First there is the question of genre. “Troilus and Cressida” is a Romance of kinds, but in practice the eponymous heroes play a secondary role, since the play is dominated by the Trojan Wars. A History, then? The editors of the First Folio, after some debate, seemed to think so, but Peter Ackroyd describes it as “a savage and satirical comedy”, and Harold Bloom includes it among Shakespeare’s “Problem Plays”. It is, then, a difficult play to classify.
On the face of it, “Troilus and Cressida” combines two narratives. The first, as the title implies, is a romance. Cressida desires Troilus and he desires her. They aspire to a heroic love in which honesty drives out falsehood. They have one night of passion before events conspire to divide them, as she is despatched from Troy to the besieging Greeks as part of a prisoner exchange. Instantly she is a figure of desire to Greek warriors she does little to put off, and is quickly drawn to Diomedes.
The second narrative is the background story that dominates the foreground. The Trojan Wars have been in train for seven years when the play opens. War broke out when Helen was kidnapped from her husband Menelaus and taken away by Paris from Athens to Troy, pursued by an avenging Greek army. As the play begins, stalemate hangs over both sides, whose preoccupations are intimately exposed to the audience.
To an Elizabethan audience, many of the characters presented here were authentic heroes. The names of Ajax, Achilles, Agamemnon, Aeneas, Hector, Paris and Ulysses retain a certain currency to this day. But they are presented by Shakespeare in an unattractive light: Ulysses, for example, is a self-serving politician obsessed with “degree” and hierarchy. This unappealing character may have been modelled on a prominent member of the Court at the time the play was written – one reason why the play is seen by some as satirical.
A further element in the play is the preoccupation of the characters presented here with philosophical questions surrounding (for example) time, value and reputation. Debates break out on both sides about issues of this kind, giving the modern reader an insight into late-Elizabethan thinking. As ever with Shakespeare, it is a mistake to think that any particular view represents that of the author, who (here as elsewhere) speaks through his characters rather than in his own voice.
Even so, it is legitimate to enquire into Shakespeare’s view of the characters he is presenting. It is safe to say that he is not impressed. Dreams of true love are forgotten once Cressida leaves Troy, and images of heroic performances in battle are abandoned by the crude reality – for example, the cowardly way Achilles kills Hector in Act Five. One critic calls this “a bitter and disillusioned play”, and in its cynical repudiation of much that is admirable in life and humanity, it is difficult to disagree.
Scene by Scene
The Chorus reminds us that Athens makes war on Troy to recover the “ravish’d Helen” from Paris.
Act One Scene One
Troilus tells Pandarus he cannot fight for Troy while his heart aches for the love of his niece Cressida.
Pandarus thinks she should have deserted like her father, but agrees to speak up for Troilus to her.
Act One Scene Two
Cressida learns that on the previous day, the Trojan warrior Hector was beaten in battle by Ajax.
Though provoked by her uncle to admire Troilus, Cressida still insists on Hector’s superior qualities.
Pandarus describes Helen’s regard for Troilus and reminds Cressida of “a thing” told her “yesterday”.
As the warriors return from the field – Aeneas, Antenor, Hector, Paris, Helenus – they await Troilus.
Cressida claims she prefers the Greek Achilles to Troilus, before Pandarus is called to Troilus’s house.
Alone, Cressida admits that she feels more for Troilus than she reveals, but will remain inscrutable.
Act One Scene Three
Agamemnon admits that seven years have achieved little but questions why his men are so negative.
Nestor argues that where luck is absent, the most demanding challenges and tests of courage lie.
Ulysses believes the Greeks suffer from excessive factionalism and are failing to observe hierarchies.
Once “degree” is removed from the way humans run their lives and institutions, disaster follows.
He believes that once everything in human affairs is reduced to “appetite”, chaos brings destruction.
He is angry at Achilles, lazing in his bed with his “friend” Patroclus making fun of the Greeks’ efforts.
Nestor agrees Achilles’s example is contagious, and believes Ajax and Thersites equally damaging.
The Trojan Aeneas announces Hector’s challenge to the Greek heroes – to fight for his lady’s honour.
While Agamemnon leads Aeneas to Achilles, Ulysses doubts whether Achilles should be chosen.
Instead he prefers Ajax, partly to antagonise Achilles, partly to dilute the pain of possible defeat.
Act Two Scene One
Ajax demands Thersites tell him the news while his servant insults him with accusations of stupidity.
When Achilles arrives, Thersites repeats his insults of Ajax and adds a homophobic attack on Achilles.
