Troilus and Cressida by William Shakespeare.

Troilus and Cressida is one of Shakespeare's later plays, written around 1602 (around the same time as Hamlet, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and All's Well That Ends Well) and published in 1609. It's classed as one of Shakespeare's "problem plays" (as, traditionally, are Measure for Measure and All's Well That Ends Well, both published in 1623): it was labelled as a history play in an early folio, but then it also has elements of both tragedy and comedy. I read it because I'm planning on reading Troilus and Criseyde by Geoffrey Chaucer (1382-86) this month, and for one thing I thought it would be interesting to compare the two, and for another I'm still a little too intimidated by Chaucer's version to happily pick it up and start at present!

The German translation of  Il Filostrato,
Troilus und Kressida (1884).
Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida was in part inspired by Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, but there are a number of other sources: in fact, tracking the tale's history is quite complicated. Nevertheless, I shall try: Shakespeare's play was inspired by John Lydgate's Troy Book (a 30 000 line poem, written around 1412-20), Raoul Lefevre's Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye (written in 1464, and translated by William Caxton. This is, I've read, the first book ever to be printed in English), and as I've said Geoffrey Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde. Chaucer's poem was in turn inspired by Boccaccio's Il Filostrato (1335-40), which itself was derived from Benoît de Sainte-Maure's Roman de Troie (1155-60). All of these ultimately are inspired by one source: Homer's Iliad (1260-40 B.C.).

Scenes from The Story of the Trojan War, a tapestry designed by Pasquier Grenier of Tournai (1447-93)

Helen of Troy,
By Evelyn  de Morgan
At the start of Troilus and Cressida, the battle between the Greeks and the Trojans has reached a stalemate. The Greeks are camped outside the walls of Troy and, making no progress, are generally quarrelling amongst themselves. Our hero Troilus, the younger brother of Hector and Paris (who kidnapped Helen, sparking the Trojan War), is however distracted his lover Cressida, daughter of Calchas. Meanwhile, Achilles has refused to fight, and Ulysses attempts to entice him back to the battlefield by proclaiming Ajax as the new hero. Throughout, they ask themselves just how important this war actually is, and whether Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world, is truly worth all the lives lost.

Troilus and Cressida by J. D. Batten (1901).
The story of Troilus and Cressida actually takes up only a part of this play: for the most part it is a debate about the purpose of the Trojan War: King Priam of Troy wonders if it is not best to return Helen to the Greeks and end the struggle, whilst Agamemnon, the General of the Greek army try to spark some enthusiasm in the soldiers, and, with Ulysses, try to encourage Achilles to fight again.

Shakespeare shows the soldiers of the war at odds with themselves: there are no heroes in this, essentially, simply a collection of discontented individuals. It's a cynical and pessimistic play, and not one I particularly enjoyed. In essence, it's about individual relationships within political relationships and reconciling the two, or not as the case may be. Even the story of Troilus and his lover is disappointing - Cressida ultimately betrays Troilus sending him to the depths of despair, but there is no real climax with that story. Ultimately nothing changes: the war that was depressing many of them continues, only with different characters assuming different roles of office.

All that said, I must note that there's almost a modern feel to Troilus and Cressida. It offers a more realist view of war, the philosophical side I should point out, rather than being full of death and glory. As far as action goes, there's really not that much.

Nevertheless, I'm still looking forward to reading Troilus and Criseyde by Geoffrey Chaucer - more so, actually. I'm rather hit and miss with Shakespeare, though re-reading them all and then blogging about them is helping my appreciation. I do enjoy Chaucer a lot more, and reading Shakespeare's play then reading a little around it has demystified the story. I think I'll be starting Chaucer next week and I'm keen to consider the contrasts between the two authors.

Further Reading


  1. Chaucer's version is quite different, and likely more pleasurable. Shakespeare's play is one of his most erudite and, I don't know, abstract. My understanding is that it was likely written for a private, elite audience, not the fun-loving crowd at the Globe.

    1. I gather it has never done well when performed, partly I suppose because of the lack of action in it.

      I'm looking forward to Chaucer, I'll certainly be starting it this weekend.

  2. Thanks for the review, O; it's made me more anxious to read this one. I quite loved Shakespeare's Coriolanus so I'm wondering if I'll feel the same way about this one. The Trojan War was depressing, and when I read The Iliad, for example, I try to put on a Greek mindset and focus on the qualities that go beyond survival. In any case, I will not read this play if I'm looking for some light reading, I promise! :-)

    1. I think I remember liking Coriolanus, too.

      I really want to re-read the Iliad - my only reading of it was a disaster and I got nothing out of it. I'm hoping as a reader I've matured! Maybe wishful thinking, it was only two or three years ago I read it! :)


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