No work of fiction ,a novel or a play can exist without reference to politics. All human relationships, between man and man, man and woman . woman and woman individual and the State are politically wired with all possible contradictions and compromises. These relationships,therefore, find fullest expression in the hands of a talented artist in diversified ways.
Though the play ‘Troilus and Cressida’, written by Shakespeare had been in existence in the manuscript form 1603 ( according to the Stationer’s Register’) it had not been staged till 1898. A vague reference to it having been staged by Lord Chamberlin’s men in the same year it was written, suggests that it could have been clandestinely enacted as a sort of ancient version of modern ‘off -off Broadway theatre’ like production without Royal permission.
Because it was an unusual political and intellectual play, ‘unsullied by the claps of the vulgar majority ‘, as it was described in the Folio.
Like our own Bhasa, Kalidasa and Bhavabhooti, who took their themes for their plays from the epics Ramayana,Mahabharata, Shakespeare made use of a minor situation in Homer’s Iliad for dramatizing it in his own way. All most all the characters of Greek mythologies and Roman history constituted the intrinsic part of the western cultural psyche. Nestor, Hector,Achilles, Ulysses, Ajax and a host of others featured in Iliad represented heroism, valour and chivalry. Helen considered to be the most beautiful woman on earth ( ‘Is it the face that launched a thousand ships?’ – Edward Marlowe) remained in the aesthetic memory of an average European as a woman of angelic charm and tenderness. But, in this play, Shakespeare subtly satirizes all of them , including Helen, who is shown as a flirting nincompoop!
Troilus and Cressida are minor characters in Homer’s Iliad. But both of them are major characters in Shakespeare’s play. The love between them is the theme of the play.
Troilus is the son of Priam (King of Troy) and the younger brother of Paris, who abducts Helen, the wife of Menelaus, the brother of Agamemnon, the Greek general. Cressida is the daughter of Calchas, who has deserted his native Trojan camp and joined the Greeks for survival. Cressida remains with the Trojans.
Troilus loves Cressida intensely with moonshine thoughts of idealism and chivalry, but Cressida , although she likes him, has a cynical attitude towards things held ‘sacred’. The Trojan war started when she was eleven years old but goes on and on. This makes her feel bitter and distrustful of anything held ‘holy’.
The central theme of the play is that the two warring parties- the Trojans and Greeks= decide to exchange Cressida for a Greek commander even without consulting her, because she is after all a woman!
Does this not remind us of our own Mahabharata, where the personification of Virtue, Dharmaputra, uses his own wife Draupati as a gambling bet only to lose her in the bargain? What happens then? In the Royal Court his wife is disrobed in the presence of no less virtuous men like Bheehma ,Drona and Kripa , who watch this scene helplessly without uttering a word of protest.
In Shakespeare’s play, the valiant and chivalrous men like Hercules , Hector , Ajax and others are also a party to this shameless deal, when a girl in her teens is exchanged for a an army commander.
How does Cressida react to this atrocious deal?
She chooses to spend the previous night with Troilus and leaves for the Greek camp the next morning to ‘honour’ the agreement of exchange without the least sentimental hang-over, not minding being called a slut!
This is vintage Shakespeare. ‘All is fair in love and war’ !