So if you want to be more impressed by Shakespeare, read a bit of the source material he drew from for his works. Oh, were they lousy. Romeus and Juliet, Menaechmi (for The Comedy of Errors), and others point to someone who makes a lot of the right moves when adapting a story. Seeing what he worked with, you’ll wonder how he came up with anything worth watching or reading.
But Troilus and Cressida is an exception. It’s the one instance, I’ve found, where Shakespeare failed to outdo his source material.
Because that one’s Chaucer, bitches! Okay, that was an unnecessary outburst. But see, I absolutely adored Troilus and Criseyde when I read it years ago. I held off on reading the Shakespeare take of it because for all my faith in the guy, I doubted he could top its complexity, its pathos, even its wisdom on the subject of love.
The plot is set against the tumultuous background of the Trojan War, and concerns one of the princes of Troy. Troilus, Hector’s baby brother and a fairly strong warrior in his own right, has fallen in love with Cressida, who has been recently widowed by the war. In his lovesick hopelessness, Troilus has confided in his friend Pandarus, who also happens to be Cressida’s uncle. Creepy Pandarus then makes it his business to get the lovebirds together, and he arranges their mating, I mean meeting.
Fun Fact: If you’re wondering whether this character might be the origin of the word “pander,” the answer is yes. Pandarus enjoys immortal notoriety as literature’s first famous pimp.
Meanwhile, Cressida’s traitorous father, who is serving the Greeks as an advisor, has decided to make a request of his new superiors. He asks for a prisoner swap–the Trojans will get back their general, Antenor, if they hand over his daughter, Cressida. Agamemnon grants his request, which will bring Cressida oustide the walls of Troy to be with her father and unknowingly tear her from the arms of Troilus.
The first half had me convinced, and quavering with dread, that oh, no, this has to be one of Shakespeare’s crap plays. I begged the Greek subplot to get the hell out of my way. I implored Ulysses to truncate his massive, droning speeches. I scoffed at Achilles for being written as a second-rate Hotspur. I asked, Where’s Troilus, where’s Cressida?
“The End Crowns All”
The second half won me back, beginning with powerful parting of the lovers. As Troilus laments,
We two, that with so many thousand sighs
Did buy each other, must poorly sell ourselves
With the rude brevity and discharge of one.
I began to realize the subplot’s purpose in being the undoing of Hector (overstuffed though it still was). Meanwhile, the “fool”, Thersites, mocks the tragic characters and demolishes whatever nobility one might find to proceedings–about the buddy-buddiness the soldiers suddenly adopt with each other during the temporary truce, and the conflict over the unfaithful Cressida. (“Lechery, lechery, still wars and lechery; nothing else holds fashion; a burning devil take them!”)
Much is made of the Cressida=Helen analogy, where proud and foolish men will indefatigably hack each other to pieces over a “whore.” The fact of the matter is that Cressida is herself dehumanized to a sex trophy, much as Helen has been for the past seven years of the conflict. Chaucer’s version (which, while having less scope, is psychologically deeper in every way) has a very human Cressida despairing over her dilemma and eventual betrayal. Here, she’s used as another Helen to present another sort of miniature Trojan War, where not even Troilus emerges very likeable in his jealousy.
Thanks to the Chaucer poem, I had never hated a character as much as Diomedes, who seduces Cressida, and I was happy to see that I could still despise that two-faced scumbag equally here. The much anticipated showdown between him and Troilus is the literary deathmatch I would pay my last dollar for getting a front row seat.
How odd that Troilus never kills him. The story ends with his wrath unsated, a hot cloud to hang over the play forever. In fact, Troilus and Cressida ends with this incompleteness that frustrates and unsettles, but it rings with an anticlimactic… authenticity, if that makes sense.
This could have been one of the great plays, the ones you mention with Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear. The material is all there, but just not executed (if Joe Blogger might be permitted to say that sort of thing about bloody Shakespeare). The Troilus and Cressida story was apparently popular enough at the time that this was conceivably one of the plays Shakespeare was obliged to write for the money. But there’s no dishonor, if you ask me, in falling short of the best Medieval English poem ever written.