Roger’s going to see a performance of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida in New York. He’s already seen two earlier productions. Three in a lifetime. Lucky man! It’s a play I would love to see performed for it’s one of Shakespeare’s most intriguing.
Intriguing in that it overturns so many dramatic and poetic conventions. Commentators label it one of Shakespeare’s problem plays. There is much conjecture as to what was happening in the playwright’s private life that so embittered and disillusioned him during that period. That is all it can ever be, conjecture, for there is little real evidence as to the cause.
Troilus and Cressida is a sub-plot of the Trojan War story. Shakespeare’s audience would have known well the story and the sub-plot. Helen the wife of Menelaus, king of Sparta ran away with Paris the son of the king of Troy. During the ten year’s war that followed the two heroes Hector, Paris’s older brother, and the Greek hero Achilles were both killed in battle.
Troilus, brother of Hector and Paris, falls in love with Cressida. She revels in his pursuit of her. Her uncle Panderus – from whom the word ‘pander’ has entered the English language – acts as go-between. The lovers swear eternal fidelity and quickly seek the bedchamber. But Cressida is exchanged for the release of Trojan captives and falls in love with a Greek warrior. In medieval times Cressida became a symbol of feminine infidelity
Shakespeare wrote some lovely love scenes in other plays – Rosalind in As You Like It is my favourite while the romantic language of Romeo and Juliet has not been surpassed. Then in his latter plays in characters like Perdita and Miranda he created feminine visions of grace and attractiveness. These four characters all have a fresh sweetness and a strength of character. Cressida’s language by contrast is a mixture of bawdiness and high-flown rhetoric.
It fits the theme of the play – heroism, nobility and love all the time undermined by baser qualities. Instead of a traditional heroic epic we are given an anti-heroic look at existence in which brutality and lust dominate. Part of the intrigue of the play is that Shakespeare was constrained by the stories. Hector could not survive, Cressida could not be faithful.
The story though allowed the playwright to meditate on the conflict between personal needs and the interests of the state. But the anti-heroic stance means that Achilles is portrayed as an unpleasant, sulking coward rather than the mighty warrior of Homer’s portrayal. Likewise, the mighty Ajax was a thug. His slave, Thersites, is a foul-mouthed ruffian who, however, provides a commentary on the action with his refrain of “wars and lechery”. Unpleasant though he is, the audience (in this instance me) is not unsympathetic.
The only two characters to emerge with much credit are Ulysses and Hector. Shakespeare portrays the former as a clever politician manipulating with ease his fellow Greeks. He is political philosopher, concerned about the slippage from power to ‘appetite’. Hector is not only brave, he questions the need for the war worrying about the ‘hot passion of distempered blood’ of the young men. Paris and Troilus for their own reasons do not want an end to the strife. Paris says they must keep Helen for she is worth more than ‘the world’s large spaces’ while Troilus argues they must retain her for she is ‘a theme of honour and renown’. I sense Shakespeare was on Hector’s side, but had to accept the inevitable outcome.
Unlike in Homer, Hector, unarmed is killed in a cowardly fashion by Achilles. The play ends in anti-climax. Troilus does not get revenge. Hector does not get justice. Pandurus the pimp sums up in a bitter speech. Behind it all we hear Thersites muttering ‘wars and lechery’.