Troilus and Cressida

This couple do not appear in Homer or in any Classical literature. They, and their sad love story, are a mediæval invention, apparently by a 12th century trouvère (court poet) called Benoît de Sainte Maure. Boccaccio later told the story in Il Filostrato and then Chaucer presented his own version in Troilus and Criseyde—perhaps a more idealised and courtly take on the story.

Shakespeare’s play Troilus and Cressida is unusual in that after its initial production, probably in 1602, it did not appear on stage until the 20th century: the first professional production was after the First World War.

It then began to be talked of as ‘a modern play’, ‘a play for our time’ and so forth—meaning, essentially, that it set out to present bad behaviour on stage and called into question things like loyalty, the heroic ideal, and of course the Homeric vision of the Trojan War. All the most heroic of Homer’s characters—the prime movers, both Greek and Trojan—are portrayed as contemptible in varying degrees, with the single exception of Hector; and the events recounted in the Iliad are altered, even to the extent of making Achilles kill Hector not in single combat, but by a shameful trick.

What moved Shakespeare to write such a play remains unclear, but it is plain why no one wanted to watch it on stage until the 20th century, when it became accepted that drama, and literature in general, could present selfishness and brutality in elaborate detail. That it should be revived after World War I is perhaps understandable, since it calls attention to how war can bring out the worst in people as well as the best, kings and commanders included.

It is a dispiriting play, raising the question why people should go to the theatre to be disheartened, and indeed whether many people do.

A colleague asked why Shakespeare, and his predecessors, felt free to take such liberties with the works of Homer. But these timeless stories become public property, and I reminded him of the recent dramatic variations on the character Sherlock Holmes, which have been so ingenious and so popular.

In the 21st century, it is even becoming acceptable to give fictitious accounts of actual people—Jane Austen, for example, or more recently people still alive, in the series called The Crown. The distinction between fact and fiction is becoming more blurred. But rewriting the past was a familiar pursuit of the Greeks anyway (see earlier posts).