Sunday, January 16, 2011

Discussion: Troilus and Cressida

The play: The History of Troilus and Cressida

The plot tweet: During the Trojan War, legendary heroes are painted as ridiculous caricatures, and Troilus and Cressida's courtly love ends in bitterness.

My favorite line:
Thyself upon thyself! The common curse of mankind, folly and ignorance, be thine in great revenue.


The light-hearted days of the Comedy of Errors and Two Gentlemen of Verona are far behind us. Here we find Shakespeare in transition. His son is dead, his father is dead, and he's just written Hamlet and Twelfth Night, a comedy with its own odd mix of darkness and light. With Troilus and Cressida, we descend even further into darkness -- into bitterness, disappointment and outright disillusionment.

Troilus and Cressida is the first of the so-called problem plays, which also include All's Well that Ends Well and Measure for Measure. Shakespeare is working something through here, because immediately after these plays we get the great series of tragedies: Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra.

So, what is it about this play that leaves us so unsettled? Harold Bloom, in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, points out that this play has no great characters, the kind one can imagine bumping into on the street: no Falstaff and Prince Hal, no Rosalind, no Juliet, no Bottom. He writes:
"There are no such inwardnesses in the problematic comedies ... Before the forging of Iago, Shakespeare pauses in his journey to the interior, and the three 'dark' comedies of 1601-4 give us neither accessible psychological depths nor Marlovian-Jonsonian caricatures and ideograms ... Magnificent in language, Troilus and Cressida nevertheless retreats from Shakespeare's greatest gift, his invention of the human. Something we cannot know drives him, in this play, against his own strength as a dramatist."
Troilus and Cressida doesn't even have a genre. It was published as The Tragedy of Troilus and Cressida in the First Folio but as The Famous History of Troilus and Cressida in the 1609 Quarto, where the publisher's note describes it as a witty comedy. It's certainly not a traditional everyone-gets-married comedy. If it's a tragedy, Troilus is surely no tragic hero (although maybe Hector is, a little bit). Perhaps it's best viewed as a history play, or perhaps -- as many scholars have done -- we should just be satisfied with the "problem play" label.

And here's something else that's weird: This play was never performed at the Globe, as far as we know. Perhaps it did appear briefly and flopped, or perhaps it was performed only for private audiences. It was pulled from the First Folio, replaced with Timon of Athens and then re-inserted at the last minute, without page numbers or an entry in the table of contents. It seems that even Shakespeare's contemporaries, and possibly Shakespeare himself, acknowledged that the play was not entirely successful.

In Lectures on Shakespeare, W.H. Auden gives Shakespeare more credit than other scholars for the effort he is making in Troilus and Cressida:
"The first thing that comes to mind is the difference between a major writer and a minor writer ... The minor writer never risks failure. When he discovers his particular style and vision, his artistic history is over. The major writer, on the other hand, is of two kinds. One is the kind who spends most of his life preparing to produce a masterpiece, like Dante or Proust ... The other kind of major artist is engaged in perpetual endeavors. The moment such an artist learns to do something, he stops and tries to do something else, something new -- like Shakespeare or Wagner or Picasso."
As Auden points out, Troilus and Cressida and the other problem plays "don't quite come off." But they are a necessary stop on Shakespeare's journey toward producing the great tragedies.

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