The play begins seven years into the Trojan War. You know, that epic series of battles fought because a "wanton" (a.k.a. horny) Trojan prince named Paris stole Helen, the luscious wife of a Greek King named Menelaus.
While most of the Greeks and Trojans have been busy getting their epic battle on, a young Trojan prince named Troilus has been trying to get his epic love affair on... with a hot local girl named Cressida. The problem is, Cressida's been playing hard to get for quite some time, so Troilus is depending on Cressida's dirty-joke-loving uncle Pandarus to help facilitate a steamy hook-up. (Got that? Good, because Troilus's hot and heavy desire for Cressida is the center of the play's first major storyline, a.k.a. the "Love Plot.")
Over at the Greek camp, the mighty Achilles refuses to come out of his tent. Instead of fighting against the Trojans, he spends all his time "lolling" around his bed with his BFF/ not-so-secret lover, Patroclus, playing a little game called "Hide the…" Wait. No, not that game. A game called "Let's Bag on Our Greek Military Leaders."
As you can guess, the Greek military leaders are not happy about their best warrior being on strike. Ulysses hatches a plan to jump-start the stagnant war by getting the mighty Achilles out of his tent and back on the battlefield. (Get your highlighters out, kids, because getting Achilles to fight in the war is the center of the play's second major storyline, a.k.a. the "War Plot.")
So, what is this evil-genius plot to get Achilles involved in the war? Well, it involves Hector, the biggest and baddest Trojan warrior around. Hector has just issued a throw-down challenge to the Greeks and says he wants to square off in man-to-man combat with their biggest and baddest warrior. (Psst. That would be Achilles.)
But, instead of sending Achilles to face Hector, the Greek military leaders try to use some fancy reverse psychology. They have a fake lottery and choose a meathead named Ajax to fight. The idea is that Achilles will be so furious that he wasn't picked that he'll get his butt back out on the battlefield ASAP to prove he's a mighty warrior.
Meanwhile, the Trojans bicker about whether or not they should just send Helen back to the Greeks to put an end to the war. In the end, they decide to keep her as a matter of "honor." Finally, Troilus goes to Cressida's house for the long awaited hook-up. Uncle Pandarus is there to literally walk these two kids to the bedroom (eww!).
But first, he cracks a bunch of filthy jokes, makes everyone feel uncomfortable, and to tries to kill any and all romance as he rushes them into the bedroom and says they should hurry up and do it already. Despite this, our nervous lovebirds are kind of sweet (almost as sweet as Romeo and Juliet) and swear they won't cheat on each other. They promise that if they're not faithful they hope that from here on out, "all constant men [should be called] Troiluses, all false women Cressids, and all brokers-between Pandars!" (Yep. That's called irony, Shmoopers. We'll tell you more about this in "Symbols.")
While Troilus and Cressida spend the night together, Cressida's dad (a traitor named Calchas who has gone over to the Greek side) convinces the Greeks that they should trade his daughter for a Trojan prisoner. The deal goes through. The very next morning, a guy named Diomedes takes Cressida away to the Greek camp, promising Troilus that he'll take real good care of Cressida. (Uh, oh.)
As Cressida arrives at the camp, the Greek leaders line up to greet her. And by "greet" we mean kiss her, paw at her, and flirt / talk dirty to her. Cressida flirts back and kisses each of them, except for Ulysses, who snidely refuses to lock lips with such a "sluttish" girl.
That same day, the Greeks and Trojans gather at the Greek camp to watch Hector and Ajax throw down... but it's a major letdown because they only go at it for about 5 lines before agreeing to stop the fight. The Greeks and Trojans call a temporary truce so they can party with each other that night.
After a big feast and some serious partying, Ulysses takes Troilus to Cressida's tent so he can prove to Troilus that Cressida is a big cheater. Troilus watches from a hiding spot as... Cressida flirts with Diomedes and agrees to hook up with him. Troilus is completely crushed so, naturally, he vows to kill Diomedes the next day in battle.
Back in Troy the following morning, Hector's wife, sister, and dad all beg him not to go to the battlefield that day because they've all had premonitions of his death. Hector goes anyway and proceeds to slaughter a boatload of Greeks, including Patroclus (a.k.a. Achilles' BFF / not-so-secret lover). This enrages Achilles so much that he finally leaves his tent and roars back onto the battlefield looking for Hector.
Meanwhile, Troilus and Diomedes have faced off on the battlefield but it's been a big fat letdown because neither one of them kills the other. (What? That's sort of what's supposed to happen in a play like this.)
Soon after, Hector and Achilles go toe-to-toe, but, you guessed, it's a draw. (Hmm. This play is one anti-climax followed by another. What's up with that?) But later, Achilles and his gang of Myrmidons find Hector unarmed and taking a break from the battle. (Uh, oh. Now would be a good time to put your rain slickers on, because things are about to get bloody.)
Hector points out that it's totally dishonorable to kill an unarmed soldier but Achilles tells his goons to do it anyway. They surround Hector and immediately hack into him with their swords and weapons. (Finally! A climax, albeit a devastating one that makes us wonder whether or not Achilles is so "great" after all.) It gets worse, Shmoopers. Achilles then has Hector's body tied to his horse's tail so it can be dragged around the battlefield for everybody to see. So much for heroic deeds.
Troilus and the other Trojan warriors are heartbroken that their leader is dead so they decide to go back to Troy and break the bad news to Hector's family and countrymen. Good ending, right? But Shakespeare's not finished with us, because he has Pandarus go up to Troilus, who is still heartbroken about Cressida. Troilus calls Pandarus a "broker" (a.k.a. pimp), smacks the you-know-what out of him, and tells him to scram. Pandarus is all "Man, this is the thanks I get for trying to help Troilus hook up with my niece?"
The play ends with Pandarus on stage telling the audience that he's dying and that he hopes we all get a sexually transmitted disease or two (or three). In fact, he's going to "bequeath" us all his diseases in his will. Note to self: be sure to send Pandarus a "Thank You" note for this generous gift.