"Eternall reader, you haue heere a new play, neuer stal'd with the Stage, neuer clapper-clawd with the palmes of the vulger," begins the 1609 quarto of Troilus and Cressida. This lack of stage history continued until 1898, claims Anne Barton, in The Riverside Shakespeare ([Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974], 443), suggesting, perhaps, that potential producers quail before the most troubling, as well as the most fascinating, aspect of this play: its tone. The setting, the siege of Troy, preserved as the seminal epic of Western heroic tradition, is reduced by Thersites, "a slave whose gall coins slanders like a mint" (1.3.193), to a "war for a placket" (2.3.20), for which "all the argument is a whore and a cuckold" (2.3.72-73).
Shakespeare leaves no mystery as to the tone of his play: It is sordid and cynical, offering no redeeming social value and no standards to emulate, unless by very negative example.
The same events taste otherwise to other palates. The earliest telling of this epic story begins with Cressida's leaving Troy and generates sympathy for the separated lovers. Boccaccio includes the complicated wooing and reiterates the sympathetic parting, though he does end by condemning unfaithful women. Chaucer's rendition, Troilus and Criseyde, presents the primary characters as more complex and more sympathetic. Criseyde faces a genuine dilemma between her attraction to Troilus and her concern for reputation. With her father's treachery, she is ostracized in Troy and has few options and few friends. Unlike Shakespeare's "broker-lackey," who revels in the salaciousness of his role, Chaucer's Pandarus weighs his responsibility as guardian for Cressida against his concern for her isolation and loneliness and his loyalty to Troilus.
In the eighteenth century, Dryden rewrote Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida in order to correct its gross deficiencies by supplying the Aristotelian unities and Augustan sensibilities our primitive bard could not muster in his uneducated ignorance. Consequently, Cressida remains faithful to Troilus, she and her father are rescued from the Greeks, and, when her fidelity is questioned, she kills herself rather than live with a stained reputation.
Shakespeare, on the other hand, thwarts any impulse of sympathy toward his characters. Cressida, unlike Chaucer's more delicate creation, uses reticence, not to weigh a dilemma, but to inflame a lovesick prince. Her first dialogue with Pandarus betrays callousness, and her closing soliloquy of 1.2 reveals that she's highly interested in Troilus, but holding back only to redouble Pandarus' efforts and Troilus' desires.
Cressida's sorriest moment occurs when she gives the sleeve, Troilus' token of undying devotion, to Diomedes. Her protestations to Diomedes about her lost love might be interpreted as remorse except for three facts: First, she told us in 1.2 that resisting heightens a man's passion. Second, in 5.2, with Thersites under one bush and Troilus and Ulysses under another, when she snatches back the sleeve and asks Diomedes to stay away, Thersites sneers, "Now she sharpens. Well said, whetstone!" (75). And third, when Diomedes says he's had enough teasing, she solidifies her invitation (105). No hope remains that Cressida might warrant sympathy.
Another character one hopes to admire is the great Homeric hero, Hector, but as early as 2.2 he trades right and wrong for fame and reputation. "She is not worth what she doth cost / The keeping," he tells Troilus of Helen (2.2.51-52). "Value dwells not in particular will. / It holds his estimate and dignity / As well wherein 'tis precious of itself/ As in the prizer" (2.2.53-56); in other words, the eye of the beholder is not the sole arbiter of value. Troilus and Paris argue for Helen. Hector counters that their reasoning leads more "To the hot passion of distemp'red blood / Than to make up a free determination / 'Twixt right and wrong" (2.2.168-71).
Hector's explanation of right and wrong resembles Ulysses's earlier discussion of cosmic order: "Nature craves / All dues be rend'red to their owners," says Hector; "now, / What nearer debt in all humanity / Than wife is to the husband? . . . If Helen then be wife to Sparta's king, / As it is known she is, these moral laws / Of nature and of nations speak aloud / To have her back return'd. . . . Hector's opinion/ Is this in way of truth" (2.2.173-89).
Nevertheless, he concludes, our reputations among men increase by fighting to keep her; therefore, right and wrong be damned in favor of fame and glory. He then goes into battle only to be slaughtered in a most unheroic fashion. Although he dismissed Troilus's charge of a "vice of mercy" in him (5.3.37) as mere "fair play" (5.3.43), and although he spared his cousin Ajax, the out-of-breath Achilles, and even the "scurvy railing knave" and "filthy rogue" Thersites (5.4.28-29), Hector falls prey to his lust for the splendid armor of a nameless Greek. He kills the Greek, removes his armor, then is impaled on all sides by Achilles's Myrmidons as he rests. Ironically, the words he utters over his trophy—"Most putrefied core, so fair without" (5.8.1-2)—describe most characters in the play; the rest are also putrefied within, but lack external beauty as well.
Thersites, for instance, "a deformed and scurrilous Greek," has no claim to either sympathy or heroics. He explicates both character and action, thereby pulling the entire story to his level where all human motivation is lechery, which leads only to "the bone-ache." He is also Shakespeare's greatest virtuoso name-caller, with multiple labels and insults for everyone, most involving putrefaction and sexual disease.
At the time we want the nastiness resolved and ended, Thersites provokes more throughout act five: scene one, with particular reference to Diomedes, who "keeps a Troyan drab" (i.e., Cressida), "nothing but lechery! all incontinent varlots!" (5.1.96-98); scene two, after the sleeve-scene between Diomedes and Cressida, "Lechery, lechery, still wars and lechery" (5.2.194-96); scene four, "I would fain see . . . that same young Troyan ass, that loves the whore there, . . . send that Greekish whoremasterly villain with the sleeve back to the dissembling luxurious drab" (5.4.2-9). Later, "What's become of the wenching rogues? I think they have swallow'd one another. I would laugh at that miracle—yet in a sort lechery eats itself" (33-35). In 5.7, he sees Menelaus and Paris fight: "The cuckold and the cuckold-maker are at it. Now, bull! now, dog! . . . The bull has the game, ware horns ho!" (5.7.9-12). Finally, he cautions one of Priam's bastards: "If the son of a whore fight for a whore, he tempts judgment" (21-22).
Thersites then disappears, leaving the stage to a revolted Troilus, who blames Pandarus and his ilk for human misery; and Pandarus himself, who becomes the epilogue, alone on stage lamenting the lot of "traitors and bawds" (5.10.37). His closing lines, bereft of remorse or redemption, mourn the "hold-door trade," confess his own bone-ache, and promise to spend the next two months spreading his diseases which, at his death, he will bequeath to us. In case we haven't understood the relentlessly negative tone of this play, Shakespeare's last word is "diseases."