Greek Tragedy, Courtly Love, and Renaissance Satire: The Changing Face of Troilus & Cressida

“Lechery, lechery, still wars and lechery! Nothing else holds fashion.” — Thersites, Troilus & Cressida

Before we start this week, I want to apologize to all of you for a very stupid blunder on my part. Mainly that all of my notifications for this blog were being sent to a filler email account to which I didn’t have access to (left from when I was setting things up). As a result, it wasn’t until last week that I was getting notifications about comments any of you were leaving here. I promise I wasn’t ignoring everybody on purpose. Anyway, I’ve fixed that, so moving forward, know that I will appear as attentive on screen as I assure I was in the real world. I appreciate everyone’s interest and support — I recognize the internet is almost infinite and I don’t take your collective perusal of my ramblings for granted.

Anyway, today is (the traditionally observed date for) my first literary love Will Shakespeare’s birthday (457 years young!), so I thought this week we’d look at one of his classical plays in his honor. Now, the obvious choices for this blog would no doubt be Julius Caesar, or Antony & Cleopatra, but I wanted to throw all of you a curveball and do the much more obscure Troilus & Cressida instead, one of the notorious “problem plays.”

[Don’t worry, I’m sure we’ll do the other two at some point. This is my blog after all…]

The moniker “problem plays” has come down to us through centuries of Shakespeare scholarship by literary critics to label the plays that don’t neatly fit into the three standard Shakespearean categories of comedy, tragedy, and history. Usually the ones included in this label are All’s Well That Ends Well, Measure For Measure, and Troilus; with some critics adding Timon of Athens, The Winter’s Tale, and The Merchant of Venice as well.

Another thing these plays have in common is, with perhaps the exception of The Merchant of Venice, that they are generally not considered among the Bard of Avon’s best work. In addition to not belonging to a single, identifiable theatrical category, many of these plays are convoluted, dark, and are often the least satisfying in terms of character and resolution. For most of the centuries following Shakespeare’s death, the academic position was to create a veritable fortress of excuses for why these plays were they way they were: we didn’t have the final copies, these were plays he wrote in collaboration with other playwrights like John Fletcher and Thomas Middleton — some scholars going so far as to claim Shakespeare hadn’t actually written them at all.

[Because they were so “bad,” not because of the dumb Shakespearean authorial debate.]

This came from a desire by literary historians to preserve a supposedly spotless Shakespearean legacy. Shakespeare was a genius, therefore all of his work must be perfect and untouchably good. Whereas any artist will tell you that a lifetime of output is almost guaranteed to be uneven in quality— as evidenced by any actor whose ever won an Oscar and a Razzie in the same year. Incidentally, Troilus & Cressida is arguably a good example of this as well, because it is generally thought to have been the play Will wrote after Hamlet.

[Not everything can be Hamlet.]

But I would argue that in addition to post-Dane burnout, many of Troilus’ problems in terms of scattered plot and characterizations come from Will trying to synthesize a coherent story out of a deep-cut Homeric storyline that had undergone several shifts in style and tone since the days when the Bard of Chios regaled his audience with the deeds of their long-dead ancestors. And Troilus’ part of the story predates even the beginnings of the Iliad.

Troilus is a prince of Troy, the (presumptive) son of King Priam and his main wife, Hecuba. I say “presumptive” because in the fluid Trojan War mythos, there is a tradition that Troilus, and his oldest brother, Hector, are Hecuba’s sons by the god Apollo. Divine parentage is a common motif in Greek mythology, with many of the main characters at Troy possessing a god as a father (or mother, if you’re Aeneas) to emphasize a hero’s superlative attributes. In Hector, we see Apollo’s military skill as the Divine Archer, and his special place as the favored god of the Trojans, giving him the heroic and dutiful crown prince for a son. Troilus, on the other hand, is a manifestation of Apollo’s unworldly beauty, for the young prince is described as an unnaturally attractive boy (Greek: ephebos or ἔφηβος).

[Troilus and his older sister, Polyxena]

Troilus is also the second of Priam’s sons with a prophecy attached to him at birth, the first, and more well-known, being Paris. Paris is reluctantly abandoned as an infant by his royal parents when it is foretold that he will cause the destruction of Troy (which his actions do cause when he abducts the Queen of Sparta, Helen) — a prophecy everyone decides to ignore at their peril when he returns to Troy as an adult with the smokin’-hot Helen in tow.  On the other hand, Priam and Hecuba are told at Troilus’ birth that Troy will not fall if he reaches adulthood (or sometimes, twenty years of age). In this way, Troilus’ fate becomes bound with the city’s. Indeed, even his name attests to this: “Troilus” is often seen as a gloss of Tros and Ilos, the names of the legendary founders of the city. But like Troy’s soft-hearted reunion with the long-lost Paris being one of many ill omens that presage the city’s doom, Troilus’ early death becomes practically preordained. In fact, Troilus dies so early in the great war that it happens far before the opening lines of the Iliad and the rage of Achilles in the tenth year of the conflict (though we’ll get back to that, too).

