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ARING in its conscious strength, the
genius of Shakspere turned aside from no encounter, however difficult or unpromising, that held out the most distant chance of conquest in the vast domain of human nature. In “Troilus
AND CRESSIDA” he has made a bold irruption into classic ground; and although the play does not rank among his greatest productions, he has yet shewn surprising art in rescuing the heroes and beauteous dames of Greece and Troy from the "cold obstruction” of antiquity, and placing them freshly before us as living, breathing beings, of a common
nature with ourselves. The wantonness of Cressida is from the first insinuated with consummate art, but with growing distinctness, till we are fully prepared to recognise the truth, as well as force, of the portrait of her presented by the sagacious Ulysses :
“Fie, fie upon her!
At every joint and motive of her body." Ulysses himself is delineated with great felicity. He exhibits those manifold phases of character which afford the fairest opportunity for the manifestation of dramatic skill. He plays upon Achilles and Ajax with varied and admirable cunning; yet his craftiness is not exerted to obtain advantages peculiar to himself: his object is to make their thews and sinews subservient to the great undertaking in which his country was engaged, and which only such a head as his could have brought to so prosperous a conclusion.
The magnanimous Hector—the pleasure-tuned, good-humoured Paris—his fitting counterpart, Helen -Æneas, Agamemnon, Diomed, Nestor-indeed, all the multifarious characters who crowd the scene without encumbering it—are sketched in with every indication of vitality. We feel them to be instinct with life, and familiarly greet them on their resuscitation after a trance of so many centuries, as though all that passes were a matter of course, and they, like ourselves, were things of yesterday.
The weak good-nature of Pandarus stands in excellent contrast with the splenetic “cob-loaf,” the "crusty batch of nature,” Thersites; whose misanthropy, however, may claim the same palliation as Richard's—that “ love foreswore him in his mother's womb." His wit, humour, and penetration make him agreeable even to those who suffer most from his sarcasm. Achilles calls him his “cheese,” his “digestion;" and Ajax, although the constant object of his open and unmitigated contempt, is angry with Achilles for having inveigled him away. In these cases, we recognise the power of even misapplied intellect, forcing its way through every obstacle, and winning the regard of duller spirits, who are content to endure its scorching qualities, for the sake of sharing in the general light and brilliancy that accompany them.
“TROILUS AND CRESSIDA” was first printed in quarto (1609). There are strong grounds for believing that there was an older play on the same subject; but to what extent, or whether at all, Shakspere availed himself of it as a foundation for his own, can now be matter of conjecture only. The main incidents of the present drama were probably derived from Chaucer's tale of “ TroilUS AND CRESEIDE," and the popular works of Lydgate and Caxton on the destruction of Troy.