Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida

2020-09-13 @Literature

Once again, the playwright takes a familiar narrative or two, conducts plastic surgery, splices bits and pieces, yet unleashes not a grotesque monster, but a product of incessant humour, wit, and spectacular lyricism.

A large part of the play draws inspiration from Homer’s Iliad, set in the latter period of the ten-year Trojan war. The Troilus and Cressida affair, borrowed from Chaucer’s poem, actually forms a smaller side-plot, despite the title. Another source entirely unknown to me is William Caxton’s Recuyell of the historyes of Troye.

In contrast to the Homeric epic marked by direct involvement of the Greek deities and even human characters of grandiose and semi-divine attributes, their play counterparts demonstrate nothing of the sort. They are human, vulnerable and even insecure from time to time.

The play presents elements of soppy drama, an abundance of witty philosophy, and certain satirical allusion to arguably the post-medieval period. The gods take no part in the story but strictly as a rhetorical element.

Also, while tragic aspects do inevitably shape the narrative per the source material, it’s written mostly as a comedy, full of humorous if not altogether absurd passages, especially once you attune yourself to the language - which, by the way, I found more confounding than the usual Shakespeare I’m accustomed to.

We meet many of the familiar faces: Achilles, Patroclus, Agamemnon, Menelaus, Paris, Helen, Hector, Priam, Ulysses (Odysseus), Ajax. But how they interact with one another bears little semblance to the epic (although I can’t answer for the Caxton source).

Troilus at times appears a passionate and neurotic romantic, if not a dandy; while at times, a noble soldier.

Cressida, at one point, intently preaches the virtues of discretion. At another, she cannot hold her tongue, openly professing the inner depths of her soul, unable to sustain a single discreet thought, pitifully self-reproachful.

Ajax, while a mighty warrior, often appears an insecure and disillusioned pansy; as when Agamemnon therapeutically appeases the warrior while he questions his inner worth placed next to Achilles.

Ulysses is indeed the philosophizer we expect, producing masses of perplexing dialogue. At one instance, he unleashes a sizeable testament to Achilles, when the latter puzzles over his dwindling popularity as he sits idle in his tent all day, refusing to partake in the war.

At one of the numerous hilarious interchanges (presented in beautiful rhythmic verse), Ulysses acts sorrowful as Cressida exchanges kisses with what seems the entire Greek camp, yet he doesn’t get one.

The Greek players openly tease and bash Menelaus over Helen, his stolen wife (over who the entire war is being waged, if you’re unfamiliar with the Iliad).

Now the comedic highlight is Thersites, ‘a deformed and scurrilous Greek’. Initially Ajax’s slave/servant, yet once Ajax begins to beat his brains out (for his unfiltered language), Thersites eventually finds refuge in Achilles tent, and ultimately becomes a sort of a rogue character.

By the play’s end, few leading figures remain whom Thersites has not ridiculed. That includes the brainless Agamemnon, his ass of a brother Menelaus, the dog of as bad a kind Achilles, as well as his masculine whore Patroclus. Ajax he considers more dimwitted than his horse. Ulysses, the tramp Cressida along with the foolish young knave Troilus also get their share.

Once the culminating battle ensues between the two camps, Thersites ‘excursions’ the field, blaspheming the whole affair in spirit of a sports commentator.

At one point, as the field boils in blood and guts, Margarelon, Priam’s bastard son, makes the following cameo appearance:

  MARGARELON. Turn, slave, and fight.
  THERSITES. What art thou?
  MARGARELON. A bastard son of Priam’s.
  THERSITES. I am a bastard too; I love bastards. I am a bastard
    begot, bastard instructed, bastard in mind, bastard in valour, in
    everything illegitimate. One bear will not bite another, and
    wherefore should one bastard? Take heed, the quarrel’s most
    ominous to us: if the son of a whore fight for a whore, he tempts
    judgment. Farewell, bastard.
  MARGARELON. The devil take thee, coward!

Or how about these killer lines I can’t seem to be rid of:

  TROILUS. Hence, broker-lackey. Ignominy and shame
    Pursue thy life and live aye with thy name!

I love it, I love it, I love it.

Verdict: the play may present a few problems, but it’s still brilliantly crafted.

Questions, comments? Connect.