Act Two Scene Two
Nestor offers peace for Troy if Helen is returned, and Hector questions retaining “a thing not ours”.
But Troilus argues honour dictates Helen be kept: when a thing has been used it can’t be returned.
He believes it is a “theft most base” to “have stol’n what we do fear to keep”: Helen should be kept.
Cassandra, their sister, appears and predicts that unless Helen is released, Troy will be destroyed.
Troilus argues Paris “should ne’er retract what he has done” and Paris agrees that honour is at stake.
Hector believes a moral law protects Helen as Menelaus’s wife, and she should be “back return’d”.
But Troilus encourages Hector to think of glory and renown, and Hector describes his “challenge”.
Act Two Scene Three
Thersites says he has little confidence in Ajax and Achilles succeeding in their assault on Troy.
He denounces Achilles and Patroclus to their faces as fools and insults Agamemnon in the same way.
Patroclus tells Agamemnon of Achilles’s refusal to emerge from his tent – much to the King’s anger.
Agamemnon reassures Ajax that he is the better man, criticising Achilles’s pride and stubbornness.
Ulysses reports that Achilles “will not to the field tomorrow”, eliciting violent threats from Ajax.
All agree to leave Achilles like a “hart” hiding in a “thicket” and give tomorrow’s challenge to Ajax.
Act Three Scene One
Pandarus, waiting to discuss Troilus with his brother Paris and Helen, banters wittily with a servant.
In an atmosphere of humour and song, he speculates that Troilus will be dining elsewhere tonight.
Act Three Scene Two
Troilus anticipates meeting Cressida “giddy” with “expectation” but anxious too: “I fear it much”.
Pandarus brings Cressida and urges Troilus to “swear the oaths to her that you have sworn to me”.
Troilus believes that in love “the will is infinite” but the ability to act accordingly is “a slave to limit”.
Cressida agrees that lovers’ ambitions exceed performance, but Troilus asserts: “such are not we”.
Cressida admits that she has long desired Troilus but lacked “men’s privilege / Of speaking first”.
She believes love has made her speak unwisely – “for to be wise and love / Exceeds man’s might”.
Troilus hopes that one day his name will be synonymous with honesty: “As true as Troilus”.
By contrast, Cressida is determined that her name will never be linked with falsehood or untruth.
Pandarus pronounces their love “a bargain made”, and ushers them to “a chamber with a bed”.
Act Three Scene Three
Calchas, a defector to Greece, asks that a Trojan prisoner be exchanged for his daughter Cressida.
Ulysses suggests that leading Greek soldiers amble past Achilles’s tent as a challenge to his pride.
Achilles tells Agamemnon that “I’ll fight no more ‘gainst Troy”, but is ignored or disdained.
He takes comfort in the fact that, though fame is normally fleeting, he believes “’tis not so with me”.
He engages Ulysses in discussion about whether a thing exists if it is not witnessed by others.
Ulysses praises Ajax to a jealous Achilles, who realises he has been ignored by the Greek warriors.
Ulysses confirms that great deeds can easily be forgotten, comparing time to a “fashionable host”.
He believes the “present eye praises the present object” – whereas Achilles lingers “in thy tent”.
Ulysses advises him to invest more energy in fighting the Trojans than in romancing their women.
Achilles learns Hector’s challenge is taken up by Ajax, and realises that “my reputation is at stake”.
Thersites reports that Ajax is ostentatiously proud to have been chosen to fight Hector tomorrow.
Patroclus is to be sent to Ajax to bring “the valorous Hector” to Achilles’s tent the following day.
Act Four Scene One
Diomedes has come from the Greek camp with Antenor ready to exchange him for Cressida.
Paris reports that his brother Troilus “lodges” with Cressida, and “We shall be most unwelcome”.
Paris asks Diomedes whether he “merits” Helen more than Menelaus, to be told she is a whore.
Diomedes criticises Helen as “false” and “bawdy”, to be told he criticises “the thing” he desires.
Act Four Scene Two
As Troilus prepares to leave, Cressida resents the speed of day-break – and of Troilus’s departure.
Pandarus’s bawdy humour is interrupted by Aeneas looking for Troilus – who denies he was there.
Pandarus explains to Cressida she is being exchanged for Antenor to be reunited with her father.
Cressida denies any “consanguinity” with her father and says leaving Troilus is a “falsehood”.
Act Four Scene Three
Troilus agrees with Paris the arrangements for him to hand Cressida over to be taken from Troy.
Act Four Scene Four
Cressida and Troilus reluctantly come to terms with their impending parting, pledging to be faithful.
