January Books 17) Troilus and Cressida, by William Shakespeare

This was one play of which I knew almost nothing except that it is a love story set during the siege of Troy between Troilus, the son of King Priam, and a woman called Cressida. Actually I found it one of the most interesting plays from the point of view of sex and gender, disappointingly weakened in the final scenes (though probably a skilled director could rescue it).

The most striking thing is that the Greeks are all men, and their camp is a boys’ club (Achilles sulking in his tent because they won’t play with him on his terms, laddish carousing with Hector the night before he is killed). The city of Troy on the other hand is more gender-balanced: Cressida, of course, but also Helen, Andromache and especially Cassandra play important roles in the scenes set there.

Cressida is one of the great Shakespeare women characters. She is much more reflective about her situation than similarly placed Juliet and Rosalind; she bonks Troilus senseless (no qualms about marriage vows, we note); she is clearly deeply upset at being sent to join her father in the Greek camp, but banters successfully with the Greeks once she arrives.

And then there’s Act 5 Scene 2, where Troilus, Ulysses and Thersites witness Cressida apparently cheating on Troilus with the Greek soldier Diomede. The play fails in that we don’t really get Cressida’s side of the story. She gets a valedictory monologue of just six lines, and then vanishes from the script – she does send Troilus a letter but he tears it up without reading it. It’s a poor sendoff to an interesting character; her attraction for Diomedes seems to come out of nowhere. Probably an imaginative director and a good actress could put some credibility into her situation, but it is uphill work for that last scene or two.

The other love affair is that of Achilles with himself, a love shared by his Myrmidons who cut Hector down in the final scene. There is a lot of homoerotic subtext on the Greek side, and Thersites must be the campest character in the whole of Shakespeare.

I abandoned Arkangel’s audio production of this play at quite an early stage, as I was having difficulty telling the Greeks apart, and watched instead the 1981 BBC production. Jonathan Miller as director and Suzanne Burden as Cressida don’t really resolve her part of the story satisfactorily. There are some good performances: The Incredible Orlando (real name Jack Birkitt) as Thersites, Benjamin Whitrow as Ulysses, and most impressively Charles Gray as Pandarus (that’s Charles Gray with an a, the actor, not Charles Grey with an e, the 18th-century lover of the Duchess of Devonshire after whom Earl Grey tea is named). But Miller for some reason trims a lot of Thersites and most of Achilles’ Myrmidons, and there are a lot of moments when the actors’ beards seem to be performing better than their owners.

Henry VI, Part I | Henry VI, Part II | Henry VI, Part III | Richard III | Comedy of Errors | Titus Andronicus | Taming of the Shrew | Two Gentlemen of Verona | Love’s Labour’s Lost | Romeo and Juliet | Richard II | A Midsummer Night’s Dream | King John | The Merchant of Venice | Henry IV, Part I | Henry IV, Part II | Henry V | Julius Caesar | Much Ado About Nothing | As You Like It | Merry Wives of Windsor | Hamlet | Twelfth Night | Troilus and Cressida | All’s Well That Ends Well | Measure for Measure | Othello | King Lear | Macbeth | Antony and Cleopatra | Coriolanus | Timon of Athens | Pericles | Cymbeline | The Winter’s Tale | The Tempest | Henry VIII | The Two Noble Kinsmen | Edward III | Sir Thomas More (fragment)

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1 Response to January Books 17) Troilus and Cressida, by William Shakespeare

  1. redfiona99 says:

    >>with some very sensuous descriptions of setting (Hull, of all places) << I want to read it just to see if this is even possible.

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