Troilus and Cressida
By Dennis Abrams
It was once memorably described as “the work of a man whose soul is poisoned with filth.” That work, Troilus and Cressida, has consistently scandalized critics over the four centuries since it was first produced. Audiences, though, have had far fewer opportunities to be shocked – a cleaned up version by John Dryden notwithstanding, the play was considered unperformable until the very end of the nineteenth century, it has only been in recent times that this most cynical and nihilistic of plays has found a welcoming environment.
Written as Shakespeare approached his forties, Troilus and Cressida is the first of the so-called “problem plays,” and in fact it nearly didn’t make the First Folio due to copyright issues – in any event it was then squeezed between the Comedies and the Tragedies. And if ever there was a play that defied labels, it’s Troilus and Cressida. Not a history, not a comedy, and not a full-on tragedy, despite containing elements of all three, this story of a futile love story trapped in the middle of a endless conflict is also a scathing satire on the glory and chivalry of the Trojan War (and by extension all wars), which in this play seems to be little more than an excuse for lust, vanity, and misogyny. Or, as the play’s most cynical character (and one of the most cynical characters in all of literature) so eloquently puts it, “Lechery, lechery, still, wars and lechery: nothing else holds fashion.”
As Harold Bloom said in his introduction to the play in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human,
“Genre, frequently metamorphic in Shakespeare, is particularly uneasy in Troilus and Cressida, variously termed satire, comedy, history, tragedy, or what you will. The play is Shakespeare’s most overtly bitter testament, nihilistic like the two comedies it [precedes] All’s Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure. It is also the most difficult and elitist of all his works. Something of the aura of Hamlet lingers in Troilus and Cressida, which presumably was composed in 1601-2.
We have to assume that Shakespeare wrote it for performance at the Globe, where it seems, however, not to have played. Why? Only surmise is available, and the notion that Shakespeare and his company decided that they would have a failure with this drama seems unlikely, based both upon its intrinsic power and its stage history in the century now ending. Some scholars have argued that a private performance or two took place for the court or for an audience of lawyers, but Shakespeare’s commercial sense renders such argument rather weak. It is possible to maintain that the play is Shakespeare’s most sophisticated, and yet is it more intellectualized than Love’s Labour’s Lost, or Hamlet for that matter? Perhaps some high personage advised Shakespeare that Troilus and Cressida might seem too lively a satire upon the fallen Earl of Essex, who may be the model for the play’s outrageous Achilles, or perhaps there are other political allusions that we no longer apprehend. Literary satire is more readily apparent; Shakespeare’s language mocks the elaborate diction of George Chapman, who had compared Essex to Achilles, and more amiably teases the moral stance of Ben Jonson. But the mystery of why Shakespeare decided to give up on this marvelous work remains to be solved.
Homer’s heroic men and suffering women, celebrated by Chapman in the commentary to his translation, are more savagely anatomized by Shakespeare than they are by Euripides, or by various satirists of our century. Thersites, identified in the Dramatis Personae as ‘a deformed and scurrilous Greek,’ pretty well speaks for the play if not for Shakespeare:
Here is such patchery, such juggling, and such knavery! All the argument is a whore and a cuckold: a good quarrel to draw emulous factions, and bleed to death upon. Now the dry serpigo on the subject, and war and lechery confound all!
The Matter of Troy is reduced to ‘a whore and a cuckold,’ Helen and Menelaus, and to a company of rogues, fools, bawds, gulls, and politicians of Shakespeare’s day, and of ours. Yet the play’s bitterness surpasses the limits of satire, and leaves us with a more nihilistic impression than ‘heroic farce’ or ‘travesty’ would indicate…”
From Tony Tanner’s Prefaces to Shakespeare,
In Titus Andronicus ‘our Troy, our Rome,’ are elided; Titus himself is referred to as the ‘Roman Hector.’ It was easy for Shakespeare to move from Rome to Troy as the two great cities – and their fates –were closely linked in the European imagination. Troy had a particular significance for western Europe since it traced its ancestry back to the Trojans, through Aeneas and Ascanius. According to the legend as recounted by Geoffrey of Monmouth, Brute, the great-grandson of Aeneas, founded London, which was New Troy. The legend of Troy was well known to Elizabethans: eight translations of Homer were available; there was plenty of Trojan material in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Chaucer’s epic poem Troilus and Cressida was well known, and Shakespeare would also almost certainly have known Henryson’s The Testament of Cresseid, which offers itself as a sequel to Chaucer and traces out her pitiful life – and death – as a whore after Diomed has tired of her. Before considering the kind of drama Shakespeare made out of this familiar legend, it is important to bear in mind that the many medieval re-tellings of the legend of the Trojan War invariably debased it and degraded the participants. As Phillips puts it: ‘the history of Troy in the middle ages is a history of degeneration and debasement.’ (The State in Shakespeare, p. 114). The Greeks in particular were invariably shown in a bad light – ‘merry Greek’ was a pejorative, disparaging term. It is what Helen is called in Shakespeare’s play. So it is perhaps not surprising that Shakespeare should choose to dramatize a moment in the war when demoralization and social disintegration – not to say corruption and rottenness – are heavy in the air. There are ‘heroes,’ but heroism degenerates into squalid thuggery. There are ‘lovers,’ but love deliquesces into lubricious promiscuity. The positive graces should be valour and devotion – but ‘war and lechery confound all!’ Values are everywhere degraded – ‘soiled’ in the language of the play. The root cause of the war is ‘the soil of [Helen’s] fare rape,’ and this early oxymoron discolours the whole play, in which what seems fair invariably turns out to be soiled. The ‘soilure’ of Helen permeates the play, so that even when Troilus maintains that it is a matter of honour for Troy to keep Helen, his metaphor partakes of the general contamination. ‘We turn not back the silks upon the merchant/When we have soiled them.’”
