Lust poses as love and ambition as patriotism in this dark and brilliant play depicting the heroic action of the Trojan War. Troy is besieged by the invading Greeks, but the young Trojan prince Troilus can think only of his love for Cressida. Her uncle Pandarus brings the two together, but after only one night news comes that Cressida must be sent to the enemy camp. There, as Troilus looks on, she yields to the wooing of the Greek Diomedes. The tragic story is undercut by the commentary of Thersites, who provides a cynical chorus.
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“Those wounds heal ill that men do give themselves.” ― William Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida
Troilus and Cressida is one of those Shakespeare plays that seems to have slipped through the cracks for me during my first 40 years. It was a distant, dark planet. I knew it existed, but couldn't give you a useful quote or discuss the plot or structure. A minor Shakespeare play, perhaps? Now that I've read it, I'm still a bit in the dark. I've got the basics (I've read The Iliad several times and am familiar with most of the characters), but still need some more time banging around the text. My eyes have adjusted, but I probably need to read it again (or see it on stage) a couple times before I could feel super comfortable with it.
It is messier and less lyrical than his most famous tragic love story (Romeo and Juliet), but still has much to commend it. It is a very modern play. Its characters are challenging many of the big ideas and virtues: love, rank, bravery, nobility, etc. It is also a tad moralizing and homophobic (and yes, I NEVER try to judge a 400+ year old play by modern standards, but like The Merchant of Venice those attitudes and bigotries are still important to discuss). I had never even heard of the terms brach and varlet* before. But like in many of Shakespeare's plays, the ugliest character is often the best. I absolutely adored Thersites. He outshines Cassandra. His rants, rages, and insults are some of Shakespeare's sharpest. His venom is epic. His tongue is a hot razor.
One additional note of affection for this play. The warriors, gathered at Troy, are an interesting group. In Act 4, Scene 5, there is a fantastic dialogue between Hector and Achilles that could easily (and if I was to set up this scene, this is how I'd do it) have been written and promoted by Don King. I imagine Hector and Achilles at a table, cameras and press facing them as they peacock and throw verbal jabs and insults to the other. Those lines are better trash talk than I've seen in boxing. Floyd Mayweather, Conor McGregor, and the lot needed to take a lesson from Shakespeare's trash talk factory.
― “Upon my back to defend my belly; upon my wit, to defend my wiles; upon my secrecy, to defend mine honesty; my mask, to defend my beauty; and you to defend all these; and at all these wards I lie, at a thousand watches.“ (Act 1, Scene 2).
― “Men price the thing ungained more than it is;“ (Act 1, Scene 2).
― “The raven chides blackness.” (Act 2, Scene 3).
― “For to be wise and love exceeds man's might.” (Act 3, Scene 2).
― “Both merits poised, each weighs not less nor more; But he as he, the heavier for a whore.“ (Act 4, Scene 2)
― “What's past and what's to come is strewed with husks And formless ruin of oblivion.“ (Act 4, Scene 5).
― “But still sweet love is food for fortune's tooth.“ (Act 5, Scene 1).
― “Why are thou then exasperate, thou idle immaterial skein of sleave silk, thou green sarcent flap for a sore eye, though tassel of a prodigal's purse, thou? Ah, how the poor world is pestered with such water flies, diminutives of nature.“ (Act 5 Scene 1)
― “Lechery, lechery, still wars and lechery; nothing else holds fashion.“ (Act 5, Scene 2).
― “I think they have swallowed one another. I would laugh at that miracle - yet, I in a sort, lechery eats itself.“ (Act 5, Scene 4)
― “I am a bastard, too. I love bastards! I am bastard begot, bastard instructed, bastard in mind, bastard in valor, in everything illegitimate.” (Act 5, Scene 7).
― “Farewell, bastard.” (Act 5, Scene 7).
* varlet as a homosexual insult also appears in Measure for Measure & King Lear (both plays written around the time of T&C).