Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...©
of Work: Tragedy of Ignorance
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.
may fairly argue that the real tragedy in the play lies in the major characters'
ignorance of who they are and what spurs them to action. Troilus, Cressida,
Achilles, Ajax, Paris, et al., are blind to their faults and fail to learn
from the mistakes they make. True, Hector ends the duel with Ajax shortly
after it begins, for he realizes the folly of fighting with a relative.
But he later challenges Achilles, not understanding the larger truth that
all men come from the same human family.
not only do the characters fail to understand themselves; they also fail
to understand (or they wish to ignore) the significance of a key event
as it unfolds: the surrender of Cressida to the Greeks in exchange for
the captive Trojan Antenor. This development evens the score: The Greek
Diomedes has the Trojan Cressida, the Trojan Paris has the Greek Helen,
and the Trojan Troilus and the Greek Menelaus are cuckolds. In other words,
the cause of the war, the abduction of Helen by Paris, has been negated
by the surrender of Cressida to Diomedes.
the war goes on–for pride, for glory, for lasting fame.
1623 as part of the First Folio, the first authorized collection of Shakespeare's
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
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.
.Troilus: Youngest son
of Priam, king of Troy, and therefore a prince of the realm. He is the
brother of Paris, Hector, Deiphobus, Helenus, Margarelon. Troilus is hopelessly
in love with the Trojan maid Cressida.
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.
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.
Trojan priest of Apollo (prophet or soothsayer) who defects to the Greeks.
He is the father of Calchas.
of the Greek armies. He is depicted as being incompetent.
of Agamemnon and cuckolded husband of Helen of Troy.
Helen: Wife of Menelaus
who absconded with Paris.
Ulysses, Nestor: 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.
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.
Boy Servant of Troilus
Servant of Paris
Servant of Diomedes
of Priam. She is a prophetess.
Trojan and Greek soldiers, attendants.
From Greek Mythology
the ancient Mediterranean world, feminine beauty reaches its zenith in
Helen, wife of King Menelaus of Greece. Her wondrous face invades every
man's dream, including a young Trojan named Paris. He decides one day that
he has to make her his own. So, with the help of his Trojan friends, he
kidnaps Helen and takes her to Troy (in present-day Turkey). Infuriated,
King Menelaus and his brother, Agamemnon, assemble a mighty army of which
Agamemnon is supreme commander and cross the sea to make war against Troy
and reclaim Helen and Greek pride. The great Greek storyteller Homer told
part of the tale of the Trojan War in The
Iliad, depicting the warriors on both sides–Achilles, Hector, Ajax
the Great, Menelaus, Diomedes and Odysseus (Ulysses in Shakespeare's play)–as
heroes worthy of imitation. In Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare
depicts them as quite human, even bumbling, petty, and stupid. Some of
them are morally corrupt. Shakespeare's version of the story begins at
the end of the seventh year of the Trojan War. The plot summary follows.
Michael J. Cummings...©
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).
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).
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.
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.
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.
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:
lustre in your eye, heaven in your cheek,
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:
your fair usage; and to Diomed
shall be mistress, and command him wholly. (4. 4. 121-123)
fie upon her!
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:
language in her eye, her cheek, her lip,
her foot speaks; her wanton spirits look out
every joint and motive of her body. (4. 5. 66-69)
art, great lord, my father’s sister’s son,
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.
cousin-german to great Priam’s seed;
obligation of our blood forbids
gory emulation ’twixt us twain. (4. 5. 140-143)
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.
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.
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
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 mediocre.
is blind. Troilus falls in love with Cressida without due heed to her
and glory are false gods. The Greeks and Trojans kill for glory, bragging
rights, and eternal fame–false gods that entice them onto the path of self-destruction.
is folly to fight a war for a trivial reason. The Greeks and Trojans
went to war after Paris took Helen from King Menelaus, bruising Greek pride
and honor. After seven years of war, the combatants stubbornly continue
are deceiving. Outwardly, Cressida and Helen are beautiful and charming;
the various warriors, handsome and mighty. Inwardly, they are all ugly,
spiteful, weak, and/or depraved.
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.
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 V 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.
