Cassandra: Crazy, Confused, or Compassionate?

Cassandra: Crazy, Confused, or Compassionate?

Is Cassandra crazy? This is a question with which anyone portraying or writing about her struggles. The short answer most seem to arrive at is: yes. She sees the future, raves about it, frightens people. She’s crazy. Stopping at the short answer does a grave disservice to both the character and the story, though. Better questions would be: To what degree is she crazy? Why is she crazy? How is she crazy? This is where it gets interesting. This is where different (equally valid) interpretations arise and where her character truly takes shape.

When I started working on this character, I struggled with the balance of her sanity and her violent outbursts. To me, she wasn’t crazy, just misunderstood. Approaching Cassandra from her point of view, she seems perfectly sane. Everything she says makes perfect sense to her. She has seen it, this is how things are, and when people don’t believe her, they march straight to their doom. Talking it over with a friend, though, they said something which has stuck with me over the months I’ve worked on this character: “Crazy is what she is. It isn’t who she is.” Suddenly, the balance was there. Cassandra is in a constant battle to be understood. She’s fighting against this prophecy that bubbles up inside her, but at the same time, trying to sort through it and phrase it in a way that others will understand and believe. The crazy is a layer thrown on top of this unfortunate woman. It’s not the core from which you build when creating her character. The beauty of Cassandra is in the moments she pushes through that layer and is perfectly lucid and clear.

At one point in the play, Cassandra begs her mother, “I know the power/ Of God is on me: but this little hour,/ Wilt thou but listen, I will hold him back!” At this point, the bloodshed is done. All is lost. What prophecy could she possibly have that is so necessary in that moment? The women of Troy are past saving. A key to the heart of Cassandra lies in the fact that she is so desperate to give them comfort. Many of these people have shunned her and berated her, taunted her, but she fights against the storm roiling inside her to soothe these women, to tell them that they will all be avenged.

Cassandra is a very strong, very compassionate person. Regardless of their strength, though, a person can only take so much. Because of Apollo’s curse, Cassandra suffered years of being ostracized. She had no friends, her family pitied her, and she could do nothing to fix it. She had no way to stop her prophecy and those around her were predetermined to disbelieve her predictions.

So, yes, her suffering has made her crazy. However, simply playing that doesn’t make for a realistic character. The key to playing Cassandra is figuring out what’s going on beneath that layer. It’s figuring out who she really is and finding moments when that can shine through. It’s finding the moments when she struggles and clearly defining what’s going on inside her head at that moment. It’s been a struggle, but it’s incredibly rewarding work and I wouldn’t give it up for anything.