Troilus and Cressida | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Troilus and Cressida | Context

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Trojan War

The Greek poet Homer's The Iliad (c. 750–650 BCE), the first Western epic poem, details the conflict of the Trojan War, which also serves as the setting for William Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida. The Iliad begins late in the war at Troy. The Greeks have gone to war to win back Helen, King Menelaus's wife. Paris, a prince of Troy and son of King Priam, stole Helen while on a visit to Menelaus's city of Sparta.

According to legend, Helen was reputed to be the most beautiful woman in the world, and all of the Greek kings had sought her hand in marriage. Before a husband was chosen, the assembled suitors agreed they would not wage war on the man chosen to wed her. Instead, they promised to abide by the decision and defend her should she ever be taken from her chosen husband. Menelaus, king of Sparta, succeeded in winning Helen as his wife.

Paris, meanwhile, had been chosen to judge which goddess was more beautiful: Hera, Aphrodite, or Athena. The three powerful goddesses made offers to him to influence his decision. Paris finally chose Aphrodite, who promised him the love of the most beautiful woman in the world. Thus, Paris earned Aphrodite's favor, but he also earned Athena and Hera's enmity. While visiting Sparta, Paris saw Helen and asked Aphrodite for her. Helen and Paris fled to Troy. When Menelaus discovered the betrayal, he called in the oaths made by all of the other kings, and the Greek army set sail for Troy.

As The Iliad begins, the Greeks have been fighting the Trojans for almost 10 years. Agamemnon is in command of the Greek forces, and Achilles is the most powerful fighter among the Greeks. The story begins in the Greek camp as Achilles and Agamemnon argue over the return of Chryseis, a captive of Agamemnon, to her father Chryses, who is a Trojan priest. Agamemnon relents and gives Chryseis back to her father, but to compensate himself, Agamemnon takes Achilles's female captive, Briseis, for himself. Though strongly tempted, Achilles refuses to fight Agamemnon, and in his rage he refuses to join the Greeks in their battles. Without Achilles's help, the tide of war swings toward the Trojans. When the Trojans threaten the Greek ships, Patroclus (who is Achilles's close friend and possibly a romantic interest) dons Achilles's armor and leads the Myrmidons (Achilles's forces) into battle to defend the ships. When he pursues the Trojans back to the walls, Patroclus is killed by Hector, the Trojans' best warrior. A grieving and enraged Achilles dons his armor, seeks Hector, and kills him. He then dishonors Hector's body by dragging it behind his chariot as he circles the city of Troy. Hector's father, King Priam, begs for the return of his son's body, and Achilles returns Hector's body so Troy can mourn. The Iliad ends with the funeral for Hector during a 12-day truce between the two armies.

The death of Achilles and the fall of Troy are not detailed in The Iliad, though they are mentioned in other epics such as Homer's The Odyssey (c. 725–675 BCE) and Roman poet Virgil's The Aeneid (c. 29–19 BCE) as well as other sources. Achilles is killed when Paris shoots a poisoned arrow at his heel, the only vulnerable spot on Achilles's body. The war ends with the Trojan horse gambit. The Greeks built a large, hollow horse and hide their soldiers inside, then they pretend to sail away. The Trojans take the horse inside the unbreachable walls and begin to celebrate their perceived victory. That night, the Greeks slip out of the horse, kill the guards, open the gates for the awaiting army, and proceed to sack the city of Troy.

Shakespeare's Sources

Homer's poem likely supplied the epic background for Shakespeare's play as there were a number of translations available to him, most notably the one by George Chapman, which was published in 1598. However, there was no mention of a love story between Troilus and Cressida in Homer's tale. Moreover, Troilus is not mentioned, though a character named Chryseis may be an early version of Cressida. Shakespeare likely took his romance from English poet Geoffrey Chaucer's 14th-century poem, Troilus and Criseyde, which in turn stemmed from Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio's poem, Il Filostrato (1337). It is widely believed Shakespeare consulted English monk John Lydgate's The Hystorye, Sege and Dystruccyon of Troye or Caxton's The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye (1474) to build the political plot of the play.

While Shakespeare likely used Chaucer as a source, he did not rely on his characterizations. Shakespeare's Cressida bears little resemblance to Chaucer's character Criseyde whose motivations and feelings are laid bare. Shakespeare leaves audiences to wonder what is going on inside Cressida's head. There is a noted lack of meaningful discussions between characters that reveal inner lives. For example, Cressida is never surrounded by other women to whom she might reveal the inner workings of her heart. Instead, in his rush to condemn her as the faithless woman, Shakespeare reduces her to a type—a lesser Helen.

