Theatre Review: Troilus and Cressida


Stage theatre blurs the boundaries of art, for the performance is in real time with actors playing their roles, and audiences brining energy to stimulate those on stage.  Movies, literature, paintings, and sculpture are created with the audience in mind, but without the possibility of interaction.  The element of time is taken out of the viewing.  Yet, boundaries in theatre must also retain some social limitations in the action on stage.  When combat ensues, the performers do not actually wound or kill each other.  When couples court or seduce each other, they do not actually have sex on stage.

Our society’s sense of boundaries are in flux and debate now.  This year, “selfy” was selected at the word-of-the-year.  Technology from Facebook to the NSA let us put our images to anyone who cares to looks, and data-mine all those images, looking for patterns of interaction that the government deems threatening.  We are losing our boundaries, as the news, talk-shows and Weather Channel beams every personal tragedy, personal foibal, and natural disaster,  broadcasting our tears and quirks to the world.  Five hundred years ago, Shakespeare wrote Troilus and Cressida, examining the human characteristics that would allow us to forfeit our boundaries today.  It is no surprise that such a condemning play had no documented performance prior to the 20th century.  It is a play for our era of narcissism.

Our first performance of Troilus and Cressida was recently at the Blackfriar Theatre.   As with any unfamiliar play, we took extra attention to read about it ahead of time, concentrate during the performance, and review the script afterward.  The play is drawn from the Greek poems about the Trojan War.

For this review, I shall focus on the major theme, pride, that I heard driving the character’s motivations and actions thorough the play.  This follows my opinion about boundaries in our society, as pride directs us to seek attention, seek gratification, seek conquest, without regard to the consequences to ourselves or others. I shall not try to describe the actors’ technique this time.  This would be confusing, as cast members take multiple roles in both the Trojan and Greek camps.  I shall say that three actors, Gregory Jon Phelps, Trace Thomason, and Christopher Johnston, added to their craft with this production.

The Trojan War is based on the multi-year war over Paris, a Trojan prince, abducting Helen from Greece.  Paris viewed her as the most beautiful woman in the world, and therefore something he desired to have.  Troilus and Cressida is a side story in this war, but one that parallels the general theme that “It’s all about me”.  Troilus, another Trojan prince, is ready to take a wife.  His uncle, Pandarus, has a cousin, Cressida, whom he would like to broker to Troilus.  This also suggests that Cressida may be a bit older and more experienced that Troilus.  She cuts to the core of young men’s pride driven lust in her opening flirtation with Troilus.

Cressida: Men prize the thing ungain’d more than it is:
That she was never yet that ever knew
Love got so sweet as when desire did sue:
Therefore this maxim out of live I teach, —
Achievement is command; ungain’d beseech:

Young men are driven by their desire, and prone to disregarding and discarding their conquests once their passions are satiated.  While the princes of Troy banter and faun over various lip-smacking eye candy, the Grecian warriors find themselves similarly infected with infatuations.  Ulysses, representing the interest of the State, protest the warriors’ abandonment of their arms for the arms of their lovers.  Maybe he also represents the repressed politician who is not getting any.  In several long, long, long speeches, he outline the pride of leaders, manifested in their power.

Ulysses: Force should be right; or, rather, right and wrong —
Between whose endless jar justice resides, —
Should lose their names, and so should justice too.
Then everything include itself in power,
Power into will will into appetite;
And, appetite, an universal wolf,
So doubly second with will and power
Must make perforce an universal prey,
And last eat up himself

While he advocates power, he also warns of how absolute power will destroy itself.  Public pride devours the proud.  Then, Ulysses turns his view to personal pride, which he views as devouring Achilles’ ambitions for fighting.  Achilles has become content to pass on the daily battles and sporting games, to lay about his tent conversing, cavorting, and co-mingling with a younger warrior, Patroclus.  This also sets parallel love affairs, the heterosexual Troilus and Cressida, and the homosexual Achilles and Patroclus.

Ulysses:  This ‘tis:–
Blunt wedges rive hard knots: the seeded pride
That hath to this maturity blow up
In rank Achilles must or now be cropp’d,
Or, shedding, breed a nursery of like evil,
To overbulk us all.

Ulysses has a scheme to use his power to set the warriors in order.  The Greeks will stage a competition between Hector, a renowned Trojan soldier, and a similarly ranked Greek.  Achilles is their desired warrior to take this role, but he is too embedded with his love to bother.  Instead, they will set up Ajax, a monster of a fighter who does little other than eat and fight.  But, the Greek commanders must manipulate them and the Trojans into this game.  Ulysses sees this as a business exchange, which he describes in the most corrupted of business models.

