Although Troilus and Cressida contains humorous material and is conventionally classed as a Comedy (though the First Folio labels it as a tragedy), its bleak ending and its bitter picture of love and power place it among the Problem Plays. These works are troubling and ambiguous in their treatment of society and sexuality, and they lack the clear triumph of love that is usually associated with comedy. Troilus and Cressida offers an extravagantly corrupt and artificial world. A venomous parody of a classic legend, it satirizes the glamorous attitudes people often have towards sex and/or war. Pretensions to romantic love and to military glory are thoroughly deflated.
The basic satirical technique employed in Troilus and Cressida is the use of character types. The dim-witted and prideful oaf, the deluded lover, the cruel and ambitious noble, the voyeur, the coward, the abusive critic—all are presented boldly in Shakespeare's play as (respectively) Ajax, Troilus, Achilles, Pandarus, and, combining the last two, Thersites. Shakespeare makes these character types interesting, but the depiction of personality was of secondary importance as the playwright's purpose in this play was not psychological but philosophical.
Another device that helps establish the satire is the skewed presentation of familiar material. As presented by Shakespeare, the heroes of the Trojan War and the figures in the famous tale of Cressida's betrayal are seen inhabiting a corrupt world. They are either agents of corruption or deluded and ineffectual victims of it. The contrast between the familiar heroic legends and Shakespeare's satire is so great that the comic intent of the work is obvious. Thirdly, the role of Thersites resembles that of the traditional Chorus) and boldly emphasizes the satire's critique. The two plot lines interact very little, but they echo each other and are thematically related, for both illustrate foolish self-deception and emotional dishonesty. The human tendency to succumb to illusions about life is isolated and exaggerated by the play. The two lovers proclaim great emotional involvement, but Cressida's infidelity is hinted at from the outset, and Troilus' self-deception does not hide the true nature of their purely sexual affair. It offers no hint of the fulfilling mutual enjoyment of real love. It seems more tawdry because it is dependent on Pandarus as procurer. Though she undeniably betrays her lover, Cressida is not portrayed harshly. Rather than being a vicious breaker of hearts, she is seen as a representative of human, or perhaps feminine, weakness—'Ah, poor our sex!' (5.2.108), she cries. Troilus is the principal object of satire. His self-deception is extensively developed in both the love story and the warriors' plot, in which he is also a major figure. Just as he deludes himself about romantic love, calling Cressida a 'pearl' (1.1.100), he also deludes himself about the pointless war for Helen on the ground that she is a 'pearl' (2.2.82) and the Trojans doers of 'valiant and magnanimous deeds' (2.2.201) in defense other.
The warriors talk of honor and glory, but they too are self-deluded. However, the Trojans and the Greeks are gripped by different illusions. Troilus and Hector believe the war is a chivalric game and the stakes are the personal reputations of the warriors—though in the end both succumb to other motives. Ulysses, on the other hand, believes that an orderly social hierarchy can be maintained through clever reasoning, such as he attempts to employ with Achilles. He, too, abandons his own truth and eventually argues to Achilles that the only merit is in the fleeting glory of reputation. He thus takes a position rather like Hector's, and this ironically reinforces the play's emphasis on human error. The Greek failure to observe Ulysses' ideal of social organization leads to internal squabbling and a collective inertia that is only broken by Patroclus' death; the Trojans have a false idea of honor that leads to their utter defeat at the play's close. By the end of the play, neither honor nor reason controls the warriors; only greed, injured pride, and revenge motivate the action.
Both Troilus' violent despair and Hector's death are results of their illusions. These two idealistic, if foolish, characters represent the traditional codes of romantic love and military honor that are being deflated by the play's satire, and in the end they find themselves completely at the mercy of ugly reality. Troilus, unable to accept the reality that his romance was only a sexual encounter, takes refuge in violence, to the point of comically forgetting what he is fighting about when he demands of Diomedes 'the life thou ow'st me for my horse' (5.6.7). Hector, who insists on the worth of chivalric honour, dies because Achilles does not observe the code. His own behaviour, however, is just as important, for he is only vulnerable to Achilles because he has abandoned his ideals long enough to pursue a rich piece of booty, the Grecian armour that he is about to don when he is attacked.
Considered alone, the warrior plot amounts to a scathing indictment of warmongers—Hector and Ulysses serving to point up the wickedness of the others—and the play is often taken as an anti-war manifesto. However, the depiction of war serves a more general purpose. War in the play has an equivalent function to that of sex—in the 17th century it was a commonly glamorized human activity—and as such is a telling venue for satire.
The delusions and misjudgments that plague the characters stem from a simple yet inexorable factor the passage of time. The characters are aware of this, though usually unconscious of its particular effect on themselves. In 4.5, just before the warrior plot begins to build to its bloody climax, Agamemnon stresses the value of the temporary peace in terms of its impermanence: 'What's past and what's to come is strew'd with husks / And formless ruin of oblivion . . . [by contrast with] this extant moment' (4.5.165-167). This emphasis on the value of things as they are at the present moment, without respect to what they were or will be later, echoes Ulysses' claim that 'Love, friendship, charity, are subjects all / To envious and calumniating Time' (3.3.173-174).
The audience's familiarity with the legendary tales on which the play is based strengthens the irony. For instance, we are startled by a stark truth when Helen, intending only an idle pleasantry, observes that 'love will undo us all' (3.1.105). And when Pandarus unwittingly predicts the lovers' fate to become symbols of the betrayed and the betrayer (with himself the panderer), we can only hold our breath as each affirms, 'Amen' (3.2.203-205). These ironies are not only powerful theatrical moments, they also contribute to our awareness that the characters are undone by a process—time—over which they have no control.