Troilus warns that the Greeks have “a dumb-discursive devil” and warns her against being tempted.
Cressida asks him if he “will be true” and he assures her “the moral of my wit is ‘plain and true’”.
The Greek warriors arrive and Troilus commits Cressida to their care, telling them “Entreat her fair”.
In the distance a trumpet sounds to announce the challenge Hector issued to the Athenian forces.
Act Four Scene Five
Cressida arrives at the Greek camp to be met with a kiss from each of the warriors except Ulysses.
Aeneas argues that because Ajax and Hector are related, his commitment is likely to be half-hearted.
Asked about Troilus by the King, Ulysses praises him as open and honest, “as fairly built as Hector”.
Hector and Ajax begin their fight but being related they are both reluctant to shed the other’s blood.
Hector is introduced to the Greek leadership, exchanging heartfelt compliments and predictions.
He encounters Achilles, who wonders which part of Hector’s body he will wound to “destroy him”.
Hector replies that he will kill Achilles “everywhere”, then asks the Greeks to “pardon me this brag”.
Ulysses tells Troilus that Diomedes is keen on Cressida, and asks whether she had a lover in Troy.
Act Five Scene One
Thersites delivers a letter to Achilles and a homophobic insult to Patroclus, calling him a “varlet”.
The letter from his “fair love” Queen Hecuba’s daughter begs him not to fight the following day.
Thersites delivers a slew of insults to all, and Ulysses tells Troilus they should follow Diomedes home.
Diomedes (“a falser-hearted rogue” says Thersites) is heading for Calchas’s tent and Cressida’s bed.
Act Five Scene Two
Ulysses and Troilus watch from a distance as Diomedes and Cressida exchange romantic messages.
Troilus watches while “She strokes his cheek”, then shows him “this sleeve” as token of her regard.
Diomedes wants to keep the sleeve and harasses a reluctant Cressida to tell him how she came by it.
Diomedes says tomorrow he will wear it fixed to his helmet and Cressida invites him to “come” later.
Troilus doubts the evidence of his own eyes in witnessing the scene and believes: “this is not she”.
He’ll seek out Diomedes sporting the sleeve in tomorrow’s battle and “My sword should bite it”.
Act Five Scene Three
Andromache begs her husband Hector not to fight today joined by his sister Cassandra but is denied.
Troilus rebukes Hector’s chivalrous approach to fighting, claiming nothing will keep him from battle.
Priam entreats Hector not to fight, and Cassandra repeats her prediction that he will die today.
Troilus prepares to confront Diomedes, but when given a letter from Cressida, he tears it up unread.
Act Five Scene Four
Thersites observes the battlefield, describing events with familiar negativity and condescension.
He escapes Hector’s merciful sword, then waits for the fight between “the wenching rogues”.
Act Five Scene Five
Diomedes having apparently captured Troilus’s horse sends it to Cressida – “her knight by proof”.
But Agamemnon reflects a losing battle for the Greeks, with the Trojans inspired by Hector’s heroics.
The death of Patroclus rouses Achilles, who buckles on his armour and comes seeking Hector.
Act Five Scene Six
Troilus confronts Diomedes and Ajax in battle, while Hector is briefly confronted by Achilles.
Act Five Scene Seven
Achilles prepares to kill Hector, while Thersites escapes death through a shared background.
Act Five Scene Eight
Hector rests unarmed from fighting, only for Achilles to find and mercilessly despatch him.
He has Hector’s body tied to his horse in preparation to drag his corpse round the battlefield.
Act Five Scene Nine
News emerges that Achilles has killed Hector, leaving Agamemnon optimistic that “wars are ended”.
Act Five Scene Ten
Troilus announces Hector’s death, pledges revenge, and denounces Pandarus with his last word.
Pandarus is left to wonder why he is being rebuked when formerly he was valued for his support.
The play begins, as the Chorus explains, some years into the decade-long battle between Troy and Athens. Seven years ago, Athens declared war on the city-state of Troy when Paris (a Trojan prince) made off with Helen, wife of the Athenian King. In the years that the Athenian army has laid siege to the walled city, Cressida’s father Calchas has defected from Troy to the Greeks. Nevertheless her uncle Pandarus (who seems to think she should have followed her father) remains influential in Troy, not least with his niece, to whom he will shortly reveal the identity of an admirer.