Ulysses: Therefore ‘tis meet Achilles meet not Hector
Let us, like merchants, show our foulest wares,
And think perchance they’ll sell; if not,
The lustre of the better shall exceed,
By showing the worst first.

The art of business is not, in Ulysses calculation, about providing a quality product or service, but controlling the customer’s opinion and making the sale.  Nester, an aging Greek commander, uses a more primal animal metaphor to illustrate how pride will pitch this battle.  Whether boosting Ajax’s pride in his ability, or insulting Hector’s pride to taunt him, the commanders will toss the bones before the men.

Nestor: Two curs shall tame each other: pride alone
Must tarre the mastiffs on, as ‘twere their bone.

Back in Troy, the princes discuss their plans for defending their city and love interests.  Troilus sets out the next dilemma for young men, reason and desire.  Reason directs them to certain habits, and lust tosses reason to the wind.

Troilus: Let’s shut our gates and sleep: manhood and honour
Should have hare hearts would they but fat their thoughts
With this cramm’d reason; reason and respect
Make livers pale and lustihood deject.

Then to demonstrate that all his reason just leaked out his left ear, he proclaims that he will take a wife.  At this point, he does not have anyone in mind, but sets out to let his senses, eyes and ears, guide him.  Even though, he recognizes that such a course puts him at high risk of a ship wreck.

Troilus: I take to-day a wife, and my election
Is led on in the conduct of my will;
My will enkindled by mine eyes and ears,
Two traded pilots ‘twixt the dangerous shores
Of will and judgment: how I may avoid,
Although my will distaste what it elected,
The wife I chose?

Hector retorts, as a lighthouse concealed in the fog.  Troilus’ desire-lead rudder plots a dangerous course.

Hector: The reasons you allege do more conduce
To the hot passion of distemper’d blood
Than to make up a free determination
“Twixt right and wrong; for pleasure and revenge
Have ears more deaf than address to the voice
Of any true decision.

Troilus, while drifting in his passion, reminds us of the larger story of Paris’ lusty control over Helen.  He questions why the Trojan soldiers should continue to die in the defense of Paris’ domination of Helen.  Of course, the whole play would be resolved, by reason, were Paris to forfeit his lust by returning to Helen to the Greeks.  But, we are only in the second Act.  Too much wooing, fighting, betraying, and dying are to come for a Shakespeare play end so reasonably.

Troilus: Were it not glory that we more affected
Than the performance of our heaving spleens,
I would not wish a drop of Trojan blood
Spent more in her defense.

Back in the Greek camp, Ajax huffs and puffs.  He chides at Achilles’ sloth.

Ajax: Yes, lion-sick, sick of proud heart:
you may call it melancholy, if you will favor
the man; but, by my head, ‘tis pride:

Agamemnon, the Greek general, prods Ajax on, inflating his pride with inflated words.  Ajax is not one for talk.  While the complements might be lost to him in the detail, Ajax does catch the emotion and complementary tone of Agamemnon’s strokes.

Agamemnon: No, noble Ajax; you are as strong
as valiant, as wise, no less noble, much more
gentle, and altogether more tractable.

Ajax: Why should a man be proud?  How
doth pride grow?  I know not what pride is.

Agamemnon: Your mind is the cleaver, Ajax, and
your virtues the fairer.  He that is proud eats
up himself: pride is his own glass, his own
trumpet, his own chronicle; and whatever
praise itself but in the deed devours the deed
in the praise.

Ajax: I do hate a proud man as I hate the
engendering of toads.

Nestor: (aside) Yet he loves himself: is ‘t not strange?

Back in Troy, Pandarus carves an image of love which appeals to Troilus’ wandering eye.  Recalling Cressida’s observation that young men’s seeking is more desirous than achieving, Prandarus stroke’s Troilus’ swollen compass to guide his direction.

Pandarus: He eats nothing but doves, love; and
that breads hot blood, and hot blood begets
hot thought, and hot thought begets hot deeds,
and hot deeds is love.

With each of Pandarus’ descriptions of Cressida, Troilus’ needle swings this way and that, trying to settle on the magnetic draw.  But, his desire is as unseen as the electrical force that sets the metal straight.

Troilus: I am giddy; expectation whirls me around.
The imaginary relish is so sweet
That it enchants my sense:

Cressida engages Troilus, revealing the pole that he follows.  She continues to wrestle with is love, to see who will end up on top.  I suspect that in a few scenes they will have tried a variety of positions, without such wordiness.

Cressida: They say, all lovers swear more
performance than they are able, and yet reserve
an ability that they never perform; vowing
more than the perfection of ten, and discharging
less than the tenth part of one.  They that
have the voice of lions and the act of hares
are they not monsters?

