OK friends, this post is a bit late as well. I’m playing catch-up on life. We’ll be back on weekend-posting schedule this weekend, I swear.
This week we look at Troilus and Cressida. I’ll admit, this is one play I knew next to nothing about going into it. I’d heard of it but it was one of the Shakespeare plays I couldn’t name off the top of my head. (Unlike The Merry Wives of Windsor, which I didn’t even know was written by Shakespeare.)
My thoughts? Short answer is that I understand now why I hadn’t heard much about this play. The long answer is a bit more complicated, of course, so let’s go into the play so we can discuss that a bit more.
The Prologue tells us that the play takes place during the seventh year of the Trojan War. On the Trojan side, Troilus (a prince) has fallen in love with Cressida and complains to her uncle, Pandarus, that he can’t fight due to pain of his unrequited love. Pandarus then complains that he’s been doing what he can to help Troilus get Cressida but that he (Pandarus) has yet to receive any thanks. Pandarus exits and Troilus thinks on the fact that he needs Pandarus’ help to get Cressida. Just then, Aeneas enters and tells Troilus that his brother Paris was wounded by Menelaus (Helen’s actual husband); Troilus goes with Aeneas to fight.
Cressida, meanwhile, is listening to a servant who tells her that Hector is fighting fiercely today because the day prior Ajax beat him in battle. (To add to the indignity, Ajax is somehow Hector’s nephew even though the former is Greek and that latter Trojan.) Pandarus joins them and begins to tell Cressida that he thinks Troilus is greater than his brother Hector. As the two speak a number of Trojans return from battle; among them are Antenor, Aeneas, Hector, Paris, and Troilus. When Cressida is alone she reveals that she’s in love with Troilus but is holding back because men lose interest once they’ve won a woman.
In the Greek camp, King Agamemnon is in congress with his lieutenants and other lords. Everyone seems a bit despondent and Agamemnon chastises them; while the war has lasted for seven years and there’s been little victory on their side, it’s only through adversity that greatness can rise up. Nestor, the oldest commander, agrees. Ulysses responds by respectfully pointing out that the pessimism is due not to the length of the war but by the decline of authority; factions have emerged within the Greek camps and some men, like Achilles, refuse to fight. Everyone agrees that this is a problem.
Just then, Aeneas arrives from Troy with a challenge: Hector will fight any Greek lord in single combat and the winner will take the loser’s wife. The Greeks agree and offer Aeneas safe lodgings. When he’s gone, Ulysses points out to Nestor that this challenge is certainly meant for Achilles since he’s the only Greek who could match Hector. However, if Achilles lost this would kill moral in the Greek camps. To bar against that, Ulysses believes they should champion Ajax in the fight; if he wins, great, but if he loses the Greeks can always believe that Achilles would have won. As an added bonus, championing Ajax would most likely anger Achilles and possibly get him to start fighting again. Nestor agrees with the plan.
Ajax’s slave Thersites is insulting everyone (sometimes while Ajax is beating him) and refuses to tell Ajax about the proclamation that’s just been posted. Achilles then approaches with Patroclus and informs Ajax of Hector’s challenge, As he leaves, Achilles states that obviously the Greek champion is going to be picked through lottery because otherwise he (Achilles) would already have been asked; he’s the only person capable of defeating Hector, after all. Ajax is, understandably, miffed by this remark.
Meanwhile in Troy, Troilus is debating with his brothers Hector, Helenus, and Paris in front of their father, King Priam, over whether they should return Helen and put an end to the war. Both Hector and Helenus are in favor but both Troilus and Paris are against it. Hector is finally convinced that to give in now would be a dishonor, but not before their sister Cassandra comes in wailing of her prophetic visions that Troy will be destroyed if Helen isn’t returned.
Later in the Greek camp, Achilles is visited by King Agamemnon, Ulysses, Nestor, and Diomedes. Achilles refuses to see them and has Patroclus hold them off with excuses, which angers Agamemnon. Ulysses goes into Achilles’ tent to speak with him and Achilles still refuses to fight against Troy. When Ulysses emerges Agamemnon suggests they have Ajax speak with Achilles. Ulysses suggests against that, stating that it would insult Ajax. All of the Greek commanders then start to praise Ajax to the skies and decide, loudly, that Ajax will be their champion against Hector. Achilles is rather petulant and miffed by this.
