Why This Play?:
I consulted the list of plays I have to finish reading to complete the canon. I lifted my index finger. I waved it around in circles over the list, my other hand held over my eyes. I pushed said finger down to the page. I saw that I was to read Troilus and Cressida. I rejoiced that I was to tackle a play that I had never read nor seen. I dig getting to dive into the unknown.
And it’s an intriguing play. I’m surprised it’s not performed more. Academics have dubbed it one of the “problem plays.” I think that’s what makes it feel so modern. We have here a tale about the idiocy of war. We have a tale of inconstant women (whose fate and circumstances are solely decided by men). And we have some surprisingly fun, witty banter. Then, an ending that has no resolution at all. It’s all over the place, and there isn’t really a clear message aside from this: trust no one because people lie and/or change their minds, and war is crazy. Is this right? Should we take this Troilus and Cressida as a cautionary tale that the rug can be pulled out from us at any moment?
So What Happens?:
We the readers/audience start the play in the middle of some serious action. Luckily for us, we kick off with a Prologue to bring us up to speed! This is Shakespeare’s retelling of The Iliad, particularly a snippet of the story that fascinated Chaucer enough to tell it 200 years earlier. This helpful bit relays that we’re back in ancient Troy, where they are at war with the Greeks. One of the Princes of Troy (Paris) stole away with Helen, the Queen of Sparta, much to the chagrin of her husband, King Menelaus. This whole war is over “the face that launched a thousand ships”, as Marlowe put it. Good ol’ Prologue brings us smack dab into the middle of it all.
The Who’s Who gets a little tricky with this one (at least it did for me, maybe I have problems with Greek names?), so here’s what you need to know in terms of which characters are on which side and relate to whom:
King Priam has a bunch of royal offspring that are all grown:
- Hector (large and in charge)
- Troilus (he of the title)
- Paris (the one who runs off with Greek queen Helen, thus starting the whole war)
- Some other sons with very little to do in this play other than stand around
- Cassandra (future-telling, mad daughter)
Then there’s Calchas, a priest with little national loyalty
- Pandarus (his wise and funny brother who just loves to help the youths)
- Cressida (his daughter, she of the title)
Menelaus is the King of Sparta (part of Greece):
- Helen (his wife and runaway queen with a pretty, pretty face)
Agamemnon is the general of the Greek army:
- Nestor (old guy advisor)
- Ulysses (yup, he of the Odyssey! But here, he’s a crafty soldier)
- Achilles (awesome yet proud soldier)
- Ajax (big dumb soldier)
- Diomedes (other soldier; he's important later)
- Patroclus (funny clown soldier)
- Theristes (sarcastic commentator servant)
All set? Finally, we proceed to the action!
Troilus is practically losing himself over love for Cressida. He’s so preoccupied, he can’t even bring himself to join in the fighting against the Greeks. All he wants to do is sing her praises, which he does to her uncle, Pandarus. Troilus pleads for Pandarus to put in a good word for him with Cressida, and the older man brushes him off. Troilus is left alone to hope that Pandarus will do him a solid. Trojan soldier Aeneas arrives to bring Troilus back to the battlefield. Elsewhere, Cressida is watching the soldiers go by, gleaning intel from her servant on them. She learns that Prince Hector was wounded. He’s all fired up about it, already plotting revenge on the Greeks. Pandarus arrives, and hears Cressida’s praise of Hector. He points out some other men passing by, then turns the talk to the subject of Troilus, claiming he’s the most admirable man in all of Troy. They have a fun, confidante relationship, full of jokes. Cressida plays coy with Pandarus, but once alone she reveals her interest in her beau. Yet she believes she needs to play it cool and make Troilus keep courting her a little longer. Hard-to-get = better appreciated.
On the other side of the war zone, the Greeks are in council. They’ve been attacking Troy for seven years to no avail – what gives? Agamemnon and Nestor believe the Greeks are the better army, but Ulysses argues that they’re weak because the lower-ranking soldiers have no respect for their leaders. Apparently, Patroclus mimicks all the leaders behind their backs to entertain Achilles. They both laze about and refuse to do battle.
