Friday, September 07, 2012

Troilus and Cressida by William Shakespeare

Recently, I heard voices telling me "Read Troilus and Cressida by William Shakespeare." First, it was Lorenzo speaking with Jessica in Act V Scene I of The Merchant of Venice, which we saw under the stars in July.

   "Troilus methinks mounted the Troyan walls
   And sigh'd his soul toward the Grecian tents,
   Where Cressid lay that night."

Then it was a group of actors in Oxford in an episode of PBS Masterpiece Mystery's Inspector Lewis. They were recording Troilus and Cressida for a professor. The young woman playing Cressida became a murder victim, and her boyfriend who read Troilus was a suspect.

Finally, we replaced a bunch of old Shakespeare volumes in our library's play collection with fresh copies. Among the additions was an edition of Troilus and Cressida from the Folger Shakespeare Library. It was definitely time to read this play of which I was unfamiliar.

Despite the clues in the brief encounters above, I was totally surprised to learn that Troilus and Cressida tells a story from the siege of Troy by the Greeks wanting the return of Helen, Queen of Sparta, who had been kidnapped by the besotted Paris. Having once read The Iliad, I was able to figure out some of what was going on. The story, however, seems a bit different from what I remember of the battle between Achilles and Hector. It is certainly different than the battle in the movie Troy.

According to the introduction in the Folger Shakespeare Library edition, the playwright drew from Homer and from Troilus and Criseyde, a play by Chaucer. Shakespeare's play was published in 1609, but there is no evidence of its being performed during his lifetime. The Riverside Shakespeare says the first known performance was in 1898. To help modern readers, the Folger edition has text on the right hand page with extensive footnotes on the left hand page.

Troilus and Cressida is a hard play to categorize. There is comic banter that reminds me of Much Ado About Nothing and a forbidden steamy romance much like Romeo and Juliet. In the fourth act, most of the Greeks and Trojans enjoy a friendly banquet together to prepare for the next day's battle. The main characters (if you use the title as a clue) hardly appear in the final act and then not doing much of final importance. The Riverside Shakespeare groups it with the comedies but calls it historical.

Troilus and Cressida is not among Shakespeare's masterpieces, but it is interesting for those wanting more after having repeatedly seen or read the major plays.

Shakespeare, William. Troilus and Cressida. Simon and Schuster, 2007. 343p. ISBN 9780743273312.

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