Troilus and Cressida Introduction
In A Nutshell
Everybody's favorite codpiece lovin' playwright (a.k.a. William Shakespeare) was a pretty busy guy between 1601 and 1602. That's when he whipped up a little play called Hamlet (maybe you've heard of it) along with a few others, including Troilus and Cressida.
Set against the backdrop of the Trojan War, Troilus and Cressida is the story of how two people fall in love (okay, lust) and promise to be true forever and ever, only to have their romance completely destroyed about 2 seconds later when the following two things happen:
(1) Our lust birds are separated by the politics of warfare.
(2) Someone decides to cheat. (Ahem. Cressida, we're talking about you here.)
Does this sound familiar? Well, it should if you're up on your Chaucer. This play is based on Chaucer's super famous medieval poem (that would be Troilus and Criseyde), which was written in the 1380's, about 220 years before Shakespeare's play. You know what that means? This tragic love story was as familiar to Shakespeare's Elizabethan audience as Romeo and Juliet is to us today. Basically, Shakespeare is Chaucer's Baz Lurhmann.
Shakespeare's other major source for this play is Homer's Iliad.(You know, that epic tale that pretty much set the bar for Western literature.) Oh, did we forget to mention that Shakespeare was a notorious plagiarizer? Oops. He was. But nobody ever made him submit his work to turnitin.com.
That's because rewriting another author's work was no biggie back then. Everybody did it, and Shakespeare just did it better than anyone else. Case in point: our boy Will doesn't just take Homer's epic tale and regurgitate it line for line—he gives it a major twist by turning Homer's classic heroes into a bunch of not-so-heroic jerks. (Go read our "Character Analysis" section if you don't believe us.) In other words, Shakespeare basically spoofs Homer and the entire foundation of Western Literature. Yep. Shakespeare was a total rebel.
At the time, this was a pretty gutsy thing for him to do because the Elizabethans LOVED, LOVED, LOVED classical literature. They put works like Homer's Iliad (along with the Odyssey and Virgil's Aeneid) up on a pedestal and thought that the ancient heroes from those stories were a source of inspiration for virtue and old-school heroism.
But not Shakespeare, at least not in this play. Troilus and Cressida shows us a corrupt world where there's really no such thing as honor, virtue, or even love.
And here's something else you should know about Troilus and Cressida: literary scholars are always running around saying that this is Shakespeare's most "modern" play (source). By "modern," they just mean that the play's got a bad attitude and a super cynical outlook, the kind of disillusionment with life that we find in newer works of literature like Samuel Beckett's Endgame (1958) or Waiting for Godot (1949).
Gee. It's no wonder this play wasn't very popular in Shakespeare's time.
Why Should I Care?
If superhero movies have taught us anything, it's that we love heroes—even if they're fictional—because they give us hope and inspiration, even in the darkest of times. (Plus, they always have awesome costumes and the coolest powers.)
In Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare basically says something like "Sorry, kids. I hate to break it to you but, superheroes don't exist. And by the way, humanity is doomed." When it comes down to it, this play's overall message is the exact opposite of what we get when we watch a flick like, say, The Avengers, where good always prevails over evil and Robert Downey, Jr. always comes through in the end.
Here's another way of looking at it. Remember how crushed you felt when you found out that your biggest hero wasn't all he or she was cracked up to be? Maybe you had a poster of your favorite athlete hanging over your bed... until she tested positive for steroids. Or, maybe you idolized your favorite Disney star... until he was arrested for drunk driving and landed in rehab.
Well, this play is all about creating that same sense of disappointment and disillusion. Like we've said before, Troilus and Cressida takes familiar heroes from classic mythology and literature and gives them some serious flaws.
Here's a glaring example: in the play, the guy who most closely resembles a "hero" kills a soldier who was trying to run away from him and then stands over the dead body and brags about it. Then, about two seconds later, our big "hero" gets hacked down by a bunch of hired goons who proceed to tie his bloodied body to a horse so it can be dragged around the Trojan battlefields. Nope. Shakespeare doesn't think much of heroism in this play.
So, is this a refreshing reality check or just a major bummer? You decide.