Troilus and Cressida - William Shakespeare Troilus and Cressida is a half-baked play. By that I mean that it reads like the conflation of two distinct plots tied together by the common character of Troilus. This is not to say it isn’t a rather good play but it’s not a successful one. I've read it twice now and watched the BBC adaptation, and it grows on you. There are several powerful monologues and scenes where the dialog crackles but in the final analysis it remains "clunky" and its parts difficult to reconcile. As to the reasons why, I'm letting myself be more and more convinced by David Seltzer's argument in the Introduction to my Signet Classic edition of the play:

“In Troilus and Cressida Shakespeare tried for the first time to combine in dramatic terms a story of love with a story of public affairs. It is worth noting that in the major tragedies that follow, the personal fate of the hero is inextricably bound up in the world of the state, and that in Troilus Shakespeare made his first real study of the relationship between the pressures of the public world and the survival of love. (p. xxxiii)

As Troilus is not one of the Bard’s better known works, let me briefly summarize: Like The Iliad, the play opens toward the end of the Trojan War. Troilus, a son of Priam, has fallen desperately in love with Cressida, the daughter of Calchas, who has defected to the Greeks and lives among them. Cressida’s uncle, Pandarus, has contrived to bring the two together. Unfortunately, after their one night of passion, they awake to learn that Cressida has been traded to the Greeks for the warrior Antenor. Cressida arrives at the Greek camp, where she succumbs to the advances of Diomedes, a Greek general. Troilus, visiting the camp under a flag of truce, secretly witnesses Cressida’s betrayal and is heartbroken.

Meanwhile, the Trojans are trying to decide if Helen is worth all the trouble. On one side is Hector, who counsels that they should give her back to the Greeks and be done with the whole affair. On the other is Troilus, who despises Helen but argues that honor can only be satisfied by defending her. In the Greek camp, the primary goal is to get Achilles to rejoin the battle. He has absented himself from the field because he made a promise to Polyxena, the daughter of Hecuba and sister to Hector and Troilus, not to fight her brothers. The other Greeks, not knowing this, blame the effeminizing influence of Achilles’ male lover Patroclus. Unfortunately, without Achilles, the Greeks are demoralized and unable to overcome Troy. Ulysses comes up with a plan to shame Achilles into returning to the battle, taking advantage of a challenge Hector has made to fight a champion in single combat. They nominate the dull-witted Ajax, and he fights an inconclusive duel with Hector. Achilles remains unmoved. It’s only with Patroclus’ death that he forswears his oath. In the battle that ends the play, Achilles treacherously ambushes an unarmed Hector and has his Myrmidon’s slaughter him.

As I wrote above, we have two stories taking place here: First there is the love affair of Troilus and Cressida. In many ways it parallels that of Romeo and Juliet, particularly in Troilus’ case. Here he is describing Cressida in the opening scene of Act 1:

“O, Pandarus! I tell thee, Pandarus, -
When I do tell thee, there my hopes lie drown’d.
Reply not in how many fathoms deep
They lie indrench’d. I tell thee I am mad
In Cressid’s love: thou answer’st `she is fair;’
Pour’st in the open ulcer of my heart
Her eyes, her hair, her cheek, her gait, her voice,
Handlest in thy discourse, O, that her hand,
In whose comparison all whites are ink,
Writing their own reproach, to whose soft seizure
The cygnet’s down is harsh and spirit of sense
Hard as the palm of ploughman: this thou tell’st me,
As true thou tell’st me, when I say I love her;
But, saying thus, instead of oil and balm,
Thou lay’st in every gash that love hath given me
The knife that made it.”

Or here in his giddy expectations upon seeing her in Act 3, scene 1:

“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.”

Unlike Juliet, Cressida is not an untried chit but an intelligent woman capable of holding her own in any conversation:

“PANDARUS: Asses, fools, dolts! Chaff and bran, chaff and bran! Porridge after meat! I could live and die i’ the eyes of Troilus. Ne’er look, ne’er look: the eagles are gone: crows and daws, crows and daws! I had rather be such a man as Troilus than Agamemnon and all Greece.

CRESSIDA: There is among the Greeks Achilles, a better man than Troilus.

P: Achilles! A drayman, a porter, a very camel.

C: Well, well.

P: `Well, well!’ Why, have you any discretion? Have you any eyes? Do you know what a man is? Is not birth, beauty, good shape, discourse, manhood, learning, gentleness, virtue, youth, liberality, and such like, the spice and salt that seasons a man?

C: Ay, a minced man: and then to be baked with no date in the pie, for then the man’s date’s out.

P: You are such a woman! One knows not at what ward you lie.

C: Upon my back, to defend my belly; upon my wit, to defend my wiles; upon my secrecy, to defend mine honesty; my mask, to defend my beauty; and you, to defend all these: and at all these wards I lie, at a thousand watches.

P: Say one of your watches.