[Athena counsels Achilles]

Troilus’ original mythological death comes down to us in a series of poetic fragments usually referred to as the Epic Cycle. The story goes that young Troilus and his sister Polyxena, are sent to get water outside the city walls at Thymbra, near one of Troy’s many shrines to Apollo. Why, might you ask, would the Trojans allow a boy on whom a dire prophecy rests to go gallivanting about outside of the city during a hostile siege? The myth provides no direct answer, but mentions Troilus’ great love of his horses, as befitting a prince of the horsey Trojans (one of his brother’s most famous epithets is “horse-taming Hector”). And here, I think, is a very human element. A teenage boy, bored and cooped up in a walled city, too young to fight like his older brothers, begs and wheedles his way into being allowed to run an errand that will at least permit him to exercise his beloved horses. Perhaps his parents give in because Thymbra is within Apollo’s protection and the boy is considered the god’s son. But the war in Troy is replete with examples of the gods failing to protect the humans they love — in part because the gods have taken sides in this fight and there are favorites among the Greeks as well.


Apollo might love the Trojans, but the goddess of wisdom and strategic war, Athena, has chosen the Greeks, and she alerts the Greek’s greatest warrior, Achilles, to the necessity of dealing with the young prince early in the war to bolster the odds for a Greek victory. Achilles tracks Troilus and Polyxena to the well and ambushes them. Polyxena either escapes, or is taken as a war captive, depending on your sources, but the young Troilus is dragged by his hair from his fleeing horses and is killed by Achilles on the altar of Apollo. Because of Troilus’ status as an ephebos, and because Achilles is the gayest thing about the very gay Iliad, sometimes the story is framed as Troilus was fleeing the Greek warrior’s unwanted sexual advances as much as his sword. But either way, Troilus is beheaded and mutilated, and Apollo is pissed.

Apollo has a good idea for how to get back at Achilles for his actions, but we’ll get to that in a moment. First, I want to circle back (by jumping forward in the Trojan War to juuuuust before the start of the Iliad), and talk about the other titular character from Shakespeare’s play: Cressida.

Cressida begins her literary life as Chryseïs, daughter of Chryses (that’s literally what her name means in Greek), a Trojan girl captured by the Greeks around the same time as another girl, Briseïs. Both young women are described by all of the standard superlatives of ancient beauty, and as a result, they are divided as war booty in the Greek camp. Chryseïs is given as a concubine to Agamemnon, the highest-ranking of the Greek kings, and Briseïs is given to Achilles, the greatest of the Greek warriors. But Chryses is a priest of — who else? — Apollo, and he prays to the god to avenge his daughter’s kidnapping. Apollo, already ticked over Troilus’ death, sends a plague to the Greek camp (as the god of medicine), which brings the entire Greek offensive on Troy to a halt. Informed that the only way to end the plague decimating his soldiers is to return Chryseïs to her father, Agamemnon complies and Chryseïs is released.

[Chryses begs Agamemnon for Chryseïs]

But now Agamemnon doesn’t have a cute concubine, and thinks the whole episode has made him lose prestige in the eyes of his fellow heroes. So, he demands that Achilles give him Briseïs. And while, as previously discussed, Achilles wasn’t really batting on Briseïs’ team, he knew a power move when he saw one, and he refuses to give her up. This goes back and forth until Achilles is finally convinced to turn Briseïs over to Agamemnon. But now Achilles thinks he’s lost face in the Greek camp by having to kowtow to Agamemnon, and retaliates by sulking in his tent and refusing to fight. This is the thing that Achilles is famously raging against in the opening lines of the Iliad.

So, how did a dead adolescent Trojan prince and a repatriated Trojan priest’s daughter end up in a love story together? Well, welcome to the Middle Ages, folks!

Western literature had been engaged in a long conversation with the Iliad. Playwrights and poets continued to read and adapt the story, just as Homer and his fellow oral storytellers had done for centuries before, creating arguably the largest and oldest corpus of fan fiction in the West. We’ve already talked about the fate of Iphigenia, but the Trojan War cycle spawned an army (heh) of sequels and adaptations, starting with the Odyssey, the plays of Sophocles and Euripides (Ajax, Electra, The Trojan Women, Andromache, and Helen, just to name a few); plus Aeschylus’ Oresteia cycle.

