In between writing the tragedies usually considered to be among his finest – Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth – Shakespeare also wrote three plays which defy categorisation: Troilus and Cressida, Measure for Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well. These are sometimes referred to as “tragicomedies” – a pointless piece of categorisation if ever there was one – or as “problem plays”, because of the problems attendant upon even attempting categorisation, and also because they address some insoluble problems concerning human existence.
Troilus and Cressida is perhaps the most open-ended of all Shakespeare’s plays. It is the only play featuring a battle in which there is no resolution: the battle is still raging as the final curtain descends. And, for good measure, the final speech goes to the revolting Pandarus, who throughout the play has taken a vicarious pleasure in bringing his niece Cressida into Troilus’ bed: in this final speech, this Pandarus, who is clearly suffering from venereal disease (Shakespeare was never too bothered about anachronisms) expresses his wish that the audience may share his diseases.
The tone of the play is dark and tragic, but there is no sense of catharsis. There is a death in the final act, but it is not the death of either of the titular protagonists: it is Hector who is killed – a major figure in the war, certainly, but a comparatively minor figure in this drama. Cressida, having betrayed Troilus, has now taken up – apparently quite happily – with Diomedes; and Troilus, his ideals all shattered, is battling away with an inhuman fury. As the scurvy Thersites says, all is mere war and lechery – mere unthinking savagery and lust. This is all human beings are reduced to.
But of course, if this were all there is to the play, it would be no more profound than Titus Andronicus. What raises this play above Titus Andronicus – quite apart, that is, from its obviously superior artistry – is the underlying sense of what human being might be. Hector, after all, is noble; Ulysses is intelligent and courteous; Troilus is idealistic. Thersites’ view that humanity as all as debased as himself may seem superficially attractive, but this is by no means the whole story: human beings – at least, some of them – do aspire to greater things. It is for this very reason that their failure to match their aspirations is so tragic. But even the best are caught in this unweeded garden that grows to seed, possessed merely by things rank and gross in nature. As has been noted, Troilus and Cressida could be a play written by Hamlet – at least, by Hamlet as he appears in the start of the play.
Of course, the environment of Troilus and Cressida seems miles away from that of the Renaissance court. It is an environment of endless war. However, Troilus is not too far from the Renaissance world of Hamlet – or, indeed, from the world of Romeo and Juliet: he is a lovelorn young man, yearning for the woman beyond his reach. And, like Hamlet, he is very much an idealist, shocked by the failure of those around him to live up to his ideals. When Hector suggests ending the pointless war by returning Helen, it is Troilus who opposes: they have to fight on, he insists, for the sake of honour. The figure of the man who engages in battle for the sake of honour is a familiar one in Shakespeare: there’s Hotspur in Henry IV Part One; and there’s young Fortinbras, whom Hamlet so admired. Before we scoff at this concept of honour that causes so many meaningless deaths, we should consider those examples Shakespeare sets us of lack of honour – the amoral cynicism of Falstaff (“Food for powder, food for powder! They’ll fill a pit as well as their betters”) or the sheer unmitigated evil of a Richard Duke of Gloucester. But for all that, Troilus’ sense of honour does help prolong a pointless war. As with so many moral issues, there is no obvious answer.
It is not perhaps surprising that a play so bleak and so uncompromising has not established itself amongst the most popular in the canon. One may object that King Lear is also a pretty bleak play, but, for all its bleakness, it does offer us the possibility of moral redemption: Troilus and Cressida doesn’t. War and lechery: that’s all there is. Even the catharsis of tragedy is denied us. On top of all this, the language is difficult and knotty: even when one is reading it, considerable work is required to penetrate through the tortuous syntax. And it is even harder to cut through these linguistic difficulties in performance, when we have far less time to think about the words. And as if all this weren’t enough, for much of the play, there is no sense of forward movement. One would almost think that Shakespeare had gone out of his way to make this play as inaccessible as possible, and as devoid of any element likely to enhance popular appeal.
For the first half of the play, barely anything happens. Troilus and Cressida are introduced quite early, but it’s only some half way through the play that they come together. Rather than advance the “plot”, as such, Shakespeare explores the situation. And it is a static situation: as in The Iliad, the Trojans and the Greeks have declared a truce, and Achilles is sulking in his tent, refusing to fight. But this Achilles is very different from the demi-god of Homer: this Achilles is cruel and narcissistic, and, unlike Homer’s creation, incapable of being humanised. And he kills Hector not in combat, as in Homer: he orders his men to fall upon Hector when he is unarmed. It is a cruel and nasty world, completely at odds with the idealism of Troilus, and seemingly confirming the scurrilous gibes of Thersites.
In the first three acts, the protagonists, Troilus and Cressida, barely even appear. and the big scene that Troilus has during the first half of the play – when he persuades the Trojans to continue with the war – has nothing to do with his love for Cressida, which is, ostensibly, the main theme of the play. This exploration of the situation is certainly absorbing, but is, perhaps, less than dramatic.
Troilus and Cressida are no sooner together than they must part: as part of a treaty, Cressida has to join her father (who had defected) in the Greek camp. Troilus seems quite insensitive to Cressida’s predicament: all he can do is to tell her not to be unfaithful to him. And this sparks Cressida’s shocked realisation that it isn’t really she whom Troilus loves: Troilus, the idealist, is in love with an idealised form of Cressida, not Cressida the real person.
Once she is in the Greek camp, she takes up with a protector – Diomedes. She has to – for her own safety. But we must beware against simplifying the issues: Cressida is no mere victim of male domination. She shows absolutely no remorse about having to betray Troilus; and there is no indication that her new affair with Diomedes is entered into unwillingly: quite the contrary. When Troilus, accompanied by Ulysses, views Cressida’s perfidy, his dismay is entirely justified. And while Troilus and Ulysses spy on Cressida and Diomedes, Thersites spies upon them all, and undercuts Troilus’ expressions of despair with his own nasty brand of cynicism: the despair is depicted simultaneously with a delight in that despair.
This remarkable scene is at the start of the final act, which seems to me among the most extraordinary acts in the entire canon. It is a furious finale in which nothing is resolved – where everything is left whirling madly in space. The tone of the play is dark and tragic, and Shakespeare isn’t even going to offer us the consolation of a tragic ending.
One wonders what made Shakespeare write this play. It is clearly a work of genius, but it was never, I think, designed to be popular. And that seems strange coming from a writer who depended on the box-office for his living. Indeed, looking through its performance history, it has never captured the audience’s imagination. Perhaps this is a play that is appreciated more in being read than in being seen. It’s possibly Shakespeare’s most underrated play, but even in such cynical times as ours, it is, perhaps, a bit too much for audiences to take.