The History of Troilus and Cressida

In Troilus and Cressida Shakespeare creates a world of unresolved uncertainty, and while initially unsatisfying, it actually more accurately reflects reality than more tightly tidied plays. He leaves us hanging in many ways, and challenges the readers’ and the audiences’ need for resolution.

This play dangles us in limbo even before we begin reading. For one thing, the title misleads us into thinking the play is about the named couple. Not so much. It’s really about the Trojan war. T&C are just a minor, barely interesting subplot. Also, The Riverside Shakespeare Contents (p. vii) lists it 11th under Comedies. But it doesn’t quite fit there. Shakespeare included the word “History” in the title, but since it’s not about an English monarch, it doesn’t really belong in the Histories either. It has tragic aspects, but no central tragic hero or conundrum to teach the hero an important lesson, so it cannot take a place in that vaulted canon. And without that familiar central focus of troubled, intriguing father-daughter relationships, it doesn’t really qualify as a Romance either. So it is a play without a place that holds one of its own.

As the Prologue reveals, the play doesn’t start at the beginning, like a play typically would:

“To tell you, fair beholders, that our play/Leaps o’er the vaunt and firstlings of those broils,/Beginning in the middle; starting thence away/To what may be digested in a play.” (Pro,26-9)

Nor does it end at the end. The Trojans trek out to avenge Hector’s death, leaving poor Pandarus (Cressida’s uncle) alone on stage with the unenviable task of wrapping things up with nary a gift box or bow in sight:

“O [traders]and bawds how earnestly are/you set a-work, and how ill-requited! Why should our/endeavor be so lov’d and the performance so loathed?” (V,x,37-9)

So again, it doesn’t have a finite category, or a finite beginning or end.

Nor are any of the obvious conflicts resolved. Despite seven years of fighting and “Sixty and nine” (Pro,5) ships – not quite the mythical number that Troilus perpetuates, “Why, she is a pearl,/Whose price hath launch’d above a thousand ships.” (II,ii,81-2) – and countless troops, and innumerable deaths on both sides, The Helen of Troy remains firmly ensconced in the castle and in bed with her lover Paris. Her husband, Menelaus, pines. Both the Greek and Trojan boards of directors meet to engage in elaborate and lengthy debates over the merits of and strategies for waging the war over her, with some of the most complex and intricate language anywhere in Shakespeare. It is at once difficult and rewarding to read, but moves neither the play nor the problem toward a satisfying conclusion. This is most evident in Act I, scene iii, where even footnote #2 claims that “Both Agamemnon and Nestor speak repetitive commonplaces concealed in high-sounding and opaque language.” Ulysses joins in the fray with over 100 lines of dialectic, concluding with “To end a tale of length,/Troy in our weakness stands, not in her strength.”(I,iii,136-7) Phew. If he’d just said that first, he could have saved Shakespeare a lot of writing, me a lot of reading, and audiences (what I suspect is) a lot of snoozing. Just a lot of “words, words, words” as Hamlet says (II,ii,181). So does Troilus, almost verbatim: “Words, words, mere words.” (V,iii,108) Still, with all the words, they are no closer to a resolution.

Nor is the minor conflict of T&C’s love, for which the play is misguidedly named, ever resolved. Both their love and its evolution pale in comparison to the legendary romance and consequences of Paris’s taking of Helen. Cressida claims to play hard to get but quickly concedes to Troilus: “Boldness comes to me now, and brings me heart./Prince Troilus, I have lov’d you night and day/For many weary months.” (III,ii,113-5)

That’s just a pathetic passionless declaration of love. And when the Greeks demand Cressida in a hostage exchange, she not only goes willingly (unlike Helen) but falls for one of her captors. She throws Troilus over for him as easily as Achilles lets fly a javelin. She gives her new suitor Diomedes the sleeve, given to her by Troilus as a token of their love, without a moment’s hesitation. Diomedes wears it into battle on his helmet, leaving Troilus sleeveless with nowhere to wear his broken heart. The eponymous romance is neither convincing, nor worth naming the play after. We keep waiting to understand why the play is thus titled – waiting for more, but we never get it.

At first, being left in this purgatory between the heaven of a tidy, happily-ever-after comedy conclusion and the hell of a gory, gut-wrenching traditional tragedy, feels quite unsatisfying. A little Seinfeld-ian, in that not much really happens to further the plot.

But on closer examination, this uncertainty rings truer to life than either extreme. Seemingly inane conflicts – of both small and large scale – drag on endlessly. Lovers are left in the lurch. Politicians and business leaders pontificate ad nauseum, bringing to mind Macbeth’s description: “It is a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/signifying nothing.” (V,v,26-8)

Life is not always neat and tidy and resolved. This play is ultimately so satisfying because neither is it.

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