But as time moved forward and the story pushed further out from Greece, everybody became so familiar with the basic plot that artists had to start digging deeper into the text to find new characters and angles to write about. Virgil is one of the most successful examples, taking minor Trojan royal cousin Aeneas and giving him the epic destiny that the Iliad only gestures vaguely at. But Virgil and the other Latin poets would preserve the Trojan story and move it forward through the fall of the Roman Empire, leaving it to be copied down by scholar-monks in Northern Europe, saving it from the classical lacunae of the so-called Dark Ages.

The contemporary literary taste of the Middle Ages was dominated by the court poets of France, who served in the households of the nobility. At a time where warfare was brutal and marriage was a political arrangement, these poets fostered an intellectual culture that softened the edges of their employers’ sometimes ugly lives by creating stories that depicted knights as bold and generous, and ladies as the chaste objects of respectful worship by handsome lovers. These became quasi-codified in the medieval concepts of chivalry and courtly love: concepts that were never the norm, but rather, a fantasy ideal; like every sitcom character being able to afford a gigantic loft apartment in New York City no matter how lowly their employment prospects. But these courtly romances (“little R”, meaning both adventure tales that may or may not have a love angle) often pulled their source material from the half-remembered classical past, both for the durability of their popularity and their faraway, “exotic” settings.

[Ovid’s works were perennial favorites.]

But it was the French court poet Benoît de Saint-Maure who first latched on to our protagonists as Iliad characters who hadn’t been mined to death yet, and created a whole new version of their stories in his Le Roman de Troie (The Romance of Troy) in the mid-twelfth century. Because his noble audience (chief among whom might have been Eleanor of Aquitaine, the “riche dame de riche rei” generally thought to be addressed in the dedication) expected to be regaled by handsome knights and their lady loves, he turns beautiful Troilus into the perfect knight and his lady love is Briseida, who is now the daughter of Calchas, a Trojan seer (given that gift by Apollo). 

Calchas defects to the Greeks because he has seen that Troy is doomed, and he requests that the Greeks bring his daughter to him via a prisoner exchange. They comply, but unknown to him, his daughter has fallen in love Troilus. But the lovers are parted by these tides of circumstance, and Briseida ends up with the Greeks. But then Benoît gives his audience what they really want: a juicy love triangle. Briseida is then wooed by the Greek warrior Diomedes, and becomes his lover. Troilus then fulfills the classic courtly lover role, where he can only love his lady from afar as she lives in the arms of her rightful lord.

This basic story is carried forward in a Latin translation that is read by Italian poet Giovanni Boccaccio in the mid-fourteenth century, who will write his own version of the story in his narrative poem, Il Filostrato. In Boccaccio’s hands, “Briseida” returns to something approaching her original name, Criseida, but he continues to ditch Chryses the priest of Apollo for Calchas (here, Calcas) the defecting seer. Troilus becomes the much more Italian Troilo, but Boccaccio’s big addition will be the introduction of a wingman for Troilo: Pandaro, a cousin of Criseida, who will act as a go-between for Troilo and Criseida. The plot moves forward along the same lines as it does in Le Roman de Troie, with the hostage exchange and Criseida’s emotional defection to Diomedes, but Criseida’s actions become more duplicitous, as she writes false love letters to Troilo while loving Diomedes. There is also a courtly plot involving Troilo seeing a clasp of Criseida’s on a garment of Diomedes, confirming his worst fears about his lover’s infidelity. Distraught, Troilo tries to fight Diomedes in battle, but fails and is killed by Achilles. The cynical Boccaccio takes a pretty dim view of his female lead’s virtue, which is probably why Criseida is depicted as a young widow rather than a virgin — lascivious widows being a common femme fatale in medieval literature. Think of the delightfully sex-positive Wife of Bath, who’s always on the hunt for a new husband as soon as the old one dies.

Speaking of the Wife of Bath, Il Filostrato travels across the channel and is adapted into English by Geoffrey Chaucer for his poem, Troilus and Criseyde in the late fourteenth century. Chaucer’s version sticks pretty close to Boccaccio’s plot, the main difference being his choice of tone. While Boccaccio thinks Criseyde is fickle, Chaucer understands that his relatively unprotected heroine is sincere to begin with, and thinks her merely led astray by unscrupulous men throughout the course of the action. Chaucer particularly blames Pandarus, now cast in a much more unfavorable light than he was by the much more misogynistic Boccaccio. Chaucer recognizes that with Calchas with the Greeks that Pandarus, now Criseyde’s uncle, should be looking out for her and not pimping her out to his overly-dramatic friend. But though Chaucer tacks on an apology to the ladies in his audience for portraying women in such a negative light, after so much bad press, Criseyde’s name becomes a byword in the medieval world for a faithless lover.

