Thersites: Agamemnon is a fool; Achilles is a fool; Thersites is a fool; and, as aforesaid, Patroclus is a fool.
Achilles: Derive this; come.
Thersites: Agamemnon is a fool to offer to command Achilles; Achilles is a fool to be commanded of Agamemnon; Thersites is a fool to serve such a fool; and this Patroclus is a fool positive.
Patroclus: Why am I a fool?
Thersites: Make that demand of the Creator. It suffices me thou art. Look you, who comes here?
Achilles: Come, Patroclus, I'll speak with nobody. Come in with me, Thersites.
Thersites: Here is such patchery, such juggling, and such knavery. All the argument is a whore and a cuckold - good quarrel to draw emulous factions and bleed to death upon. Now the dry serpigo on the subject, and war and lechery confound all!
Act II, Scene 3
Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida has vexed critics and audiences four centuries since its first appearance between 1602 and 1609. It is a so-called "problem play"; it is neither tragedy, history, nor comedy, although it contains elements of all three. Rather, it is a social commentary that utilizes satire and bawdy wit to explore issues such as the impermanence of sworn oaths, whether they be of a political or romantic nature. Such issues can make for an unsettling experience for an unprepared audience and certainly Troilus and Cressida has had a rocky relationship with its critics for most of the past four centuries.
Troilus and Cressida is set during the tenth year of the Trojan War and it riffs off of Homer's Iliad and Chaucer's Troius and Cressida. There are two parallel plots here: the tiff between Agamemon and Achilles over the former's seizure of the latter's female captive and the budding romance between the Trojan prince Troilus, Priam's youngest son, and the Trojan lady Cressida. Shakespeare's original audience would likely have been familiar with the basic plots of both, as the Trojan War was a popular stage setting in the years prior to this play and Chaucer's narrative poem had been wildly popular in England for over two centuries at the time of Shakespeare's play.
What Shakespeare does here is invert certain elements. Instead of following Homer's lead on aristos and portray the Greek camp situation as revolving around matters of personal greatness and quality, he portrays the riff between Achilles and Agamemnon, which envelops other leaders such as Ulysses, Diomedes, and Ajax, as a base, political affair. There is no nobility on display; instead, we see the ugly political machinations that lay bare the falsity of their oaths to unite to fight the Trojans. As for the romantic relationship between Troilus and Cressida, he does not follow Chaucer's story either. Referencing freely the "whore" and "cuckold" elements of the Helen/Menelaus relationship, Shakespeare recasts Cressida's relationship with Troilus as being at its heart a mirror of that of Helen's. There is no true love, there is no true faith. We deceive ourselves and others, presumably for our own gain.
This is not a pleasant topic for a play or even for a sermon and Shakespeare utilizes bit characters such as Thersites to present these falsities in a crude, bawdy fashion that would get audiences chuckling until they paused later to consider the import of such statements as the one quoted above. At times, however, the humor feels rather forced, as the ugliness of the situations casts a pall over matters. It certainly was jarring to read clever turns of phrases from the "fools" after the more notable (and unwitting) fools demonstrated through their actions and perfidies the ridiculousness of their positions. Yet despite the sordidness on display, Troilus and Cressida is fascinating. It is certainly a clever play, one which plays upon reader expectations before twisting them and throwing them back in their faces, but it also says much about ourselves that could not be said straightforward in either a comedy or a tragedy. Troilus and Cressida occupies a nebulous middle ground between those two poles of human drama and its tragic ending does not overshadow its black comic middle, but rather it reinforces that sense of futility we often feel in our own lives. It certainly is a "problem play" in that it is more than just a commentary on social problems, but also it represents things which trouble us long after the final words are read or spoken. Certainly a play which I will revisit in years to come.