A Study Guide
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
Revised in 2010, 2011..©
Troilus and Cressida is
classified as a tragedy, but who suffers the
tragedy is arguable. Although callow Troilus
loses his love, he fails to realize she was a
wanton to begin with. Moreover, he does not
die or experience a moment of epiphany. Hector
dies, but he is neither a title character nor
a character whose psyche and personality
undergo thorough examination. Fickle Cressida,
forcibly separated from Troilus, does not
resist the Greeks. In fact, she welcomes their
attentions, in particular those of Diomedes.
She is anything but tragically heroic.
Date Written: 1602.
The main sources for the play were accounts of the Trojan War from Greek myths; from Homer's epic poem, The Iliad; and from Geoffrey Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde.
City of Troy and surrounding plains in northwestern Anatolia, a region in the Asia Minor that is part of modern-day Turkey. The action takes place in Troy and the Greek camp outside the walls of Troy. Anatolia is west of Greece (across the Aegean Sea) and north of Egypt (across the Mediterranean Sea). The time is about 3,200 years ago in recorded history's infancy.
Cressida: Daughter of the soothsayer Calchas. Troilus successfully woos her but discovers later that she is fickle and lascivious.
Pandarus: Uncle of Cressida. He helps the lovesick Troilus woo her with his wheedling tongue.
Priam: King of Troy.
Hector: Son of Priam and the greatest of the Trojan warriors.
Paris: Son of Priam. It was Paris who caused the Trojan War by stealing Helen, the wife of the Greek king Menelaus.
Deiphobus, Helenus, Margarelon: Other sons of Priam. Margarelon is an illegitimate son.
Achilles: Greatest of the Greek warriors and the greatest warrior in all the world. However, Shakespeare depicts this hero of Homer's Iliad as proud, sulking, and small-minded.
Aeneas, Antenor: Trojan commanders.
Calchas: Trojan priest of Apollo (prophet or soothsayer) who defects to the Greeks. He is the father of Calchas.
Agamemnon: Commander-in-chief of the Greek armies. He is depicted as being incompetent.
Menelaus: Brother of Agamemnon and cuckolded husband of Helen of Troy.
Helen: Wife of Menelaus who absconded with Paris.
Ulysses, Nestor: Greek officers.
Patroclus: Greek warrior who engages in a homosexual relationship with Achilles.
Ajax: Gigantic Greek warrior whom Shakespeare depicts as proud but brainless.
Diomedes: Greek warrior who wins Cressida from Troilus.
Thersites: Greek slave. With bitter sarcasm, he continually criticizes Ajax, Achilles, and other combatants. Thersites understands the folly of war and well knows that its glory-seeking combatants are small and stupid.
Alexander: Servant of Cressida.
Boy Servant of Troilus
Servant of Paris
Servant of Diomedes
Andromache: Wife of Hector.
Cassandra: Daughter of Priam. She is a prophetess.
Minor Characters: Trojan and Greek soldiers, attendants.
Background From Greek Mythology
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
An actor first appears on the stage to recite a prologue setting the scene—the seven-gated city of Troy (also known as Ilium) and the plain before it—and to inform the audience that the plot of the play begins in the seventh year of the ten-year war. The play then opens with a scene set before the palace of Priam, the Trojan king. The Trojan soldier Troilus, a brother of Paris, is conversing with Pandarus, the uncle of Cressida, a Trojan maid. Troilus discloses that he has fallen in love with Cressida (sometimes referred to by a nickname, Cressid). Pining for her love, Troilus asks Pandarus to help him woo her, saying: “I tell thee I am mad / In Cressid’s love. . .” (1.1. 39-40).
When Pandarus next speaks with Cressida, he heaps lavish praise on Troilus in hopes of winning her for Troilus. With unabashed exaggeration—in fact, outright lies—he tells her that Troilus as a warrior is superior to Hector, the greatest of the Trojan warriors. What is more, he says, Helen—the incomparably beautiful paramour of Paris, the brother of Hector—desires Troilus even more than she desires Paris, who brought her to Troy from Greece. When Troilus returns one day from battle, Pandarus, tells her: “[L]ook you how his sword is bloodied, and his helm more hacked than Hector’s; and how he looks, and how he goes! O admirable youth!” (1.2.143). But Cressida plays hard to get, believing that “Men prize the thing ungained . . .” (1.2.175).
Meanwhile, out on the plain before the walls of Troy, the Greeks argue among themselves about how to end the long and weary war. Achilles, their fiercest warrior, could be the key. He is Hercules, Sir Lancelot, and Rambo all wrapped up in one. But when the leaders of the army hold an important strategy meeting to plan their next move, the great Achilles refuses to attend. In fact, he refuses to resume fighting. Shakespeare does not go into detail about why Achilles has withdrawn from battle, but Homer’s Iliad—well known to Shakespeare’s audiences—makes it clear that Agamemnon, the general of the Greek armies, insulted him. Agamemnon further offended him when he took for himself a beautiful slave girl Achilles had captured when raiding locales around Troy. To spite Agamemnon, Achilles keeps to his tent, sitting back and wallowing in his greatness, all the while laughing at his bickering comrades.
