Classics · Shakespeare

Poem: False as Cressid

About a week ago, I finished Troilus and Cressida and ended up with a lot of mixed feelings about Cressida. It seems to me that her story ends without any resolution. We never see or hear from her again after her unfaithfulness is revealed, and even that is seen entirely from Troilus’ perspective. Her story is never really told; she’s just a supporting player in a much bigger story. So here’s my attempt to give her a voice.

Had I never said the words,
“False as Cressid”,
Would our tale have ended
As it did?

Perhaps our fates are written down in stone
Or crossed by stars
Or woven by three women in the woods
If so, there was nothing
Nothing I could do
To reach a happy end with you
My love, my Troilus true

The lies we tell
Each other and ourselves
Run down the broken walls of Troy in blood

He takes my hand, and I feel
Nothing like the love I felt for you
But in his arms, I’m safe, and so I tell another lie
Whispered softly in his ear
False as Cressid

Classics · Shakespeare

The Problem of Cressida

When I read a book (or in this case a play), I usually find myself drawn to one or two characters in particular – and not always ones I see myself in or would want to know in real life. Sometimes that’s the case, but more often, my “favorite” characters are ones who make me ask questions or see the story in a different light. In Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, that character is Cressida.

It would be easy to hate Cressida. While other Shakespearean heroines become martyrs for love, she vows to be faithful to Troilus only to run into Diomedes’ arms once they are separated. She’s like the antithesis of Desdemona from Othello, who was wrongly suspected of infidelity but never strayed from her husband, or Juliet, who kills herself rather than live without Romeo. I don’t think Cressida was ever as much in love with Troilus as she claimed to be. And yet, I don’t hate her. I pity her.

To be caught in the crossfire of the Trojan War is bad enough. To be a Trojan woman whose father betrays Troy to the Greeks would be much worse. It’s hard to imagine that Cressida could really be sure of her safety, no matter which side she was with. I doubt she was in love with Diomedes, but he was willing to protect her and showed her more respect than the other Greeks, so it’s not hard to see why she gave in. Did she love Troilus? I’m not sure. Even with him, there were early signs that she might not be telling the whole truth (“Perchance, my lord, I show more craft than love”). If she did love him, it wasn’t the blind passion of Juliet or the devotion shown by Desdemona. But it’s hard to blame her for that, especially given how short a time they’ve been together and the improbability of being reunited. Her love is more pragmatic than the typical tragic heroine’s, but Troilus and Cressida is not a typical tragedy. In the end, the real tragedy is that people are flawed, heroes are rare, and sometimes love just isn’t enough.

I see Cressida as a flawed heroine. Just as others of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes may be reckless, selfish, or susceptible to manipulation, Cressida’s flaws cannot be denied, but they can be understood. She’s not just a devious girl who strings men along. She’s trying to survive and making the best of the circumstances she finds herself in.

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.

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.

Classics · Shakespeare

Troilus and Cressida: Act III

Troilus and Cressida have finally met! It turns out she has been in love with him from the start, but was too modest to say so. Or … was she? I mean, I know how this ends, and there’s an awful lot of foreshadowing in that scene. She even tells him, “Perchance, my lord, I show more craft than love”, and later, counters his expression “true as Troilus” with “false as Cressid” – none of which he seems to pick up on at all. Is she passionately in love, and simply teasing him, or playing cynical games?

Also, Achilles is apparently in love with a Trojan princess. I’m not kidding. Where did Shakespeare come up with that? Did he think it was more romantic than Achilles’ traditional dispute with Agamemnon over the spoils of war? Would his original audience have known the difference? I have no idea. But it has nothing to do with any other version of the story I’ve read.


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.

Classics · Shakespeare

Troilus and Cressida, Act I

My first impressions based on what I’ve read so far:

I like it … but I understand why it’s met with mixed reactions. It’s a difficult play, not entirely comedy or tragedy. Troilus and Cressida have yet to interact, although they do talk about each other quite a bit, and at least so far, it seems like he’s way more in love with her than she is in love with him. The Trojan War setting is not quite the same as the one from The Iliad, in the same way a movie might have a totally different feel from the book it’s based on. At the same time, though, it assumes fairly detailed knowledge of the mythology surrounding the Trojan War, which most people today don’t have. I don’t love it the way I love The Tempest and King Lear, but so far it’s enjoyable.

Looking forward, I’m interested to see how the relationship between the two title characters will build up and how the two main plots – the Trojan lovers and the war itself – will interact.