a few of the many)
- Time: one of the ongoing themes throughout the play is the question of time, and how it seems to change things essentially.
- Fidelity: is faithfulness something different for men and women? What kind of fidelity does either Troilus or Cressida have a right to expect?
- Historicity and/or the place of the narrative within the larger (and better-known) canon of stories surrounding the Trojan War? The events of the Iliad are quietly playing out in the background while the foreground story unfolds.
Symmetries in the play
- How are Troilus and Cressida like and unlike?
- What is the role of the rather libertine voice of Pandarus and his group as set over against the rather august pronouncements of Ulysses?
- How is Thersites like or unlike other Shakespeare clown characters you have encountered to date? Often the clown or fool is the character who sees most clearly, and expresses the truth most lucidly, though often under cover of symbolism. Is that the the case here, or is something else going on?
Problems in the play
- The unity of the story: is it more discursive and indirect than it needs to be? What would improve it?
- Is the resolution of the play at all satisfactory to you?
- While you can take it as a given that it’s a comedy rather than a tragedy (since not a lot of the principal characters wind up dead at the end of the play), does it feel like a comedy to you? What would it take, if it doesn’t?
Contents of this page © Copyright 2008, 2011, 2014 by Bruce A. McMenomy.