C: Nay, I’ll watch you for that; and that’s one of the chiefest of them too: if I cannot ward what I would not have hit, I can watch you for telling how I took the blow; unless it swell past hiding, and then it’s past watching.

P: You are such another!”
(Act 1, scene 2)

And yet she still professes her love for Troilus as volubly as he:

“Boldness comes to me now, and brings me heart.
Prince Troilus, I have loved you night and day for many weary months….

Hard to seem won: but I was won, my lord,
With the first glance that ever – pardon me –
If I confess much, you will play the tyrant.
I love you now; but not, till now, so much
But I might master it: in faith, I lie;
My thoughts were like unbridled children, grown
Too headstrong for their mother. See, we fools!
Why have I blabb’d? who shall be true to us,
When we are so unsecret to ourselves?
But, though I love you well, I woo’d you not;
And yet, good faith, I wish’d myself a man,
Or that we women had men’s privilege
Of speaking first. Sweet, bid me hold my tongue,
For in this rapture I shall surely speak
The thing I shall repent. See, see, your silence,
Cunning in dumbness, from my weakness draws
My very soul of counsel! Stop my mouth.”
(Act 3, scene 2)

Their love ends almost but not quite as tragically as Romeo and Juliet’s but the consequences of Cressida’s betrayal remain unresolved. She disappears from the play after Act 5, scene 2; Troilus gives an impassioned speech denying that the Cressida he sees in Diomedes’ arms is his; and then he goes off to join the battle.

In Shakespeare’s day there was little sympathy for Cressida. According to the wildly popular story upon which the play is based, Diomedes spurns her, she ends up a leper, and Troilus dies. Not being a product of the Elizabethan Age, I feel a bit more empathy toward the woman, and see her as a person with low self-esteem. Thinking little of herself, when Troilus offers such unconditional love, she’s swept away. But when she’s torn from his arms and forced back into an environment where she’s nothing more than a chattel to be traded, she falls back into her old defense of pragmatism and gives in to Diomedes’ advances. Troilus, not being extraordinarily perceptive, can only see a whore (where before he had only seen the saint erected in his mind), which drives Cressida further away, further confirming her self-opinion.

The public side of the play roughly mirrors the private side, and again the touchstone is Troilus, whose romanticized notions of war will founder on the same realities as his love for Cressida:

“I take to-day a wife, and my election is led on in the conduct of my will;
My will enkindled by mine eyes and ears,
Two traded pilots ‘twixt the dangerous shores
Of will and judgment: how may I avoid,
Although my will distaste what it elected,
The wife I chose? There can be no evasion
To blench from this and to stand firm by honor:
We turn not back the silks upon the merchant,
When we have soil’d them, nor the remainder viands
We do not throw in unrespective sieve,
Because now we are full. It was thought meet
Paris should do some vengeance on the Greeks:
Your breath of full consent bellied his sails;
The seas and winds, old wranglers, took a truce
And did him service: he touch’d the ports desired,
And for an old aunt whom the Greeks held captive,
He brought a Grecian queen, whose youth and freshness
Wrinkles Apollo’s, and makes stale the morning.
Why keep we her? The Grecians keep our aunt:
Is she worth keeping? Why, she is a pearl,
Whose price hath launch’d above a thousand ships,
And turn’d crown’d kings to merchants.
If you’ll avouch ‘twas wisdom Paris went –
As you must needs, for you all cried `Go, go,’ –
If you’ll confess he brought home noble prize –
As you must needs, for you all clapp’d your hands
And cried `Inestimable!’ – why do you now
The issue of your proper wisdoms rate,
And do a deed that fortune never did,
Beggar the estimation which you prized
Richer than sea and land? O, theft most base,
That we have stol’n what we do fear to keep!
But, thieves, unworthy of a thing so stol’n,
That in their country did them that disgrace,
We fear to warrant in our native place!”
Act 2, scene 2)

There is also a betrayer, Achilles, ostensibly the greatest warrior on either side (his mere presence in the field makes the Trojans wet their breaches). He cravenly orders his Myrmidons to murder the defenseless Hector and then claims the credit:

“ACHILLES: Look, Hector, how the sun begins to set;
How ugly night comes breathing at his heels:
Even with the vail and darking of the sun,
To close the day up, Hector’s life is done.

HECTOR: I am unarm’d; forego this vantage, Greek.

A: Strike, fellows, strike; this is the man I seek.
So, Ilion, fall thou next! Now, Troy, sink down!
Here lies they heart, thy sinews, and thy bone.
On, Myrmidons, and cry you all amain,
`Achilles hath the mighty Hector slain.’”
Act 5, scene 8

I have ignored in these ramblings, Pandarus, Ulysses and the acerbic Thersites, all of whom play important roles in the unfolding of events but I can hope that this brief review will inspire you to take a look (or another one) at the play. There’s more to it than apparent at first glance. You can see where Shakespeare begins to wrestle with the great, humanistic themes of plays to come like Othello, King Lear and The Tempest, and where he continues to struggle with issues raised in past works like Romeo & Juliet and Hamlet.