Hector, the greatest of the Trojan warriors and the brother of Troilus, sends a message to the Greek camp, proposing to fight in single combat the best and bravest Greek warrior (who is, of course, Achilles). However, irked by Achilles’s arrogance, Nestor, a Greek commander, recommends snubbing Achilles in favor of sending a warrior named Ajax into battle against Hector. Ajax is big and powerful and menacing. He is also brainless. When he learns that he is to fight Hector, he swells with pride. Thersites, a cynical Greek slave with a sarcastic tongue, tells Achilles that Ajax is so blown up with pride that he paces about the field of battle and “raves in saying nothing” (3.3.261). This news spurs Achilles to consider returning to combat; he cannot allow the witless Ajax and other warriors to reap all the glory when he knows he is the greatest warrior of all. Later, Ulysses further whets Achilles’s appetite for battle.
However, the Trojans are now rethinking the war and wondering whether it is worth continuing. All they need to do to end it is release Helen to Menelaus, the Greek king from whom Paris stole Helen. Troilus argues, though, that the Greeks have spilled too much blood and suffered too many broken bones to quit now. Besides, he says, honor is at stake. His argument prevails. But Troilus not only wins the argument; he also wins Cressida, thanks to Pandarus. She reveals her love for him and vows fidelity.
But Cressida’s father, Calchas, a Trojan prophet of Apollo, is less than faithful; for he defects to the Greek camp. Then he proposes an exchange: his daughter, Cressida, for a Trojan, Antenor, a prisoner of the Greeks. The Trojans accept the terms of the agreement. After Cressida spends her last night in Troy with Troilus, the Greek warrior Diomedes (also called Diomed) arrives to take her to the Greek camp. The moment he sees Cressida, her beauty and charm captivate him. He tells her:
The lustre in your eye, heaven in your cheek,Troilus, seized with jealousy, tells Diomedes to treat her well or “I’ll cut thy throat” (4.4.132). Upon arriving in the Greek camp, Cressida seems delighted with her captors and their attentions, and she kisses the Greek commanders one after the other. After she goes off with Diomedes, Ulysses, realizing that she is a wanton, comments:
Fie, fie upon her!Hector then meets Ajax in what is to be the battle of battles while other Greek and Trojan warriors become spectators. But, ho-hum, the duel ends in a draw after Hector declares that Ajax is a kinsman (in the following lines, cousin-german means close relative), noting:
Thou art, great lord, my father’s sister’s son,The great Achilles, having decided that it will be he who slays Hector and turns the tide of battle, then invites Hector to a feast in his tent, saying, “To-morrow do I meet thee, fell as death; / To-night all friends” (4. 5. 299). Agamemnon retires to his tent with other Greek leaders after making Hector feel welcome.
Meanwhile, Troilus enters the Greek camp during the pause in hostilities to seek out Cressida. At the same time, Achilles is boasting to his young friend and sleeping companion, Patroclus (Achilles is equally fond of young men as well as young women, like the one Agamemnon took from him) about the prowess he will exhibit when he returns to war and confronts Hector. The slave Thersites happens by with a letter for Achilles and allows his acerbic tongue to wag freely. He accuses Patroclus of being Achilles’s “masculine whore” (5.1.18). Insults are exchanged.
Elsewhere, when Troilus finds Cressida, she is enveloped in the arms of Diomedes. She gives Diomedes a gift that she had received from Troilus. When Diomedes asks who gave it to her, she replies, “ ‘Twas one’s that loved me better than you will. / But, now you have it, take it” (5.2.106-107). The next day, Achilles goes to war, enraged that Hector has killed Patroclus on the field of battle. However, there is no exciting duel with Hector mano a mano. Rather, Achilles and his warriors fall upon Hector while the latter catches his breath after removing his helmet and setting his shield aside. After they kill him, Achilles drags Hector’s body around the city walls. And what of Troilus? He loses his horse to Cressida’s lover.
Shakespeare's play ends there. There are no real heroes to lionize; there is no exciting climax. Of course, Homer and other Greek writers had continued the story, as follows: After the fighting produces no clear victor and the war comes to a standstill, the wily Ulysses devises and constructs a gigantic horse and hides a small army of soldiers in its belly. Then, pretending they are leaving the field of battle, the Greeks present the horse to the Trojans as a gift. After the Trojans bring the horse inside Troy, the Greek soldiers drop down from the belly of the horse at night, when all of Troy is asleep, and lay waste the city. The Greeks win the war. After they return home, a surviving Trojan warrior, Aeneas, leaves Troy and settles in Italy, where he founds the city of Rome, as Vergil tells us in his great epic, The Aeneid.
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Ignorance breeds mediocrity.
