Those wounds heal ill that men do give themselves
I’ve been a longtime fan of Troilus and Cressida; this Shakespeare play features one of the tales that existed amongst all the great epic storytelling of the Trojan War, one of the many stories shoved to the side as the Parises, Helens and Achilleses stole the show. It is the tale of the love between the titular characters and how it all goes south rather spectacularly whilst the bravest of Trojan heroes, Hector, goes to his inevitable death at the hands of Achilles.
I always saw but Troilus and Cressida as demonstrative of the casualties of war. That’s not to say that they’re the most brilliant of examples, but more of how normal lives get upended when war and the nature of ‘what needs to be done’ gets in the way. In another life the Trojan prince Troilus would have wooed the girl and eventually married her, with the two living happily ever after as they have lots of little Trojan babies. But let’s face it, that not the most entertaining story. Instead, Cressida is traded for a Trojan prisoner of war and Troilus risks much to see his beloved, instead he sees her agreeing to be the lover of a Greek soldier.
This is contrasted against the grim sacrifice of Hector, the great Trojan prince and heir to the throne. His love for his father and country leads him to lead the charge against the Greeks, accompanied by the heartbroken Troilus. What brings Achilles into the battle is Hector killing his lover Patroclus. The theme of sacrifice for love weighs heavy in the last act of the play. But what also stands as the curtain falls is the lack of satisfaction. No party ends up with a happy ending. Even Achilles’ victory by the end seems hollow, his crude displays of victory an act of a man grieving and trying to get it out.
The play could perhaps be thought of as inconsistent. There are moments when there are moments of hilarity which seem out of tone in contrast to the bleak final act and I feel that this inconsistency is what prevents it from being considered as one of the greater plays. However I enjoy the uncertainty that the shifting of tone brings. In the grimmest moments in life sometimes humour is needed. Life must always go on but in war – how do we reconcile this need to live with the face that life might be over tomorrow. For me, this uncertainty only adds to the play.
Like or find fault, do as your pleasures are,
Now good or bad, ’tis but the chance of war
Yet Troilus and Cressida is not for everyone. Some might see it as a weak attempt on the part of Shakespeare to create an affective ancient drama, and that he has done better in some of his other plays based on sources of Ancient history. That being said, I feel the ending like a hollow punch to the stomach every time and its themes are ones that echo many millennia beyond its period setting.
Things won are done, joy’s soul lies in the doing.
That she belov’d now knows nought that knows nought this:
Men prize the thing ungain’d more than it is.
(photo credit: laurahopkins.co.uk for the RSC)