24. Troilus and Cressida
I found Troilus and Cressida a very interesting and (mostly) enjoyable read. I have a very vague memory of having read it several years ago when hunting for audition speeches but aside from that I have never seen it or spent much time with it as a text. So, this felt like a pretty fresh take.
Firstly, it is a bit confusing when you’re not massively au fait with your Trojan and Greek mythology. I always feel like I should have a better understanding of this, but it never seems to stick in my head. So, it is slightly inevitable that I spent various points thinking ‘wait, are you Greek or Trojan?’ It is, therefore, important that any production gives the audience a bit of a helping hand with identifying one side from the other.
Mostly, however, I found this a very entertaining read. It is far from your typical tragedy. Apart from anything [SPOILER ALERT!] neither Troilus nor Cressida dies. In fact, it doesn’t really follow a tragic structure at all. There is no standard tragic hero who falls from grace. There is no climactic bloody ending for all the main protagonists – though we do have a fairly brutal and unfair murder of Hector. It’s not even really a play about Troilus and Cressida – it’s more a play that they are caught in the middle of.
It’s for this reason that I find the play quite fascinating. It is a bit of a mess. Much of our time is spent in the frivolous, sexualised and comic Greek camp, where there’s a lot of macho in-fighting going on. Achilles is getting too big for his boots and the other are trying to bring him down a peg or two, but in doing so, they make Ajax all cocky instead! It’s all actually really quite funny. Thersites is one of the very few ‘fool’ characters in Shakespeare that I actually find funny. It’s also the only Shakespeare play I can think of that has an openly gay relationship in it – with Patroclus clearly portrayed as the lover of Achilles. I find this playful and irreverent treatment of the Greeks very refreshing and entertaining.
Similarly, the romantic relationship between Troilus and Cressida is comically subverted by the presence of Pandarus, Cressida’s uncle. Pandarus is very much the match-maker, going between the two and engineering their liaisons. He is grotesquely bawdy and sexualised. Plus, he is there almost all the time! He’s this constant lecherous third wheel. You feel like he’s ushering them off to bed, partly so he can just watch them from the corner for his own sexual gratification. It’s disgusting and funny all at the same time. As his is final ‘curse’ on the audience, when he (as the last lines of the play) wishing his venereal diseases on the audience.
This is not a straightforward play – I would definitely include it in the ‘problem play’ category. But that is what makes it so interesting. Where it falls down is probably in its sense of purpose – it’s not very clear what Shakespeare is trying to say with this play. There’s no big question he’s asking of the audience or big theme he’s dealing with. It feels more like he’s just poking fun at the status given to Greek mythology, philosophy and culture. It’s almost like he’s saying: ‘so, you think the Greeks were great, do you? Well, look at these idiots!’ Which, in some ways, I can’t help but admire!