While Cressida gives into and satisfies Troilus concept of love, her father, Calchus defects to the Greek camp, Ajax puffs himself up more for the competition with Hector the next day, and Ulysses continues to scheme on how to unleash the wolf-of-pride into the minds of Ajax and Achilles.

Ulysses: If so, I have derision med’cinable,
To use between your strangeness and his pride,
Which his own will shall have desire to drink
It may be good: pride hath no other glass
To show itself but pride; for supple knees
Feed arrogance, and are the proud man’s fees.

Ulysses: How some men creep in skittish fortune’s hall
While others play the idiots in her eyes!
How one man eats into another’s pride
While pride is fasting in his wantonness!

Ulysses: The present eye
Praises the present object:
Then marvel not, thou great and complete man,
That all the Greeks begin to worship Ajax;
Since things in motion sooner catch the eye
Than what stirs not.

As Achilles continues to not stir, Ulysses places his bets on Ajax, who is now ranting on the field.  Thersites reports to Achilles on Ajax’s mental preparation for the sport.  Thersites is a psychotic jester, which may be the only way to drill into Achilles’ lust-addled awareness.  Derangement has more sway than manipulation or reason.

Thersites: Ajax goes up and down the field asking for himself

Achilles: How so?

Thersites: He must fight singly to-morrow with
Hector; and is so prophetically proud of an
heroical cudgeling that he raves in saying nothing.

Achilles: How can this be?

Thersites: Why he stalks up and down like a
peacock, — a stride and a stand…

As the competition nears, Troy is in a turmoil at the prospects of Hector winning or losing to Ajax.  Additionally, the Greeks have captured one of Troy’s commanders, Antenor, and offers an exchange of one of Troy’s beauties for him.  Any surprise that Cressida, only waking from her wedding bed slumber, is offered away?  Ironically, Paris laments that he cannot think of anything that he had the power to do avoid this exchange, and his brother’s loss of his love.  Duh!  Send Helen back, you prick!  Yet, our passions blind and bind our reason.

Paris: I know what ‘tis to love;
And would, as I shall pity, I could help!

Cressida and Troilus prepare to part.  Each fears that the other will not be true.  Cressida fears that Troilus will not be faithful without her present to guide him.  Troilus fears that Cressida will not withstand the temptations of the Greek men.  In this each reveals the insecurity of pride.  Pride boasts to conceal it’s sense of inadequacy.  Troilus recites of list of the qualities he sees himself lacking, that the Greeks posses point by point.

Cressida: Oh heavens! — be true, again!

Troilus: Hear why I speak it, love:
The Grecian youth are full of quality;
They’ve loving, well compos’d, with gift of nature flowering,
And swelling o’er with arts and exercise:
How novelty may move, and parts with person,
Alas, a kind of godly jealousy, —
Which, I beseech you, call a virtuous sin, —
Makes me afeared.

Cressida: O heavens!  you love me not.

Troilus: Die I a villain, then!
In this I do not call your faith in question
So mainly as my merit; I cannot sing,
Nor heel the high lavolt, nor sweeten talk,
Nor play at subtle games; fair virtues all,
To which the Grecians are most prompt and pregnant:
But I am tell, that in each grace of these
There lurks a still and dumb-discoursive devil
That tempts most cunningly: but be not tempted.

Cressida: Do you think I will?

Troilus: No
But something may be done that we will not:
And sometimes we are devils to ourselves,
When we will tempt the frailty of our powers,
Presuming on their changeful potency.

The Greek commander who comes to enact the exchange is Diomed.  Upon seeing Cressida leave with Diamed, Troilus assesses the risk of his warning coming true.  Thresites casts the verdict based on Diomed’s false-heart.  Diomed might voice his commitment to protect Cressida, but he lies about where he will lay his charge.

Thersites: That same Diomed’s a false-hearted
rogue, a most unjust knave; I will not more
trust him when he leers than I will a serpent
when he hisses: he will spend his mouth and
promise, like Brabbler the hound; but when he
performs astronomers foretell it; it is prodigious,
there will come some change; the sun borrows
of the moon when Diomed keeps his word.

Troilus follows the Greeks and Cressida, concealing himself in the shadows of their tents to spy.  An insecure pride will see what it fears, regardless of how his object of desire behaves.  Cressida is immediately assaulted with kisses (and probably more) from the Grecian commanders who greet her at the camp.  When alone, she and Diomeds exchange glances, words, and propositions.  The sleeve that Troilus gave to Cressida to remind her of his love, she offers, then takes back from Diomed.  Her actions are ambiguous.  Is she really so fickle, as to toss herself at Diomed, loving whoever is nearest?  Or, is she calculating, offering her affection for his protection?  Regardless, Troilus dismisses her as an impostor.  Though the same in person, his Cressida is in his mind in Troy, while this woman is Diomed’s Cressida secured in Diomed’s tent.

