Classics · Shakespeare

Troilus and Cressida: Act V

I was expecting Cressida to be unfaithful and Troilus to find out, but the thing about summaries is that they don’t give you all the detail. I wasn’t expecting it to happen the way it did. Cressida doesn’t seem all that eager to be with Diomedes, and it certainly doesn’t seem like she’s in love with him. It seems more like she’s playing a game, knowing she will give in, but playing hard-to-get – like she did with Troilus at first – or maybe even stalling for time.

She’s definitely flirting, but there are moments when she hesitates. When she agrees to become his lover, she gives him Troilus’ sleeve as a token, but immediately changes her mind and tries to take it back in a scene that seems like it could be interpreted either as playful flirting or as genuine internal conflict. Her regretful words of farewell to Troilus after Diomedes leaves suggest the latter. The whole scene, of course, is colored by the Greeks’ disrespect for her when she arrived; it’s not hard to see why she would turn to Diomedes, who is at least kind and respectful toward her, rather than making an enemy of him by rejecting his advances. I think it would be hard to read her as having forgotten Troilus and fallen in love with someone else, or simply lacking any loyalty.

Troilus’ immediate reaction is denial. He wants to pretend that the woman he saw was not Cressida, and goes to great lengths to try to do so. However, the evidence of her betrayal is too solid to really be contradicted. He becomes determined to kill Diomedes in the next day’s battle, which doesn’t actually happen, because the focus shifts completely away from Troilus and Cressida at this point. Rather than going further into her disloyalty or his reaction, the Trojan War itself takes over.

And it’s not much like the traditional version. It’s often said that history is written by the victors, and that’s exactly what happens in Achilles and Hector’s final battle. Instead of the epic duel of The Iliad, their fight is anticlimactic. Hector – who has previously been described as having the “vice of mercy” – spares Achilles’ life, and later, Achilles catches him off guard and has his soldiers attack him all at once. Rather than a hero, Achilles comes across as a coward.

The final scene could – and probably should – have been cut out. It seems like a bizarre choice to end with Pandarus, a comical minor character, listing his complaints, rather than the two armies reacting to Hector’s death, or better yet, some kind of resolution for Troilus and Cressida. But throughout the play, Shakespeare seems to be trying to de-romanticize both love and war. Classical heroes become flawed and decidedly un-heroic, star-crossed lovers fall apart for the least romantic of reasons, epic battles turn out not to have been fought fairly, and humorous moments exist alongside tragic ones. Perhaps by following the turning point of the war with a comical monologue, Shakespeare hoped to drive this point home. However, I don’t think it worked very well, and it would have been better ended a scene earlier.

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