The Play’s the Thing: The play opens with a prologue letting us know the play is set during the Trojan, reminds us of the basics (Greeks went to war against Trojans for taking Helen), and notes that when the play starts, the war has been underway for a while. The proper action then starts with Troilus, one of Priam’s sons, talking with Pandarus, Cressida’s uncle. Troilus is having Pandarus woo his niece on behalf of Troilus but Pandarus hasn’t been too successful and is getting tired of being a go-between. Pandarus leaves to be replaced by Aeneas who brings word Paris was injured and convinces Troilus to come out to the battle. In the streets of Troy, Cressida is walking with her servant who gives the background of Ajax, who is half Trojan but fighting on the Greek side and has killed tons of Trojans, much to Hector’s chagrin. Pandarus then shows up and serves as commentator on the male fashion parade as the Trojan warriors return home at the end of the day, where he bends over backwards to make Troilus seem as awesome as possible. Then one of Troilus’ servants comes to summon Pandarus to meet him leaving Cressida to have a brief soliloquy in which she reveals that she loves Troilus but is making him work for it. Over in the Greek camp, Agamemnon is scolding his military leaders for failing to defeat the Trojans after 7 years of battle (sorry, Aggie, you’ve still got 3 more years to go). Nestor and Ulysses provide some advice, the gist of which is that Achilles and Patroclus, by refusing to fight, are dragging down morale. Aeneas then shows up to tell the Greeks that Hector is offering to fight one man in single combat. Ulysses and Nestor conspire to make sure Achilles doesn’t fight Hector as it’ll just boost his ego and instead decide to send Ajax to fight Hector.
In another part of the Greek camp, Ajax (not the brightest torch in the fire) is trading blows for insults from Thersites (the ancient Greek equivalent to a fool). Achilles and Patroclus then show up to join in the banter and then give the news that there will be a lottery to see who will fight Hector. Back in Troy, Priam is consulting with his sons about the latest offer from the Greeks where if they return Helen and funds/goods to repay for all the time and loss the Greeks have accrued the Greeks will head back home. Troilus would continue fighting while Hector is all for giving her back. Then Cassandra shows up and says that if they don’t give Helen back, Troy will rue the day. Of course, no one believes her (poor Cassandra) and Hector switches sides and decides to continue with the war after some convincing by Troilus. In the Greek camp, Thersites is back to insulting Achilles and Patroclus when Agamemnon, Ulysses, Ajax, and a couple others show up. Achilles hides in his tent when he sees them coming and refuses to come out and using Ulysses as a go-between refuses to fight the next day. Ulysses uses this to stir Ajax up to fighting Hector and the big lug goes along with it.
In Troy, Pandarus meets with Paris and Helen, mostly to tell Paris to cover for Troilus at dinner in case dad asks where he is. However, Helen also cajoles Pandarus into singing her a song, after Paris agrees to the cover story. Later, in Pandarus’ orchard, he brings Troilus and Cressida together where he woos her, she eventually admits she loves him, and they make a vow of fidelity. Then they head off to Pandarus’ house for some hanky-panky. In the Greek camp, Calchas, Cressida’s father, negotiates with Agamemnon for him to return the Trojan Antenor in exchange for Cressida. Agamemnon agrees and sends him back to Troy with Diomedes who will courier Cressida back. Achilles and Patroclus are hanging out by their tent and Ulysses decides to prick Achilles’ ego by sending a bunch of the military leaders past him and have them mostly ignore him. Achilles, of course, freaks out, Ulysses then flatters him (all part of a bigger plan to have him join the battle) and lets him know that he knows the reason Achilles isn’t fighting is because Achilles is in love with one of Priam’s daughters. Achilles decides to send word to Ajax to have him invite the Trojans over to Achilles’ tent for dinner after the battle.
