Troilus is a young Trojan prince who falls for the wrong girl (that would be Cressida). If he were a real person living in the 21st century, he'd be starring in an episode of Cheaters or telling Jerry Springer all about the time he hid in the bushes outside his girlfriend's house and watched her agree to a steamy hook-up with another guy (5.2). Gut-wrenching? You bet. Anyone who's ever been betrayed can totally relate to this guy, even if he is kind of a chump. (More on this in a second.)
By the time Shakespeare whipped up this play around 1601-1602, Troilus was already famous for being the most faithful lover on the planet. Thanks to Chaucer, who made the love story famous in his c.1380's poem Troilus and Criseyde, Troilus was as well-known to Shakespeare's original audience as, say, Romeo is to us today.
Like Romeo, Troilus is a typical "Petrarchan lover," which was sort of a cliché by the time Shakespeare wrote this play (c.1601-1602). So, Petrarch was a 14th-century Italian poet who wrote a boatload of love sonnets about a smokin' hot girl who plays hard to get and shreds the hearts of men to bits. So, a "Petrarchan lover" is the kind of guy who mopes around sighing dramatically and moaning about the fact that he is absolutely dying inside because his crush wants nothing to do with him. Kind of like when Troilus goes like this:
O Pandarus! I tell thee, Pandarus,—
I tell thee I am mad
In Cressid's love: thou answer'st 'she is fair;'
Pour'st in the open ulcer of my heart
Her eyes, her hair, her cheek, her gait, her voice (1.1.48-54)
Oh boy. Dramatic much, Troilus? Notice how our boy lists Cressida's body parts—"Her eyes, her hair, her cheek, her gait, her voice"? That's a classic Petrarchan move called a "blazon," which is just when a poet lists his beloved's body parts from head to toe. (Sometimes said body parts get compared to things in nature—hair like silk, eyes like stars, lips like luscious cherries, breasts like melons, and so on. Check out Shakespeare's famous "Sonnet 130" for a parody of this.)
Sound familiar? This is basically what goes down in tunes like Bruno Mars's "Just the Way You Are," where the lyrics go on and on and on about some amazing girl's "hair" "lips," "face," etc. Check it out:
Oh, her eyes, her eyes
Make the stars look like they're not shinin'
Her hair, her hair
Falls perfectly without her trying
She's so beautiful
Her lips, her lips
I could kiss them all day if she'd let me
Hey, if something works, right?
Okay. Fine. Yeah, Troilus is always running around declaring his undying love for Cressida, who ends up betraying him and becoming the poster child for unfaithful girlfriends the world over. But, is he the best boyfriend EVAR? Not so much.
Check out what literary critic Anne Barton has this to say about him: "Fatally self-absorbed from the start, Troilus idealizes his own sensuality and, in the process, omits to notice what kind of person his beloved really is" (source).
Yikes! In other words, Troilus is so busy obsessing over his hot and heavy feelings that he kind of forgets to pay attention to Cressida's personality. You know, he's the "in love with love" type.
What's more, he seems totally obsessed with her body. He's so busy salivating over her body and talking about how he'd like to "taste" her "nectar" (3.2.21-22) that we're not sure he's ever bothered to have a conversation with her. Did you notice that Troilus' desire for Cressida is always being compared to appetite for food? Check out what he says as he imagines hooking up with Cressida for the first time:
I am giddy; expectation whirls me round.
The imaginary relish is so sweet
That it enchants my sense: what will it be,
When that the watery palate tastes indeed
Love's thrice repured nectar? (3.1.18-22)
Uh-huh. Slow down, big boy. If this passage tells us anything, it's that Troilus' passion for Cressida is little more than sexual appetite, and NOT true love.
Psst. Go to "Symbols: Food" and we'll tell you more about this.
But that doesn't keep our boy from getting his heart—or something—broken when he realizes that Cressida's not the girl he thought she was. When he watches his dream girl agree to hook up with another guy, he's completely crushed. As he tries to come to terms with what's happening, he declares "This is, and is not, Cressid!" (5.2.146). In other words, Troilus can hardly believe that Cressida isn't the girl he thought she was.
Aside from being a really tough lesson to learn, Troilus' realization is at the heart of the play's overall message about appearances and reality. Cressida may look good on the outside, but deep down, she's not at all what Troilus thought she was.
And Cressida's not the only one with a deceptive appearance. No character in this play is exactly what they seem. Our so-called "heroes" behave badly; beautiful women cheat; politicians lie and manipulate. (Well, we expected that one.) When Troilus learns the truth about Cressida, it's a lot like what happens to us, the audience, when Shakespeare bursts our bubble about the mythic heroes we expect to encounter in this play. Pretty cool, right?Troilus' Timeline