Troilus and Cressida does not fit quite neatly into Shakespeare’s collected works. It is filled with bawdy humor, but not a comedy. The ending is tragic, but the characters written so unlikable that a sympathetic audience is hard to find. There is a historical element, but the play’s namesakes are doomed lovers that would have no lasting effect on British history. Why write a play so steeped in inevitable doom? I believe there is merit in discussing the way the play is written as a means to deliver a message as opposed to entertaining an audience.
Richard Fly explores the use of language in Troilus and Cressida. Besides the actual events prominent language in the play includes words depicting failure, collapse and destruction. The verb “to fall” appears over 20 times (Fly 158). Shakespeare, a careful wordsmith, would surely have been aware of the effect of his choices. Positive language about or by Troilus is often followed up with a negative observation by Cressida. He wishes people to say “as true as Troilus” and instead of agreeing she responds that if she is not true (which she inevitably isn’t) that people would say “as false as Cressida” -introducing negative language when it is not necessary. When thinking about the times more positive language is used before battle, audiences can still observe Shakespeare’s attitude skewed towards doom as these speeches are in context of encouraging men to fight a pointless war to perpetuate hierarchies and social constructs Shakespeare thematically disagrees with. By surrounding and filling the mouths of these characters with negative words, Shakespeare is conveying a disapproval for their behavior and morals while simultaneously preventing audiences from making positive connections.
Alice Shalvi points out Shakespeare’s ability to satirize the pursuit of honor, as it existed solely to save face as opposed to standing up for any moral purpose (Shalvi 284). Many pretenses of glory and honor are set up by the speeches of Ulysses and Hector, but Shakespeare is sure to reveal the pettiness and actual uselessness of the war. I have often noticed Shakespeare bring to light the arbitrary means by which people are awarded power, whether it be the place in the family lineage or gender they happened to be born. This argument of fights for honor and power being arbitrary is furthered in the play by the fact that the Trojans and Greeks are so proud, vain and ultimately equally flawed. This satirical point is displayed through the very realistic character flaws of the characters such as the petty attitudes of Ajax and Achilles and the hubris of Hector and lust of Paris, Helen, Cressida, and Troilus. Shakespeare has presented the idea of lineage/gender/circumstances of birth being unfair in dictating people’s lives in his other plays. However there is no magical forest to escape to, or tragic death in which families learn their lesson- only war and the flaw of humanity. The realism of the play, while putting it out of place tonally,allows Shakespeare to explore and present his common themes in a different way.
So why get so dark and ugly with a story that would have already familiar to the masses? An audience familiarity with the text is what allows Shakespeare to have less concern with the story and more focus on the character flaws and the actions that bring about their doom. The audience would have been familiar with the ending, giving the story a sense of authenticity while also giving Shakespeare the opportunity to explore the destruction and pointlessness of war, while connecting it to the negative traits of the accepted social order and the selfish characters. I believe including Cassandra, a prophetess who is dismissed as mad, can be viewed as a self insertion and a warning. To ignore the issues of social constructs, power granted on an arbitrary basis, pride over morals, patriarchy and gender and let them play out in the “real” world where fairies and forest gods can’t tie things up with a neat ending will result in unsettling destruction where even the winning side suffers losses.
Fly, Richard D. “Cassandra and the Language of Prophecy in Troilus and Cressida.” Shakespeare Quarterly 26.2 (1975): 157-171.
Shalvi, Alice. “”Honor” in Troilus and Cressida.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 5.2 (1965): 283.