Troilus and Cressida
Troilus — a prince of Troy; the younger brother of Hector and Paris
Cressida — a beautiful young Trojan woman
Hector — a prince of Troy
Ulysses — one of the Greek commanders
Pandarus — Cressida's uncle
Thersites — a deformed slave serving Ajax
Achilles — the greatest of the Greek warriors
Ajax — a Greek warrior
Agamemnon — a Greek general; brother of Menelaus
Diomedes — a Greek commander
Paris — a prince of Troy
Menelaus — a Greek commander
Helen — Menelaus's wife
Calchas — a Trojan priest, and Cressida's father
Aeneas — a Trojan commander
Nestor — the oldest of the Greek commanders
Cassandra — a Trojan princess and prophetess; she is considered mad
Patroclus — a Greek warrior; Achilles's best friend, and maybe his lover
Priam — the king of Troy, and the father of Hector, Paris, and Troilus, among others
Antenor — a Trojan commander
Helenus — a prince of Troy
Andromache — Hector's wife
Troilus and Cressida is one of Shakespeare's later plays, assumed to have been written shortly after Hamlet. It was probably performed in the winter of 1602–1603, but no record of the performance survives. The genre classification of Troilus and Cressida has created a difficult problem for scholars. Is it a history? It was labeled as one in an early folio. Is it a tragedy? Not really. To confuse matters further, it is sometimes grouped with the so-called “problem comedies,” such as Measure for Measure and All's Well That Ends Well. One thing that can be agreed on is that all three share a dark, bitter wit and a pessimistic view of human relations.
It's important to remember the popularity of Greek and Roman mythology in Shakespeare's time. The story of Troy was a well-known one and the events of the play, including the denouement, would have been expected from the beginning — Cressida's treachery and Hector's death would have been as predictable as the ending of a B movie today.
Sources for the play include classical mythology and Homer's Iliad, which contains the Achilles-Hector story. The romance of Troilus and Cressida is principally derived from Chaucer's great fourteenth-century epic, Troilus and Criseyde. Typically, Shakespeare took only the bare bones of this story, which he combined with other medieval retellings of the tale.
The Trojan War is in its seventh year. The Greeks besieging Troy are bickering among themselves. When Hector, a Trojan hero, issues a challenge to fight any Greek in one-on-one combat, Ulysses arranges for Ajax to be the Greek champion. Ulysses hopes to spur Achilles out of his lethargy, and thus reinvigorate the Greek armies.
Calchas deserts Troy for the Greek encampment. In exchange for intelligence about the Trojan forces, Calchas asks the Greeks to exchange a Trojan prisoner for Cressida. Agamemnon, commander of the Greek army, agrees to this, and Cressida is soon parted from Troilus, who is devastated.
Once inside the Greek encampment, Cressida meets — and flirts with — all the Greek generals. Hector and Ajax battle each other to a standstill and eventually call a truce. The Trojan and Greek generals dine together at a feast.
Diomedes has been courting Cressida since her arrival in the Greek camp. While accompanying Ulysses, the heartbroken Troilus sees Cressida give Diomedes the love token Troilus gave her when she left Troy. He vows to kill Diomedes in battle.
During the battle next day, Hector slays Achilles's friend (and perhaps lover) Patroclus. When Achilles meets Hector on the field of battle the next day he is so incensed he has his men kill Hector while he is unarmed and resting. Troy has suffered a grave defeat, and an enraged Troilus hurls curses at Achilles and Pandarus alike from the city walls.
Troilus and Cressida is one of Shakespeare's more difficult plays. It's a romance set against the backdrop of an interminable war that is draining the humanity out of all who are engaged in it.
The play has a cast of generally unsympathetic characters but as in any great tragedy, it tackles the broad theme of conflict between an individual's interests and those of the state. In this case, the conflict is between the romance of the title characters and the wartime politics that put Cressida in the Greek camp where she is forced to make the best of her situation.
The play's general pessimism is matched only by that in Timon of Athens. Heroes such as Achilles and Ajax are presented as self-absorbed thugs, and the central romance of Troilus and Cressida is reduced to a roll in the grass that passes for love amid boredom and bloodshed. In the words of the archcynic Thersites, “All the argument is a whore and a cuckold,” which rather sums up the Trojan War.
Structurally, the play feels disjointed. Shakespeare uses anticlimax throughout the play, so scenes we think will be critical turn out to be letdowns. This is especially true in the duel between Hector and Ajax, which ends in a draw, and again in the final battle, in which the events we expect do not transpire: Troilus is not avenged for the loss of his beloved, and Hector does not have a climactic duel with his great adversary, Achilles, but is ambushed and killed while he's unarmed.
Some critics have suggested that this play was performed only once, or not at all — possibly because some of the characters in the Greek and Trojan armies were thinly disguised caricatures of contemporaries, either of other playwrights or of members of King James I's court.
The play is almost defiantly philosophical. The argument between Hector and Troilus over the value of fighting to keep Helen in Troy is rich in insight, while Ulysses, one of the play's most interesting characters, discusses the role of order in society. Thersites is another interesting character. For all his abusiveness to the people around him, he ends up being the only moralist, even if that morality is delivered in bitter language about a futile situation made worse by uncaring, scheming heroes.
“The common curse of mankind — folly and ignorance” (Act II, Scene III).
“All lovers swear more performance than they are able, and yet reserve an ability that they never perform; vowing more than the perfection of ten, and discharging less than the tenth part of one” (Act III, Scene II).
“The end crowns all,