Time also changes the value placed on things or people. Cressida observes that 'Things won are done; joy's soul lies in the doing' (1.2.292), suggesting that the value of a goal diminishes as it is achieved. Further, Ulysses proposes to Achilles that time brings the destruction of glory through forgetfulness: 'good deeds past. . . are devour'd / As fast as they are made, forgot as soon / As done' (3.3.148-150). Troilus argues that circumstances over time determine worth: once a woman becomes a man's wife, his evaluation of her must rest on that relationship, which once did not exist but is undeniable once it does (in the age before divorce). Therefore, he declares, Helen is valuable enough to fight over simply because, as 'a theme of honor and renown' (2.2.200), she has been fought over already. 'What's aught but as 'tis valued?' (2.2.53), he says, but he doesn't apply this argument to himself: Cressida will, at another time, value him differently, placing him below the more available man. The idea that values can change is extremely troubling because it contradicts the stabilizing belief in a constant reality. The development of this difficult theme over the course of the play prepares us for the emotional tone of its chaotic culmination in Act 5. In 5.1 Achilles is reminded of his lover in Troy and decides his reputation is less important than she and refuses to fight. In 5.2 Troilus learns of Cressida's revaluation of him and is driven to berserk combat. Forecasts of disaster in 5.3 remind us of the effect time will eventually have on Troy, and the remaining scenes present brutal fighting where all is devalued. Reversing his decision of 5.1, Achilles goes to battle, the raging Troilus attaches Cressida's value to his horse, and Thersites rejects all honour. Most distressingly, perhaps. Hector is betrayed by his own chivalric values, which lead him to courteously refuse his advantage over Achilles, in 5.6, who then kills him in 5.8. Worse, Hector betrays his vision himself in chasing after loot, which leaves him vulnerable to Achilles.
The play's relativism strikes a responsive chord in modern sensibilities, and this may contribute more to its popularity in the 20th century than does its reputation as an anti-war piece. It may also account for its origins, for when it was written, England was undergoing unprecedented change as it entered the 17th century; massive revolution and civil war were only forty years away. A changing economic world generated great uneasiness (as is especially reflected in The Merchant of Venice). The reformation was only a few generations old, and religious tensions still pervaded society; moreover, religious beliefs placed England at odds with the two most powerful nations in Europe, France and Spain. Though the Spanish Armada had been defeated in 1588, the threat of war still loomed, particularly in light of the imminent death of Queen Elizabeth. Though old and in poor health, the queen refused to name a successor; the possibility of civil war or invasion by opportunistic foreign monarchs was widely discussed. This atmosphere of crisis—combined with the appearance of Chapman’s translation of the Iliad— generated a vogue for tales of Troy, and several plays on the subject were written before Shakespeare's. The English identified with the Trojans, and the legend was regarded as a clear example of disaster. The disturbing quality of Troilus and Cressida is thus part of England's catharsis; the nation's uneasiness found an outlet in the re-enactment of an ancient battle.
Some critics find the play to be an assertion that life is essentially meaningless and that chaos is the inevitable outcome of humanity's futile endeavous. However, this point of view ignores what Shakespeare does in the play to undercut this. For instance, the idea that Cressida is representative of all women is introduced by Troilus, who insists that the fact of her betrayal must be denied 'for [the sake ofj womanhood' (5.2.128). However, his raving is effectively countered by its senselessness in denying what is obviously true, and by the deprecating remarks of Ulysses and Thersites. And elsewhere the tendency towards outright misanthropy is checked—the Greeks and Trojans fraternizing in the peaceful 'extant moment' (4.5.167) of their truce; Ulysses evoking a world without the 'envious fever/Of pale and bloodless emulation' (1.3.133- 134); Hector's commitment, however flawed, to an ideal of chivalry—such images, woven into the play's general critique of human society, collectively offer an idea of what man might be in a better world than that of the play. Ulysses and Hector, spokesmen for sanity, map out principles for such a world in their famous speeches in the war councils of the Greeks and Trojans. Ulysses advocates a social order like that of the 'heavens themselves' (1.3.85), and Hector cites the 'law in each well-order'd nation' (2.2.181). Each leader fails to institute such principles or even to be true to them himself, but they stand as ideals against which their conduct is measured by the audience. It is an essential characteristic of satire that its critique of human failings implies the possibility of improvement. Though honor and love are corruptible, they can still exist.
While it is a harshly critical work, Troilus and Cressida contains much humor and sympathy. For instance, the vicious anger of Thersites and the sly lewdness of Pandarus may not be likeable, but they are inventive and undeniably funny characters. Helen presents a humorous caricature of a thoughtless society hostess, and Ajax is a comical buffoon, especially as impersonated by Thersites in 3.3.279-302. Also, a number of the characters are, at times, humanly sympathetic the lovers in their aspirations to happiness; Hector in his chivalric idealism; and Ulysses as a commonsense, reasonable man. Even the abrasive Thersites can be respected for his capacity to see through the pretensions of the Greek warriors.
The Epilogue highlights the play's essentially positive intentions. Pandarus' flippant insults make an obvious distinction between the real world of the audience—which of course is not composed of 'traitors and bawds' (5.10.37)—and the fictional world of the play. Shakespeare's comical pairing of the audience with the pander serves as a release from the bleak last moments of the play. The satire is thereby stressed a last time, contrasting the existence of human virtues our own, at least—to the vices that have been depicted on the stage.
Thus, despite its bleak and bloody denouement, the play shares the essential optimism of all comedy. The characters are defeated by the imperfections of themselves and their world, but most playgoers and readers care less about their fate than they do about the more general picture of human folly that the satire has so convincingly presented. Troilus and Cressida, like all satire, is to some extent educational, and we find ourselves more thoughtful and aware, perhaps in some sense morally elevated, through our experience of the play.
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