Shakespeare and Chaucer both wrote about Troilus and Cressida
but for very different themes. Chaucer’s poem took the disillusioned and heartbroken boy warrior and focused on the absurdity of human endeavors. For Chaucer, love is fleeting except the love one gives and receives from God.
Shakespeare, on the other hand, wants us to wallow in worthlessness. Unlike Chaucer, who was more forgiving of Cressida in portraying her betrayal as more a resignation in response to her situation, Shakespeare gleefully makes her love as a meaningless as the Trojan War. He amplifies this by reducing Troilus and Cressida’s courtship to a day and a night. Her betrayal follows the next day. Promises of forever seem excessively juvenile and naïve in such context though Shakespeare was able to make a similar romance sincere in Romeo and Juliet.
The remaining Homeric cast is left with little dignity. Ajax is stupid and vain, Menelaus a desperate cuckold, Diomedes a cad and Ulysses is conniving. Well, he was conniving in the Iliad
too, but he’s really kind of a manipulative jerk here.
Achilles contemplates getting Hector drunk before fighting him to increase his odds. Even when that renowned battle finally occurs, Hector bests Achilles at first. However, Hector gives him a noble reprieve, only to be murdered later, outnumbered and unarmed, by Achilles and his Myrmidons. A Middle English equivalent of making Greedo shoot first. (It was, undisputedly, Han Solo for any young’uns out there.)
Is it satire? Sure, I guess. The Greek and Trojan debates reflect on the rather meaningless interpretations of obedience, honor and glory. The psychological side of pride is also probed. And Aristotle is mentioned so I guess it gets its philosophy cred as well. The edition I read had an appendix spending considerable time parsing out passages which correspond with the Nichomachean Ethics.
Overall it seemed a little too ambitious and overreaching, though some tenets were expressed fairly overtly in the play.
It all ends on a note of pointlessness. If the purpose of the play is an intellectual exercise, I can appreciate it. But Shakespeare doesn’t strike me as the kind of playwright who would create an intellectual exercise. So does it fail as a tragic play by just being satirical?
Would it matter?
Nihilism takes all the fun out of everything.