Troilus and Cressida: Essays and Questions

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1. What category does Troilus and Cressida belong in?


Troilus and Cressida is not an easy play to categorize. When it was first printed in 1609, it was referred to in an epistle that was placed before the text of the play as a comedy. When it appeared in the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays, it was grouped with the tragedies. Its full title is The History of Troilus and Cressida. So what is it, comedy, tragedy, or history play?


Modern editions of Shakespeare’s complete works usually place Troilus and Cressida with the comedies. But if it is a comedy, it is a very unusual one. Yes, comedies usually feature romantic love, as this play does. Young lovers overcome obstacles to their love and the play ends happily, often with multiple marriages.  In this play, however, the barriers to Troilus and Cressida’s love are not great. Instead of a family member opposing the couple, Cressida’s uncle actually supports them and works to get them together. When an obstacle does come along—Cressida is sent over to the Greek camp, thus separating her from Troilus—the love affair quickly crumbles due to Cressida’s betrayal. There is no happy ending in this play.


The play does have some tragic elements, since it culminates in the death of Hector, the great Trojan warrior. In tragedies, the protagonist always dies, but Hector is not the protagonist of the play. He is just one warrior amongst many, and his character is not presented in any deeper fashion than, say, that of Achilles or Ulysses. Nor does Nor, unlike most tragic heroes, does Hector gain any tragic knowledge about how his actions have led to his fate. 


As for this play being a history play, no definitive evidence exists that the Trojan War ever happened. The Trojan War is known through Greek mythology not historical records.Therefore it is unlike, say,Julius Caesar or Antony and Cleopatra, two plays in which Shakespeare draws on historical sources that recorded real events.In contrast, Troilus and Cressida are fictional characters, as are Achilles, Ulysses, and all the other characters in the play.


To deal with the problem of categorizing the play, modern scholars usually classify Troilus and Cressida as a “problem play,” meaning that it does not fit neatly into the usual categories. Other problem plays include All’s Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure.


2. How hasTroilus and Cressida fared on the modern stage?


Troilus and Cressidahas an unusual stage history. There is no record of any performance of the play before 1898, when it was produced in Munich, Germany. However, during the twentieth century, especially after World War II, the play was frequently performed. Its cynical, antiwar theme and its undermining of concepts of heroism seemed to suit the mood of the twentieth centurybetter than that of earlier ages. People were disillusioned after the carnage in the trenches in World War I. Many productions of the play updated the setting to create a more contemporary effect. In the early twenty-first century, the play has continued to appeal. In 2012, the Royal Shakespeare Company collaborated with New York’s experimental Wooster Group in a production of the play at Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s birthplace in England. In this production, the Trojans were dressed as Native Americans, so the concept was that the Greeks were like a conquering imperial power, destroying an indigenous culture. In general, reviews expressed disappointment about the overall success of the production. Michael Billington gave an interesting account of it in the Guardian newspaper on August 9. Achilles appeared at the feast with the Trojans in a scarlet evening gown, the point being to convey his “sexual ambivalence,” as Billington put it. Thersites was a “wheelchair-using transvestite” and Diomedes resembled the Crocodile Dundee character from the 1980s movie about an outlandish character from the Australian outback. Billington’s objection to the production was that it did not enhance understanding of the play: “If the Greeks are modern troops practising genocidal warfare on an ancient civilisation, it makes little sense either of the prolonged military stalemate or of the extraordinary homoerotic bond that unites the opposing armies.” Billington liked the notion that Cressida’s betrayal of Troilus could be simply due to her using “her sexual power as a means of self-preservation, when she finds herself in an alien Greek culture,” but complained that this idea was not developed. Whatever the flaws of this production, it seems likely that Troilus and Cressida will continue to maintain its popularity as one of Shakespeare’s most modern-seeming plays. 


3. What impression does Helen give in the one scene she appears in?


In Greek mythology Helen was famous for her beauty, so much so that all the Greek nobles competed to win her hand. In Homer’s Iliad, one of Shakespeare’s sources for Troilus and Cressida, she has retained her beauty in Troy. The old Trojan chiefs refer to her face as resembling those of the immortal goddesses. In the Iliad, Helen appears in books 3 and 6. She is something of a tragic figure, regretting her elopement with Paris. She says she is worn out with weeping over it and wishes she had not been born. She also wishes she had a more worthy husband than Paris.


