Classics · Shakespeare

Troilus and Cressida: Act IV

Wow … things are moving so quickly. Troilus and Cressida are split up now. Because her father betrayed Troy to the Greeks, she’s been forced to leave and join him. It’s obvious she doesn’t want to, but when you have the kings of both sides ordering you and even your own lover insisting it’s inevitable, what do you do?

I’m intrigued by Troilus’ mindset. He flat-out tells Cressida there was nothing they can do to keep from being separated, but insists that she stay true to him and promises to visit her in secret. He must think there’s some hope that things could work out for them. He previously argued against giving Helen up to end the war, meaning he thinks they still have some chance of winning. Does he think he can win Cressida back if they defeat the Greeks?

I see a lot of parallels between the two lovers and the more famous love triangle of the Trojan War. Cressida, like Helen, is an object of dispute between the Greeks and the Trojans, and no one seems to care whether she wants to go or stay. Meanwhile, Troilus is faced with the woman he loves being claimed by the enemy and being unable to stop it. However, unlike Helen, no one is willing to fight a war over Cressida.

Certain aspects of the play are dark and disturbing. For example, the Greeks’ treatment of Cressida when she arrives in their camp. They don’t seem to respect her at all and repeatedly force her to kiss them. It’s not surprising, because in The Iliad, the Greeks treated Trojan women as spoils of war rather than people, but it does make me wonder why her father would have wanted her there to begin with.

A few details seem hard to buy into. Ajax being Hector’s cousin, for instance. I’m not sure where that came from, and while Hector might see it as a valid reason not to fight each other, I have trouble believing that Ajax as Shakespeare portrays him would agree. The final scene of Act IV, in which the Greeks and Trojans call a temporary truce and share a feast, also seems unlikely.

However, that scene does highlight a hilarious quirk of the play: Shakespeare’s decision to find humor in the absurd circumstances rather than taking them seriously. There’s a reason no one can agree whether Troilus and Cressida is a comedy, a tragedy, or some odd blend of the two. Achilles seems like an impulsive teenager, one moment pouting in his tent, the next moment making elaborate threats about how he’s going to kill his enemies. The two armies waver back and forth between seeming like men who have survived years of warfare and kids taunting each other on the playground. Does the humor take away from the tragedy? That’s probably a matter of opinion, but I don’t think so. If anything, the roller-coaster of emotions makes the darker moments more jarring.

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