Preview: Troilus and Cressida

Harry McNamara 1 March 2020

The play’s relationships are a brilliant demonstration of how difficulty is in fact realistic, affective, and recognisable.


Troilus and Cressida was probably first performed privately to an audience of lawyers at one of London’s Inns of Court. The play’s style reflects its original exclusivity: it contains long, legalistic set-piece debates, and offers some of Shakespeare’s most ambitious philosophical speeches. There hasn’t been a production of the play in Cambridge for a decade. It’s performed this week (3 – 7 March) in the Fitzpatrick Hall at Queens’, a suitably fringe venue in Cambridge theatre, with an academic panel convened by Dr Andrew Zurcher, on Sunday 8th, in the wake of the run. Everything points to Troilus and Cressida’s alternative status in the Shakespeare canon. Its difficulties (the character list is huge, speaking especially Latinate language to construct complex ideas) lend the play to enthusiasts to puzzle over.


But it is difficult for more than its technicalities. The play’s relationships are a brilliant demonstration of how difficulty is in fact realistic, affective, and recognisable. The play’s hero, Hector, is killed by Achilles in dirty combat, unarmed and moments after Hector had let Achilles escape. The tragic impulse, though, is snubbed by the comic pitch – and it can be very funny – that underscores the whole play. Troilus and Cressida, whose title emphasis give their part of the story a claim to some priority, are crowded out by the bigger characters and logistics of war. Yet even granted some serious attention, their relationship is difficult to understand.


Troilus casts a Hamlet-shaped shadow: his attempts at love are frustrated by idealism. Pandarus, Cressida’s sad uncle, mediates between the two and so the relationship can never escape its artificialities. Cressida herself resists a simple love story: right at the start she dooms her feelings in a Lear-style conceit where love only has value if it’s unsated. She is caught up in the traffic of war (the objects of which are all women, except the Trojan traitor Calchas, but he crosses sides willingly) and, when, in the foreign Greek camp, she is trapped by the pursuing Diomedes, her fidelity to Troilus snaps. The drama ensures that Troilus is watching this affair from the side, which throws him furiously into despair and battle.


The lovers’ story has traditionally welcomed an unsympathetic reading of Cressida, and disregard for Troilus’ idealism. (Henryson’s Testament of Cresseid, a coda to Chaucer’s version, has Cressida horribly punished). But, interestingly, Troilus and Cressida is deepened, not simply corrected by modern critical re-readings. The ambiguity shadowing the actions of its characters persists despite the help of a much more sophisticated understanding of gender, for example, indicating that resolving the difficulties should not be the audience’s end.

His production (with assistant director, Holly Faulkner) is ambitious and clever.


In this production Achilles and Agamemnon are played by female actors: Emily Moss (Agamemnon) portrays aspects of leadership contrary to a prejudiced view of what ought to characterise female leaders, which produces a more complex comment on gender at a second level. This point is emboldened by how poorly Achilles comes across in the play. At the same time, the warnings of Andromache and Cassandra are dismissed by the warring men with the same doomed ignorance that Caesar showed for Calpurnia: if they had listened to these women, who are consistently more morally perceptive than the men, many things might not have gone wrong. But that is Shakespeare’s point; it’s not just a new effect of today’s moral priorities. A broad historical view does not explain away the confusing things about Troilus and Cressida’s relationship. They both behave strangely, unpredictably and disappointingly.


This new production’s director (Sam Warren Miell) offers a convincing case for listening to the problems in this play, problems which demand uneasy thinking from its audience. His production (with assistant director, Holly Faulkner) is ambitious and clever, focusing these twin skills to open the play up a provoke an effect. Warren Miell says that the play constantly ‘moves’: he means that his production understands that to work intellectually, to run around on stage, to fight with weapons, to fight in words, to end tragically, to tell a joke, are all connected movements.