Troilus and Cressida

Troilus and Cressida is Shakespeare’s perspective on the Trojan War, not so much from Homer, but from Chaucer, whose source was apparently Italian.

I am not certain what to make of this play, and so far, my critical reading is not really helping me figure that out: most people seem as uncertain as I am. Like most of Shakespeare’s work, there are elements of comedy and tragedy, but there are also large passages that could probably be played either way, for pathos or laughs. It is also not particularly focused: the actual titular characters appear in about half the scenes, the rest is given over to the politics of the Greek encampment outside of Troy.

Perhaps because of this difficulty, there are a lot of interesting aspects to the treatment of character and circumstance. There are a really distinct series of ideological clashes between the medieval chivalric perspective inherited from Chaucer and my understanding of Greek kleos from Homer. Essentially, the ideals of courtesy as understood by the middle ages are transposed onto these ancients: parlay’s and courtly love. Yet the somewhat more straightforward concept of kleos, which is essentially self-promotion and hence at odds to courtesy, is retained in many key actions.

Probably the two most interesting moments are the changes to the Iliad Book 5 in the meeting between Hektor and Andromache; in the Iliad I think Hector comes across as weary of the battle and forced by necessity to fight. He seems as yielding and accommodating to Andromache’s fears as you could hope in the circumstances. In Shakespeare he is curt and almost hungry for battle. I must go and re-read Book 5 to do a more detailed comparison, but any change in that direction seems significant.

Secondly, is the manner of Hector’s death. In some ways The Iliad in its entirety is the necessary background to establish the worth of Achilles to fight Hector and vice versa. The moment when Hector falls to Achilles sword is what establishes Achilles as a true hero, above the status of all the rest of the Greeks: its importance cannot be over stated. However, Shakespeare has Achilles’ soldiers slay a Hector temporarily unarmed, in a gross violation both of the rules of courtesy and actually against the principle of kleos – rendering Achilles anything but a hero.

Taken together, and with sundry other details, we should probably read Troilus and Cressida as an early example of the “war is hell” genre that really came into its own after the first world war, and more recently in Vietnam. Which, yet, does not make it entirely tragic: I certainly felt far less sympathy for Hector here than in Homer, despite also losing sympathy for Achilles. Nor did I really find myself getting invested in the central love story.

A very interesting play, and one that I’m fairly sure I will need to return to in order to untangle.

Next up: Timon of Athens

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