Shakespearing #25 by David Foley
Troilus and Cressida
You have to let critics do what they do, and one who reviewed my play Cressida Among the Greeks said that, although the press release cited both Chaucer and Shakespeare, I was clearly following Shakespeare much more closely. I found the claim bewildering at the time, and it’s even more bewildering now that I’ve re-read Shakespeare’s play. For better or worse, my play is a pretty straightforward telling of the old tale, and Shakespeare’s is…um…not.
For one thing, he’s not much interested in Troilus and Cressida, or rather he’s interested in them as one piece of a larger image he’s constructing. The image is a two-way mirror in which love and war become dark reflections of each other, both suffuse with vanity, irrationality, duplicity, and senseless loss. Of course, the Trojan War invites such linkage. Helen comes in for a fair amount of abuse here (Diomedes commends her “whorish loins”), but like all the other tarnished ideals in the play, she remains serenely unconcerned.
The ideals of love and war keep crossing currents in Troilus and Cressida. When Aeneas delivers Hector’s challenge to single combat, it’s on the grounds of love: to contend who “hath a lady, wiser, fairer, truer.” In an irony so fleeting you might miss its acrid bite, Agamemnon answers, “[I]f none else, I am he.”
In this context, Troilus and Cressida are just another ideal mocked in the execution. Their closest parallel in the Greek camp is Achilles and Patroclus—Patroclus whom Thersites refers to as “Achilles’ brach [bitch]” and his “masculine whore.” The men spend their time lolling “upon a lazy bed,” and now and then Patroclus pops up to parody the Greek commanders. This last information comes from Ulysses, who uses it both to work up Nestor and Agamemnon’s wrath and perhaps to slyly mock them. (How is he able to describe the scene so vividly if he hasn’t sat there laughing along with Achilles?)
It may be that the pair truly at the heart of Troilus and Cressida is Ulysses and Thersites. Ulysses is given the longest speeches and the richest language. His speech about degree is often cited as Shakespeare’s ringing endorsement of the social order. That makes sense. I guess. But the speaker is Ulysses, the Odyssey’s “man of twists and turns,” and he’s devious here as well, manipulating the vanity of Achilles and Ajax at the service of a cause everyone agrees is absurd. Thersites is the intellectual id of the play, turning all the finely wrought wisdom of Ulysses and Nestor into bile. We’d like to believe Ulysses speaks for the play’s ideals, but the world of the play belongs to Thersites.
Which bring us to Cressida. I’ve always told people that I wrote Cressida because both Shakespeare and Chaucer seem to lose interest in her after she goes to the Greek camp. Now it strikes me that Shakespeare loses interest earlier. In her first scenes Cressida is vibrantly witty and alive, but in the scenes of love and parting her emotions seem ginned up, the language, for Shakespeare, pallid. And her explanation of her treachery is a moralizing treatise in rhymed couplets. It may have been Shakespeare’s intention to pull back from Cressida, to have her retreat into mystery. She becomes another ideal that dissolves, without explanation, into mockery. Troilus’s bafflement turns metaphysical: “This is, and is not, Cressid…[A] thing inseparate/Divides more wider than the sky and earth.” Troilus and Cressida is a bitter play, but is the bitterness directed against love or war or just the failed world itself?
David Foley is a playwright and fiction writer living in Brooklyn. His plays include Cressida Among the Greeks, Paradise, Nance O’Neil, The Murders at Argos, A Hole in the Fence, and Sad Hotel, among others. His novel The Traveler’s Companion is available on Amazon. He teaches at New York University.