Troilus & Cressida: Act II

Isn’t it amazing how a different adaptation can completely change the story? So far, all the basic, easily-recognizable elements of the Trojan War are there: Agamemnon leads the Greeks, Ulysses comes up with clever schemes, Hector defends Troy, Achilles sits in his tent refusing to fight, and Cassandra wails out prophecies of doom. But in the details, it couldn’t be more different from the version portrayed in The Iliad.

Homer’s Achilles had very specific reasons for refusing to fight, which Shakespeare never mentions, making him come across as lazy and perhaps cowardly. The Greeks in general are painted as an unpleasant group, especially Ajax, who is more-or-less a mindless brute. In contrast, the Trojans are civilized and rational, but they too seem more human than their classical counterparts. For example, Hector seems to be losing his patience with the war, and is willing to give Helen back to the Greeks; it was also mentioned in Act I that he was angry with his wife and “struck his armourer”. Rather than idealized heroes, Shakespeare’s characters are flawed men, tainted by years of war.

I’m hardly the first person to point that out. Troilus and Cressida has even been described as a satire of classical, idealized heroes. That makes a lot of sense, but I think it’s also worth pointing out that flawed heroes are typical of Shakespeare, especially in the tragedies. Romeo and Juliet are foolish teenagers in love, Othello is gullible and prone to jealousy, King Lear falls for his daughters’ false flattery, and so on. The difference is that here, the source material portrayed these men as infallible heroes, while Shakespeare emphasizes their shortcomings.

On a different note, the title characters have yet to share a scene together.


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