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Rewarded little critical esteem until the last few decades, Troilus and Cressida was one of the least popular of Shakespeare’s plays. It isn’t clear if it was performed in his lifetime. Probably written around 1602, the play, which was described as The Book of Troilus and Cresseda was first entered in the Stationers’ Register on 7th February 1603. But the play did not immediately appear in print. On 28th January 1609, Troilus was entered in the Stationers’ Register again, this time to Richard Bonian and Henry Walley who published the Quarto text. The original title page described the play as The Historie of Troylus and Cresseida. As it was acted by the Kings servants at the Globe. But while the Quarto was still in the press, this was substituted with a title page whose Epistle said this was ‘a new play, neuer stal’d with the Stage, neuer clapper-clawd with the palmes of the vulger...’
Some scholars have suggested that the play received private performances at the Inns of Court, while others have claimed that the play was also acted at the Globe with only the Prologue and the Epilogue being added for performances at the Inns of Court. Whatever the truth, it is clear that Troilus and Cressida was not a popular play. And that seems to have been the general verdict - apart from four productions of Dryden’s 1679 adaptation that were staged in the first half of the 18th Century, the play was not performed again in England until 1907.
The historical uncertainty about the kind of play could have caused a lot of this perplexity. It is described as a history by the title page of the 1609 Quarto, but the Epistle to that edition refers to it as a comedy. It was intended for inclusion among the Tragedies of the First Folio of 1623 that was brought out by Heminges and Condell, but was finally placed between the Histories and the Tragedies. Placing Troilus and Cressida, which is unique in the Shakespearean canon, has continued to be a problem.
Indeed, like All’s Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure, the other plays that continue to be grouped together under this heading, Troilus and Cressida leaves the audience pondering about the questions raised by the action. There is none of the effervescence and sense of release that is inherent in the romantic comedies, and though the modern audience does tend to view it more as a tragedy, there is none of the contemplation and the sense of loss characteristic of Shakespeare’s great tragedies. The ‘problem play’ label seems most apt, and it is now acknowledged that there is nothing quite like Troilus and Cressida in all of English drama.