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Troilus and Cressida

From Academic Kids

The History of Troilus and Cressida is a play by William Shakespeare, believed to have been written around 1602, shortly after the completion of Hamlet. It was published in quarto in two separate editions, both in 1609. It is not known whether the play was ever performed in its own time, because the two editions say different things: one announces on the title page that the play had been recently performed on stage; the other claims in a preface that it is a new play that has never been staged.

The play is considered an aberration by many. The Quarto edition labels it a history play, but the First Folio classed it with the tragedies. The play is not a conventional tragedy, since its protagonist does not die, but it does end on a very bleak note with the death of the noble Trojan Hector, and the with destruction of the love between Troilus and Cressida. Throughout, the tone lurches wildly between bawdy comedy and tragic gloom, and it is often difficult to understand how one is meant to respond to the characters.

Contents

Synopsis

The play is set during the Trojan War, and essentially has two plots. In one Trolius, a Trojan prince , woos Cressida, has sex with her, and professes never-dying love just before she is traded with the Greeks for a prisoner of war. Trying to visit her in the Greek camp, he sees her with Diomedes, and decides she is a whore.

Despite being the titular story, this plot takes up very few scenes: the majority of the play revolves around a scheme by Nestor and Ulysses to get the lazy Achilles back into battle to fight for the Greeks.

The play ends with a protracted series of battle skirmishes between the two sides, and the death of the Trojan hero Hector.

Sources

The story of Troilus and Cressida is a medieval fable that has no basis in Greek mythology; Shakespeare drew on a number of sources for this plotline, in particular Chaucer's version of the tale, Troilus and Criseyde.

The story of the persuasion of Achilles into battle is drawn from Homer's Iliad (perhaps in the translation by George Chapman), and from various medieval and renaissance retellings.

The story was a popular one for dramatists in the early 1600s and Shakespeare may have been inspired by contemporary plays. Thomas Heywood's two-part play The Iron Age also depicts the Trojan war and the story of Troilus and Cressida, but it is not certain whether his or Shakespeare's play was written first. In addition, Thomas Dekker and Henry Chettle wrote a play called Troilus and Cressida at around the same time as Shakespeare, but this play survives only as a fragmentary plot outline.

Reputation

Troilus and Cressida is considered by some to be one of Shakespeare's lesser works, in particular for its disappointing last act. Others consider it an experimental piece that is attempting to break with the conventions of its genre, and consider its baffling characters to be comparable to those in Hamlet.

The play's puzzling nature Troilus and Cressida has meant that it has rarely been popular on stage. In the Restoration, it was condemned by John Dryden, who called it a "heap of rubbish" and rewrote it. It was also condemned by the Victorians for its explicit sexual references. It was not staged in its original form until the early twentieth century, but it has become increasingly popular since then, in part due to its cynical depiction of of war.

Themes and Tropes

  • Sex / War

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that the titular plot hinges around sexual relations during war, (and the whole war revolves around who has the right to sleep with Helen) sex and battle are linked constantly within the play. For example, a frustrated Troilus moans at the beginning: "I cannot fight upon this argument/ It is too starved a subject for my sword" -"sword" being an obvious phallic symbol. Similarly, the word "unarm" appears frequently in relation to the fighting; slang for losing an erection. When Troilus is about to have sex with Cressida, he fears the experience will be such bliss that "I shall lose distinction in my joys;/ As doth a battle, when they charge on heaps/ The enemy flying." This comparison makes sex seem a loveless, physical, almost brutal activity.


  • Thwarted expectations

From the very beginning of the play, the audience's expectations are constantly thwarted. Despite a Prologue claiming the emphasis of the play is militancy, it opens with a procrastinating Troilus calling for someone to "unarm" him. Despite being called "Troilus and Cressida", Cressida rarely appears. Despite being set in the Trojan War, there is virtually no fighting for the first four acts; just political maneuvering and petty squabbles. The Greek and Trojan heroes depicted are markedly different from their portrayals in the Homeric epics. Troilus is little like the betrayed lover in Chaucer. Having got used to the philosophy and punning comedy of the first four acts, we do not expect a harsh, unglamourized battle in the fifth.

This experience of the audience is mirrored for most of the characters. Agamemnon tries to rouse his disillusioned generals by telling them that expectations are always thwarted: "the ample proposition that hope makes/In all designs... /Fails in the promis'd largeness" -

External link

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Troilus and Cressida is also an opera by William Walton; see Troilus and Cressida (opera). Template:Shakespeare

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