In Troy, Pandarus sets up a meeting between Troilus and Cressida, including having Hector make an excuse for Troilius’ absence at dinner. Troilus and Cressida admit their love for one another and Pandarus then leads them to a bedchamber where they can consummate their mutual love. (Which is creepily accommodating for an uncle, yes? I’m not alone on this, right?)
In the Greek camps, Ulysses has the Greek commanders walk past Achilles’ tent and insult his pridefulness. When Achilles asks Ulysses why people are suddenly treating him so rudely Ulysses tells him that because he (Achilles) is refusing to fight against the Trojans the Greeks have found a new hero in Ajax; it doesn’t matter how heroic Achilles was in the past, what matters is his current inaction. Ulysses then tells Achilles that he knows the reason he (Achilles) has refused to fight the Trojans is because he’s secretly in love with a Trojan princess. Ulysses advises Achilles to give up on the woman and reclaim his heroic status by fighting on the Greek side once more. Patroclus urges Achilles to do as Ulysses suggests; Achilles agrees. The two then happen upon Thersites, who tells them that Ajax is walking about like a self-important peacock. Patrocles gets the slave to have Ajax bring Hector safely to Achilles’ tent after the duel the following day so Achilles can have a word with him.
In Troy the following day, Diomedes comes for Cressida: her father, a Trojan priest named Calchas who defected to the Greek side, set up an exchange of a Trojan prisoner (Antenor) for his daughter because he wanted to be reunited with her. Both Aeneas and Paris realize this will greatly upset Troilus, but it needs to be done. After Aeneas departs to fetch her (and warn Troilus), Paris asks Diomedes whether he or Menalaus deserves Helen more. Diomedes responds that they both do because they’re both fools willing to have countless lives lost for the price of having her.
Aeneas arrives at Cressida’s house and asks Pandarus for Troilus. Pandarus plays dumb but Aeneas convinces him that it’s very important. When Troilus comes Aeneas tells him of the exchange of prisoners. Troilus goes to somehow stop the exchange (though he realizes he can’t) and Cressida vows that she won’t leave Troy.
Troilus brings the group to Cressida’s house and asks to say goodbye in private. When they’re alone Troilus asks Cressida to be true to him and he swears to visit her in the Greek camp every night. Troilus then hands Cressida off to Diomedes. The group then follows the horn that announces Hector’s duel against Ajax.
When Cressida arrives at the Greek camp she’s basically forced to let everyone kiss her; she eventually uses her wit to put a stop to it, but not before she matches wits with Ulysses and he refuses to kiss her regardless. When she’s gone he states that she’s a wanton. (Holy slut-shaming, Batman; what the heck is up with this play?) The Trojans then arrive for the duel and Aeneas states that he doesn’t believe Hector will be wholeheartedly fighting since he and Ajax are related (which, I assume, means that Ajax is related to Troilus et al. as well). Agamemnon sees Troilus’ heavy demeanor and asks Ulysses who he is; Ulysses names him and then goes on to praise Troilus as a greater man than even Hector.
Hector and Ajax then duel, but both men agree to call a draw after a while; they embrace as kinsmen. Hector is then summoned to meet with some of the Greek camp (at Achilles’ request, though he remains anonymous) and Troilus accompanies him. When they arrive, Hector exchanges cordial greetings with everyone until he reaches Achilles; the two insult each other. Achilles promises to kill Hector in battle the next day and Hector replies that he looks forward to the fight. After that, everyone heads to a feast and Troilus pulls Ulysses to the side; he asks where Calchas’ tent is (so he can visit Cressida). Ulysses offers to lead him, but also warns him that Diomedes has been eying up Cressida.
After eating, Achilles and Patroclus are approached by Thersites, who gives a letter to Achilles from the Trojan princess he loves; Thersites also insults them and everyone else, as per usual. The letter begs Achilles to not fight against the Trojans the following day and Achilles tells Patrocles that he has to follow her request. They walk off and Thersites stays in the shadows, watching everyone go their separate ways. Diomedes goes to speak with Cressida and Ulysses and Troilus follow with Thersites following them.