In one sense “Troilus and Cressida” explores the Trojan War but in another it’s a treatise on late-Elizabethan values. So Pandarus’s summary of “what a man is” catches the eye as a reflection of Shakespeare’s England: “birth, beauty, good shape”, he says of an ideal man, “discourse, manhood, learning, gentleness, virtue, youth, [and] liberality” – these are the virtues Pandarus selects, and modern readers may be surprised (in the circumstances) that he leaves out military virtues like courage, poise and team spirit. Nonetheless this list remains a helpful summary of the virtues of the Renaissance gentleman, able to fight a duel in the morning and write a sonnet after lunch.
Ulysses’s speech in 1.3 presents a concise summary of one Elizabethan view of society – essentially a conservative and hierarchical view: “Observe degree, priority and place”, he argues, along with (among other things) “Office and custom in all line of order” – in other words, let every citizen know their place and let them be bound by tradition – and you have a balanced world. But if by contrast “degree is shaked”, then all manner of human institutions, from “communities” to “crowns”, are threatened, and humanity is left with little beyond its “appetite” and will “last eat up itself”. This is Athens’s weakness, he believes, not Troy’s strength.
Act Two Scene One sees the introduction of Thersites – servant to Ajax and described in the Dramatis Personae as a “deformed” character. In having the courage to speak his mind no matter how powerful the offence he gives, Thersites evokes the traditional Shakespearean fool or clown, free to speak truth to power. Nonetheless his homophobic description of Patroclus as “Achilles’ brach” in 2.1 is extraordinarily offensive to modern sensibilities: a “brach” was a female dog, and the implications are quite clear. Achilles in turn ignores the insult (along with the attack on his intelligence that follows it).
When in 2.2 it is reported that Nestor has offered to lift the siege of Troy if Helen is returned to Menelaus, the Trojan King’s sons debate what course to take. The discussion is summed up at the end of Troilus’s second speech: reason may dictate that Helen be returned to the Greeks as Hector argues, but “if we talk of reason”, replies Troilus, “Let’s shut our gates and sleep”. In other words, logic and reason are the prelude to cowardice. By contrast, he believes, “manhood and honour” should be the spur, since “reason and respect / Make livers pale”. The irony for Troilus is that in prolonging the war in the name of honour, he will lose Cressida, and in doing so, he will re-live the fate of Menelaus.
The first half of 2.2 is notable for the discussion of Helen as if she were an object, a thing. Indeed, this is the word used when Hector questions whether the Trojans should keep hold of “a thing not ours”. Troilus replies that once a thing has been used it cannot be returned, comparing Helen to “remainder viands” or left-over food, and he criticises his brothers for having “stol’n what we do fear to keep”, alleging they are “unworthy of a thing so stol’n”. The same trope returns at the end of 4.1, when Diomedes criticises Helen and is told he dispraises “the thing” he desires. It need hardly be said that Helen’s take on her fate is not canvassed.
The play’s two principals are finally brought together in 3.2, which explores the young love implied by the play’s title. Several features stand out: Troilus is nervous, then when Cressida appears, he is tongue-tied; both agree that love is often over-ambitious, but then Cressida becomes garrulous, saying more than she wants to (“Sweet, bid me hold my tongue”); next she doubts whether it is possible to love and be wise at the same time, before both agree on the need to be honest and avoid falsehood. Much of this dialogue is conducted in poetry, but a sizeable amount is conveyed in prose, reflecting perhaps the sense that in this relationship, as Troilus puts it, “the will is infinite [but] the execution confined”.
Ulysses’s encounter with Achilles in 3.3 provokes further theoretical discussions similar to those in 1.3 (in which Ulysses defends the importance of hierarchies to society, and criticises “appetite” as a source of instability) and 2.2 (in which Troilus argues that “honour” is more important than practical considerations). Now the discussion centres on time and the speed with which fashions change and reputations are lost. Achilles emerges from this particular discussion with little credit, a judgement the rest of the play does little to challenge.
When news reaches Cressida that she is to be exchanged with Antenor and sent to join the Greek forces to whom her father has defected, she refuses to leave: “I will not go from Troy” she announces, explaining that to leave Troilus is to make her name “the very crown of falsehood”. In using this word she evokes memories of her last appearance on the stage, in which the words “false” and “falsehood” are used eight times as a reminder of her apparent desire to be honest in love. In the speech immediately preceding this, Troilus has tasked himself with honesty and truth. Yet here, in 4.2, when Aeneas comes to Cressida’s bedroom to collect her, Troilus is already dissembling: “We met by chance”, he tells Aeneas, “you did not find me here”. He slips away, and Cressida is abandoned to her fate. Constancy, it then emerges is not her strength.
