'Fools on both sides: Helen must needs be fair,
When with your blood you daily paint her thus.'
Act 1, Sc 1
The author Joyce Carol Oates famously called Troilus and Cressida ‘that most vexing and ambiguous of Shakespeare’s plays’, but she also observed that ‘its investigation of numerous inﬁdelities, its criticism of tragic pretensions, above all, its implicit debate between what is essential in human life and what is only existential are themes of the twentieth century’.
The siege of Troy was the story of stories, the subject of Homer’s Iliad. This particular episode – the love between the Trojan prince Troilus and Cressida, the daughter of a Greek traitor – was the subject of Boccaccio’s and Chaucer’s greatest poems. Even Shakespeare must have felt some trepidation in tackling it.
And yet, what Shakespeare manages to give us is something entirely unexpected: here we ﬁnd no epic heroism, no great love story, but instead the most cynical drama he wrote.
The ﬁgures of epic legend are revealed as unworthy: Achilles, the hero of Homer’s tale, is portrayed as a ridiculous, sulky brute, whose ﬁnal slaughter of the unarmed Hector is far from noble. Troilus pretends to be a lovelorn hero, but his cultivation of Pandarus is unsavoury at best. When Cressida comments that ‘things won are done’, she prophesies her own future, despised as a whore by both Greeks and Trojans. Even Troilus’ laments for her inﬁdelity seem like posturing when compared to his true grief after Hector’s death: ‘Hector is dead; there is no more to say.’ Troilus lives, but the ending remains unrelievedly bleak, the audience know Troy will fall and even Pandarus’ ﬁnal jokes on his likely death from the pox are too bitter for laughter.
‘Some two months hence my will shall here be made. Till then I’ll sweat and seek about for eases,
And at that time bequeath you my diseases.’
Act 5, Sc.10
The play came into its own after the First World War, with its own bitter legacy of betrayed heroism. Troilus and Cressida is often revived for its very contemporary commentary on war and the relations between men and women.
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From the choice of text and meticulously designed pages to the mould-made paper and unsurpassed art of letterpress printing, attention has been lavished on every facet of the reading experience.
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