Trojan soldier Aeneas interrupts the Greek council to deliver a message. Hector’s still raging over his wound but wants to prove his toughness, so he says he will challenge any Greek who claims his woman is better than Hector’s. The Greeks can’t pass up this opportunity. Nestor thinks they should send their golden boy, Achilles. But sly Ulysses knows Achilles won’t care about the challenge – unless they offer the job to someone else. He convinces them to send Ajax to fight Hector, knowing that proud Achilles will finally get off his bum and fight if he thinks he’s no longer the most valued fighter.
Thersites, a servant on the Greek side, is raving. He has no tolerance for dim Ajax and lazy Achilles, each jealous of their other’s stature as a prized warrior. He taunts Ajax openly, continuing even when Ajax starts using his fists in retort. Achilles enters, mildly amused by the ranting Thersites, and tells Ajax of Hector’s challenge to fight a great Greek soldier. Over in the Trojan camp, King Priam calls his sons in to relay the latest news from the Greeks: they will offer peace if Helen is returned to the Greeks. Hector and Troilus take opposing sides. Hector’s willing to settle with the army and end the war, while Troilus claims that for the honor of their family and of Helen, they can’t allow her to be stolen away from her home only to be returned. Basically, Paris et. al. are just a bunch of dirty thieves if they don’t prize and honor the person (here referred to in objective and idolized terms) they stole to begin with. Yeah, sound logic, dude.
Their sister, Cassandra, interrupts the discussion. She is mad, and arrives bewailing Troy’s fate. She prophesies that Helen has to go, or else Troy will fall…then just sort of mysteriously floats out of the scene. Hector kinda wonders if maybe their sis is on to something, but Troilus dismisses her as merely crazy.
Paris finally gets around to speaking up (you think he’d have wanted his say in this a little earlier?), and of course he insists that Helen stay. Papa Priam tries to reason that love/lust might be clouding his judgment on this decision that could affect hundreds of lives, but Paris doesn’t back down. Hector gives in and agrees to continue the war to preserve some twisted sense of Trojan dignity. Go Team Troy!
Back on the Greek side, Thersites is hating on soldiers and war in general. Thersites calls out everyone (the generals, Achilles, and Patroclus) for being fools. Achilles still finds his anger vaguely amusing, but Patroclus is ready for a beat down. Before they can come to blows, the army commanders start to approach. Arrogant Achilles doesn’t want to be bothered, and he asks Patroclus to cover for him as he goes to hide out in his tent. General Agamemnon arrives with Ulysses, Nestor, Ajax, and others in tow. Agamemnon is peeved about being put off by one of his soldiers as he continues to demand an audience:
Agamemnon preaches about the sin of pride, and starts to warm to the dim but pliable Ajax. Ulysses and Nestor are secretly pleased that their scheme to get Achilles to fight by poking his pride is underway. Ulysses flatters Ajax, and counsels Agamemnon that Ajax is more fit to fight on Greece’s behalf than Achilles.
Over in Troy, the fighting has stopped for a day. Pandarus enjoys some music while he seeks out Paris. Turns out Helen has convinced her lover to engage in a day of fun before returning to battle. Pandarus just wants to deliver this message, but the giddy lovers persist in teasing him. He plays along and sings a song of love. Then, he’s finally able to request that Paris cover for Troilus’s absence at family dinner that night. Pandarus then foots it back to Troilus, where he arranges for the lover to stay in the orchard so he can orchestrate a meeting with Cressida. Pandarus brings Cressida to Troilus. She’s suddenly acting bashful, wearing a veil and acting the epitome of modesty (unlike the teasing, playful Cressida we saw with Pandarus earlier). Troilus professes his love, and Cressida haltingly but sincerely confesses she loves him in return. She is afraid that she’s not showing enough maiden modesty in her confession; to her, her feelings seem rash but intense and honest (much like Juliet). They kiss, and Troilus exclaims that in the future, the trueness of his love will be the stuff of legends. Cressia promises that if she ever plays him false in her love that her name would be synonymous with dishonesty in that same legend. There’s no way anything could go wrong now!
