Troilus and Cressida: Genre?

Toward the beginning of this adventure back to Troy, we discussed the early editions/publications of Troilus and Cressida.

Quarto versions had the word “Historie” in the title, while the Folio version had the word “Tragedie” there. Of course, the Folio’s table of contents were of no use in breaking the tie: Troilus and Cressida didn’t even appear in the TOC; instead it just kind of magically appeared between the two sections, after the “last” history, The Life of King Henry the Eighth, and before the “first” tragedy, The Tragedy of Coriolanus. With no page numbers.

At the end of that blog entry, I asked the simple question:

So what is it? History? Tragedy?

Now, you know me. I love me a good discussion over genre, especially when it isn’t clear.

The usual hallmarks of a comedy are romantic love, misunderstandings, and a wedding (or birth) at the end. Compare that with tragedy, where we have a protagonist who through an error in judgment suffers a (usually negative) reversal of fortune, and we get death (and often lots of it) at the end. For more comedy vs. tragedy discussions, I point you to Can a Brother get a Little UNITY up in this Play? and Titus: It’s a Tragedy, respectively.

Histories are, well, historical… based on fact (though Shakespeare has been known to play pretty fast and loose with those facts). We get neither a wedding nor a death at the end per se, though their inclusion is a possibility (and in the case of Henry V, we kind of get both).

Tragi-comedies, from what I remember from The Winter’s Tale, Pericles, and The Tempest (haven’t read Cymbeline yet), tend to start off seemingly heading toward tragedy, but then take a turn for the happy and end like a comedy (sometimes that turn is ridiculous, as in “Exit, pursued by a bear” in The Winter’s Tale… and you could argue that the hyphen in tragi-comedy for The Tempest actually takes place before the play even starts… but that’s for a future discussion–a long time from now).

Then there are the outliers. The Merchant of Venice. All’s Well That Ends Well. Measure For Measure. As they end with weddings, some consider them comedies. But there is no joy in them. They’re dark. Some critics call these the “dark comedies.”

Then there’s our play. In no way can it be a comedy, light or dark. There’s no wedding, no birth or rebirth.

Thus, the outlier dark comedies and our play have also been lumped together and given another categorization by some critics: the Problem Play.

I get it, you’ve told me. You don’t like it.

I know this sends chills down the spine of some readers, and turns up the hair on the back of the neck on others. Some of you want to call these tragicomedies, but then what to do about this play? Troilus and Cressida has no comic conclusion–and yes, I know–Love’s Labor’s Lost ends with comicus interruptus, with no wedding, either… but at least we were heading in the right direction in that play. Not so much with this play. Even the set up, with the stealing of a wife (Helen) before the play can begin, seems to scream “NOT A COMEDY!”

So let’s say for argument’s sake we use “dark comedy” or “tragicomedy” for Merchant, All’s Well, and Measure… then what of Troilus and Cressida?

Ask me a week ago, and I would have fought tooth and nail for “Problem Play.”

Not so now. Given my revelation yesterday that the protagonist of this play is Pandarus, and despite the historical backdrop for this play (and the removal of Homer’s gods in an effort to make it more “factual”), I’m going to argue that the Folio title gets it right:

Troilus and Cressida is a tragedy.

Pandarus is our tragic hero. His reversal of fortune? from proud uncle and helpful go-between to pariah, pander and outcast. His hamartia or error in judgment? believing that mere physical congress is good enough to withstand the fates of war (remember there’s no discussion of marriage… not that a play that stems from the result of a wife being stolen would recognize matrimony as a reason for mercy). And his anagnorisis or revelation? he realizes he is dying, and he can leave nothing behind but disease–no wedding, no birth, only the gift of death.

Troilus and Cressida is not just a tragedy, but it’s the anti-comedy.

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