Likewise, Achilles in Homer's Iliad is fairly honorable; it is only when blinded by rage and grief that he acts poorly. Shakespeare alters his source material to better fit his themes in the writing of Troilus and Cressida. Because Shakespeare does not create a typically heroic retelling of the Trojan War, his characters lack heroic virtues. He illustrates the horrors of war and of the men who fight it. Achilles in Shakespeare is a cowardly bully, only able to kill Hector with the help of his Myrmidons when Hector is unarmed rather than in single combat as in Homer. Shakespeare's portrayals of the other Greek generals also show their lack of honor, as they set Achilles and Ajax against each other and mock both of these champions, undercutting their prowess, which the audience never gets to see.

Where Homer creates a heroic epic, full of the glorious deeds of his heroes, Shakespeare creates a senseless bloodbath, where neither opponent is in the right. Thersites functions as his commentator, pointing out the hypocrisy of a war fought over a faithless woman and the honorless men who wage it. Instead of being the pinnacle of the Greek army, Achilles—in Shakespeare—is a cowardly braggart, interested only in his own aggrandizement. There is little heroism to be found in Troilus and Cressida. In Shakespeare's version, Hector is the only one of the major players to approach the heroism of the source material, and even he is less heroic than in Homer, as he is easily swayed by talk of glory rather than arguing for Helen's return to stem the tide of blood.

Problem Plays

Troilus and Cressida is one of three plays commonly referred to as "problem plays." Measure for Measure (1603–04) and All's Well That Ends Well (1601–05) are the other two. Written between 1601 and 1605, these plays are ambiguous in tone, vacillating between broad, bawdy comedy and darker, psychological drama. The term problem play was first used by literary critic F. S. Boas in his 1896 work, Shakespeare and his Predecessors. He considered them problems because of their nontraditional attempts to explore social issues and morality through the actions of the main characters.

Shakespeare's plays are traditionally classified into three types: comedies, tragedies, and histories. The history plays are those dealing with British historical figures: Henry IV, Part 1 (1596–97), Richard III (1592–94), and Henry V (1599), for example. Comedies include Much Ado About Nothing (1598–99) and A Midsummer Night's Dream (1595–96). The tragedies include some of Shakespeare's best-known works: Hamlet (1599–1601), Othello (1603–04), King Lear (1605–06), and Macbeth (c. 1606–07). The plots of comedies tend to center around misunderstandings or situational ignorance, but everything is resolved happily. Likewise, tragedies, though containing a higher mortality rate, also end definitively, usually with a restoration of social or moral order.

In Troilus and Cressida the tone shifts wildly between the bawdy comedy that occurs when the character of Pandarus inserts himself into his niece's love life and the unsatisfying murder of another of King Priam's heroic sons Hector by the cowardly Greek hero Achilles. It is not purely comedy or tragedy; it contains elements of both. The first half of the play reads like a comedy, with Pandarus and his antics and the machinations of the Greek generals as they pit the heroes Ajax and Achilles and their overweening pride against each other. The latter half of the play contains tragic elements: the separation of the lovers and the death of the hero of Troy. However, the play does not have a true ending, as Troilus resolves to keep fighting the war. There is no cathartic outcome or restoration of order and no resolution to any of the plotlines. For this reason it is often referred to as a tragi-comedy, but even that is an awkward fit.

Beyond tone, the play lacks a true tragic hero or a central defining romance. Based on the title, it seems that Troilus and Cressida are supposed to be the focus of the play. However, there is little to mark it as a classical romance. Pandarus treats Cressida as a wartime bargaining chip, regardless of the fact she is his niece and relies on him for protection because her father is a traitor who has left Troy. Troilus, on the other hand, is little more than an amalgam of courtly romance tropes. The alleged defining romance falls flat when set against a backdrop of lechery, further magnified by Cressida's own muddy characterization.

As for the tragic hero, the closest is Hector, but he isn't one of the title characters. More importantly, his death doesn't solve anything except to cement the eventual fall of Troy. There is no happy ending for anyone, which is made all the more clear by the numerous speeches from both sides of the war about the ridiculousness of a war fought over a fallen woman and a cuckold's pride. Shakespeare seems to comment on the futility of war, but without a clearly heroic arc.

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