All the argument is a cuckold and a whore
Troilus and Cressida falls in many categories among Shakespeare’s plays – it’s a Roman history (yes, I know it’s set in the Greek world), it’s a tragedy, it’s a comedy. It is, in short, a problem play, it’s tragic elements sullied by both the uneasy events leading to them and some pretty vulgar humour. It’s a play no one quite knows what it’s about – the titular lovers are but a small side plot within the greater context of the Troyan war (we don’t see them together until Act 3, scene 2), filled with such figures familiar from the Greek histories as Agamemnon, Achilles, Ulysses, Aeneas and Helen, and there seems to be very little in terms of plot. Even the ending is left open, the lovers apart and the Troyan war unresolved. Of all the plays so far, I find it the hardest to get a grip of, and one I really struggled to get through.
Troyan Troilus is in love with Cressida (also Troyan), and wants her tactless, vulgar uncle Pandarus to help him in his wooing of her. Pandarus throws himself into the task with some considerable gusto, praising Troilus’ looks and chivalry to her, unaware that Cressida already is in love with Troilus. When the lovers finally meet, over halfway into the play, they are overcome by the strength of their unresolved lust and spend the night together.
I am giddy; expectation whirls me round.
The imaginary relish is so sweet
That it enchants my sense: what will it be,
When that the watery palate tastes indeed
Love’s thrice repured nectar? death, I fear me,
Swooning destruction, or some joy too fine,
Too subtle-potent, tuned too sharp in sweetness,
For the capacity of my ruder powers:
I fear it much; and I do fear besides,
That I shall lose distinction in my joys;
As doth a battle, when they charge on heaps
The enemy flying.
The lovers are torn apart soon, as Cressida is exchanged by her father to Antenor, a Troyan prisoner of war; she promises to stay faithful to Troilus, but as the Troyans go out to the Greek camp, he sees her flirting with Prince Diomedes and, enraged, swears to kill him. The love story is left unresolved – Cressida sends Troilus a letter, but he tears it, unopened, and we don’t learn her true feelings.
The rest (most) of the play focuses on the Troyan war – it has been going on for years, and reached a sort of stalemate, where the Greek are sieging Troy and the battles are little more than jousting to pass the time. Achilles, the Greek prince, is refusing to fight, out of sheer arrogance, and Agamemnon and his leaders are having no luck in persuading him to return arms. To show him off, Ulysses and Nestor respond to the Troyan prince Hector’s challenge by sending Ajax, a much, much less competent soldier in in place to fight Hector. Only after Hector has killed Patroclus, Achilles’ friend and lover, and beaten back the Greeks, does he take up the arms again, capturing the unarmed Hector and murdering him. The play ends with the Troyans – Troilus most of all – mourning the loss of their prince; the war remains unfinished, the question of what to do with Helen unresolved.
In Troy, King Priam’s children are debating among themselves the value of Helen, the Spartan queen on whose name the war is being fought. Is she worth all the effort keeping her takes? The mad sister Cassandra predicts doom to Troy if Helen is not released back to her husband, while the brothers go back and forth, unable to come to a firm decision, yet unable to disguise their disgust for her. Hector (the sensible one) thinks Helen should be send back, Troilus (the earnest one) and Paris (the foolish one) want to keep her, but for different reasons – Troilus, for all his own, burning love for Cressida sees Helen as commodity, a bargaining chip in the ongoing conflict. Shakespeare seems to suggest that the greatest value is in the pursuit, not in the conquest; Cressida plays hard to get, aware that “things won are done”, and the relationship between the two is doomed from the moment they consummate it. Shakespeare puts much value in a woman’s (poorly defined) sexual virtue here – Helen has lost it by giving into (possibly wrong) temptation, and Cressida is aware of how fragile that value is. The play shows both men and women in equally poor light – Helen is the whore over whom the war has been waged, Cressida possibly equally corrupt, the men lustful, traitorous, and vain.
Is it any good?
The jury continues to be out. The subject matter of the play, as well as its language and weird, black humour, made it unpopular for centuries, and brought on the debate whether this is a play worthy of Shakespeare’s genius – did he mean it to be so confusing, so crass, or is this a product of a writer whose mind was preoccupied by something else, disinterested? Modern criticism has been gentler, maintaining that the moral ambivalence and cynicism are the very marks of that genius, balanced and calculated to create precisely that uneasiness in the viewer. Among Shakespeare’s plays it seems to nonetheless sit uncomfortably in the middle, removed from his other works in style and outlook.
What say thou?
There are several lengthy speeches, lots of nonsensical chatter, some quite frank sex talk, and few good lines. My favourite speech is Ulysses’ speech about chaos versus order in Act 1. At least that’s what I think it’s about.
Troy, yet upon his basis, had been down,
And the great Hector’s sword had lack’d a master,
But for these instances.
The specialty of rule hath been neglected:
And, look, how many Grecian tents do stand
Hollow upon this plain, so many hollow factions.
When that the general is not like the hive
To whom the foragers shall all repair,
What honey is expected? Degree being vizarded,
The unworthiest shows as fairly in the mask.
The heavens themselves, the planets and this centre
Observe degree, priority and place,
Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,
Office and custom, in all line of order;
And therefore is the glorious planet Sol
In noble eminence enthroned and sphered
Amidst the other; whose medicinable eye
Corrects the ill aspects of planets evil,
And posts, like the commandment of a king,
Sans cheque to good and bad: but when the planets
In evil mixture to disorder wander,
What plagues and what portents! what mutiny!
What raging of the sea! shaking of earth!
Commotion in the winds! frights, changes, horrors,
Divert and crack, rend and deracinate
The unity and married calm of states
Quite from their fixure! O, when degree is shaked,
Which is the ladder to all high designs,
Then enterprise is sick! How could communities,
Degrees in schools and brotherhoods in cities,
Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,
The primogenitive and due of birth,
Prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres, laurels,
But by degree, stand in authentic place?
Take but degree away, untune that string,
And, hark, what discord follows! each thing meets
In mere oppugnancy: the bounded waters
Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores
And make a sop of all this solid globe:
Strength should be lord of imbecility,
And the rude son should strike his father dead:
Force should be right; or rather, right and wrong,
Between whose endless jar justice resides,
Should lose their names, and so should justice too.
Then every thing includes itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite;
And appetite, an universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce an universal prey,
And last eat up himself. Great Agamemnon,
This chaos, when degree is suffocate,
Follows the choking.
And this neglection of degree it is
That by a pace goes backward, with a purpose
It hath to climb. The general’s disdain’d
By him one step below, he by the next,
That next by him beneath; so every step,
Exampled by the first pace that is sick
Of his superior, grows to an envious fever
Of pale and bloodless emulation:
And ’tis this fever that keeps Troy on foot,
Not her own sinews. To end a tale of length,
Troy in our weakness stands, not in her strength.
I actually probably like Cressida the best – she is the woman navigating an impossible situation, unable to control her own life even to the smallest degree, cut off from other women and surrounded by men who all want to use her for something.
BBC Television Shakespeare adaptation from 1981, directed by Jonathan Miller. It’s all ill-fitting renaissance costumes and fake beards, supremely hammy acting and stereotypically gay men. Anton Lesser is quite decently earnest as Troilus, Suzanne Burden Cressida, and Benjamin Whitrow a rather great Ulysses. It is generally rather bad, and not always in a good way.