As I re-read Troilus and Cressida, I find myself thinking back on Hamlet. Well, not so much Hamlet, but the podcast I had discussing Hamlet with Amir Khan, who has written a book, Counterfactual Thinking and Shakespearean Tragedy, due out later this year from Edinburgh University Press. A chapter of that book has been printed in the current issue of Shakespeare Quarterly, under the title “My Kingdom for a Ghost: Counterfactual Thinking and Hamlet.” If you remember back to that podcast, Amir talked about how our expectations are set by our first reading (or experience) of a play. But what if, he asked, if events in the play didn’t play out like they did… would our expectations be met?
My question is what if that experience is a priori to the reading, from before and independent of that reading?
Most readers of and audiences to Troilus and Cressida have at least some passing knowledge of the Trojan War. Some might even come to the play with some foreknowledge of the story of true Troilus and false Cressida. How then might that affect the experience of the play itself? How might that even effect the play, causing it to be what it has become?
Let’s start with the most general of knowledge. There was a Trojan War, in which the Trojans were besieged by the Greeks. We know the war was, in a poetic sense, over a woman, a woman taken from her love (or at least her husband). We also know that it doesn’t end well for the Trojans–they lose. We might also know that Hector kills Patroclus, Achilles kills Hector, and Paris kills Achilles, but not before Achilles kills Troilus. And all of this is before Ulysses’ stratagem of that big ol’ wooden horse works to bring down Troy.
How might this knowledge affect our notions of genre in the play?
Troilus doesn’t have to die in the play because we know he’ll die at the hands of Achilles after the play is done. And, of course, this makes his last speech (not counting his cast-off response to Pandarus) all the more foreboding:
No space of earth shall sunder our two hates.
I’ll haunt thee like a wicked conscience still,
That moldeth goblins swift as frenzy’s thoughts.
Strike a free march to Troy! With comfort go.
Hope of revenge shall hide our inward woe.
Troilus speaks of Achilles, whom he’ll chase through battle, in hopes of revenge. We know (as Troilus suspects) that Troy’s days are numbered, and it’s ironic that Troilus wants to fight Achilles as we know that it is Achilles who will kill him. While we don’t see Troilus’ death, we know it’s coming. Does that satisfy our need for a tragic resolution (one not currently achieved since we’re not emotionally invested in Hector, the last of the killed)?
What if we know the story of Troilus and Cressida–either from Boccaccio or Chaucer–does this then bring our romantic/comic plot line to a cynical modernist conclusion? Troilus ends up being the true but betrayed lover, Cressida his false betrayer. They may not marry but they’ve certainly reached their destiny, a fate as seemingly inevitable as Oedipus’. They’ve achieved anti-marriage, the quintessential anti-comic ending. Does an anti-comic ending give us our tragic resolution?
Does genre even matter for our modern sensibilities? I would argue that it does, at least in the sense that we expect a Shakespearean play to fall into one category or another. Is Troilus and Cressida a tragedy? Problem play? Dark comedy? Or is it an anti-comedy (ah, a new genre!)?
Some, Joyce Carol Oates and Jan Kott among them, have argued that this play is a wonderfully modern piece. But Shakespeare wasn’t writing for us, he was writing for his own time, the audiences of his own day… was it a misunderstood anachronism four hundred years ago, only to be buried in a literary time capsule and to spring full-grown and and genre-less, completely contemporary, into our time?
I’m not sure… but as we reach the halfway point of our discussion of the play, I see these as questions that may haunt me for the next few weeks.