Back over at Camp Greek (which, in my imagination, looks vaguely like the Deltas’ toga party in Animal House), Cressida’s dad, Calchas has defected. Because he’s passing them some quality intel, he requests that Greece exchange their Trojan prisoner Antenor for Cressida. Guy just wants his daughter to be nearby, you know? Agememnon agrees and sends soldier Diomedes to handle the trade. The Greek leaders act coldly toward Achilles. Ulysses is still playing Achilles by wounding his pride enough to get him to fight – he tells him about a book he’s reading that demonstrates that virtue and valor don’t count unless they’re actively demonstrated for all to see. He then praises Ajax as a real hero, because he’s going to fight the Trojans in front of everyone, whereas Achilles has just been moping about his tent, his greatness long forgotten. He also badgers Achilles about his infatuation for one of Priam’s daughters, Polyxena. Ajax isn’t foolish enough to fall for a Trojan princess – instead, he is on board to kill her brother and prove where his loyalties lie. Patroclus pipes in to support Achilles to fight, and vexed Achilles swears he’ll be the one to kill Hector instead.
As instructed, Diomedes arrives at the Trojan camp with prisoner Antenor to exchange for Cressida. Aeneas goes off to fetch her, and Paris idly asks who Diomedes thinks deserves Helen. Diomedes doesn’t exactly say what Paris wants to hear…he reckons Helen is cheating no matter who’s bed she’s in. [Not the kindest picture of a woman who was STOLEN AWAY FROM HER HOME due to some dude’s lust. But I digress.]
Aeneas comes to Cressida’s house to get Troilus out of bed (that’s right, the lovers spent the night together). Pandarus fills them in on the deal – Cressida is to go with the Greeks to be reunited with her father. Cressida is heartbroken and angry; she cares for Troilus far more than her father. The lovers steal a moment to say goodbye. They exchange tokens (Troilus gives Cressida his sleeve), Pandarus laments over them, and Troilus pledges his fealty. Troilus pleads with Cressida to stay true to him, which offends her, and he covers by warning that Greek men are pretty awesome/lyrical/strong/learned and that she should take care not to be tempted by them. She then goes with Diomedes to be delivered up.
The Greek army welcomes Cressida. There’s this odd scene where they all (Agememnon, Nestor, Achilles, etc) all compliment and kiss Cressida. She deflects with her wit (in a moment that could be either playing the part of charming to ensure her safety or could be actual joy at being well-received and flattered?). Ulysses thinks that her charm could be dangerous.
Trumpets sound: the Trojans have arrived to prep for the single-man battle of Hector and…whoever (Ajax or Achilles, who even knows at this point?). Hector realizes that Ajax is his cousin on his dad’s side, and he refuses to fight a relative. So looks like Achilles will step up after all and battle with him the next day. But for tonight? Everyone will overact the part of courtesy and entertain each other like they’re old friends, all while really giving each other the hairy eyeball. One night of pretend for the sake of good manners, then they can kill each other the following morning. There’s a chest-thumping exchange between Hector and Achilles to this effect. [My fave bit of politesse is Hector informing Meneleus that his wife Helen is doing well, but that she didn’t have a message for him. He then “realizes” his faux pas in bringing her up and apologizes.] Troilus hangs out with Ulysses and gets the latter to take him to Calchas’s tent in attempt to find Cressida. Ulysses obliges, hinting at Diomedes’s affection for her.
Around the camp, various things are going on. Thersites and Patroclus equally annoy one another and engage in a hilarious exchange of insults. Achilles confesses to Patroclus that he loves Priam’s daughter (not the mad soothsaying one). Guess this is really why he’s been so reluctant to fight this whole time? Thersites wanders around alone, ranting about the stupidity of this war and everyone’s hypocritical game of play-nice the night before battle. Troilus and Ulysses spy on Cressida (Thersites spying on the two of them all the while), when Diomedes steals in to meet with her. Cressida struggles with affection for Diomedes, and he accuses her of being a tease. Troilus is going (understandably) crazy throughout the entire exchange. She brings the sleeve as a token of affection, and seeing it, thinks on Troilus. She then starts to turn Diomedes away and rebuke herself, but then gives in to him and allows him to take the sleeve as he leaves. She’s torn with affection for both Troilus and Diomedes. Troilus can’t believe that he just witnessed his lover in this scene. He is distraught over Cressida’s disloyalty and swears he’ll get even with Diomedes.