And finally, this from Marjorie Garber:
“Troilus and Cressida occupies a curious and slightly anomalous place within the Shakespearean canon. On the title pages of the Quarto of 1609 it is described as a ‘Historie.” But in the First Folio of 1623 it is called The Tragedie of Troylus and Cressida. In the Folio the play is not listed in the table of contents (the ‘Catalogue of the Several Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies contained in this Volume’), and it is placed after the last of the history plays and before the first of the tragedies. In a prefatory letter included in the Quarto it is several times described as a ‘comedy,’ a word that in the period might mean merely ‘a play,’ but it is twice explicitly called ‘comical’ in a context that makes the meaning clear. The question of how the play might be best classified, and therefore of how to asses – and perform – it, has preoccupied readers over the years.
Nineteenth century scholars invented a category they called the ‘problem play,’ a term borrowed from the works of dramatists of the time (Ibsen, Shaw, Strindberg, and others) whose plays were thought to engage with ongoing social problems (environmental issues, women’s rights, venereal disease, prostitution). To those scholars, some Shakespeare plays seemed similarly preoccupied with issues of morality and public and private behavior; in this category they included not only Troilus and Cressida but also All’s Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure, and Hamlet. [MY NOTE: And here I’d always thought they were called “problem plays” because they were a problem to categorize!] These plays were sometimes categorized as ‘cynical,’ as questioning the possibility of noble or heroic ideals, and as concerned with the less exalted aspects of sexual desire and social critique. This grouping of ‘problem plays’ allowed for the segregation of these more troubled works from their genre identification – although The Merchant of Venice, for example, became increasingly difficult not to think of as a ‘problem’ comedy rather than a ‘festive’ comedy. Another popular designation was ‘dark comedy,’ which, like ‘problem play,’ drew attention to the difference between plays like Troilus and Cressida and Shakespeare’s earlier comic works. Both of these terms were operative through at least the first half of the twentieth century, and were gradually superseded when more and more plays, formally regarded as ‘light,’ began to seem ‘dark,’ ‘problematic,’ unresolved, erotic, and engaged with early modern social, economic, and political concerns.
In any case, the genre of satire and the tone of cynical disillusionment, about everything from sex to war, detected in Troilus and Cressida has led not only scholars but also actors, directors, and readers to think of this play as surprisingly ‘modern’ in its outlook, at the same time have often stressed its paradigmatic status as a play about the noble folly and futility of war, setting the action in the U.S. Civil War (Union Greeks versus Confederate Trojans) or in a variety of twentieth century conflicts from World War I to Vietnam and the Persian Gulf. There have also been powerful productions that have conflated historical periods, dressing some soldiers as Greeks, some as Boers, some as Rough Riders or storm troopers, some as modern guerillas. The effect is to generalize about all warfare, its glories and its ignominies, rather than to present or judge the events of a particular conflict. Often productions seem counterpoised between two celebrated utterances of the irreverent Thersites: his redaction of the Trojan War, ‘All the argument is a whore and a cuckold,’ and his judgment on the events of the play, ‘Lechery, lechery, still wars and lechery! Nothing else holds fashion.’ The emergence in the play of mercantile language, language of buying, selling, trading, and the marketplace, rivaling and replacing the older language of courtly aristocracy, challenge, and honor, would have had as much resonance for the Elizabethan court and audience as it has pertinence to ancient Greece and Troy. This shift from old to new economic verities, as Ulysses speaks of showing foul wares before fair ones and hoping they will sell, is another mark of ‘modernity’ often seized upon by actors and directors. The commodities traded by Ulysses are heroes, Ajax chosen over the more highly valued Achilles; a comparable trade in women measures the relative market value of a Helen against that of a Cressida.
In some ways, we might say that Troilus and Cressida, in its puzzling, irresolute quality; its movement back and forth from comedy to cynicism, love to war; its internal debate between idealistic Trojans and pragmatic Greeks; and its failure to generate any action at all until the final scenes, is a play that might almost have been written by Hamlet.”
On a personal note, since I don’t know this play all that well, it’s one that I’ve been very much looking forward to reading and exploring. This is going to be an interesting experience.
Our next reading: Troilus and Cressida, Act One
My next post: Thursday night/Friday morning