There’s something rather curious about Troilus and Cressida. It was probably written, and perhaps first performed in 1601. It was then registered in 1603, but not published until 1609, in two quarto versions, one claiming it was acted by the King’s Majesty servants at the Globe, the other saying it was a ‘new play, never staled with the stage, never clapper-clawed with the palms of the vulgar.’
Whatever the reason for this, ‘Troilus and Cressida‘ is definitely one of Shakespeare’s more experimental plays.
Two possible reasons have been put forward for the late publication, and possible non-performance of the play.
Firstly, perhaps the players had become too closely associated with the Earl of Essex who had led an ill-fated rebellion against Elizabeth in 1601 and subsequently lost his head. On the eve of the rebellion, Shakespeare’s ‘Richard II‘ (in which a monarch is overthrown) was put on. Elizabeth was upset. She was reported to have said ‘They think I am Richard II‘. In addition, Henry Vth (1599) refers to Essex in the Chorus of Act 5. One of the main characters of ‘Troilus and Cressida‘ is Achilles, with whom Essex was often compared. Perhaps the players felt it was impolitic to put on another play praising Essex so soon after he had been executed.
An alternative explanation could be that the play had been performed privately, for a more sophisticated audience, rather than at The Globe, for the public. Shakespeare usually wrote for the public, but there was some competition at this time between the public and private theatre. Troilus and Cressida might have been performed at the Inns of Court (as Twelfth Night appears to have been for its first performance), or at some aristocratic household. Much of the style of the play might appeal to a more sophisticated audience: the lengthy philosophical speeches; Pandarus’ rather cynical approach to romantic love; the familiar tone; Thersites’ cynical attitude to all the leaders; all this might appeal to such an audience.
Troilus and Cressida keeps the balance between its two main themes: the war between the Greeks and the Trojans (with the Elizabethan London audience firmly on the side of the Trojans – London was supposed to have been founded by a Trojan); and the love story between Troilus and Cressida, aided and abetted by Pandarus. No sooner have Troilus and Cressida become lovers, than she is forced to join her father in the Greek camp and become the lover of Diomedes, a Greek soldier.
The story of the Trojan war, as told in the play, resonates strongly with the then contemporary social developments. Elizabethan society was in the process of changing from a mediaeval / aristocratic / religious society, to a society based on newly-emerging capitalism, more egalitarian, and with an emerging scientific approach.
Troy strongly represents the first of these, if in a rather decadent manner: the captains of the army go out to battle and return, like aristocrats from their sport; Pandarus interacts with Hector and Helen as a rather decadent courtier; when Hector fights Achilles, and finds him not at his best, he suggests that they fight again another day. Achilles responds by returning with all his Myrmidons, and finding Hector unarmed, has them kill him. Results are what matter to him, not honour.
The love story of Troilus and Cressida demonstrates Greek and Trojan and Elizabethan attitudes towards women, and this is reflected in the attitudes to other females in the play: the discussion of ‘what to do about Helen’ in A2S2; and the relationship between Hector and Andromache.
Producing Troilus and Cressida in the 21st Century:
This all suggests that ‘Troilus and Cressida‘ is a play suited to a modern production:
- It’s experimental structure suggests it would respond well to an experimental production
- The treatment of Cressida by Troilus, the other Trojans, and the Greeks, and the attitude towards Helen, and Andromache, should all help a feminist approach to the play.
- The nascent capitalism in the play could well inform our own view of capitalism as we perhaps start to move away from it.
The MFFE edition is approximately 27,000 words, so if we’re going to follow the 20,000 word / 2 hour rule-of-thumb, there’s some substantial cutting to do. Luckily, many speeches repeat the same thoughts, first in a fairly easy way to understand, and second, perhaps good for a smart Elizabethan lawyer, but a bit too clever for me (or my audience) to get easily.
One has to be a little bit careful with Agamemnon – he’s meant to be a bit slow, pompous and boring, so one doesn’t want to cut him too much.