Hector’s siblings have been having all kinds of dreams and visions that his battle will not go well and that Troy will fall. They try to convince him to bow out, but Hector’s not having any of it. He said he’ll fight, so he’ll fight. Troilus is eager to join him (although protective Hector doesn’t like it). Pandarus brings a love letter from Cressida, which he tears apart upon reading. They go into battle, Diomedes and Troilus tearing into one another from the first. Diomedes gets Troilus’s horse and has a servant send it to present to Cressida as proof that he is her knight. Agememnon relays details of a chaotic battlefield. Patroclus is dead. Ajax and Diomedes go after Troilus, while Hector also fights…it’s just general madness of characters running on and off the stage, reporting about fighting elsewhere. Thersites also bobs in and out, trying to avoid the fighting when one of Priam’s other sons pursues him. Achilles finds Hector, slays him, and drags him around to show others. The Greeks hope this means the war will end, and Troilus mourns his brother while he hopes for revenge in the midst of all his sorrow. Pandarus arrives to perform a sad little epilogue about “traitors and bawds”.
Check This Out:
I discovered another podcast about Shakespeare (in case you weren’t aware of my love for No Holds Bard)! The new one I’m into is called Pith & Moment, by an actor and Shakespeare teacher in NYC, Kyle Downing. He hosts it with actress and self-professed Bard nerd Abby Wilde. I even wrote in a question to them about T&C that they answered (essentially, what still makes it relevant and worth watching today)! You can hear their answer on Episode 14 – jump to 48 minutes in to hear the question and their discussion. My favorite bit was when Abby claims The Iliad is the first literary example of slut-shaming. Check it out, it’s totally worth the subscription.
This is, hands down, the most ambitious high school production of ANYTHING that I have ever seen (never mind a little-known Shakespeare play):
I checked out the 1981 BBC version, starring Anton Lesser as Troilus. The actors have a beautiful and natural interpretation of the language, but it honestly wasn’t enough to keep me engaged. The first two acts (with the exception of Pandarus, played as an aging dandy) were frankly a bit boring. I was, however, extremely excited to realize that the actor who plays Aeneas also played the waiter during that eyeball scene in Scrooged. [I make these kinds of odd mental connections on the regular.]
It sounds like I’m not the only one who has a hard time coming up with a clear view of how to interpret this play. A few years back RSC partnered with New York based Wooster Group to put on a performance that many, many critics panned. An interesting breakdown of the bad reviews vs. intention of the performance here.
Thoughts and Themes:
Aw, man. There are two mega motifs going on here that can be taken so so so many ways. One, we’re dealing with an examination of the reasons for war. Are they good reasons – i.e. justifiable for an entire nation to sacrifice citizens for the greater good? Parallel to this, we also have a story of unfaithful women (Helen as well as Cressida) – and an underlying feminist question, are their actions a direct result of their portrayal as objects rather than people? These are huge issues that I can barely wrap my head around. And I’m going to fully admit right here and now – I have no idea how to tie these questions into my life. Mostly because I have very little experience with war (aside from, of course, my voting record and donations made to refugee support) and I have also never cheated on a significant other. So, no surface connections to this play from my life…looks like we’re going to have to dig a little deeper and make some tangential links. I got my bachelor’s in English, so this is my specialty!
This is a jarring play – shifting from funny moments (even downright silly) to scenes of deep heartache and violence. We see characters in the throws of wild happiness and passion transition to the depths of despair literally overnight. And throughout it all, there are accusations of lying and treachery. The word “traitor” is used six times in this play. “False” is used twenty. “Untruths” makes an appearance, as does “liar”, “slanderer”, and “deceive”. Troilus is, of course, deceived in Cressida’s pledge of loyalty. The bonds of Meneleus and Helen’s marriage are deceptive. Ulysses plots to trick Achilles into fighting for the Greeks, using Ajax as a pawn through further deception. And the Trojan and Greek armies act the part of friends for an evening, knowing full well that they will be murderous with one another the next day. It’s enough to make anyone wonder when the good thing in his life will prove false. Who’s going to change her mind and trick us next?
