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Troilus and Cressida
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Key Dates
Mythological Background
Plot Summary
Plot Structure
Role of Thersites
Black Comedy
Allusions to Myths: Glossary
Questions, Essay Topics
Complete Free Text
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
Revised in 2010..©

Type of Work: Tragedy of Ignorance

.......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. 
.......One 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.
.......But 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. 
.......However, the war goes on–for pride, for glory, for lasting fame.

Key Dates

Date Written: 1602. 
Publication: 1623 as part of the First Folio, the first authorized collection of Shakespeare's plays.


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.


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.
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
.......In 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.

.Plot Summary
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, 
Pleads your fair usage; and to Diomed 
You shall be mistress, and command him wholly. (4. 4. 121-123)
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! 
There’s language in her eye, her cheek, her lip, 
Nay, her foot speaks; her wanton spirits look out 
At every joint and motive of her body. (4. 5. 66-69)
.......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, 
A cousin-german to great Priam’s seed; 
The obligation of our blood forbids 
A gory emulation ’twixt us twain. (4. 5. 140-143)
.......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.

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 mediocre. 
Love is blind. Troilus falls in love with Cressida without due heed to her faults. 
Fame 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.
It 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 to fight.
Appearances 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 Structure

.......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 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. 

Role of Thersites

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 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).  
Thersites 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:

    THERSITES...Prithee, be silent, boy; I profit not by thy talk:
    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)
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 so narrow, 
Where one but goes abreast. (3.3.163-164)
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 by 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. 

Allusions to Mythology

.......Because 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, poetry, medicine
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 north wind.
Briareus: Monster with 100 arms and 50 heads.
Cerberus: Fierce, three-headed dog at the gate of the Underworld.
Cupid: Roman name for Eros, the god of love.
Daphne: beautiful nymph (nature goddess) pursued by Apollo. After she refused his advances and prayed for deliverance, her father, a river god, changes into a laurel tree.
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.
Niobe:  Woman 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.
Prosperpine: Roman 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 smithy. 
Study Questions and Essay Topics

1. Which character in the play is the most despicable? Explain your answer. 
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 Juliet).
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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