To the “ever reader,” the “never writer” presents “a new play, never staled with the stage.” It is an unusual introduction to a highly unusual play, Troilus and Cressida. Published six years after it was originally registered, and then placed, uncatalogued and largely unpaginated, between the histories and tragedies in the 1622-23 Folio, Troilus and Cressida came ready-made with enough enigma to spawn several books of academic drivel. Fortunately, such absorbing details are overshadowed by the actual enigma that is the play. With the Trojan War, readers have that timeless setting of timeless folly (er, heroism), but there the thematic resemblances between the epic and the play cease. It is simultaneously true and false to tragedy, history, and comedy; skinking satire – outlawed at the time of the play’s writing – is equally apparent, but like the other attempts at categorization, leaves only a tail. To the question of why, the answer “Because” would probably be in the spirit of the play. Nonetheless, a “Because” certainly accounts for a paper, and a paper accounts for a play, and a play worth reading. Because. Also, Shakespeare.
The play is close to Hamlet both in dates of writing and in thematic content: that is, with human frailty, with sexual inconstancy. Probably aware of these similarities, Shakespeare has Pandarus early on declaiming, in regards to whether Troilus is himself: “Alas, poor Troilus, I would he were.” A theme more general and therefore more tragic than Hamlet’s is that of Troilus and Cressida. In a word the theme is demoralization, but without the courtesy of coming from man’s exemplars (looking at you, Nietzsche). Instead we get Pandarus, from whose name our “pander” comes, and the insufferable Thersites, from whose name we get … Thersites. These characters are like the heroes of the play insofar as they recognize their own vapidity and the vapidity surrounding them. Thersites is somewhat of a wordsmith himself, and with the play’s implicit and explicit diminution of language before deeds, he makes a fine weaver, as it were, of invisible fabric. He is also, he proclaims, a bastard: “bastard begot, bastard instructed, bastard in mind, bastard in valor, in everything illegitimate.” With his arrow and target both being infidelity, he can be consistent. His developed self-loathing is remarkable for its being developed, and he is one of the few characters who may live and die according to his values, not by fate or by an antiquated code of honor. He lives, luckily: flashing from the play like anti-matter after he meets in the field a fellow bastard, but a bastard still illusioned.
Pandarus is grotesque and not so interesting as Thersites, but he certainly entertains as he disgusts.
Both camps’ heroes suffer lampooning or travesty, except Hector, who merely becomes a wife-beater. In all seriousness, the Trojans get the fairer portrayal by far, with Hector’s portrait in particular contradicting the epic. Here, he is a paragon of mercy and valor, while in the poem his valor failed him famously at the sight of Achilles. None are merciful in the Iliad but the gods, who are conspicuously absent from Shakespeare’s play. Hector on the battlefield is truly giving life or taking it away, and in this he acts alone. His summary impalement by Achilles and the Myrmidons – clear homoerotic overtones aside! – is Achilles’ rejection of heroic valor; simultaneously it is the answer to Socrates in Euthyphro. Hector is compared multiple times to Jove or a patriarchal lion, and the patricidal riposte, which was good enough for the Olympians and Cronus before them, is subsequently dealt him by those to whom he gave life.
The titular romance between Troilus and Cressida is uninteresting compared to the rest of the play, but this seems to an extent by design. The initial premise is that war and fidelity are incompatible; thus the marginalization of the romance is inevitable, and the initial lead is false. Shakespeare’s approach to the play is distinctly post-modern, in contrast to his contemporaries. Like other playwrights, he brings fire to the characters; unlike other playwrights, he then allows them free will. The pernicity to reveal one’s baser matter may by itself devalue precious metals; punished most are those who, like Hector, deny their clay, and it was many a warrior’s last act in the Iliad to clutch at the reddened soil.It may be further extrapolated from the incompatibility of war and fidelity that fidelity itself, specifically in the frame of chivalry – the play being written as feudalism is replaced with a proto-capitalism – is an Olympian peak mortals aren’t built to summit. The pre-Nietzschean death of the gods (say, Faith and Honor) bequeaths to Priam’s sons a painful cognitive dissonance: Troilus moans, upon seeing Cressida’s infidelity, “This is and is not Cressid.” Paris rationalizes the conflict over Helen by having “the soil of her fair rape wiped off in honorable keeping her,” to which Troilus concurs, calling her “a theme of honor and renown,” though there is little evidence in the play or the poem that her “theme” might not rather be housed in “ill-repute.” (Cressida hints at this theme with self-irony when her first words to Troilus are “Will you walk in, my lord?”) Hector, smartest of the princes, ultimately capitulates, and even he does not note the dichotomy between being chivalrous and brushing aside and/or bruising his wife. Of course, putting anything on a pedestal necessitates some debasement …
The play ends strangely, like the Iliad (spoiler alert: no Trojan horse!), which fits, as the play itself is pretty strange. Objectively, so is the source material. The historie of the world, it would seem, is that both gods and men might talk in iambs, but both can be petty and above all absurd. That being the case, there is at least enough reason to read Troilus and Cressida as not absurd, especially if one wants a more complete picture of our language’s poet.