The central characters in the play do not
understand themselves and do not learn from
their mistakes. Consequently, they do not grow
or change radically; they remain small and
The plot centers on a love story (involving Troilus, Cressida, Pandarus, and Diomedes) and a war story (involving Achilles, Agamemnon, Ajax, Hector, and other soldiers). Three events interweave the two stories: the defection of Calchas to the Greeks, the agreement to exchange Cressida for Antenor, and Hector's proposal to fight a Greek warrior one on one. Thersites and Ulysses comment on the action—Ulysses with eloquence and Thersites with invective that points out the shortcomings of the so-called heroes.
There is no high point in Troilus and Cressida; nor is there a surprising or shocking twist or turn. Each time the play approaches what promises to be a climactic moment—for example, Troilus's confrontation with Diomedes upon the departure of Cressida to the Greek camp, Hector's fight with Ajax, Cressida's reception in the Greek camp, the Act 5 showdown between Achilles and Hector—the moment ends in anticlimax. Cressida willingly becomes the mistress of Diomedes, Hector and Ajax fight to a draw, Cressida welcomes the attention of the Greeks, and Achilles waylays Hector with the help of fellow Greeks when Hector is unarmed and resting.
Thersites is a slave who runs
errands for the Greek warriors. Ironically,
this lowly fellow is the one character in the
play who well understands the folly of the war
and the inanity of its participants.
Shakespeare makes him the conscience of the
play—a sharp-tongued, often sarcastic
conscience. Time and again, he openly insults
the other characters. But his characterization
of them as incompetents and nincompoops is
generally accurate. In the presence of Ajax,
he tells Achilles that Ajax's “pia mater is
not worth the ninth part of a sparrow”
(2.1.47) and that he “wears his wit in his
belly and his guts in his head” (2.1.47). Then
he turns on Achilles, telling him that “a
great deal of your wit, too, lies in your
sinews . . .” (2.1 66).
thou art thought to be Achilles' male varlet.
PATROCLUS:..Male varlet, you rogue! what's that?
THERSITES:..Why, his masculine whore. Now, the rotten diseases of the south, the guts-griping, ruptures, catarrhs, loads o' gravel i' the back, lethargies, cold palsies, raw eyes, dirt-rotten livers, wheezing lungs, bladders full of imposthume, sciaticas, limekilns i' the palm, incurable bone-ache, and the rivelled fee-simple of the tetter, take and take again such preposterous discoveries!
PATROCLUS:..Why thou damnable box of envy, thou, what meanest
thou to curse thus?
THERSITES:..Do I curse thee?
PATROCLUS:...Why no, you ruinous butt, you whoreson
indistinguishable cur, no.
THERSITES:...No! why art thou then exasperate, thou idle immaterial skein of sleave-silk, thou green sarcenet flap for a sore eye, thou tassel of a prodigal's purse, thou? Ah, how the poor world is pestered with such waterflies, diminutives of nature! (5.1.16-22)
Black Comedy, Problem Play
Because of its cynicism and mocking tone—as well as its depiction of legendary Greek heroes as stupid, petty, incompetent, or fickle—Troilus and Cressida resembles a dark comedy. This play is also classified as one of three of Shakespeare's "problem plays" (along with Measure for Measure and All's Well That Ends Well) because of its presentation of heroes who are seriously flawed. Audiences used to applauding and identifying with admirable heroes and heroines find it difficult to applaud or identify with the flawed characters in Troilus and Cressida.
In the dialogue of Troilus and Cressida and other Shakespeare plays, characters sometimes speak wise or witty sayings, or epigrams, couched in memorable language. Among the more memorable sayings in Troilus and Cressida are the following:
Words pay no debts. (3.2.40)
Following are examples of figures of speech in the play. For definitions of figures of speech, see Literary Terms.
The sea being smooth,
it a casque
in the open ulcer of my heart
there be one among the fair’st of Greece
If beauty have a
soul. this is not she;
But I am weaker than a woman’s tear (1.1.11)
Hyperbole and Metaphor
would thou didst itch from head to foot, and I
had the scratching of thee;
honour keeps the weather of my fate. (5.3.32)
Metaphor and Simile
strong-ribb’d bark through liquid mountains
bad success (2.2.123)
wound of peace (2.2.16)
[Ajax] is as valiant as the lion, churlish as
the bear, slow as the elephant. (1.2.24)
that the general is not like the hive
Agamemnon, an honest fellow enough, and one that
loves quails, but he has not so much brain as
will no more trust him when he leers than I will
a serpent when he hisses. (5.1.65)
Because Troilus and Cressida unfolds in the age of Greek mythology, Shakespeare frequently alludesto, or refers directly to, the deities and other nonhuman beings from Greek myths. Among the beings to whom or which Shakespeare alludes are the following:
(1.1.74): The sun god who daily drives his
chariot across the sky; also, the god of music,
prophecy, poetry, medicine.
Which character in the play is the most
despicable? Explain your answer.