Troilus and Cressida
For seven years the Greeks and Trojans have been at war following the Trojan prince Paris’ abduction of Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world, from her Greek husband Menelaus.
The Greek army is encamped under the walls of Troy and, at the point at which the play begins, the war has reached stalemate. The Greeks are quarrelling amongst themselves. Achilles, their greatest champion, refuses to fight and has withdrawn to his tent with his lover, Patroclus. Ulysses tries to entice Achilles back to the field by arousing his jealously against Ajax, a rival warrior, whom he announces as their new hero and opts to meet Hector, the Trojan champion, in single combat. Equally at odds with themselves, the Trojans are debating the value of continuing the war merely for the sake of keeping Helen. Hector declares that she is not worth the lives she costs, but when his brother Troilus contends that honour demands they continue to fight for her, Hector is brought round to his point of view. Although the single combat between Ajax and Hector ends in a show of friendship, hostilities are resumed the following day.
Troilus, however, is much distracted from these military concerns by his love for Cressida, the daughter of Calchas, a Trojan who has defected to the Greek camp whilst leaving his daughter in Troy. The young lovers are eagerly assisted by Cressida’s uncle Pandarus, who acts as their go-between. However, after only one night together they are parted when, in exchange for the captured general Antenor, Cressida is sent to join her father in the Greek camp. Almost immediately she betrays Troilus with the Greek Diomedes and, discovering this, Troilus is plunged into despair. Despite his sister Cassandra’s prophecies of doom, Hector goes into battle and is treacherously murdered by Achilles, who has finally been roused into action by the death of Patroclus. With the fall of Troy certain, Troilus, disillusioned as a lover, assumes Hector’s role as the Trojan champion and vows revenge on Achilles. The dying, disease-ridden Pandarus is left to end the play.
In Depth Synopsis
In the seventh year of the Trojan War, a Trojan prince named Troilus falls in love with Cressida, the daughter of a Trojan priest who has defected to the Greek side. Troilus is assisted in his pursuit of her by Pandarus, Cressida’s uncle. Meanwhile, in the Greek camp, the Greek general, Agamemnon, wonders why his commanders seem so downcast and pessimistic. The wise and crafty Ulysses informs him that the army’s troubles spring from a lack of respect for authority, brought about by the behaviour of Achilles, the greatest Greek warrior, who refuses to fight and instead spends his time sitting in his tent with his comrade (and lover) Patroclus, mocking his superiors. Shortly thereafter, a challenge to single combat arrives from Prince Hector, the greatest Trojan warrior, and Ulysses decides to have Ajax, a headstrong fool, fight Hector instead of Achilles, in the hopes that this snub will wound Achilles’s pride and bring him back into the war.
In Troy, the sons of King Priam debate whether it is worthwhile to continue the war—or whether they should return Helen to the Greeks and end the struggle. Hector argues for peace, but he is won over by the impassioned Troilus, who wants to continue the struggle. In the Greek camp, Thersites, Ajax’s foul-mouthed slave, abuses everyone who crosses his path. His master, meanwhile, has been honoured by the commanders over the sulking Achilles, and is to fight Hector the next day.
That night, Pandarus brings Troilus and Cressida together, and after they pledge to be forever true to one another, he leads them to a bedchamber to consummate their love. Meanwhile, Cressida’s father, the treacherous Trojan priest Calchas, asks the Greek commanders to exchange a Trojan prisoner for his daughter, so that he may be reunited with her. The commanders agree, and the next morning—to Troilus and Cressida’s dismay—the trade is made, and a Greek lord named Diomedes leads Cressida away from Troy. That afternoon, Ajax and Hector fight to a draw, and after Hector and Achilles exchange insults, Hector and Troilus feast with the Greeks under a flag of truce. As the camp goes to bed, Ulysses leads Troilus to the tent of Calchas, where the Trojan prince watches from hiding as Cressida agrees to become Diomedes’s lover.
The next day, in spite of unhappy premonitions from his wife, sister, and his father, Hector takes the field, and a furious and heartbroken Troilus accompanies him. The Trojans drive the Greeks back, but Patroclus is killed, which brings a vengeful Achilles back into the war, finally. Achilles is unable to defeat Hector in single combat, but he later catches him unarmed and, together with a gang of Greek warriors, slaughters him. Achilles then drags Hector’s body around the walls of Troy, and the play ends with the Trojan warriors retreating to the city to mourn their fallen hero.
Troilus – A prince of Troy. The younger brother of Hector and Paris, he is a valiant warrior and an honorable man. He is also desperately in love with Cressida.
Cressida – A beautiful young Trojan woman. The daughter of Calchas, a Trojan priest who defected to the Greek camp, she becomes Troilus’s lover.
A True Tragedy?
Interestingly, ‘Troilus and Cressida’ does not fit the mould of the classical tragedy Shakespeare creates in his later works, such as King Lear, Antony and Cleopatra, and Romeo and Juliet. Firstly, there is no clear tragic hero: Admittedly, Hector’s death is indeed tragic and resembles the murder of Julius Caesar, however Hector himself is not the hero of the play, Troilus, the title character and romantic lead is. Nevertheless, this is once again fails to fit the conventions as this would mean that Cressida becomes his tragic heroine, which if we were sticking to conventions would result in her tragic death, just like Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra, or Juliet in Romeo and Juliet – yet Cressida elects not to die, or even to be faithful, instead she chooses to betray him. Some might argue that Troilus’ discovery of the betrayal could be considered as tragic, the fact the illumination is not followed by death contradicts the usual components of a Shakespearian Tragedy. The unsympathetic nature of the characters and the deliberately anticlimactic style that Shakespeare employs, make the play seem almost like a black comedy or a tragicomedy.