Shakespeare’s Sources Troilus and Cressida

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A page from Chapman's Homer

Continuing my series on Shakespeare’s sources (just five more to blog) I turn my attention to Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. This story, part Greek mythology, part medieval love story, revolves around the camp during the Trojan wars. It may seem a curious choice of subject matter, and certainly displays a curious combination of tragedy and bawdy. In fact the subject was popular at the time and there were at least 3 other dramatic versions written in this period. No one knows however whose came first and thus if there is influence between them and in which directions in might lie.


Interestingly Shakespeare’s play though written in around 1602, was entered on the Stationers’ Register in 1603, but was not finally published until 1609. It has been suggested that Troilus and Cressida was effectively banned because of government concerns over its apparent comments on Essex and his rebellion. The play was not as far as we know performed publically until 1642 (long after Shakespeare’s death) again suggesting something contentious about the play.


Shakespeare had  two main sources for the play. His first was  George Chapman’s translation of Homer’s Illiad ‘Seauen Bookes of the Iliades’ (1598) from which he lifted plot details about the Trojan war, the character of Thersites and Ulysses’ speech on order and degree. His second main source was Geoffrey Chaucer’s ‘Troilus and Criseyde’, in The Workes of Geffrey Chaucer (1561) from which he took inspiration for the characters of Pandarus, Troilus and Cressida. But perhaps the most interesting thing about the sources is the way they combine to produce the play’s unique aesthetic. Set against the background of the Trojan wars the play has a strangely mediaeval feel to it. Hector for instance speaks “i’the vein of chivalry” referring to a code of behaviour unknown to the Greeks but very well known to Shakespeare’s audience. Likewise Pandarus praises Troilus as “the prince of chivalry”. The Greek warriors are often referred to  as “knights” . There are also metaphors about jousting and combat in the lists all of which are medieval in essence.


So here we see that as well as simply mixing characters, speeches and plots from a range of sources Shakespeare actually combines there very different social worlds to create a rather unique and memorable world for his own play.


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Author:Liz Dollimore

Someone who loves listening to people talk about Shakespeare Liz tweets at @shakespeareBT
  • Robert Catesby

    William Ray  talks complete nonsense. He simply doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
    There is no evidence Euripides for instance was even available in the original Greek text in the Elizabethan period. Even if it had been there were probably only 3 or 4 men in the whole of England ( at Cambridge ) who would have been able to translate it. Aristotle had been translated by the Arabs ( to whom he was known as Aristu ) because even in the fragments we had in the west we had no one with the language skills to translate him  – the knowledge of Greek had simply expired in the Dark Ages. Even Byzantine greek scholars who came from the fall of Constantinople in the mid 15th century were perplexed by greek drama and how it should be translated.  Umberto Eco wrote a brilliant novel on this taking his cue from a short story by Borges.St Thomas More and Colet and the humanists of the early Tudor period were the best classical scholars we had and even their knowledge of the complex Greek of the dramas was beyond them. Erasmus mocked the English for their poor language skills.
    There is a vast difference between the Greek of say Thucydides ( whom I had to translate at university ) and that of the Greek dramatists, which is vastly more complex and I for one always frankly struggled with.
    We had to wait until nearly the 2oth century for the superb translations of Greek drama of Gilbert Murray.
    The English line was always through the history of Troy anyway and thats where the stress should be  – the elizabethans saw themselves as the second Troy.
    See  Caxton’s History of Troy ( the first English printed book ), John Lydgate’s Troybook, Henryson’s Testament of Cressid ( where Cressidas infidelity is equated with leprosy ), Dekker and Chettle’s Troyelles and Cressid and of course Chaucer as Liz points out. These are the relevant sourcres. Chapman’s IIiad was always a special case   – Homer comes to us from a different linguistic/historical  tree than greek drama, and was known from court and other sources over a considerable period.
    Frank Kermode pointed out that the language of T& C. is very strange.
    Orgillous anyone?

  • Robert Catesby


  • In response to William Ray’s comment see

  • William Ray

    The author of Troilus and Cressida didn’t have to lift plot lines from Chapman’s translation.  He was completely familiar and comfortable with Greek drama in the original language. He adopted plot features in T&C that Chapman’s translation did not, Margarelon’s and Thersites’ bastardry for example. His familiarity with Euripides’ Alcestis is evident in The Winter’s Tale. Hamlet has elements similar to the Oresteia.

    Timon of Athens dates to a play with similar references played at court in 1584, Agamemnon and Ulisses–put on by Edward de Vere’s Oxford Boys. Nuttall wrote that TofA relies heavily on Plutarch, Lucian, two plays of Sophocles Oedipus at Colonus and Philoctetes, plus Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound. Cumulatively, the Shakespeare plays show the author was steeped in Greek drama.

    Apparently you have taken at the lowest common denominator (Shakespeare’s ignorance) the ambiguous statement in the first Folio prefatory matter, “Though thou hadst small Latine, and lesse Greeke, /(From thence to honour thee, I would not seeke/ For names; but call forth thund’ring Aeschilus, Euripides, and Sophocles…”    This statement says two things.  Even if you were not educated in these languages, you would compare.  But obviously you are so educated. “Though thou hadst” is a conditional concept in grammar, i.e., meaning even if, not a descriptive statement, even though it is a fact that…

    The bias that wishes to fit together an illiterate money-lender with so clearly erudite a body of work cannot succeed against the facts indicated above.  “Shakespeare” was a superb and knowledgable classicist.

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