Ulysses, Troilus, and Thersites watch as Diomedes woos Cressida. At first Cressida seems disinterested but then she seems more willing. She constantly wavers between encouraging Diomedes and refusing him. She even gives him the love token Troilus gave her (a sleeve), then takes it back, and then gives it back to Diomedes. Eventually, she promises to wait for him to come to her rooms later that night. Troilus is, understandably, distraught. He vows to meet Diomedes in battle and kill him. When morning approaches Aeneas comes to take him back to Troy.
The next morning both Hector’s wife, Andromache, and Cassandra beg him not to fight against the Greeks; both have had dreams that foretell his death. Troilus then arrives and states that he intends to fight, telling Hector that he (Hector) has been too merciful in the past. Cassandra escorts King Priam into the chamber and he also asks Hector not to fight today after he, too, has had a foreboding feeling about Hector’s fate. Hector refuses to listen and goes out to fight. Pandarus then brings Troilus a letter from Cressida but he refuses to read it, tearing it up instead before following his brother out to battle.
The battle begins. Thersites cowardly avoids death and Patroclus is killed. Agamemnon sends his body to Achilles, who’s enraged by his death (it’s canon that they were lovers) and heads into the battle. Achilles fights with Hector but then retreats; Hector let’s him. Achilles then finds his men and goes to find Hector again. When they find him he’s just finished fighting and has removed his armor. The Greeks surround the unarmed Hector and stab him to death, even after Hector allowed Achilles to flee and rest not long before. The men then tie Hector’s body to a chariot and drag it around Troy. The Trojans are devastated and return to the city with Troilus leading the way. They happen upon Pandarus and Troilus curses him. Pandarus is left to wonder why he’s suddenly become a pariah.
This play was…odd. There was something different about it. Part of me thinks it didn’t feel very tragic and also felt a disjointed. There aren’t many likeable characters: Achilles and Ajax are both jerks, Ulysses slut-shames Cressida after forcing her to kiss everyone, Cressida is very quick to be disloyal to Troilus (although that situation is a bit more complicated), Pandarus is a pandering fool…so many dislikable characters. The play completely un-romanticizes the Trojan War. But that was the point; Shakespeare consciously made the story ugly.
It jumped back and forth between Troy and the Greek camps as well as between the love story of Troilus and Cressida and the politics of war. Shakespeare continued to use anti-climax and we never get crucial moments where we expect them; the duel between Ajax and Hector ends in a draw, Troilus never gets vengeance, Achilles and his thugs ambush and kill Hector. It makes everything highly dissatisfying, though not in a bad way. It feels like that’s exactly what Shakespeare was going for here; it’s not that climaxes fell flat, it’s that they didn’t happen when and where the reader/viewer thinks they’re supposed to. It all feels very deliberate
What’s more, Shakespeare began the ugliness in the very beginning prologue. At the end the first section the Prologue figure says the following lines:
Like, or find fault; do as your pleasures are.
Now, good or bad, ’tis but the chance of war.
Basically, Shakespeare has the Prologue tell the audience that he doesn’t care whether they like the play or not. This is the only time Shakespeare is ever outright rude to his audience.
Once again we get the theme of personal life vs. the interests of the state. We saw that in Julius Caesar as well as Henry IV–V. In Julius Caesar it was mainly about a conflict between a character’s actual private life and the need to keep that separate from their public persona. Through Hal in Henry IV-V we saw the effect a character’s personal life could have on the interests of state as well as the necessary sacrifice of that private life (and all ties to it) for the good of England. In this play it’s more about the conflict between characters romantic lives and the interests of state. (Though I think it’s stupid that Troilus and Cressida get torn apart for the exchange of a single prisoner while the entire war was fought because Paris is a selfish jerk who has to steal other men’s wives, but I digress.)
All in all, I think there’s a reason I’ve never heard much about this play. I think it’s probably rich for research and analysis but, in general, this isn’t one of the most pleasing stories Shakespeare ever wrote.
Did you know that a pander is another name for a pimp? It comes from Pandarus. Yup, that happened.