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Theatre / Troilus and Cressida

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As the play is Older Than Steam and most twists in Shakespeare's plots are now widely known, all spoilers on this page are unmarked.

A problem play by William Shakespeare, set during The Trojan War — Shakespeare used The Iliad as a reference. It has been variously described as a tragedy, a romance, and a tragicomedy; its oddly opposite but interwoven A and B plots make it difficult to classify.

The A plot, which provides the play name, is a romance: Troilus, a brave warrior and prince of Troy, is desperately in love with Cressida. She returns his feelings, but is playing hard to get. Troilus uses Cressida's scatterbrained uncle, Pandarus, as a go-between; as a result, Pandarus spends most of the play singing Troilus' praises (and making bawdy jokes). Eventually, Troilus woos her and they consummate their relationship. However, Cressida's father, who defected to the Greeks, exchanges her for a Trojan soldier, and so the lovers are separated. Troilus asks her to be faithful, and gives her a love token (sleeve) to remember him by. He can't bear to be apart from her, though, so when everyone gathers for a duel between the two sides (see below), he goes to visit her. He discovers, however, that she has been seduced by Diomedes, a Greek warrior. In an extended scene, he and Ulysses watch secretly as she betrays him. Infuriated, Troilus decides to kill some Greeks, yells at Pandarus, and leaves the old man wondering what he did wrong.

The B plot is more serious, and concerns the war, borrowing heavily from Homer. Agamemnon, the Greek general, is upset that Achilles is sulking in his tent and won't fight the Trojans. Ulysses and Nestor concoct a plan to get Achilles to return to battle: instead of using Achilles as their champion in a duel proposed by Hector of Troy, they send out strongman Ajax. This, they hope, will infuriate Achilles into fighting. Ajax boasts and beats up his extremely rude servant, Thersites, who snarks crassly at everyone. The duel falls through, though it serves to goad Achilles to return to the battlefield in order to fight with Hector himself. The two meet on the battlefield the next day, but Hector drives off the Greek hero. Achilles later gathers his loyal soldiers and ambushes an unarmed Hector. They kill the Trojan prince, an act for which Achilles claims the all of the glory.

An odd thing about Troilus and Cressida is that it doesn't end so much as stop. The drama between Troilus and Cressida, which is built up through the entire play, is never resolved; Troilus just storms off stage, and the play ends. Also, in defiance of Shakespeare's other tragedies, Troilus doesn't die at the end. The jarring juxtaposition between the political B plot and the romantic A plot is equally notable.

Troilus and Cressida provides examples of:

  • Achilles in His Tent: An unusually literal example as a good number of scenes are set with Achilles in his tent.
  • Adaptation Deviation: It's clear that Shakespeare didn't care about sticking to the original Iliad and the way the characters are depicted shows it. The Unstoppable Rage Achilles goes into in order to avenge Patroclus is severely altered and the play instead has Achilles sneaking up on Hector while he sleeps. Which kinda defeats the purpose of the story being about glory in war.
    • Hector died in the ninth year of the Trojan War, the play takes place in the seventh.
    • Troilus was killed by Achilles years prior to his battle with Hector. The event is hinted at in the Iliad.
    • Calchas was not a Trojan defector, he was a Greek full and full. This was a later development in the Middle Ages.
    • Antenor was not general, he was an adviser to Priam.
    • Nestor never engaged in combat in the Iliad.
    • These elements are remnants of the play using both Classical Greek literature as a source, as well as Renaissance retellings of the war. Due to the fact that the original Greek texts were unknown to the western world for a time and only recently available when the play was written it results in conflict. This contrast of Classical and more contemporary sources leads to a thematic inconsistency in the play which has been noted in recent years. Shakespeare was using two very different sets of stories and tried to combine them. Since most modern readers learn about the story from the original Greek (or some adaptation of it) these characterizations will seem out of place.
  • Anachronism Stew: Oh yes indeed! Probably to a higher degree than any other Shakespeare play.
    • Hector mentions Aristotle at one point... centuries before he lived. This line is even more ridiculous when you realize Aristotle actually taught about the Trojan War and was a scholar on Homer. This line is such an obvious anachronism some scholars actually think a later editor must have put it in. Though given many other fairly obvious anachronisms are present in Shakespearean plays this is likely just another dumb mistake on Shakespeare's part.
    • Ulysses mentions "Bull-bearing Milo", a reference to the wrestler Milo of Croton who lived around the 6th century BCE, which would be about six hundred years after the Trojan War if modern estimates are correct.
    • The modern calendar system is used with the days "Friday" and "Sunday" mentioned.
    • Thersites mentions "Lazars" as a synonym for "people who have died. This is a reference to the Biblical Lazarus, a dead man who Jesus is said to have brought back to life. Obviously, Thersites couldn't have heard about anything that Jesus did more than a millennium before Jesus was even born.
    • The play uses many feudal terms like knight, vassal, castle, etc. Likely due to them being (anachronistically) present in Chaucer and popular translations of Greek and Roman works, despite them not existing yet. This was common practice because many times, contemporary systems were imposed onto ancient works as a way to make the texts more relatable, and reinforced by the fact that translations were not seen as having to be accurate to their source, but rather as being intended as enjoyable pieces of reading.
  • Berserk Button: Achilles does not take kindly to Patroclus' death.
  • Cassandra Truth: With the original Cassandra!
  • Character Filibuster: If Ulysses is speaking, there's a good chance it's going to be a two-page speech.
    • Subverted when he's about to launch into another speech, and Cressida cuts him off after two lines of Purple Prose.
  • Composite Character:
    • Other characters mention that Ajax is half Trojan, and that his mother was Priam's sister. In The Iliad, Ajax is simply a Greek warrior, but his half-brother Teucer (who also fights for the Greeks) is the son of Priam's sister who was taken as a war prize, who was given to Telamon, after Heracles sacked Troy because Priam's dishonest father had not kept his word and sent two ordinary horses instead of the two he had promised Heracles for his services in one of Heracles' adventures.
    • In the medieval Roman de Troie, Troilus's love interest is named Briseida, based on the Iliad's Briseis (who has no such story attached to her). Shakespeare follows Chaucer and others in combining her with Chryseis to form Cressida.
  • Darker and Edgier: Could be considered this for The Iliad. While the original is full to bursting with great Greek heroes doing great deeds, the play is a portrait of two armies mired in decadence, lechery, illness, violence, and corruption, where even young love turns sour and the final image is a syphilitic Pandarus promising to "bequeath you my diseases."
  • Doing In the Wizard: The gods do not appear.
  • Dumb Muscle: Ajax, whose lines tend to come in the form of short, uncomplicated prose exclamations. He would rather resort to violence than speech. Thersites mocks him mercilessly for it in their first scene.
    Thersites: Thou sodden-witted lord, though hast no more brain than I have in mine elbows; an asinico may tutor thee. Thou scurvy-valiant ass, thou art here but to thrash Trojans, and thou art bought and sold among those of any wit like a barbarian slave.
  • Good Is Dumb: Noted as one of Hector's character flaws.
  • Honor Before Reason: The reason they ultimately all meet a tragic end is because they refuse to do what is feasible, and instead seek to uphold their honor until death. Hector, notably, is chastised by his brothers for frequently showing mercy to defeated Greeks. He receives none from Achilles and his Myrmidons.
  • In Medias Res: Invoked by the prologue, which provides a short summary of the Trojan War thus far and explains that the play begins midway through the conflict.
    "...our play
    Leaps o'er the vaunt and firstlings of those broils,
    Beginning in the middle, starting thence away
    To what may be digested in a play."
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Thersites may spout a whole lot of incendiary language, but he makes some fair observations about both sides and the war as a whole.
  • Loved I Not Honor More: Hector, when his wife Andromache begs him not to fight:
    "Life every man holds dear, but the brave man
    Holds honor far more precious-dear than life."
  • Love Triangle: Between Troilus, Cressida and Diomedes.
  • The Matchmaker: Pandarus tries his best to be one between Troilus and Cressida.
  • Mood Whiplash: The romantic plot between Troilus and Cressida, which is busting with sexual puns, and the serious story about war between the Greeks and Trojans.
  • Name and Name: The title features the name of a Prince of Troy and the niece of Pandarus in it.
  • Non-Action Snarker: Thersites is not a warrior and he tends to be a snarky individual. This is even more so in the 1981 television film where his actor was blind.
  • Pungeonmaster: Pandarus, with sexual puns. Helen and Paris, too, come to think.
  • Questionable Consent: Cressida is a Trojan woman in a Greek war camp. Yeah, she is completely in control of her situation.
  • Revenge: The reason Achilles finally leaves his tent.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: What happens once he does.
  • Sadly Mythtaken: Cressida is such a common part of modern perceptions of the Trojan War it may come as a surprise that she is not a part of Greek Mythology. She is instead a Renaissance invention derived from the two maidens Achilles and Agamemnon quarrel over, Briseis and Chryseis, making her an example of Composite Character and Adaptation Decay.
  • Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: Ulysses. In his first speech (which is 62 lines long), he uses "vizarded," "deracinate," and "oppugnancy." That's fancy even for Shakespeare.
  • Sexual Extortion: Related to Questionable Consent, Diomedes basically gives Cressida the choice of being his woman or everyone's woman.
  • Shout-Out: To Marlowe
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: Waaaaay on the cynical end. Arguably Shakespeare's most cynical play. Troilus just giving up, rather than dying heroically, is of course part of this.
  • Still the Leader: Agamemnon is determined to invoke his rank if the troops aren't going to obey him of their own volition, even if he is no longer respected.
  • The Stoic: Ajax, who is parodied by Thersites in this aspect.
  • What You Are in the Dark: Even Hector behaves badly when no one is watching.