Which brings us back, finally, to Shakespeare’s play, Troilus & Cressida. As an Englishman, Will probably first read this story as Chaucer’s, but he was equally familiar with Boccaccio’s works and likely had access to Il Filostrato as well. Which might have been a problem for him as a writer. Torn between Chaucer’s teasing Troilus and Criseyde and Boccaccio’s derisive Il Filostrato, Shakespeare produces a play that’s neither fish nor fowl. Troilus & Cressida swings wildly between bawdy comedy and tragic drama, a state of affairs arguably made worse by Shakespeare’s decision to refocus some of the story back on the more Iliad-based elements of the war at large. The two main plots of the play are Troilus’ attempts to get Cressida into his bed, contrasted with the Greeks’ attempts to get Achilles out of his bed and back to murdering Trojans on the battlefield.

But what makes for a somewhat schizophrenic synopsis forms a more coherent whole if one looks at both sides of the plot as satires. Troilus and Cressida’s plot is a satire of the courtly love genre, long dead by the early seventeenth century, and ripe for skewering, especially in the form of the suggestive and ridiculous Pandarus, who will fully embody the word pander, which is derived from him. Troilus speaks in the overblown phrasing of the courtly lover, which is language Shakespeare uses in his plays, but never as seriously as Troilus does. Troilus speaks like Romeo when the latter is speaking of Rosaline, the girl he has a superficial attraction to; or clever Rosalind in As You Like It when she’s teasing other characters; or witty Berowne from Love’s Labours Lost when he’s trying to follow courtly etiquette. Only the painfully sincere, man-out-of-time Troilus means what he says. Shakespeare’s Cressida, closer to Boccaccio’s than Chaucer’s, is rightfully, wryly wary of his talk.

Meanwhile, the Achilles/Trojan War plot is a satire of war and power. Shakespeare has both the Greeks and the Trojans acknowledge that the war is largely pointless, but neither side can successfully figure out how to extricate themselves from it without admitting as much. He also points out how Achilles’ defiance of Agamemnon shows the emptiness of the King of Mycenae’s authority, as he cannot win this stupid war without Achilles’ prowess. Agamemnon and his fellow kings are openly mocked by Achilles’ best bro Patroclus, who does impressions of them for Achilles’ amusement while the two of them are refusing to fight. That scene actually happens offstage, but is gleefully recounted to the kings by the wily Ulysses (Odysseus), who is more than happy to be secretly as scornful as Patroclus and Achilles of the pompous Agamemnon and the other lesser lights of the Greek camp. Ulysses gives a whole speech about the natural order of men and the universe, but Will’s choice to put this speech in the mouth of the famously artful Ulysses immediately subverts his paean to kings, and turns it on its head. Even sarcastic Boccaccio couldn’t have envisioned the Renaissance world Shakespeare lived in — a world where kings and Protestant monks could overturn the authority of the Pope, and an entire second half of the globe had been stumbled upon by Europeans. It’s no wonder Will could take the Troilus story further than it had ever been.

So, what began as a classic Greek myth of tragic prophecies and the death of a child became a story of courtly love and star-crossed romance, and then finally a meditation on the folly of war and power. Bits and pieces from each phase clung to what followed like a bur, but each era put its own stamp on the myth of Troy and its fallout. While Shakespeare came to the Troilus story through Chaucer and Boccaccio’s unlucky lover, perhaps it was Troilus’ primordial form as the doomed young son of Priam that spoke to him as a person even more than as a playwright. Hamlet was written in the wake of the death of Will’s eleven-year-old son, Hamnet, in 1596, and it has long been speculated that this event might have profoundly changed the trajectory of Shakespeare’s career. Will’s early works were mostly comedies and histories; the great tragedies — Hamlet, King Lear — the plays full of dead children and bereft fathers, wouldn’t come until later, and neither would Troilus & Cressida. Shakespeare’s Troilus escapes his mythological death in the play, but the war is still raging in the background as he stalks offstage, and reminds us that his reprieve is temporary. Many of the details of the Trojan War story change in its countless retellings, but the one constant is that Troy always falls. And if the grim oracles surrounding Troilus’ birth are true, then Troilus must always fall, too. Shakespeare might temporize his grief in fiction, but it can’t change his truth any more than his hero can.

%d bloggers like this: