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troilus and cressida

30 december 2015

I have a patchy history of seeing Shakespeare on stage. I have only seen plays like Othello and King Lear on screen, but I've seen Pericles, Prince of Tyre, Coriolanus, and Troilus and Cressida onstage. The production I saw of Troilus and Cressida was not very good, and there remains some doubt over whether there's ever been a really good production of this odd, strained, eclectic Trojan War play.

The one I saw in 1981 at the Aldwych (the Royal Shakespeare Company, directed by Terry Hands) does not seem to have made much of a mark. It had a First-World-War setting, lots of leather and gay banter, and I seem to remember Pandarus – who survives Shakespeare's text – delivering his final lines after being pinned against barbed wire and machine-gunned full of holes. Above all I remember that it was extremely long. There was barely time afterwards to race down the Strand and get the last train out of Charing Cross, a feat made harder by having to pick your way through a phalanx of people camping out to get a view of the Royal Wedding procession the next morning. 1981 was not a pleasant time in England, and though I can't imagine that Charles and Diana took much notice of the RSC's Troilus and Cressida, the play's corrosive cynicism about love and royalty seems to have set some sort of unacknowledged keynote for their scandal-plagued marriage.

Although if you have to go to that stretch to find a play relevant, it probably isn't. My only other connection to the play is that my father once played Ajax when he was an acting student. He was typecast for a while in big-guy roles, though he was no athlete; he was just big. Ajax actually has a couple of good scenes with the disagreeable Thersites, matching him insult for insult and getting more laughs than the clever little misanthrope. Ajax may be a more consistently interesting character than Agamemnon, Nestor, or even Ulysses, who has the play's most famous speech ("Take but degree away, untune that string") but drones on far too long for the most part.

As my random associations suggest, there are famous moments and characters in Troilus and Cressida, but as a complete play it's something of a midden fire. The title romance works fairly well as a kind of inverse Romeo and Juliet, where the young lovers fall quickly out of love and don't die at the end. The sometimes farcical retelling of the story of the Iliad (with additional plot elements by all and sundry) wears out its welcome within a few scenes, but is kept going through what, as I noted, is one of Shakespeare's longest plays. It might be better thought of as a kind of closet drama than a decent play script. Kenneth Muir's 1982 Oxford edition prints some of the more scathing critical commentary from down the ages, such as Agnes Mackenzie's 1924 pronouncement that T&C is "the work of a man whose soul is poisoned with filth" (19).

The Trojan War has cast such a long shadow over Western literature that at times it seems every writer who weaves romance into a war story is compelled to rewrite it in some way. Shakespeare was no exception. I guess he got it out of his system at last (it's probably a relatively late play) and then returned to better-advised projects.

Shakespeare, William. Troilus and Cressida. 1609, 1623. Edited by Kenneth Muir. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982. PR 2836 .A2M84