I doubt you’ve ever heard people claim that Troilus and Cressida ranks high on their list of favorite Shakespeare plays—but it honestly does for me. My first experience with this play came when I was an impressionable 19-year-old, hungry for theatrical experience. I was in a year-long study abroad program in London, struggling with the decision of whether I wanted to pursue theater as a career. On my quest to find the answer, I immersed myself in every theatergoing opportunity. (Thank you, student rush!) I had already seen the more well-known Shakespeare productions in town—among them a fresh-from-drama-school Ralph Fiennes in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Sean Bean as Romeo in Romeo and Juliet, and Jeremy Irons as the title character in Richard II—when I stumbled into a performance of Troilus and Cressida. Though I knew it was based on The Iliad, I had little knowledge of the characters and absolutely no experience with the play. It's probably hyperbolic to say that what unfolded before me in the next couple of hours changed my life, but as I sat gripping my seat—and sometimes the arm of the poor chap sitting next to me—I knew I was experiencing something that I wouldn't soon forget. I left the theater, perhaps not with a career plan in place, but certainly with a huge crush on this play. (Seeing Alan Rickman as Achilles didn't hurt, either.)
This play leaves me breathless. It’s so cynical and satirical. The humor is piercing and brutal. (Oh, those Shakespeare insults really fly in this one!) The deaths are violent and horrendous. The lovers are not faithful. The epic heroes behave abominably. And the political leaders manipulate and lie. It felt so fresh and modern when I saw it in London—not at all like a play written hundreds of years ago—and it bears remarkable relevance today. I've taken some liberties with the original text: Women play a much more active role in the war. The time period could be either ancient Troy or somewhere in the future; this play, right now, certainly highlights how history has a tendency to repeat itself. But what I hope shines through, despite my meddling, are the author's keen observations on love, war and heroism. And, of course, all those marvelous insults!
- Carolyn Howarth, Director
It is seven years into the Trojan War. The Trojan Prince, Paris, stole Helen from King Menelaus of Sparta, and in retaliation, the Greek army set off to overtake the city of Troy and bring Helen home. Troilus, another prince of Troy, has fallen in love with Cressida, also a Trojan, and implores her uncle, Pandarus, to help him win her heart.
In the Greek camp, their most powerful soldier, Achilles, refuses to leave his tent and remains locked away with his companion, Patroclus. Ulysses devises a plan to spur Achilles back into action by proposing that the strongest soldier of Troy face off with the strongest Greek soldier. They choose Hector to fight for Troy and, instead of selecting Achilles, they pick Ajax out of a “lottery” in order to infuriate Achilles and prompt him to redeem his reputation.
In the meantime, the Trojans debate whether Helen is really worth the trouble of the war. Troilus and Cressida finally declare their mutual affection and promise to be faithful. However, the next morning, the Greek officer Diomedes takes Cressida to the Greek camp, where she will be reunited with her father, who has defected to the Greek side. The Trojans and Greeks gather together at the Greek camp to see the promised battle between Ajax and Hector. The duel is quickly called a draw as a temporary truce allows both sides to feast together in peace for one night. Ulysses takes Troilus into the Greek camp, where he witnesses Cressida promising her loyalty to Diomedes. Troilus vows to kill Diomedes in battle.
Will Troilus have his revenge? Will Achilles jump back into action to redeem his reputation? And what will become of Helen and the city of Troy?
-Gina Braswell, Dramaturg
Troilus and Cressida is among one of Shakespeare’s most experimental and satirical plays. This Menippean satire, a form aimed at attacking character traits rather than specific identities, was written in 1602. There is no evidence to suggest that it was ever performed at the Globe Theatre or even before the turn of the 20th century, most likely because of its controversial tone and content. It is possible that the play struck a particular nerve with London locals who had recently experienced a rebellion against Queen Elizabeth by the popular Earl of Essex. Essex was ultimately beheaded for his unsuccessful attempt to overtake the throne. In the shadows of this failed rebellion, Shakespeare wrote a realistic treatment of an ancient Iliad myth, exposing the senseless nature of war and the anything-but-honorable actions of those we would call heroes.
Shakespeare gives us a peek into the frustrating seventh year of a ten-year war over the most infamous woman in Greek mythology, Helen of Troy. The admired heroes from The Iliad, such as Paris, Achilles, and Priam, become manipulative politicians, looking out only for themselves in the midst of a bloody battlefield fueled by their petty decisions. Shakespeare uses these politicians and their masterful manipulation to knock the mythical heroes from their pedestals while mocking our own idealizations of “heroism” and “honorable war”. In doing so, Shakespeare gives the audience the unique chance to question the authority of these idealizations, to expose the cynicism within the politics and to come face to face with these “heroes” so we may see them for what they truly are.
Through the text, Shakespeare reveals that heroism, honor, courage and love are not what we perceive them to be. By the play’s end, the idealized characters have each been undercut by their own actions: Cressida has betrayed her love, Achilles has betrayed his honor, and all that remains is the reality of a senseless war. Shakespeare’s original play ends with a final curse from Pandarus, in which he holds the audience responsible for its role in this disappointing world full of destroyed ideals. While this final condemnation is a far cry from the conclusion one expects at a play, it serves to unsettle even our theatergoing expectations as we are brought face to face with exactly how far the ideal is from the real.
-Gina Braswell, Dramaturg
Christopher Joel Onken*
Assistant Stage Manager
Jonathan D. Allsup
CU Presents Digital
We invite you to watch, listen and gather with us online right now. Each week we will bring you curated creations from the artists you’d see in any other CU Presents season, in the comfort of your own home.Digital Home