Troilus and Cressida Reconciled
No one has ever known what to do with Shakespeare’s ‘Troilus and Cressida’. It was hardly staged when new. Since then it could never be put neatly into a pigeonhole. In spite of its heavy load of misery, the play was too short of grandeur, not highfalutin enough, to pass as a tragedy. Nor was a it much of a love story. After a single feverish night and a deflowering, this Juliet turns faithless and her Romeo bitter. Unlike Verona’s immortal lovers, Troilus and Cressida didn’t die the morning after. They went sour for evermore as after a bad divorce.
The indecision about the play lasted through the ages. In 1900 when the works of Henrik Ibsen and George Bernard Shaw were in fashion, bright thinkers decided ‘Troilus and Cressida’’s inner tug-of-war made it a problem play. It was at grips with the conundrums of society, which were contradictory by nature. World War I brought another perspective. The play was anti-war. The Trojan and Greek armies in their pointless perpetual conflict were like the Doughboys/Tommies and Kaiser Bill’s battalions slaughtering one another in the trenches. Ideas got brighter and brighter. In 1968 the British director John Barton said that the war in ’Troilus and Cressida’ was “an image of a Vietnam situation, where both sides are inexorably committed.” Nothing but vested interests were keeping the murderous show on the road.
Perhaps the only thing to do with this theatrical puzzle is to play as it lies, display its contradictions, enjoy it cynicism, and go full-steam for satire. That’s what director Jonathan Miller did in his 1981 television production for the BBC. Miller, a qualified physician and neuropsychologist, was a one-off rarity amongst theatre folk.
He began by highlighting the character, Pandarus, who would bequeath our language the word pander. Actor Charles Grey plays Pandarus like a music-hall or vaudeville comedian, sexually ambiguous, something of a voyeur, with an eye for young boys. He is Cressida’s uncle and helps smitten Troilus to win her. Shakespeare begins with Pandarus knee-deep in self-interest but will end with him, surprisingly, as a self-pitying near-tragic figure. He and the couple are Trojans in besieged Troy, Troilus a gallant warrior against the Greeks.
The war between the Greeks and Trojans was as familiar in Shakespeare’s time as World War II has become for us through Hollywood movies. Shakespeare tired of the piety that had settled on it. For him it was a stale charade kept going by hollow rhetoric and hypocrisy on both sides. Honest doubters were silenced with muscle-flexing and big words like honour. The war’s bone of contention was Helen the Greek queen who had been stolen from her husband King Menelaus of Sparta. The Greeks besieged Troy to take her back. But Helen was happily frolicking with her Trojan kidnapper, Paris. Shakespeare’s Menelaus was a stodgy dullard who deserved cuckolding. Helen, in the Cockney phrase, was no better than she should be, a whorish airhead. Sloth and habit bolstered by masculine vanity keep the war going.
Just as he is an idealist in love, Troilus is a proponent of honour in war. However, when the crunch comes, his Trojan patriotism trumps his romantic gallantry. The couple’s one-night stand is followed hard on by a political crisis. Cressida’s father Calchas, who has gone over to the Greeks, wants his daughter with him in their camp. He calls for and is granted an exchange of prisoners. The Trojan hero Antenor will return to Troy and Cressida will join the Greeks.
The erstwhile virgin Cressida collapses in despair at the news. For his part, Troilus must yield to realpolitik. The lovers swear fidelity and Cressida leaves Troy. Here Shakespeare’s pessimism weighs in. The Greeks treat Cressida like a loose woman and she accepts their judgement and becomes one. A scene follows in which Troilus seals his hate of her, his idealism turned to nihilism. Hidden, he has watched her offer herself to Diomedes, her Greek keeper.
Of the Trojans, only pragmatic Hector escapes Shakespeare’s brutal satire. King Priam is a doddering incompetent, Casandra a drooling madwoman. The Greeks fare even worse. Ulysses is a snakily sly, word-spinning woman-hater; Ajax a musclebound dolt; Achilles an effeminate sadist; old Nestor excruciatingly long-winded; Agamemnon, never without a drink in hand, is a generalissimo well past his shelf-life. Only Thersites wins our admiration, and that not because he’s likeable but because he lambasts all the others. Of Shakespeare’s many licensed buffoons and court jesters, he is by far the most vicious and scurrilous. Quoth he:
“Lechery, lechery; still, wars and lechery; nothing else holds fashion: a burning devil take them!”
Played by Jack Birkett with dollops of camp, Thersites is a direct connection with the satirists of the Sixties ‘Beyond the Fringe’ troop of which Miller was a key figure. So it was that Swinging London of 1960 served up the play written in 1602 for our pleasure.