Troilus: Was Cressid here?…
This she? no: this is Diomed’s Cressida:

To wrap up the play, Act V lets the battle loose.  Hector and Ajax have wrestled, with Ajax winning the game and sparing Hector’s life.  But, the Trojans return with weapons and ambitions to destroy the Greek camp.  Swords become the extensions of their pride.  Patroclus is killed.  Achilles’ rage awakens from his love bed.  Diomed comes upon Troilus’ horse and sets it loose to walk back to Troy, signaling his death prematurely.  While Troilus set out to kill Diomed for the insult of seducing Cressida, in the heat of battle, rather than the heat of love, Troilus is more upset about being insulted by having his horse stolen.  He is ready to take Diomed’s life for such an insult.  Cressida who?

Troilus: O traitor Diomed! — turn thy false face, thou traitor,
And pay thy life thou owest me for my horse!

Achilles fights and kills Hector.  He ties Hector’s body to his horse and drags him about the field of battle, showing off his vengeance for Patroclus’ death.

Troilus: Hector is slain…
He’s dead; and at the murderer’s horse’s tail,
In beastly sort, dragg’d through the shameful field.

Troilus and Cressida is considered one of Shakespeare’s “problem” plays for it defies categorization into the usual forms.  It is not a comedy for the lovers are not united in marriage. Troilus and Cressida are both alive, but in separate camps.  It is not a tragedy for the heroes are not destroyed by their tragic flaw.  Troilus, Ajax, Achilles, Ulysses, Diomed are all left alive, with as little insight about their pride as they started.  Only Hector and Patroclus died, not for their own arrogance, but because of their associate’s self absorption.  It is not really a history for it illustrates a small episode in a larger conflict, and nothing is advanced through all this action.  It is not a romance, as we are left with little warm-fuzzy feeling, but just a stain of blood on the bed sheets and battlefield.

As I read the script to find all these quotes about pride that I had heard in the performance, I pondered what Shakespeare may have been trying to illustrate.  Could this be a condemnation of human nature, filled with narcissistic desires?  Could this be an assessment of young men’s pride, finding it’s way to maturity through the struggles of young love and accomplishment?  Could this be a warning to mid-aged men who meddle in and manipulate the young in their immaturity?

Scholars speculate that a reason that no performances were recorded of Troilus and Cressida during Shakespeare’s age or the next two centuries was that the play risked offending the pride of too many who were in power at the time.  Furthermore, it has had a revival in the 20th century, which began with rulers pursuing genocide driving politics and wars, and ended with the sexual revolution, and go-go economy of ever increasing balance sheets.  Are we merely a demographic bubble to which Troilus and Cressida speaks?  Are we a society that sends its young to fight the aged commanders’ battles?  Are we a society so arrogantly infatuated with our selves that we debate the core of premise of marriage, and peddle sex toys globally?  Are we a society that cares little about developing an economy which provides employment, wages, and livable cities, as long as our portion of the capitol puts us in the right percentage group?

In my pondering, I found the missing Epilogue for Troilus and Cressida.  It was in a box I purchased at auction in a back-hollow estate sale.  Lucky me!

Troilus: Thus, doth yonder Hermit evade the fight;
Refuse to puff up his hot chest and beat
The drum of his accomplishments:
Without regard for our valor:
Without loud grunt or groan, to chase or flight.
Nay! Yet, he lay at home, spading his garden;
Beckon’d by his wife’s call and kiss, forsooth!
No war is in his mind, when she to bed.

Cressida: Nor, doth, Hermit’s mind idle: other woman
To seek command, passions over lording:
Dominating knights upon their steeds
Ride hard at night, hottest kisses their lips
Burnish the luster of their Idols.  But, no,
Yonder Hermit embraces contentment
In two score years of marriage: be in bed,
At table, at theatre, or strolling hand-in-hand.
Would you, Troilus, heed such example, forsooth!


About hermitsdoor

Up here in the mountains, we have a saying, "You can't get there from here", which really means "We wouldn't go the trouble to do that". Another concept is that "If you don't know, we ain't telling." For the rest, you'll have to read between the lines.
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3 Responses to Theatre Review: Troilus and Cressida

  1. Barneysday says:

    Its not too far of a stretch to see the 21st century playing out as this one did, all those years ago. I comparison is uncanny.

  2. Pingback: Book Review: ‘Getting Directions’ by Russ Hope – Jamie Simmons

  3. Pingback: Theatre Review: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner | hermitsdoor

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