For those who aren't familiar with it, here's the rundown. It's the 7th year of the Trojan War, and Prince Troilus of Troy falls for Cressida, the daughter of a priest who deserted to Greece. Cressida's uncle Pandarus plays matchmaker between them, but it's tough, because Cressida insists on playing hard to get. Meanwhile in the Greek camp, Achilles has been sulking in his tent for ages and it's tanking the morale of the army. Ulysses decides to arrange a fight between Greek soldier Ajax and Hector (Troilus' brother), hoping Achilles will feel snubbed and will rejoin the war.
The Trojans argue over whether or not to end the war by giving Helen back to her Greek husband Menelaus. Paris, her new lover, doesn't like it because he's a selfish butthead. Troilus passionately argues to keep Helen in Troy as a matter of honor and Hector reluctantly agrees. Then, Cressida decides to stop being a prude and she and Troilus bone. The next day, they are told that instead of Helen being given up to the Greeks, it's going to be Cressida. In an epic self-awareness fail, Paris says to Troilus, "I know what 'tis to love; and would, as I shall pity, I could help." YOU CAN, IDIOT. Give up your own dumb bride so people who didn't steal their wives can have a go at happiness. Paris is insufferable. More on that later.
Hector and Ajax fight each other but get bored with it, so the Greeks and the Trojans get drunk together instead. It turns into an awesome beach rager, and it's a lot of fun to see the Trojans and Greeks partying together. Of course, Achilles is really butthurt that everyone is ignoring him, which is also fun.
Cressida arrives at the Greek camp in the midst of the revelry, and every dude tries to smooch her. She is then pawned off on a Greek general named Diomedes. Ulysses convinces Troilus to spy on Cressida to prove she's a slut, and indeed, Troilus overhears her telling Diomedes she'll sleep with him even through she promised to be true to Troilus (and played hard to get with him for like, YEARS). If you look closely, you can actually pinpoint the exact moment Troilus' heart breaks in two.
It's grim, but I love it. THIS is the play that Shakespeare chose to wrote about the Trojan War, and it reads like it was plotted out by Beckett. Instead of enshrining heroism, patriotism, and romantic love the way The Iliad does, he aggressively makes fun of anyone dumb enough to believe in such fickle concepts. He uses the epic poem that founded the entire Western canon, of which he is now such an important part, as an ass-rag. I did not see that coming.
It's even weird that the death toll is so low at the end. Sure, Hector and Patroclus die, but Shakespearean tragedies typically have much higher body counts than two measly stabbings. The romantic tragedies also tend to kill off at least one of the lovers, but Troilus and Cressida both survive the play. The tragedy seems to be that the characters expected so much from both their lovers and their rivals, and they were all let down. It's anti-climax after anti-climax, which is especially jarring when you are reading about the Trojan War: a story built out of about 8,947 sequential climaxes.
The only part of Troilus and Cressida that reminded me of its source material was the tense confrontation between Hector and Achilles when they meet in person for the first time. It goes a lil something like this:
Hector: Is this Achilles?
Achilles: I am Achilles.
Hector: Stand fair, I pray thee: let me look on thee.
Achilles: Behold thy fill.
Hector: Nay, I have done already.
Achilles: Thou art too brief: I will the second time,
As I would buy thee, view thee limb by limb.
Hector: O, like a book of sport thou'lt read me o'er;
But there's more in me than thou understand'st.
Why dost thou so oppress me with thine eye?
Achilles: Tell me, you heavens, in which part of his body
Shall I destroy him? whether there, or there, or there?
That I may give the local wound a name
And make distinct the very breach whereout
Hector's great spirit flew: answer me, heavens!
Hector: It would discredit the blest gods, proud man,
To answer such a question: stand again:
Think'st thou to catch my life so pleasantly
As to prenominate in nice conjecture
Where thou wilt hit me dead?
Achilles: I tell thee, yea.
Hector: Wert thou an oracle to tell me so,
I'd not believe thee. Henceforth guard thee well;
For I'll not kill thee there, nor there, nor there;
But, by the forge that stithied Mars his helm,
I'll kill thee every where, yea, o'er and o'er.
