Let's Read Plays: Troilus and Cressida

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Troilus and Cressida 
by William Shakespeare 

“She is a pearl, whose price hath launch'd above a thousand ships."

The story of the Trojan War and the beautiful Helen is well-known, but this Shakespearean tragedy about it is not. Troilus and Cressida is the story of two young Trojans caught in the midst of a nation at war. Despite being surrounded by the problems of others they find themselves falling in love. Troilus is the brother of the infamous warrior Hector and the lovesick Paris who ran away with the married Helen, incurring the wrath of the Greeks.
The entire play is filled with passionate declarations of both love and war. The Greeks, like King Agamemnon and the hotheaded Ajax, are itching for a fight. Ajax doesn’t realize until too late that he is only a pawn in the hands of the generals. The Trojans on the other hand aren’t sure how they want to respond. Paris wants to defend Helen’s honor, but his older brother Hector has to decide if she is worth the fall of an entire nation. From his opening scene he has an impossible task. He knows the right thing to do in theory, but the obligations of honor and family loyalty prevent him from doing it.

The play is full to the brim with remarkable supporting characters. From the tragic Cassandra, whose prophetic wails go unheeded to Pandarus, Cressida’s uncle the meddling matchmaker.
I was surprised to find one of the most poignant wooing scenes I’ve ever come across in a play. Usually the man takes the lead in these scenes, but in this one a guarded Cressida finally reveals how much she cares for Troilus. She been attempting to play hard to get, but she can’t hide her feelings any more. She gushes then quickly chides herself, finally begging him to kiss her so she’ll stop talking.  

“And yet, good faith, I wish'd myself a man; 
Or that we women had men's privilege 
Of speaking first. Sweet, bid me hold my tongue; 
For, in this rapture, I shall surely speak 
The thing I shall repent. See, see ! your silence, 
Cunning in dumbness, from my weakness draws 
My very soul of counsel: Stop my mouth.”

This is a tricky play though because there are so many different plots. There’s the romance between Troilus and Cressida and another one between Paris and Helen. There’s the central story of war between nations. In the midst of all of this the title characters often feel secondary, which can make it hard to become invested in their relationship.
The title may be Troilus and Cressida, but that’s really a misnomer. While their romance is sweet, it’s truly the story of the Trojan War and the dicey decisions that warriors must face in battle. What is a single life worth? For Achilles, his love for one man is enough to make him fight or to stay his hand. For the love of his brothers Hector is willing to pick up his sword. The tragedy of war is that it’s a cyclical game; one death always leads to the desire for vengeance from the other side. Grief and bloodshed fuel only more of the same and this play is a poignant reminder of that
BOTTOM LINE: A powerful story of the destructive force of war intertwined with a doomed love story. A must read for Bard enthusiasts and lovers of Greek tragedy.

I read this as part of the Let’s Read Plays yearlong event hosted by Fanda. She has selected categories/authors for each month. From November 2012 to October 2013 participants will read 12 classics plays throughout the year, at least one each month. I’ve read almost all of Shakespeare’s well-known plays, but I’m looking forward to digging in to some of his other work. 

Here are my choices…  
Let' Read Plays Schedule based on Themes:

Nov '12 Shakespeare's Tragedy: Troilus and Cressida
Dec '12 Shakespeare's Comedy: Love's Labour's Lost
Jan '13 freebie: The Iceman Cometh by Eugene O'Neill
Feb '13 Shakespeare's History: Henry V
Mar '13 Greek: Oresteia by Aeschylus
Apr '13 Shakespeare's 
Tragedy: Coriolanus
May '13 Shakespeare's Comedy: Two Gentlemen of Verona
Jun '13 Oscar Wilde: The Importance of Being Earnest
Jul '13 Other author: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams
Aug '13 Shakespeare's Comedy: Comedy of Errors
Sep '13 freebie: Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov
Oct '13 Shakespeare's Tragedy: Cymbeline


Jeanne said...

I would love to see this one, but so far have not been able to make the effort to get to the few places I've seen it being staged.
When I last read it, I was 19 and thought it suffered by comparison to Chaucer's version, which is odd because I would usually (then and now) prefer anything 16th-C to anything medieval.

Fanda said...

A very neat and good review, Melissa. You pointed put the essence of the play, and at the same time described the whole contents. I don't have any experience in reviewing play, so thanks to yours, I have a good reference now ;)

Kat @ NoPageLeftBehind said...

I love me a Greek tragedy and have yet to read this Shakespeare play. I wonder if it would be best to see it first due to the multiple storylines? Thanks for the review!

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Jeanne - It's rare to find productions of it! Isn't it interesting how our tastes can change with time?

Fanda - Thanks for hosting Let's Read Plays! I'm looking forward to seeing everyone's reviews and choices over the next few months.

Kat - I had the chance to see it performed before reading it and I would recommend that for all Shakespeare's plays. I think they are always better when you can experience them the way they were meant to be seen.

Lemon Tree said...

Amazing! I tried to read this play several years ago, but I didn't finish it. I was very afraid of sad endings back then. You make me want to take it up again and finish it the next time. Thanks.

Fanda Classiclit said...

Melissa, apparently the link you put in the linky was your blog URL, not the post's, so I've taken liberty to edit it through the linky. I hope you won't mind, but if you have your preference for the title/name, please let me know, I can edit it again. Thanks..

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Lemon Tree - Well it isn't an upper, so be prepared.

Fanda - Thanks! I checked and it looks good.

Song said...

I've noted this play down for next October. I hadn't much of a clue what it was about until I read your review. Now, I wonder if I won't bring it forward a few months!...will see. I'm quite excited about reading this play now. :)

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Risa - That's great! I'm using this year of reading plays to check out some of Shakespeare's lesser known works and so far it's intersting!