I’ve thought long and hard about it. I have a few instances of times when something was going great…and then all of a sudden, it absolutely wasn’t. I’ve been deceived by jobs and bosses, (former) friends, and shitty boyfriends. I’ve already touched on those examples on this blog. And in re-examining those periods of my life, I realized that those relationships weren’t as great as I thought at the time when they were fresh and new and feeling good. The signs that they were unhealthy relationships were there all along. I just didn’t want to see them. It wasn’t necessarily that people were lying to me (although that was partially the case in those circumstances), but mostly that I was deceiving myself. I played the Pollyanna and saw only the good. But is that really such a bad thing, at least to a degree?
Here’s the thing about getting older. I’ve certainly become more careful and less easy to trust, but I wouldn’t say that I’m completely wary of the world. On the whole, I’m an optimist. It’s unclear if that’s due to nature or nurture…probably a little of both. But I do know that I have to believe in the good of people. I have to believe when circumstances are horrible that they can be changed. When you have a decent life, when things are going well, it is all too easy to start wondering when something horrific will occur to throw you off course. When is the wheel of fortune going to turn and plunge me downward in a spiral of confusion and despair? Who (the government? my husband?) or what (my kids’ health and safety? the economy? our mortgage rate?) is going to prove unreliable and fall apart on me? Am I putting enough good karma in the world to cover my ass and (in a weird superstitious feeling) keep my loved ones and myself in the clear?
The thing is, my life has been good so far. It’s far from perfect, but I love and am loved. I don’t have crushing health or money issues. There are many things that are interesting and beautiful in this world that I am able to enjoy. Some might say my optimistic outlook is because life has been really good to me so far. It has; I can’t argue that. But I have to be (mostly) upbeat because...well, because I refuse to deal with the alternative. I look at Paris’s utter selfishness, Troilus’s jealous misery and contempt, at Thersites’s friendless raving. Those aren’t ways to live. We all have gone through moments that make us want to break down. But the stronger move is to push through. To not only survive, but to choose to acknowledge the beauty and the good that is hidden in our everyday.
I’m sorry; I sound terribly preachy. And I don’t want y’all to think that I turn a blind eye to reality. I worry about climate change, poverty, violence, and the world my children will inherit. I worry about traffic accidents, choking hazards, and teaching my (too young) kids about ways that others are allowed to properly touch them. These fears of something terrible could paralyze me if I think too deeply on them, and dread them as inevitable. So I try to view them objectively. Think of them as “what ifs” instead of “certain to occur”. Maybe that’s the trick to coping – at least for me? Be a worrier with an optimistic streak – that way, I’m semi-prepared if the shit hits the fan, but I learn not to sweat things until they actually occur. Alls I know is, I’ll be damned if I live my life like the characters in this play, blaming everyone around me for the chaos I helped create (you KNOW Troilus could have just pulled a Paris and run off with Cressida instead of giving her up to creepy Greek dudes).
Like I said before, this post would be tangents rather than direct connection to overall motifs. This was more stream-of-conscious writing than a well thought-out story. The past couple of weeks as I’ve read this play, I have witnessed a few awesome examples of people living bravely, with eyes wide open but with hope for the future. How about I end this with those examples?
- My beautiful daughter -- she's just a few weeks away from finishing her first year of primary school, and she's gone at it with massive enthusiasm all year. This is a girl who is always down to try something new, talk to anyone in her class, and to learn new things every day. I hope she always manages to keep a bit of this excitement about her.
- The patients, families, and staff of Sloan Kettering hospital – in case you missed it in the social media sphere, Humans of New York recently showcased many stories of heartbreak and triumph about pediatric cancer at this hospital. Tears and inspiration flow side by side when you read these stories. On a side note, if they inspire you to donate to the great work that goes on there, you may do so here.
- The Li.st app – Some of you may have heard that writer/actor BJ Novak has been promoting an app he co-founded last year. It’s essentially a social media network on the foundation of users making and sharing lists. I joined and was astounded to witness some of the most earnest, hilarious, and meaningful interactions I’ve ever had with strangers. Maybe it’s because it’s relatively new and has yet to be corrupted with ads and trolls. But I have seen people bare their souls and offer up support, or engage in thoughtful debate rather than screaming. It’s a great slice of humanity. If you head over there, you can find me as @dreadpiratemama