Dramatic irony is a staple ingredient of Shakespeare’s plays, but until now it has been in short supply in this text. Here in 5.2 it is used to powerful effect, however, as we watch Cressida arrange to meet Diomedes later, blissfully unaware that she is being observed by her former lover. In this scene, her heartfelt pledges made to him in 3.1 (“If I be false … / … let memory … / Upbraid my falsehood” etc) are abandoned while her former lover watches. The dramatic irony is made doubly intense through the shadowy presence of Thersites watching Troilus watching Cressida abandoning her promises to him. In the absence of an established technical term to cover it, one might call this a double dramatic irony.
The closing scenes of the play roam over the battlefield somewhat eclectically, observing individual confrontations and events while aiming to present an overview of the battle as a whole: in practice, both armies have withdrawn in a kind of ceasefire, awaiting further developments. Shakespeare often brings his plays to a conclusion with this kind of battlefield montage: “Julius Caesar” ends in this way, as does “Macbeth” – though in both those plays, the battle has brought matters to a clear conclusion. Here, the fight continues, though Hector will evidently no longer be part of it. Having removed his armour to explore that of a knight he has defeated, he finds himself naked and defenceless in the presence of the unprincipled Achilles.
Who’s Who / Characters
Troilus is decent but dull, lacking in imagination and less than wholly honest, but briefly idealistic about love until he learns more about Cressida than he might want to. A younger son of the King of Troy, he is not first to the military barricades – indeed, our first sight of him reveals he is too lovesick to fight today. He vows in the last scene to avenge the death of Hector, though the play has not hitherto revealed many martial virtues in his make-up.
Cressida is an unattractive portrayal of femininity. On first sight she is preparing a strategy to ensnare Troilus. When they discuss their feelings, she emerges as light-headed and talkative – and the equation of her name with constancy is unfortunate. Evidence for this emerges when she reaches the Greek encampment, where warriors queue up to kiss her and Diomedes is presented with the love-token Troilus gave her. Cressida’s father Calchas had defected from the Trojan side, and she seems to have inherited his take on loyalty.
Ulysses is a parody of a reactionary politician – “Full of high sentence but a bit obtuse” as T.S. Eliot said in another context. His view of society is that it should be driven by custom and hierarchy – with his own position, no doubt, among the most prominent. This cynical portrayal is said to satirise a prominent late-Elizabethan politician, possibly Cecil.
Achilles is presented as a self-serving idler, out of touch with his own declining reputation, unwilling to aid the Greek cause except in his own personal interests. His killing of Hector, who is unarmed and defenceless, reveals him as a coward and bully – very far from the heroic character of legend, and in that respect, similar to many of the characters in this play.
Who does Cressida reveal in 1.2 she prefers to Troilus?
How many years have the Trojan wars lasted at this point?
What are Nestor’s peace terms in 2.2?
Who predicts that unless Helen is returned, Troy will fall?
Give the name of the Trojan defector to Greece, the father of Cressida.
Why does Aeneas believe Ajax and Hector will be half-hearted in their combat?
Whom does Thersites describe as a “varlet”?
What is the love-token given to Cressida by Troilus, and passed on to Diomedes?
Who begs Hector not to fight today in 5.3?
What does Troilus do with the letter from Cressida in 5.3?
“Troilus and Cressida” is an unhappy play. Where there was a possibility of idealism – in the long-awaited conflict between Hector and Achilles, perhaps, or in the love affair between Troilus and Cressida – there emerges only anti-climax and cynicism. Where the audience looks for a character to guide them through these disillusioning events, they find only the foul-mouthed Thersites, who denounces the siege of Troy as no more than an “argument [over] a whore and a cuckold”.
Moreover, whereas the play aims (like many of Shakespeare’s Histories and Tragedies) to draw connections between the intimate level of the characters and their wider context – often, as here, one of conflict – “Troilus and Cressida” fails to balance foreground and background, so Troilus’s part in the play emerges as little more than passive victim: compare with Romeo, or Antony. Cressida, meanwhile, is active only in the egregious breach of her desire to be faithful to Troilus.
In the end, a heroic myth is re-written in anti-heroic terms, and once-heroic individuals are demeaned by the way they are presented. What was Shakespeare’s motive? Any answer to this question is obviously speculation, but it is worth asking another question: which characters are we supposed to identify with here? If the answer is “none of them”, then maybe we’re being encouraged to distance ourselves from identifying too closely with the Classical world in general, and so to be criticised, as Shakespeare was, for having “little Latin and less Greek” is simply moonshine.