Troilus and Cressida and The Iliad

Mark, an occasional but always valued commenter here, exasperated that Fifty Works of English Literature We Could Do Without suggest that Antony and Cleopatra merits greater affection than Hamlet quoted a beautiful line from Troilus and Cressida: “I cannot fight upon this argument;/It is too starved a subject for my sword.” With a free morning available I chose to read Shakespeare’s tragedy, a mature work written towards the end of his run of comedies.

Troilus and Cressida isn’t performed often and though I was vaguely aware it was derived primarily from Homer had little understanding of its power. The opening paragraph from the play’s introduction in my RSC Complete Works, edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen, describes it perfectly accurately:

Troilus and Cressida perhaps reveals more of Shakespeare’s mature mind at work than any of the other plays. It is highly intelligent, rich in rhetorical complexity and linguistic invention, mentally rigorous, morally sceptical, sexually charged, full of dangerous intellectual and political energy, markedly unpleasant.

Unpleasant it is, which is why I imagine it is infrequently performed. That Troilus and Cressida was written over four hundred years ago is extraordinary as its grim anti-heroic dramatisation of war, inference of sexual assault and demythologising of Homeric heroes feels very contemporary.

Amongst a cast of vivid characters are two commentators, Trojan Pandarus and Greek Thersites, both vile, voyeuristic and overwhelmingly cynical and I imagine a great deal of fun to perform. Thersites carries the best lines, sewer-mouthed and acting as a sort of Greek chorus, nasty but sharp as he summarises the venalities of the Trojan and Greek heroes.

Although I’ve read a small number of Shakespeare’s tragedies several times, I’ve not spent enough time with his work to realise he was producing plays with this much intellectual depth. This goes deeper and darker than Hamlet or King Lear.

The RSC Complete Works suggest that Shakespeare’s Trojan War is notably derived from George Chapman’s 1598 translation, overlaid of course with Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. The latter came highly recommended in the comments to a previous post about Homer, so definitely a translation I’ll be reading soon. I also understand that Charles Williams wrote incisively about Troilus and Cressida in his English Poetic Mind, which I intend picking up when next at Cecil Court.

Thanks Mark for the inspiration for these flights. I discovered a great many other beautiful lines in Troilus and Cressida of which today’s favourite is: I have, as when the sun doth light a-scorn/Buries this sigh in wrinkle of a smile.

9 thoughts on “Troilus and Cressida and The Iliad

  1. Just saying: my third novel Cressida’s Bed was a reimagining of Troilus and Cressida set in India and Bhutan in 1930-31. It’s one of my favourite Shakespeare plays.

  2. Gosh, how pleasing to have inadvertently inspired you, Anthony, to read the play. I have always loved it and have always felt it was undervalued, problematic though it is. It would be nice to be in possession of a superpower that prompted anyone within earshot to read in full any work of literature that I quote from!

    Heartwarming stuff.

  3. Hello there! Thank you for this post. Indeed, Charles Williams did write ncisively about Troilus and Cressida in his English Poetic Mind. I’ve blogged about that here: He had a fascinating insight into that play and Shakespeare’s whole body of work, and he built his peculiar theology and autobiography into it, as well. I’d be interested to know what you think about that book when you read it!

    • Hello. Thanks for the comment and link to your fascinating post. My copy of The Poetic Mind went adrift in the post but I’m looking forward to reading it soon.

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