Troilus and Cressida finds its basis in the stuff of legend.
According to legend…
Britain was named for and founded by Brutus, also known as Brute of Troy, who became its first king in the late 11th/early 12th century BC, even before the founding of Rome. All hail, Britain, older than Rome!
Brutus’s father was Silvius, who according to myth, was the reigning king of Alba Longa (a region in Italy, southeast of Rome). Silvius’ other son, Aeneas Silvius, succeeded him as Alba Longa’s king, as Brutus went off to conquer Britain. While the sons of Silvius are of note, it’s Silvius’ father that’s really interesting. His father was Aeneas.
Yes, that Aeneas. Our Aeneas from the Trojan War. The Aeneas of Virgil’s The Aeneid. The Aeneas whose bloodline would later include Romulus and Remus who founded Rome.
Britain and Rome, both imperial nations, stemmed from the Trojan side of the conflict.
Supposedly–yes, still myth here–Brutus named his fort near current-day London, Troia Nova, or New Troy. And this was picked up by later writers like Edmund Spenser who called London “Troynovant” in The Faerie Queen.
And yet in our play…
and here, sorry for the sexism, I’m going to focus on the men, after all this is a manly story of manly men doing manly things in war…
The Trojans, like their Greek counterparts, do not come off looking great in Troilus and Cressida. The Greeks are long-winded blowhards or backbiting political animals or sleazeballs or egomaniacs. The Trojans? Priam seems lost and bordering on senility. Paris and Troilus are all about romance and “honor,” while Pandarus is all about carnality. Margarelon exists only to declare his bastardy, and Deiphobus … well, who knows what he’s like. Hector seems all right (but not great), right up to the end when he kills a Greek soldier, coveting his armor. Antenor is but a bargaining chip. The only two that come off well are Helenus and Aeneas. Helenus is a priest with one speech. On the other hand, Aeneas does what needs to be done, both for country (as in delivering the courtly-love single-combat challenge to the Greeks, or asking Troilius why he isn’t in the field of battle) and for family (as when he goes before Paris and Diomedes to warn Troilus of the impending exchange).
Troilus and Cressida, as a play, may not exactly paint a heroic picture of Troy, the legendary basis for Britain, but at least Aeneas, the ancestor of the founder of Britain, comes off respectably.
Like much of this play, a mixed bag.