Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Troilus and Cressida - Shakespeare

This piece isn't actually on the Great Books reading list but I thought it made sense to throw it in. 

Shakespeare's take on the Trojan War is much broader than Chaucer's.  (You can read my review of Chaucer here.)   With Chaucer we got a laser like focus on the relationship between Troilus and Cressida.  Not so with the Bard.  He wrote a large enough story to include Achilles sulking in his tent and the eventual death of Hector. 
The two make an interesting contrast.  Chaucer was hard to take because it was so overly romantic as to be dull.  Shakespeare's approach is cynical.  The Trojans are questioning whether Helen is worth all of the trouble that she has created.  The Greeks are in conflict with each other.  Almost no one shines.  The exception is Troilus who seems to be sincerely in love.
Cressida, on the other hand, isn't.  After Troilus proclaims his love, she (eventually) tells him that she loves him too.  She says that she was afraid of being open about her feelings because she was afraid that he would take advantage of her.  After she is transferred to the Greeks she immediately goes into a similar routine with a Greek named Diomedes. 
I frankly don't know if she's a villain or not.  On the one hand, her feelings aren't to be trusted.  On the other hand, in a time of war, when women were virtually property, it probably made sense to be somewhat pliable with your heart.  Was she wildly unfaithful or simply doing what she had to do to survive?
I could see it played either way.  In some ways, its like Hamlet where there are some very good alternate paths available to the actor.  And once again, I wonder how it was played in Shakespeare's time.

My book, The Friendly Shakespeare (highly recommended), says that there is no record of this play being presented from Shakespeare's death until sometime in the late 19th century.  (Which doesn't mean that it was never put on, but if it was, it was done rarely.)  I can see why its not as popular as some of the biggies.  Still . . . it has potential.  There is a good, if difficult, story here. 
Not my favorite, but I'm glad that I read it.

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