April 23, 2010 by Reader's Connection
I like to use Shakepeare´s birthday (which is today or tomorrow, sometime around now) to read a play I haven´t read, or watch a play for the first time. I read Troilus and Cressida a hundred years ago, didn´t much like it, and waited until now to finally watch it.
The BBC-TV production of Troilus and Cressida is the only DVD version available at either IMCPL or Netflix. I’d like to get out and see it live, somewhere. The 2009 College of William and Mary production advertised here looked ridiculous to me at first–can Thersites, “a deformed and scurrilous Greek,” really be played by a cute little blonde girl?–but they’ve used one of my least favorite Elvis songs in their trailer, and that’s affecting my judgment.
Our story: Priam, the king of Troy, has some sons. One of them, Paris, has kidnapped Helen, the knockout wife of the Greek king Menelaus. The Greeks see no way around it: They head for Troy in their big boats, and the Trojan War has been going on for seven years when Shakespeare´s play begins.
A Trojan priest named Calchas has foreseen the fall of Troy. His gift for loyalty isn’t as great as his gift for divining the future, and he sneaks off to join the Greeks. It occurs to him at some point that the Greeks should ask the Trojans for his daughter Cressida–whom he hadn’t bothered to bring along–in exchange for Antenor, a Trojan prisoner of war.
Calchas makes this request midway through Act 3, though, and the audience has spent the previous ninety minutes watching Cressida and Troilus (King Priam’s youngest son) become lovers. The lovers are separated so that the exchange can be effected; their parting scene in the BBC version is very moving; as Cressida is led into the Greek camp by the “valiant Greek” Diomedes, half a dozen commanders smooch on Cressida, or try to; and later, in what has been described as “Shakespeare’s most complex scene” she betrays Troilus with Diomedes, while Troilus and Ulysses look on from another part of the stage, and the foul-mouthed slave Thersites, on another part of the stage, watches over the other four.
These characters were inherited from parts of Homer’s Iliad that had been translated or adapted into English, and from Geoffrey Chaucer’s poem Troilus and Troilus and Criseyde. (The latter is available iin Middle English and something more recent.) But Shakespeare has gathered this assembly just to tear them apart. Conventional ideas about heroism and romance are left in shreds.
With only a couple of exceptions, the generals and warriors on both sides are a bunch of fools. Hector, yet another of Priam’s sons, occasionally speaks as though he were sane (“Let Helen go.”); and the Greek Ulysses is a wily plotter, though none of his plots work out. The rest of them–Agamemnon, Achilles, Ajax, Nestor, Paris–are a laughable bunch.
During the curtain call at Shakespeare´s Globe Theatre with which this blogpost closes, the most enthusiastic applause goes not to the actors who play lovers or warriors, but to the two guys who play Pandarus (Cressida’s uncle who gets voyeuristic thrills out of getting his niece and Troilus into bed–yes, this is where we get the word pander) and Thersites, the Greek slave who spews cynical commentary throughout the play–whose first words addressed to his master Ajax are “The plague of Greece upon thee, thou mongrel beef-witted lord!” Ajax is beating him.
This is not a feel-good play, but I enjoyed it greatly, this time around, in much the same way that I enjoy McCabe and Mrs. Miller , the bleak but comical Robert Altman film that mangles up one´s ideas about heroism in Westerns. The library has materials that may be of help if you’re going to brave Troilus & Cressida.
The scene where Cressida enters the Greek camp, for example, left a taste in my mouth for all the decades since the first time I read it. I understood that the Greek heroes were being scumbags, demanding kisses from this defenseless young woman, but I didn’t understand what was going on with Cressida. Was she flattered and turned on or scared or what? When I viewed the 1981 BBC-TV version of the play, not much was cleared up.
From the Arden Shakespeare edition of the play, I learn that there was some on-set disagreement about how to handle this character. Suzanne Burden, the Cressida of Jonathan Miller’s production of the play for BBC Television . . . wrestled with the issue of feminine dignity and with her male cohorts in a way that accentuated a crossfire of rival interpretations . . . [Miller] directed her to play Cressida ‘as sexually excited by being kissed, as thoroughly enjoying the game and her own power of arousal . . . Burden, for her part, felt herself estranged with what . . . Miller had in mind . . . [She] complained angrily of hearing her character, in the scene of arrival in the Greek camp, dismissed in rehearsal as merely ‘a tart and a sexual tease,’ whereas she saw Cressida as a witty and intelligent young woman who is just discovering herself, who is enormously unprotected by her supposed guardian [Diomedes]. Burden perceived Cressida as so terrified that her survival instincts come into play: ‘There’s got to be some way out of this and if I’ve got to use my sex I will.’
There’s a tradition of viewing Cressida as willfully unfaithful. In his two lectures on the play, though, Professor Peter Saccio presents a more sympathetic view of Cressida–of her conduct when entering the Greek camp, and of her behavior with Diomedes. His lectures on DVD are worth watching in part because of his treatment of Cressida’s “heroic aspirations,” and also because his comparisons of Troilus and Cressida with other works is funny. He compares Helen of Troy as she appears in Homer’s Iliad, for example–a tragic, noble figure, filled with regret–with the “blonde nitwit” whom we meet in T&C. (Helen isn’t really referred to as a “blonde” in the play, at least according to the concordance at OpenSourceShakespeare.)
Jane Adamson, too, in her book-length study Troilus and Cressida, argues on Cressida’s behalf. She quotes the harsh judgement of Ulysses after the kissing scene:
Fie, fie upon her!
There´s language in her eye, her cheek, her lip,
Nay, her foot speaks; her wanton spirits look out
At every joint and motive of her body.
His words are often taken to be Shakespeare’s own verdict, but as Adamson points out, the kissing-binge was Ulysses’s idea in the first place. Agamemnon plants one on Cressida, and Ulysses says
Yet is the kindness but particular;
‘Twere better she were kissed in general.
And Adamson goes on: It was an inspired stroke on Shakespeare’s part to have Ulysses thus be the one who proposes the general kissing for which he will then stigmatize the woman as a common whore.
There hasn’t been a massive critical shift in this regard. Marjorie Garber doesn’t stick up for Cressida in the way that Saccio or Adamson does; but if you’ve read or watched T&C, and feel baffled, her essay in Shakespeare After All is a wonderfully clear treatment of all the play’s elements. I quoted her in my post about The Two Gentlemen of Verona, last year, so I’ll lay off, now; but like the play, her 27 pages are both funny and sobering.
“A Little Less Conversation,” the Elvis song I was badmouthing earlier, is loved by my sons if not by me. One of them was playing it in the car as I drove him to school this morning, and I couldn’t help seeing William & Mary’s Helen of Troy bouncing into Paris’s arms. This play is taking over by brain, and it’s time to sign off.
Let’s close with that curtain call from Shakespeare’s Globe. I would love to have seen their 2009 production, though it got some negative reviews. I think this particular critic’s idea that the production should have been staged in a way that reflected on current anti-terrorist wars is a bunch of crap, but that notion is being spirited elsewhere on the web; so prepare yourselves for future Troilus and Cressida productions with Iraq/Afghanistan settings. In any case, the Globe found enough positive comments to paste on their website’s promo, and the curtain call itself is a percussive extravaganza.