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Author Topic: [Not on the list] Troilus and Cressida--William Shakespeare  (Read 2990 times)
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Robert Skipper
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« on: December 28, 2011, 02:07:12 PM »

She loves me, she loves me not
December 28, 2011

I've come to feel a bit constrained by The List—What, only 620 works?—and I know I shouldn't take it as sacred.  So I thought, “Why not take in a few more Shakespearean plays than those included?  I can't really go wrong by reading too much Shakespeare, can I?”  So I picked up The Tragedies, thinking I would read them all but only write about the ones on the list.  After reading Troilus and Cressida, however, I suspect they will prove too good to keep to myself.

Shakespeare set this, one of the three so-called problem plays, during the Trojan war.  (Critics call it a "problem play" because it defies easy classification.)  The story of the two Trojan lovers borrows from Homer, of course, but also from Chaucer's story, Troilus and Criseyde, a popular medieval romance.  For those who may not have heard of the play, it seldom gets produced, probably because audiences don't seem to know how to relate to the characters.  I would also imagine it hard for actors to interpret, for similar reasons, and harder still for distributors to market it.  I find listed on IMDB, for example, only two attempts to produce it in English for television, one for Russian television, and two more for German TV, but never for the big screen.  (William Walton based his opera on Chaucer's version, not Shakespeare's)  This lack of popularity doesn't mean it lacks merit.  If anything, I would say its cynicism and bitter view of humanity, together with its upending of all heroic conventions, make it even more suited for modern audiences than for Elizabethan.  It wouldn't surprise me to see an upsurge of interest in it, thanks to the growing viability of independent cinema.

In the seventh year of the Trojan War, Greeks and Trojans alike have come to seriously question the whole point of killing off so many valiant warriors for the “rescue” of Helen.  As Diomedes puts it bluntly to Paris,
 

    She's bitter to her country: hear me, Paris:
    For every false drop in her bawdy veins
    A Grecian's life hath sunk; for every scruple
    Of her contaminated carrion weight,
    A Trojan hath been slain: since she could speak,
    She hath not given so many good words breath
    As for her Greeks and Trojans suffer'd death. (Act IV, Scene 1)


At another point, one character styles the war as, essentially, a squabble between a fool and a cuckold over a whore.  Most of the action revolves around the events of the war, events which show up all the “heroes” in their worst light.  Ajax comes across as an ignoramus, Ulysses as a blackmailing spy, and Achilles as even more of a petulant brat than Homer would have him.  I suppose the Elizabethan audience's familiarity with Homer must have constrained Shakespeare's poetic license, dictating that certain events simply had to take place.  Even so, it struck me as odd that the two eponymous lovers spent so little time on center stage.

Cressida's uncle and father make everything happen.  The uncle, Pandarus, brings the two oversexed kids briefly together, just long enough for them to declare their eternal devotion, before sending them off to the bedroom to satisfy their lust.  The father, Calchas, who had defected to the Greek side, now arranges the exchange of one captured Trojan leader for Cressida.  The ensuing separation of the lovers provides an opportunity for a grand tragedy, but Cressida blows her chance by flirting with all her Greek captors and especially with Diomedes, the prince charged with guarding her.  Unfortunately, Greek and Trojan armies declare a short ceasefire so they can party together the night before a big fight, and when things quiet down Ulysses leads Troilus to Calchas's tent, where they witness Cressida's faithlessness.  Again, Troilus misses a golden opportunity for grand tragedy by not slaying his false lover in a fit of rage.  He returns to Troy and the larger events of the Iliad take their course.

Throughout this play, one finds no one worthy of respect, (with the possible exception of Thersites, an ugly, cowardly, deformed character, whose foul-mouthed but honest appraisals throughout seem to reflect the unwelcome voice of conscience).  Shakespeare builds up our expectations for certain climactic scenes, only to let them down as one character or another fails to deliver.  What Homer offers as noble, Shakespeare exposes as sordid.  If I didn't know better (even though in the First Folio edition it bears the title, The Tragedie of Troylus and Cressida), I would call this a darkly comic, revisionist history, rather than a tragedy.

As usual with great literature, this one took me by surprise.  I had to rethink everything I had previously believed about Shakespeare based on my experiences with some of his more popular plays.  And I can't resist sharing my favorite line, one of the less cryptic insults delivered by Ajax to Thersites: “I will beat thee into handsomeness.” (Act II, Scene 1)

In sum, I understand why this play gets classified as a problem play.  I think of it as radically iconoclastic, almost an anti-play, in which antiheroes stumble foolishly toward anticlimaxes.  I've never enjoyed movies that took that approach, such as Goodfellas (Scorese, 1990) or The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (Cassavetes, 1976), but I did enjoy this play a lot.  I suppose I can now better appreciate the deliberate shattering of my expectations, seeing it as a joke played on me by a master playwright, rather than as a dramatic failing.

 




« Last Edit: December 28, 2011, 02:09:36 PM by Robert Skipper » Logged
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