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.