One of his lesser known works, Shakespeare's Trojan play is also one of his most intriguing. Not quite a burlesque, 'Troilus and Cressida''s lurches in tone, from farce to historical drama to romance to tragedy, and its blurring of these modes, explains why generations of critics and audiences have found it so unsatisfying, and why today it can seem so modern. Its disenchanted tone, its interest in the baser human instincts underlying (classical) heroism look forward to such 20th century works as Giraudoux's 'The Trojan War Will Not Take Place' or Terry Jones' 'Chaucer's Knight'; the aristocratic ideals of Love and War, inextricably linked in this play, are debased by the merchant-class language of exchange, trade, food, possesion - the passionate affair at its centre is organised by the man who gave his name to pimps, Pandarus, and is more concerned with immediate sexual gratification than anything transcendental. The Siege of Troy sequences are full of the elaborately formal rhetoric we expect from Shakespeare's history plays, but well-wrought diplomacy masks ignoble trickery; the great heroes Ajax and Achilles are petulant egotists, the latter preferring the company of his catamite to combat; the actual war sequences, when they finally come, are a breathless farce of exits and entrances. There are a lot of words in this play, but very few deeds.
Paris, Prince of Troy, has abducted Helen, wife of Menelaus, King of Sparta. Led by the latter's brother Agamemnon, and his Machiavellian advisors Ulysses and Nestor, the Greeks besiege Troy, demanding the return of Helen. However, Achilles' dissatisfaction at the generals' endless politicking has spread discontent in the ranks. Within Troy, war takes a distinct second place to matters of the heart. While Paris wallows in luxury with his prize, his youngest brother Troilus uses Pandarus as a go-between to arrange a night of love with his niece, Cressida. When one of the Trojan leaders is taken prisoner by the Greeks, the ransom price is Cressida.
There is only one character in 'Troilus' who can be said to be at all noble and not self-interested, the eldest Trojan prince Hector, who, despite his odd interpreation of the quality 'honour', detests a meaningless war, and tries to spare as many of his enemies' lives as he can. He is clearly an anachronism, however, and his ignoble slaughter at the hands of a brutal gang suggests what price chivalry. Perhaps the most recognisable character is Thirsitis, the most savagely cynical of his great Fools. Imagine Falstaff without the redeeming lovability - he divests heroes and events of their false values, satirises motivations, abuses his dim-witted 'betters' and tries to preserve his life at any cost. Written in between 'Hamlet' and 'All's Well That Ends Well', 'Troilus' bears all the marks of Shakespeare's mid-period: the contrapuntal structure, the dense figures, the audacious neologisms, and the intitially deferred, accelerated action. If some of the diplomacy scenes are too efective in their parodic pastiche of classical rhetoric, and slow things down, Act 5 is an amazing dramatic rush, crowning the play's disenchantment with love (with an extraordinarily creepy three-way spaying of an infidelity) and war.
The New Penguin Shakespeare is the most accessible and user-friendly edition for students and the general reader (although it does need updating). Unlike the Oxford or Arden series, which offer unwieldy introductions (yawning with irrelevant conjecture about dates and sources) and unusable notes (clotted with tedious pedantry more concerned with fighting previous commentators than elucidating Shakespeare), the Penguin's format offers a clear Introduction dealing with the play and its contexts, an appendix 'An Account of the Text', and functional endnotes that gloss unfamiliar words and difficult passages. The Introduction is untainted by fashions in Critical Theory, but is particularly good at explaining the role of Time ('When time is old and hath forgot itself...And blind oblivion swallowed cities up'), the shifting structure, the multiple viewpoints in presenting characters, and Shakespeare's use of different literary and linguistic registers.