The Satire of Love and Politics in Troilus and Cressida
Rachel Morgandale
Class of 2013

Often classified as a “problem play,” Troilus and Cressida walks an uncomfortable line between being a comedy and a tragedy. Perhaps due to the genre non- specific quality of the play, there is no evidence of it ever being performed at the Globe theatre and in fact, little evidence of its performance before the twentieth century. There are many difficult situations and moments within the play regarding the meaning of love and its counterpart lust, as well as what warfare, heroism and politics mean.
            Possibly the best way to classify this play is as a satire, according to the Oxford English Dictionary one of the ways to define satire is as “The employment, in speaking or writing, of sarcasm, irony, ridicule, etc. in exposing, denouncing, deriding, or ridiculing vice, folly, indecorum, abuses, or evils of any kind.” This was not a new genre at the time Shakespeare was writing, it can also be identified as a Menippean Discourse, “Menippean satire holds that it is a genre (of sorts) defined by a single invariant characteristic: the object of its scathing attack” (Milowicki 292). It is very possible that Troilus and Cressida was born out of a combination of political and romantic frustrations of the time, and fueled by a war of sorts between Shakespeare and other dramatists, most notably, Ben Jonson. Tracing the satirical lineage of this play can lead to a deeper understanding of the play’s puzzling problems and its lack of performance during Shakespeare’s lifetime.
            Written in 1602, Shakespeare wrote this play following an attempted rebellion in England by the Earl of Essex. Essex was a prominent favorite of Queen Elizabeth, viewed as a possible successor to her throne, but proving himself to be dishonorable and eventually he was beheaded. “Perhaps some high personage advised Shakespeare that Troilus and Cressida might seem to lively a satire upon the fallen Earl of Essex, who may be the model for the play’s outrageous Achilles” (Bloom 327). It is very likely that in an era where stage performance was strictly censored that Troilus and Cressida may have seemed to poke at the fresh wound of Essex’s attempted rebellion.
            Another figure of the play that may have been viewed as offensive is that of Ulysses. A scheming figure that orchestrates the conflict in devious ways, the man responsible for the Trojan Horse in Homer’s stories. He is manipulative and though he has very eloquent speeches about honor, but he proves to have none. It is Ulysses that shows Troilus that Cressida is unfaithful to him- for what purpose but to disillusion and demoralize young Troilus, making him, perhaps an easier target in battle. Indeed, many of Ulysses speeches improve by being taken out of context, the fact that Ulysses “says nothing that he believes and believes nothing that he says,” (Bloom 340) might weaken his speeches about the danger of power and corruption when he himself is corrupt.
            When looking at the cruel, manipulative and childish figures presented in Achilles (who would rather sulk in his tent that lead the men in battle) and Ulysses, the heroes of The Illiad, one must note that Shakespeare is doing something very experimental. His interpretations of these characters and the Trojan war challenges what the conventional view of heroism and war is. Hector is the only character that suggests that Helen be returned in order to prevent more bloodshed.
                        Let Helen go.
                        Since the first sword was drawn about this question,
                        Every tithe soul, ‘mongst many thousand dismes,
                        Hath been as dear as Helen;
                                                (II.ii. 17-20)
Hector understands the gravity of war and what losses they have and will continue to incur for the sake of one woman and their own pride. Hector’s death then, is perhaps the biggest tragedy of the play. Failing to kill him in single conflict, Achilles and his fellows ambush and slaughter him, taking his body as a trophy (V.viii). Any illusion of honor in battle is shattered by this cruel and cowardly action. The play turns a cynical and critical eye to those historical and mythical figures that are considered heroes and shows them to be cowards steeped in blood. “The ironized hero, undercut and undermined, is a common phenomenon in Shakespeare's plays, but Troilus exceeds even Antony and Cleopatra in its reduction of heroic pretensions and in the immensity of the moral devastation it surveys” (Milowicki 295). It is a bleak image of warfare and the warrior that leaves little for the audience to hope for in the political aspect of the play, and perhaps even less in the romantic aspect.
            The play’s structure of conflict and its two central lovers begs a comparison with Shakespeare’s earlier tragedy, Romeo and Juliet, the main difference between the two is the treatment of the lover’s relationship, “it is … possible that Shakespeare's transformation of Chaucer's tender romance into a play that is unremittingly cynical (Troilus and Cressida) might have been guided by Shakespeare's consciousness of having already stressed the importance of love in his own earlier work (Romeo and Juliet)” (McInnis 35). When held up against Shakespeare’s story of the youthful lovers, Romeo and Juliet, the lovers in Troilus and Cressida make a very different statement about romance and commitment.
