Peter Levi speculates that the Bard may have written Troilus and Cressida in response to audience demand “for an Iliad play" (The Life and Times of William Shakespeare [New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1998], 234). This notion is not without merit; the story of the siege of Troy was “well known and . . . , widely disseminated” by the end of the sixteenth century, and, in addition, Chapman’s English translation of the Iliad made its appearance in 1598, redoubling current interest in Homer’s account of the Trojan War (Kenneth Palmer, “Introduction,” The Arden Shakespeare: Troilus and Cressida [London: Methuen, 1982], 22),
If Levi is right and Shakespeare wrote Troilus and Cressida in answer to popular demand, the Bard met the request in much the same way he did when, according to legend, he was asked to write a play showing Falstaff in love: Troilus and Cressida is no more a faithful dramatic rendition of Homer’s Iliad than The Merry Wives of Windsor is a depiction of Falstaff fallen prey to Cupid.
In fact, Shakespeare’s play might be summed up as Homer meets Chaucer and Ovid. While the play shares its setting and most of its characters with the Iliad those characters are also influenced by medieval notions of chivalry and courtly love (borrowed largely from Chaucer’s long poem Troilus and Criseyde), and the whole play is finished with a thick varnish of mockery.
Audiences are often disconcerted by the medieval touches in the play. Aeneas sounds very like a knight in a tournament when he delivers Hector’s challenge to the Greeks, and the challenge itself is redolent of courtly love philosophy: “Hector... will tomorrow with his trumpet call / Midway between your tents and walls of Troy / To rouse a Grecian that is true in love. I If any come, Hector shall honour him: / If none, he’ll say in Troy, when he retires, / The Grecian dames are sunburnt and not worth I The splinter of a lance” (1.3.272, 276—82). Furthermore, the plot concerning Troilus and Cressida’s ill-fated love (which Shakespeare takes from Chaucer, who, in turn, draws on Boccaccio) was inserted during the Middle Ages, in order to make the story of the Trojan War more appealing to the audiences of the time.
When Shakespeare is not transforming Homer’s characters into medieval knights and courtly lovers, he treats them humorously—if somewhat unkindly—in the style of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, one of Shakespeare’s favorite books. Quoting Golding’s translation of Ovid, Jonathan Bate says, “Ajax is a boasting ‘dolt and grossehead’, ‘slye Ulysses’ a slippery wordsmith ‘who dooth all his matters in the dark’. Ovid thus provides a precedent for Shakespeare’s debunking representation of them” (Jonathan Bate, Shakespeare and Ovid [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993], 109).
So, in Shakespeare’s play, Ajax is a comic figure “valiant as the lion, churlish as the bear, slow as the elephant” (1.2.20—21), a “beef-wirred lord” (2.1.12) who is “bought and sold among those of any wit” (2.1.49—50); Achilles is a petulant hulk who spends far too much time sulking in his tent and whose brain, though not quite “as barren I As banks of Libya,” is “dry enough” (1.3.327—28); Agamemnon, likewise, is “an honest fellow enough.. but he has not so much brains as ear-wax” (5.1.50-2).
The war itself receives similar treatment. A sense of weariness pervades both camps: Agamemnon chastises his commanders, who (unreasonably, he thinks) are feeling discouraged after “a seven-years’ siege” for which they have little to show (1.3.12). As for the Trojans, Hector, who wants to have done with the war, says Helen “is not worth what she doth cost the keeping” (2.2.52), and he further argues, “If Helen then be wife to Sparta’s king, I As it is known she is, these moral laws I Of nature and of nations speak aloud I To have her back return’d” (2.2.184—87). Paris and Troilus are the only Trojans who have any enthusiasm left for the war, Paris because he wants to keep Helen, and Troilus only because he believes in seeing a project through to the finish, regardless of the cost. But even Troilus is reluctant to fight and sees the senselessness of the war: “Fools on both sides, Helen must needs be fair / When with your blood you daily paint her thus” (1.2.90-1).
In addition, the clashes of the armies are trivialized: “The heroes’ return from battle he [Panderus] describes sportively, like a return from hunting or a game of football . . . but the common soldiers are dismissed as Asses, fools, dolts! chaff and bran’” (Levi 235). And, of course, Thersites--that most unwarriorlike of Greeks thoroughly undercuts both the war and “the heroism of brute force” (Reuben Brower, Hero and Saint: Shakespeare and the Graeco-Roman Heroic Tradition [Oxford, 1971], 123). A character three parts Timon of Athens and one part Feste, Thersites wanders from tent to tent, calling everyone fools or worse and demonstrating the truth of his insults.
Shakespeare handles the love story much as he does the war. Troilus and Cressida’s struggles can be seen as a harsher, more cynical rake on Romeo and Juliet (which was also strongly influenced by Chaucer’s poem); both plays begin with a young man sighing over an unobtainable lady. The young man, employing a coarse-minded go-between to plead his case, eventually wins the lad's love; after exchanging words of love (and, in the case of Romeo and Juliet, marriage vows), the couple secretly consummates the relationship. Events conspire against the lovers, they are separated, and they do not live happily ever after. But the differences between the plays are more significant than the similarities. Cressida’s love for Troilus falls far short of Juliet’s for Romeo. Cressida is coy, wanting to prolong the courtship, and the nature of her interest in Troilus frequently seems more sexual than romantic. Her speech in act 1 scene 2 is occasionally bawdy, and her attitude toward love is decidedly cynical: “Things won are done; joy’s soul lies in the doing. . . / Men prize the thing ungain’d more than it is” (1.2.292-94). In her first scene with Troilus, she says suggestively, “They say all lovers swear more performance than they are able” (3.2.83-4). Also, while in Chaucer the courtship takes a more reasonable pace, in Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida no sooner declare their love than they become lovers in deed, placing the emphasis once again on physical love. And, of course, their love is destroyed not by accident or fate but by Cressida’s inconstancy.
This medieval tale of love and betrayal inevitably invites comparison with that of Paris and Helen and the war they began. So Troilus and Cressida is much more than the sum of its sources, a tossed salad of Homeric heroes, medieval knights, and courtly lovers. Shakespeare did not combine these elements merely out of blithe disregard for consistency and authenticity (though that may well be a factor); each unlikely component comments on its fellows, resulting in a “thoroughgoing critique of the ancient world” (Bate 109), and a satiric commentary on “heroes... marriage and.., manipulators” (Levi 234).
When it is performed, this odd Shakespearean amalgam inspires a wide span of reactions from its audiences, ranging from aversion and devout wishes that someone could prove conclusively that it was authored by Jonson, Webster, Dekker--anyone but Shakespeare--to fascination and wonder that it isn’t staged more often. Such extreme responses speak to the power of the play; the worst condemnation of the play would, surely, be audience indifference. In Peter Levi’s words, “Troilus and Cressida is the least obvious of plays and the most ambivalent; it is irreducibly multiple. . . . It is not easy to sum up this play, or to come to a well-founded verdict. . . . It . . . continues to attract as well as to puzzle and in some ways repel” (235, 238-9).