In Troy, Paris meets Aeneas and Diomedes who gives news of the exchange of Antenor for Cressida and Aeneas notes that Troilus is not going to be happy about the deal. In the courtyard of Pandarus’ house, Troilus and Cressida are having some morning after sweet talk when Pandarus shows up and drops a lot of innuendo to make Cressida blush. Aeneas then arrives to bring the news of the impending exchange. Troilus and Cressida make vows to be faithful, Troilus giving Cressida his sleeve and she gives him a glove as tokens of their vow. Troilus then makes Diomedes vow to treat Cressida well and Diomedes insinuates that he thinks she’s a definite hottie. Cressida then heads off to the Greek camp. She arrives just as the Greeks and Trojans are prepping for the fight between Ajax and Hector. Most of the Greek commanders make an excuse to kiss Cressida and then she’s ushered off to Calchas’ tent. Ajax and Hector fight for a bit but then Hector calls it off because he doesn’t want to kill his cousin. He then heads over to meet all the Greek commanders. Meanwhile, Troilus goes with Ulysses to check up on Cressida.
Hector goes to meet Achilles. The two men size each other up, trash talk a bit, and then head off to dinner. In another part of the Greek camp, Troilus and Ulysses watch Cressida who has apparently fallen for Diomedes. She gives him Troilus’ sleeve, then tries to take it back as she values it too much, but Diomedes refuses to give it back. Troilus is disgusted at her faithlessness and vows to track down Diomedes in battle the next day. Back in Troy, Cassandra is trying desperately to convince Hector not to go into battle as it will only lead to bad things. Of course, he doesn’t listen to her (poor Cassandra). We then have several battle scenes where Troilus and Diomedes fight but neither really wins, Patroclus is killed, and Achilles kills Hector. Troilus delivers the news of Hector’s death to the Trojans and also tells Pandarus of niece’s unfaithfulness. And then the play ends.
Heroes and Villains: There’s no real stand out characters in this one. Cressida is initially a very promising character but then her development sort of peters out and we never get any insight into why she decided to break her vow to Troilus and take up with Diomedes. So I’ll pick Cassandra as my favourite because although she has very little page time, I always felt bad for her whenever she came up in Greek mythology.
Insults with Style: Thersites and Ajax have some real gems of insults during their exchange in II.i. Here are some of the highlights:
- stool for a witch
- thou hast no more brain than I have in mine elbows
- wears his wit in his belly, and his guts in his head
- “give you the nod” (I.ii)
- “Here, there, and everywhere” (V.v)
Speech to Know: As mentioned above, Cressida starts out pretty well. Her soliloquy about her secret love for Troilus is one of the better speeches in the play.
“Words, vows, gifts, tears, and love’s full sacrifice,
He offers in another’s enterprise:
But more in Troilus thousand-fold I see
Than in the glass of Pandar’s praise may be;
Yet hold I off. Women are angels, wooing:
Things won are done, joy’s soul lies in the doing:
That she belov’d knows naught that knows not this, –
Men prize the thing ungain’d more than it is:
That she was never yet that ever knew
Love got so sweet as when desire did sue:
Therefore this maxim out of love I teach, –
Achievement is command; ungain’d beseech:
then though my heart’s content firm love doth bear,
Nothing of that shall from mine eyes appear.” (I.ii)
View from the Pit: Troilus and Cressida is really far more Shakespeare’s attempt to do the Iliad. While Troilus and Cressida get some considerable page time, it is not truly their ill-fated romance that is the focus of the play, but rather the Trojan war that is the major focus of the play and both elements end up suffering for the lack of focus. Troilus and Cressida’s relationship disappears almost entirely from the second act and there is never really a satisfactory reason given as for why almost thirty seconds after vowing her eternal love for Troilus, Cressida drops him for Diomedes. The Trojan war also just doesn’t get all of the details that it deserves. Although Shakespeare gets the highlights, there are so many amazing details that he leaves behind. If he’d just left the Iliad to Homer and made it more of a background element to Troilus and Cressida’s relationship, the play would be much stronger. As it is, it’s just decent.