            While Romeo and Juliet are bent on marriage, a legitimate bond of their love as something permanent, neither Troilus nor Cressida ever express a desire to make their bond a permanent one. From the start Troilus expresses nothing but a physical desire for Cressida, one that is encouraged by Pandarus and never questioned by Cressida. The morning after their encounter sees Troilus creeping away and the most pressing question for Cressida is “Are you weary of me?” (IV. ii. 8).
            The question of honor among lovers as well as fighters is under fire in Troilus and Cressida. One must hold up Cressida against Juliet, who rails against the prospect of being with any man other than Romeo- willing even to kill herself, Cressida’s outburst perhaps sounds appropriate, “Crack my clear voice with sobs and break my heart/ With sounding ‘Troilus.’ I will not go from Troy” (IV. ii 109-110). Actions, however, speak louder than iambic pentameter. Juliet was willing to fake her own death (and ultimately kill herself) to preserve the honor of her bond with Romeo. Cressida, whose bond with Troilus isn’t as strong breaks her vows of fidelity two scenes later in the play, showing her grief to be a sort of performance ( McInnis 41) and proving her own lines, “They say all lovers swear more performance than they are able, and yet reserve an ability that they never perform, vowing more than the perfection of ten and discharging less than the tenth part of one” (III. ii 72-75). 
            Love, then is reduced to a physical impulse that can be served by one man as well as another and heroes are cruel and honorless. Indeed, Shakespeare departs from many of the traditional values of both his own early love tragedies and the original myths that provide the basis for Troilus and Cressida. This departure was evidently purposeful. Perhaps to illustrate Shakespeare’s own distaste for the political anxieties of England and his frustration and disillusionment about romantic love such as seen in the sonnets about the poet’s conflicted relationship with the Dark Lady (Bloom 328). Beyond this, Shakespeare was also at this time involved in a rivalry with fellow playwright, Ben Jonson.
            Satirical plays were in fashion in some of the private playhouses that were intended for a more exclusive audience ( Yachnin 307). Shakespeare adopting this style for a play intended for the Globe- a theatre that catered to audiences of all classes was perhaps a risky choice. It has been suggested that the political messages of the play as well as the style of presentation were to mock those of Jonson and his fellow playwright, George Chapman (Bloom 327). Jonson was more educated than Shakespeare, having attended university and had been, it is suggested, competing with and mocking Shakespeare in his own plays, such as Poetaster (Bednarz 257).
            Perhaps the Globe seemed and inappropriate setting which is why the play was never performed, or enjoyed a very limited performance. “Shakespeare's drama resonates with the idea of the scandal of cultural traffic. Such a high degree of self-criticism surely has something to do with the general social lowness of the institution” ( Yachnin 317). Troilus and Cressida achieves through it’s satire, a blending of the high with it’s mythological basis and satiric form as well as the low with it’s lack of morality and overall cynicism.
            If nothing else, the biting satire of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida illustrates that as Theresites says, “All argument is a whore and a cuckold” (II. iii. 71-72). Whether it be in love or in war, all are reduced and cheapened through out the play. Perhaps even the war between poets that Shakespeare and Jonson engaged in was realized to be just as cheap. It was a rivalry that at the time had no clear “winner,” but Troilus and Cressida seemed to mark the end of the “Poets’ War” and Jonson wrote and apology for Poetaster shortly thereafter (Bednarz 264). 
            Troilus and Cressida produces a bitter and cynical look at idyllic images of war and heroes as well as romantic love. If its goal was to show Shakespeare’s own disillusionment with such institutions it was certainly successful. If his goal was to get revenge upon Jonson for his Poetaster, then there he was successful also. Still Troilus and Cressida has no great history of performance such as that of his other plays. Perhaps the especially harsh satire of the play didn’t sit well with audiences, the Globe may have been the wrong setting for it. Or perhaps after the battle of words it was produced in had been concluded Shakespeare saw the vanity of his own war and shelved the play himself.

Works Cited

Bednarz, James P. Shakespeare & the Poets’ War. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.

Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead Books, 1998.

McInnis, David. “Repetition and Revision in Shakespeare’s Tragic Love Plays .” Parergon 25.2 (2008): 36-56.

Milowicki, Edward J, and Robert Rawdon Wilson. “A Measure for Menippean Discourse: The Example of Shakespeare .” Poetics Today 23.2 (2002): 291-322.

Yachnin, Paul. “’The Perfection of Ten’: Populuxe Art and Artisanal Value in Troilus and Cressida .” Shakespeare Quarterly 56.3 (2005): 306-327.