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 in diatribes laced with
invective. 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).
reserves his most searing insults for Patroclus, who engages in a homosexual
relationship with Achilles. Here is the conversation (Act V, Scene I) in
which Thersites lambastes Patroclus:
be silent, boy; I profit not by thy talk:
art thought to be Achilles' male varlet.
varlet, you rogue! what's that?
his masculine whore. Now, the rotten diseases
the south, the guts-griping, ruptures, catarrhs,
o' gravel i' the back, lethargies, cold
raw eyes, dirt-rotten livers, wheezing
bladders full of imposthume, sciaticas,
i' the palm, incurable bone-ache, and the
fee-simple of the tetter, take and take
such preposterous discoveries!
thou damnable box of envy, thou, what meanest
to curse thus?
I curse thee?
no, you ruinous butt, you whoreson
why art thou then exasperate, thou idle
skein of sleave-silk, thou green sarcenet
for a sore eye, thou tassel of a prodigal's
thou? Ah, how the poor world is pestered
such waterflies, diminutives of nature! (5. 1. 16-22)
Comedy, Problem Play
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.
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.
Pandarus uses a metaphor
to compare words to a kind of currency, but the currency does not pay debts.
To fear the worst oft cures
the worse. (3.2.47)
Cressida uses a paradox
to say a fear neutralizes the object of the fear.
To be wise, and love,
Exceeds man’s might; that
dwells with gods above. (3.2.102-103)
Cressida speaks a couplet
that uses alliteration (man’s might).
For honour travels in a strait
Where one but goes abreast.
Ulysses uses a metaphor
comparing honour to a sea traveler passing through a strait (a narrow waterway
connecting two oceans, gulfs, bays, or other large bodies of water). He
also uses a paradox saying that the strait is so narrow that only one person
can swim abreast. But abreast refers to two or more people proceeding side
You do as chapmen do,
Dispraise the thing that
you desire to buy. (4.1.82-83)
In a paradox, Paris describes
what shoppers sometimes do when bargaining with a merchant (chapman): They
belittle the object they want to buy to get the chapman to lower the price.
Troilus and Cressida unfolds in the age of Greek mythology, Shakespeare
makes many references (allusions) to the deities and other nonhuman beings
from Greek myths. Among the beings to whom or which Shakespeare alludes
are the following:
Apollo: The sun god
who daily drives his chariot across the sky; also, the god of music, prophecy,
Argus: giant with
100 eyes who served as a spy for Hera (Roman name, Juno) queen of the Olympian
gods. The messenger god, Hermes (Roman name, Mercury) killed him. Hera
removed his eyes and placed them on the tail of the peacock.
Boreas: God of the
with 100 arms and 50 heads.
three-headed dog at the gate of the Underworld.
Cupid: Roman name
for Eros, the god of love.
nymph (nature goddess) pursued by Apollo. After she refused his advances
and prayed for deliverance, her father, a river god, changes into a laurel
Diana: Roman name
for Artemis, the virginal moon goddess.
Juno: Roman name
for Hera, queen of the Olympian gods.
Jupiter: Roman name
for Zeus, king of the Olympian gods.
Mercury: Roman name
for Hermes, the messenger god.
Neptune: Roman name
for Poseidon, god of the sea.
who bragged to the goddess Leto that she had six sons and six daughters.
Leto had only two children, the god Apollo and the goddess Diana (Artemis).
Because of her boastfulness, Apollo killed her sons, Diana killed her daughters,
and Jupiter (Zeus) turned her into a mass of stone on Mount Sipylus (in
present-day Turkey). The block of stone cried tears ceaselessly as Niobe
wept for her dead children.
Nymph: Nature goddess.
Pegasus: Winged horse
born from the blood of the beheaded Medusa.
Perseus: Hero who
beheaded Medusa, one of three sisters whose gaze could turn a human into
stone. Each sister's hair was made of intertwining snakes.
Pluto: Roman name
for Hades, the god of the Underworld.
name for Persephone, the goddess of the Underworld.
Thetis: Sea goddess
who was the mother of Achilles.
Typhon: Monster with
100 dragon heads.
Venus: Roman name
for Aphrodite, goddess of love.
Vulcan: Roman name
for Hephaestus, the god of fire and the forge who made armor in his Olympian
Questions and Essay Topics
1. Which character in the
play is the most despicable? Explain your answer.
on DVD (or VHS)
2. Are there any admirable
characters in the play? Explain your answer.
3. Write an essay that compares
and contrasts Cressida’s concept of love with Juliet Capulet’s (Romeo and
4. Write an essay that compares
and contrasts Shakespeare’s depiction of the Greek and Roman warriors with
Homer’s depiction of them in The Iliad.
5. Does Thersites speak
for Shakespeare? Explain your answer.
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