Sardonic, farcical, dark and tragicomic, Troilus and Cressida is a play that seems more comfortable on today's stage than it ever was in Shakespeare's day. Indeed, Troilus went unstaged for three hundred years; following its first performance in the early seventeenth century, it was not put up again until the twentieth century. In the interim, Troilus was considered one of Shakespeare's least-successful plays, an uncategorizable hodge-podge of history, farce, and tragedy. Now, in an era disillusioned with state power, racked by domestic scandals writ large in both the tabloids and the evening news, Troilus and Cressida has emerged as one of Shakespeare's most astute dramatizations of the dark side of politics, war, and lust.
Even at the height of its unpopularity, Troilus was thought of as an intellectually challenging play, full of eloquence and dense with searching soliloquies. It is not an easy read, and a full understanding of its value requires a great deal of investment on the reader's (or the audience member's) part. The difficulty arises not only in getting through Shakespeare's typically allusive and cerebral language, but also in seeing and understanding the play's contradictions and paradoxes. Troilus is a performance about the nature of performance-specifically, in this play, of the performance of love and politics. Thus the reader should strive to engage with the work at this higher level, not simply balking at the play's difficulties but asking how and why such difficulties contribute to the play's thematic wholeness.
The story itself focuses on the titular characters of Troilus and Cressida, two noble Trojans who fall in love against the backdrop of the Trojan War. These characters were well-known in Shakespeare's day; they had been invented in the Middle Ages, and were known to Shakespeare and his audience mostly through Geoffrey Chaucer's magnificent poem, written in Middle English, Troilus and Criseyde. The poem allegorizes the "true" man, Troilus, and the "false" woman, Cressida. Shakespeare, while referencing this allegorical tradition, does much to complicate Chaucer's more simplistic view of man's truth and woman's falseness.
Though Troilus and Cressida are not present in Homer's Iliad, Shakespeare plays their story against that definitive work in Western literature. The gist of the Iliad is that Paris, a prince of Troy, has stolen the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen, away from Menelaus, a Greek; in revenge, Menelaus' brother, Agamemnon, launches an attack against Troy to recover Helen. Homer's epic treats this argument in terms of the absolutes of heroes and gods, honor and glory, triumph and despair. Shakespeare's play, on the other hand, sees the "argument" of the Iliad with a more jaundiced eye. As Thersites says, "All the argument is a whore and a cuckold." Menelaus' personal domestic strife has launched a thousand ships, and what ought to be a matter of divorce is instead a matter of war and death. The costly and often murky wars of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries perhaps give us a unique understanding of Thersites' (and Shakespeare's) disillusionment.
One final word: like any Shakespearean play, Troilus and Cressida contains more obscure words, references, and phrases than can be properly covered in a study guide of this nature. It is thus imperative to have a copy of the play with detailed annotation. Any of the current paperback editions on the market (such as the Pelican, the Signet, or the Folger) will do nicely.