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About as dark as a comedy can get without being a tragedy
William Shakespeare's version of Troilus and Cressida begins at the end of the seventh year of the Trojan War and is about as overflowing with good feeling as Sartre's No Exit. In fact, Sartre's line about "hell is other people" seems to apply. Betrayal is everywhere. Helen, wife of Greek King Menelaus, is kidnapped by Paris of the Trojans. Cressida, lover of Troilus, is bargained to the Greeks. Thersites says that everything is just "war and lechery". Cressida, however, knows that "men prize the thing ungained" and that "joy's soul lies in the doing". Knowing that in times of war, she is just a commodity, a thing. "Things won are done", she says.
Troilus and Cressida, one of the series of Shakespeare works performed by the BBC Time-Life ensemble in 1981, is difficult to fit into any genre, though it was originally classified as a tragedy in the First Folio of 1623, before it was replaced by Timon of Athens and then reinserted between the histories and tragedies with strangely no mention in the table of contents. Some consider it a comedy but, though it has moments of satiric humor, it is about as dark as a comedy can get without being a tragedy.
The play has generated much interest in the authorship debate largely because of a lengthy anonymous introduction presumably written by the publisher that was printed in the first edition in 1609, but removed in later editions. Beginning with the strange invocation, "a never writer to an ever reader", the introduction falsely describes Troilus and Cressida as "a new play, never staled with the stage (though it had been entered with the Stationer's register in 1603 as having been performed by the Lord Chamberlain's Men), never clapper-clawed with the palms of the vulgar or sullied with the smoky breath of the multitude." The publisher then brags about his piracy, having obtained the manuscript in spite of the "the grand possessors' wills". It is not an introduction one would think that would be made to a play written by a still-living commoner.
The main sources of the play are The Iliad of Homer, Metamorphoses by Ovid, and The Aeneid by Virgil as a starting point but most analysts trace its origins to the anonymous play The History of Agamemnon and Ulysses performed by Oxford's Boys in 1584. The main plot, however, was developed by Boccaccio in his Filostrato and further developed by Chaucer in his Troilus and Criseyde. In the case of the ancient literature, the first English translations were of Ovid by Arthur Golding and Virgil by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, both uncles of Edward de Vere.
Though the love between Troilus, a Trojan prince and Cressida, a Trojan maid seems to be prospering at the beginning of the play, their love is mediated by the scheming Pandarus, uncle of Cressida. Pandarus, whose character may be a harsh lampoon of William Cecil or Henry Howard, helps Troilus woo her, and then stands by as their love is destroyed when an exchange is arranged for Cressida to be delivered to the Greeks in return for the prisoner Antenor. At first distraught over the split with her lover Troilus, Cressida soon adjusts to the overtures of the Greek Diomedes and is considered by commentators to be the one Shakespearean lover who is genuinely unfaithful. Troilus, on the other hand, initially furious while watching Cressida cavort with Diomedes, soon turns indifferent and even joins Pandarus in making sexual jokes at Cassandra's expense.
Outstanding performances include Charles Gray as Pandarus, Anton Lesser as Troilus, and Suzanne Burden as Cressida. Thersites, as performed by Jack Birkett, deformed in body and mind, is a powerful symbol of the disharmony of the world being dramatized. It is a world that is far removed from the nobility and heroism of Homer, a world where a long drawn out, unwinnable war has become sordid and the characters tawdry and incompetent. Hector sums it up by telling Ulysses, "The end crowns all, /And that old common arbiter, Time. / Will one day end it."
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