William Shakespeare: Troilus and Cressida
Limited Summary by Michael McGoodwin, prepared 1999

William Shakespeare

Acknowledgement: This work has been summarized using The Complete Works of Shakespeare Updated Fourth Ed., Longman Addison-Wesley, ed. David Bevington, 1997.  Quotations are for the most part taken from that work, as are paraphrases of his commentary.

Overall Impression: I scanned this play and found it unenjoyable, cynical, satirical, neither comic nor tragic, with little quotable language. It was not a success in WS's time but has been revived in the 20C. Perhaps the play will grow on me with another reading.  The summary that follows is abbreviated and does not have act/scene designations.

Per Bevington: Sources include George Chapman's translation of the first "Seven Books of the Iliads of Homer" (1598), and medieval romances about the war: Benoit de Sainte-Maure's "Roman de Troie" (1160), the Colonne translation of it called "Historia Troiana" (1287), Boccaccio "Il Filostrato", Chaucer's "Troilus and Criseyde (c. 1385-1386). Also Lydgate's "The History, Siege, and Destruction of Troy" (1513), etc.

The story takes place in the 7th year of the siege of Troy. Troilus is the youngest son of Priam, in love with the Cressida, daughter of Calchas. Pandarus is her uncle and serves as the go-between (panderer) in bringing the two together (he has VD). She is initially "stubbornly chaste" but actually loves Troilus and is just playing coy with him ("men prize the thing ungained more than it is"). Pandarus talks up Troilus' virtues to Cressida, comparing him in courage to Paris, claiming Helen favors him over Paris and calling him the Prince of chivalry. Agamemnon and his men are depicted as antiheroic. Achilles wiles away the days with Patroclus. Aeneas comes to the Greeks and Agamemnon in particular to say that Hector is restless and wants to challenge to a fight a representative of the Greeks. Ulysses sees in this an opportunity to shame or provoke Achilles into action by championing Ajax to respond to the challenge. 


The "scurrilous fool" Thersites provides frequent foul commentary on the action and provocative dialog to the Greeks. 

Priam and Hector debate giving Helen to the Greeks, favored by Hector. Troilus informs them he is taking a wife. The Greeks are holding an old aunt (Hesione, Priam's sister but Ajax's mother) just as the Trojans now hold Helen. Cassandra provides prophecies of doom. Paris wants to keep Helen, and Troilus supports this. 

Thersites converses with Patroclus...

More plotting about Achilles...

Pandarus comes to Helen and speaks of Troilus...

Pandarus brings Cressida to Troilus, veiled. They express their love for each other and pledge their faithfulness. Pandarus tells them to wrap up the bargain, saying "If ever you prove false one to another, since I have taken such pains to bring you together, let all pitiful goers-between be called to the world's end after my name; call them all Pandars. Let all constant men be Troiluses, all false women Cressids, and all brokers-between Pandars!" The couple retires to their chamber for a night of bliss.

Calchas, Cressida's father who has gone over to the Greek side, asks for his daughter to be brought to him as a reward for his services. He suggests she be sent in exchange for the Trojan, Antenor, who has been captured by the Greeks. Agamemnon agrees to this and says Diomede will escort her to the Greek camp. 

More plotting about Achilles... Ajax will fight Hector. Achilles asks for Hector to come unarmed to his tent. 

Diomedes appears to the Trojans, asking to take Cressida back to the Greeks. Paris agrees, saying "he bitter disposition of the time/Will have it so." Paris asks Diomedes who in his opinion better deserves Helen, him or Menelaus.

Troilus and Cressida have had one night of love together. Aeneas informs them that she must go with Diomedes to the Greeks. Pandarus laments the effect this will have on Troilus. She fears getting a reputation of falsehood. The lovers sadly depart. Troilus asks her to be true of heart, and says he will come to each night in disguise by bribing the guards. He is concerned about the attractiveness of the Grecian youths, and hopes she will not be tempted. He assures her he will be faithful to her. Diomedes takes her away, refusing to honor Troilus' request to protect her and his threat, saying "When I am hence, I'll answer to my lust."

Ajax has his trumpeter announce his readiness for combat. Diomedes brings Cressida to Agamemnon. The men all kiss her, though she refuses Menelaus. Ulysses 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." and suggests she is a prostitute.

Aeneas arrives in the Greek camp to meet with Achilles, accompanied by Troilus. Hector learns that he is related to Ajax, and they embrace and resolve not to fight. Agamemnon welcomes him and he meets the other leaders. Hector meets with Achilles--tomorrow they will meet as enemies but today they are friends. Troilus wants to know where Cressida is kept...

Thersites refers to Patroclus as Achilles' masculine whore or male varlet. Achilles has a letter from Queen Hecuba with a token from her daughter Polyxena, whom Achilles loves and for whom he vows not to fight. 

Ulysses helps Troilus follow Diomedes to Calchas' tent. There he sees Cressida conversing tenderly with Diomedes, and Ulysses is cynical about her. She exchanges with Diomedes Troilus' sleeve given to her in pledge of his love. But she changes her mind, suffering pangs of guilt, and asks for it back. But then she gives in and lets him have it--he decides to wear it on his helmet in the fight. She agrees that Diomedes may come to her later in the night and to herself bids goodbye to Troilus, reflecting on her unfaithfulness: "Troilus, farewell! One eye yet looks on thee,/ But with my heart the other eye doth see./Ah, poor our sex! This fault in us I find:/ The error of our eye directs our mind./ What error leads must err. O, then conclude:/Minds swayed by eyes are full of turpitude." Troilus is crestfallen and wonders initially if it was really her he saw. He curses her falseness and promises to avenge himself on Diomedes. Aeneas arrives to take Troilus back to Troy.

Andromache has dreamed a bloody dream and wants Hector not to fight that day, but he refuses. Troilus is also resolved to fight. Troilus chides Hector for his chivalrously allowing fallen Greeks to live and fight another day. Hector does not want T. to fight that day. Priam's mother has also had bad visions as has Cassandra (who predicts his death), but Hector is resolved to fight. Pandarus gives T. a letter from a girl [?Cressida], which T. describes as mere words.

The battle begins, Thersites provides commentary "Now they are clapper-clawing one another". Diomedes and T. fight. Diomedes takes away T's horse and tells his servant to give it to Cressida, saying he has chastised Troilus. Hector encounters Thersites but spares him. 

Patroclus has been slain. Now Achilles decides to fight after all. Troilus has so far emerged unscathed. Ulysses says Ajax has lost a friend [who?] and wants to fight Troilus. Achilles searches out Hector. Troilus encounters Ajax and Diomedes and fights them both. Hector fights Achilles, then allows A. to pause when he tires! Troilus tells Hector that Ajax has taken [?captured] Aeneas. Menelaus and Paris fight. The Troy bastard Margareton encounters Thersites, and they see their common bond in their illegitimacy and agree not to fight.

Hector removes his arms. Achilles arrives and though Hector is unarmed, slays him unceremoniously, and has his body tied to his horse's tail. A retreat is sounded. Agamemnon wants to see Achilles.

Aeneas claims they are still the masters of the field. Troilus tells him Hector is slain and being dragged. Troilus is downhearted. He worries how Priam will take the news and hopes for revenge against the Greeks.

Pandarus arrives to Troilus, and the latter repels him. Pandarus is left to complain about his aching bones from venereal disease.