Troillus & Cressida

This is another tragedy, comedy or riddle play that is derived from Greek mythology or history namely The Illiad by Homer which relates the abduction of Helen of Troy and the ensuing Trojan Wars. The four parts are written in rime royale (ABABBCC) and attributed by him to an unverifiable source (a certain “Lollius” whom he also mentions in The House of Fame), some literary critics define Geoffrey Chaucer’s work as the first attempt in English literature at a proto-novel. No doubt the Elizabethan playwright would have read George Chapman’s translation of Homer’s Illiad (The Illiads of Homer, Prince of Poets 1598). We also know that in 1599 a London based theatrical company performed the play Troyelles & Cresseda supposedly written by Thomas Dekker and Henry Chettle. However, the actual incident described by Chaucer is not found in Homer’s Illiad at all but in the 12th century Roman du Troie by the French writer Benoit de Sainte-Maure. This story was translated into Latin prose by Guido delle Collonne from which Boccacio later developed the tale. It was without doubt a popular literary theme with a great deal of revision and history. Incidentally, a pantomime cameo production of Pyramus & Thisbe, in the form of a comic satire also appears in the play A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It was provisionally entered in the Stationer’s Register in 1603 by ‘Master Roberts’ as being previously acted by the King’s Men omitting any reference in the 1623 Folio that it had never before been acted (“A never writer,  to an ever reader. Newes:-A new play, never staled with the stage, and never clapper-clawed with the palms of the vulgar” etc. This phrasing could have been an attempt to distinguish or distance the play from Dekker’s and Chettle’s earlier attempt, one performed at the Inns of Court or even Cambridge College. However, it might have easily been performed to a private audience well before its actual publication. The only certified record of its performance was not until the Restoration period in 1668.

Literary sources include Geoffrey Chaucer‘s Troilus & Cresiede (1385-90), which itself was inspired by Boccacio‘s prose romance Filostrato. Other sources suggest George Chapman’s translation of Homer’s Illiad (The Illiads of Homer, Prince of Poets 1598). Another major literary source would have been Arthur Hall’s translation in ten volumes of Homer’s Illiad published in 1581. Several other sources include John Lydgate’s Troye Book, Robert Henryson’s Testament of Cresseid and William Caxton’s Recuyell of the Histories of Troye (1464). Also inspired by Roman du Troie by the French writer Benoit de Sainte-Maure the 12th century. It was Richard Bonian and Henry Wallley who later registered and then published the first quarto of Troillus & Cressida in January 1609; in fact two editions were issued in the same year, the first says it was performed by the King’s Men at the Globe theatre and attributes the play to William Shakespeare, the second declares that it is a new and as yet unperformed play. Charlton Ogburn suggests that it was a revision of an earlier play performed at court in 1584 entitled “The History of Agamemnon & Ulysses”. Some scholars suggest that Thomas Middleton may have collaborated with Shakespeare in this play and that it was not included in the Folio of 1623 because the publisher was having difficulty obtaining the copyright for Troillus & Cressida. Its conventional classification as a romance, tragedy or history is still disputed, although the title page describes it as “The Tragedie of Troylus and Cressida”. The romantic relationship between Troillus and Cressida takes place during a truce in the war where the weary Troillus declares his love to Cressida’s uncle, Pandarus. Cressida’s father, Calchas, an astrologer and seer has foreseen the fall of Troy and therefore deserts to the Greek camp and eventually Hector ends up fighting Ajax. The Greeks along with her father Calchas negotiate with the Trojans for the release of Cressida in return for the Trojan prisoner Antenor. To Troillus’ despair while she is away she becomes romantically involved with the Greek General Diomedes.

The Fountain Of Mercy

The action of the play takes place after Paris of Troy has abducted Helen from King Menelaus of Sparta, some seven years into the war. King Priam (Troillus) is in love with Cressida, and hopes that her uncle Pandarus will assist his suit. However, her father Calchas has deserted to the other side. Meanwhile in the Spartan camp their leader Agamemnon, somewhat disappointed with the progress of the war, seeks a new remedy. Ullyses points out that Achilles is not being wholly co-operative, and Nestor mentions that Ajax is too self-willed. Then Aeneas arrives with news that Hector will agree to a challenge of single combat to decide the issue. Ullyses and Nestor block Achilles’ as the favoured champion and forward Ajax as a suitable candidate. We are introduced to the brainless Ajax, a jester and then Achilles with his friend Patroclus. Meanwhile in Troy, King Priam reports that the Greeks will desist if he will return Helen to the Greeks. Then Cassandra enters prophesying woe and doom. However, Paris and Troillus are determined to put up a good defence, to the death if necessary. In act III Pandarus furthers the love-match between Troillus and Cressida, however, Calchas her father has been trying to exchange her for a Trojan prisoner, Antenor. Agamemnon agrees and sends Diomedes to negotiate, but Achilles is sulking because he has been snubbed by Ullyses, Nestor and Ajax. Act IV features Diomedes discrediting Helen as a whore, in front of Paris, and then on the eve of their betrothal Troillus and Cressida discover that she is to be exchanged, and taken over to the Greek side to meet her father. The lovers part in grief and despair, exchanging sentimental gifts. In the Greek camp she is received with cheers and she teases the assembled soldiers. Hector arrives for his combat and then declines to fight Ajax because he is indirectly related to King Priam. We then discover that Diomedes has got his eyes on Cressida and that in place of Ajax, Achilles has accepted to be Hectors opponent. In disguise Troillus has made his way into the Greek camp and spies on Diomedes. Thersites, Troillus and witness the lascivious courtship by Diomedes of Cressida and her wanton acceptance of him. Troillus naturally vows to kill Diomedes and his whore Cressida. Meanwhile back in Troy Hector’s wife Andromache and Cassandra try to persuade him to avoid the one-to-one conflict, but without success. Pandarus then shows Troillus a letter from Cressida – he promptly tears it up in disgust, saying “Words, mere words….”. He then goes off to battle to meet Diomedes, while the battle between Agamemnon reaches its hiatus. Patroclus is slain by Hector, Menelaus and Paris in mortal combat, and Achilles kills Hector while he is temporarily without armour. The play ends with Troillus’ condemnation of Pandarus who is gradually left alone and dying of venereal disease.

The links to my publications “Shakespeare’s Qaballah”, a Companion to Shakespeare Studies and my anthology of poetry, “Parthenogenesis” are as follows:


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