You wisest Grecians, pardon me this brag;
His insolence draws folly from my lips;
But I'll endeavour deeds to match these words,
Or may I never--
Ajax: Do not chafe thee, cousin.
I love that exchange so much: it is precisely what I expected the play to be. But of course, despite all the posturing, Achilles isn't even going to be the one to kill Hector. The next day, the two meet on the battlefield, and Achilles gets so frustrated that for once in his life he's fighting a worthy opponent that he has his hit-men go stabby-stabby while Hector's unarmed. The most famous warrior in classical literature, and Shakespeare chooses to rewrite him as a cheating coward. ALL THE WHYS.
The War Plot is more interesting than the Love Plot, and the play should probably be called Hector and Achilles, or That's Our Ulysses. Even so, the fact that Cressida spends so much time talking about the merits of being coy and virtuous in the beginning of the play, and then donks both Troilus and Diomedes within a 24-hour period, is bold and unexpected. She also writes a letter to Troilus the day after she's unfaithful, which Troilus rips up without reading. I'd love to know what was in the letter, but Shakespeare doesn't allow it. We're just left with questions about why the love story panned out in such an unusual way. Did Cressida ever really love Troilus? Did she screw Diomedes out of lust, or fear, or despair? What did she have to say for herself in the letter? ALL THE WHYS.
Last but not least, I want to take this opportunity to hate on Paris and Helen. Oh my Olympian gods, they suck so much, no matter what rendition of the story. Paris is happy to let his countrymen die by the thousands for his boner, and let's just say it was Helen's face that launched an army of ships, not her brains. Shakespeare clearly hates the couple too, and he constantly pokes fun of Paris' lack of self-awareness. My favorite example is when he says to Helen, "Sweet, above thought I love thee." YEAH, NO DUH. Everybody wishes you loved thinking a little more, Paris! Shakespeare also has Diomedes eviscerate Helen in front of Paris, which is soooooo satisfying. It goes like this:
Paris: And tell me, noble Diomed, faith, tell me true,
Even in the soul of sound good-fellowship,
Who, in your thoughts, merits fair Helen best,
Myself or Menelaus?
Diomedes: Both alike:
He merits well to have her, that doth seek her,
Not making any scruple of her soilure,
With such a hell of pain and world of charge,
And you as well to keep her, that defend her,
Not palating the taste of her dishonour,
With such a costly loss of wealth and friends:
He, like a puling cuckold, would drink up
The lees and dregs of a flat tamed piece;
You, like a lecher, out of whorish loins
Are pleased to breed out your inheritors:
Both merits poised, each weighs nor less nor more;
But he as he, the heavier for a whore.
Paris: You are too bitter to your countrywoman.
Diomedes: She's bitter to her country: hear me, Paris:
For every false drop in her bawdy veins
A Grecian's life hath sunk; for every scruple
Of her contaminated carrion weight,
A Trojan hath been slain: since she could speak,
She hath not given so many good words breath
As for her Greeks and Trojans suffer'd death.
Paris: Fair Diomed, you do as chapmen do,
Dispraise the thing that you desire to buy:
But we in silence hold this virtue well,
We'll but commend what we intend to sell.
Reality check, Paris: you and your girlfriend are assholes. I love how harsh Diomedes is with him ("contaminated carrion weight"...yikes!). But Paris is as oblivious as ever. He's like "aww, you're just haggling." No, dude. Diomedes laid down some Real Talk there, R.-Kelly-style. You'd be wise to heed it.
In conclusion: I don't know what Troilus and Cressida is, but I like it. It could have been a standard remake of The Iliad, but instead it's a relentless parody of the poem's core themes. I wish I knew what inspired Shakespeare to write this beautiful mess. If you are a scientist working on time travel, please hurry up because I'd like to take a bottle of Tullamore Dew back to 1602 and ask him why he hates Homer so much.
Best Anachronism: Hector talks about Aristotle's philosophy in Act 2, Scene II, which means Aristotle either traveled back in time 1,000 years, or Hector traveled to the future. Either way: this play should have had more info re: the time machine.
Most Crazy Oracle: Cassandra is in this play! She makes an appearance once in a while, raving away, dispensing her prophesies, being heeded by nobody. Life sure is rough for people who sexually reject sun gods.