In Troilus and Cressida, Helen appears only in one scene, act 3, scene 1. Shakespeare, of course, knows how to present alluring, regal women—one only has to think of Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra. However, that is far from his intention in this play. Troilus may well describe Helen as “a pearl / Whose price hath launch’d above a thousand ships” (act 2, scene 2, lines 82-83) but when Helen actually appears two scenes later at the beginning of act 3, she does not much resemble that description and certainly not the sad, tragic figure that we encounter in the Iliad. On the contrary, she appears rather trivial and superficial. She teases Pandarus at some length, and isobviously at home in the comfortable world she inhabits, without regrets, and, it seems, without a deep thought in her head. Shakespeare’s portrayal of Helen is in keeping with the way he debunks these famous mythological figures throughout the play, making them appear ordinary and in some cases reprehensible.



4. What does Hector argue at the Trojan council, and why does he change his mind?


The Trojans call a council (Act 2, scene 3) to discuss whether it is worth their while to continue the war, which has cost many lives already. The main speakers are Troilus, Hector, and Paris. King Priam calls on Hector, as the greatest of the Trojan warriors, to speak first. Hector is unequivocal in his recommendation: “Let Helen go,” he says (line 17). That will end the war. He points out that the Trojans have already lost one in ten of their men, casualties of the war. He says that, given those statistics, it is not worth keeping Helen, who is not even one of their own. Hector here speaks with a practical wisdom. The war is not worth what it is costing the Trojans in terms of human life.


Troilus rebukes him, saying that the war is a matter of honor, not a reasonable assessment of its pros and cons. But Hector plainly states his case again: “She is not worth what she doth cost the keeping” (line 52). Troilus protests, saying that there is no such thing as an objective measure of value; something is worth whatever men choose to value it at. Hector denies that premise, saying there must be some relationship between how highly something is valued and what it is actually worth. Troilus then insists on the matter of honor and ties it to responsibility, pointing out that Hector fully supported Paris’s raid on the Greeks, and all the Trojans (presumably including Hector) applauded the fact that Paris returned with Helen. How can they then declare that what they formerly prized they now consider to be worthless, or at least not worth the price of continuing war? Paris supports him, also arguing about the preservation of honor. It would be shameful to just hand Helen over to the Greeks. Hector still resists their arguments, saying they argue more from passion than reason or from moral questions of right and wrong. He points out that Helen is Menelaus’s wife, and therefore Menelaus has a legitimate claim to her. But then, in just four lines, Hector reverses himself. He says he supports the keeping of Helen, for that is a cause “that hath no mean dependence / Upon our joint and several dignities” (lines 193-94), that is to say, their honor. He then says he has already issued a challenge to the Greeks.


What is the audience to make of this about-face? Hector may appear to have abandoned his principles, finally acknowledging, perhaps against his better instincts, the call that honor makes in this difficult situation. The fact that he has already issued a challenge to the Greeks for single combat suggests also that he too can be swayed by impulse and the clamor of war, his arguments from reason and morality notwithstanding.



5. What does Ulysses argue at the Greek council?


Ulysses has a reputation as the wiliest of the Greeks, and at the council presided over by Agamemnon in Act 1, scene, 3, both Agamemnon and Nestor defer to him and accept what he says as an accurate reflection of the situation in the war.


Ulysses begins by speaking about the necessity of order in the cosmos and in human society. Everything has its  place in an orderly, hierarchical  system. Just as the sun rules the heavens, the king rules on earth. If there is disorder in the heavens, there will be disorder on earth as well and in human society, whatever enterprise is being attempted. Chaos will rule. Ulysses of course has in mind political and military enterprises, but the theoretical framework he uses is an Elizabethan commonplace and is sometimes referred to as the “great chain of being.” Ulysses then explains that the reasons the Greeks are not succeeding in their goal of capturing Troy is because they are not orderly. They are weak because they are not presenting a coherent war effort. He gives some examples: Achilles and Patroclus, both valued warriors, especially Achilles, just stay in their tent and mock the Greek leaders. Nestor chimes in, saying that others are imitating Achilles and Patroclus, so they are having a corrosive effect on Greek morale. Ulysses then describes another aspect of disorder: there is disagreement in the army about military strategy. One faction values brute force above all else and disparages what Ulysses knows is one of the most vital aspects of any war: covert intelligence gathering, planning, knowing the enemy’s weak points. (Ulysses himself had gone on a reconnaissance mission for the Greeks, so he values this aspect of warfare.)Ulysses thus presents a picture of an army divided against itself, without unified purpose. 

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