If this play were a person, we'd tell you it has a lot of mood swings. One minute Shakespeare's cracking (mostly dirty) jokes and the next minute, the play is all doom and gloom. Ultimately, though, Troilus and Cressida is cynical and bitter, especially about the subjects of warfare and love, which are both portrayed as treacherous and futile. (We talk about this more in "Themes.")
So, if you want to survive this play, you might want to think about growing a thick skin ASAP. Things gets pretty bloody when the Trojans and Greeks hack into each other on the battlefield. Plus, there's a ton of disease in this play, most of which is sexually transmitted. In fact, a dying Pandarus stands alone on stage at the end and says he really hopes we all get syphilis and die.
No wonder Joyce Carol Oates says that "no darker commentary on the predicament of man has ever been written" (source).
If you want to figure out this play's genre, don't even think about trying to pin it down to one specific category. Trust us. It's impossible because Troilus and Cressida is a mishmash of tragedy, comedy, and satire.
To make things even more complicated, the play is based on Chaucer's courtly romance Troilus and Criseyde and Homer's heroic epic The Iliad, so it's got some of those elements, too. Although, we should point out that Shakespeare spends most of his time bagging on the kinds of stuff we see in courtly romance and epic literature. When it comes to genre, Troilus and Cressida is the Frankenstein's Monster of literature.
That's why a famous 19th century literary critic named F.S. Boas argued that Troilus and Cressida (along with Measure for Measure and All's Well That Ends Well), deserves its own special category: "Problem Play." Basically, a problem play is a drama that isn't quite a comedy (even though it may have some comical tones) and isn't quite a tragedy (even though it often seems like one) (source).
Of course, Troilus and Cressida can also be considered a satire. That's because it uses a lot of sarcasm, wit, humor, and irony to criticize humanity. Can't get enough satire? Check out "Tone" for more on this.
So, you may have guessed from the title that this play is all about the love between... a guy named Troilus and a girl named Cressida. Especially if you've ever heard of Chaucer's famous poem about these two lovebirds, Troilus and Criseyde. Actually, Shakespeare is sort of banking on his audience's knowledge of Chaucer's poem. Back in the day, the love story of Troilus and Cressida was as famous as the story of Romeo and Juliet is for us today.
We should also tell you that, sometimes, the play is called The History of Troilus and Cressida, or The Tragedy of Troilus and Cressida. That's because publishers, audiences, and literary critics have been fighting about the play's genre since it was first published. Read more on this in "Genre."
Also, Troilus and Cressida aren't necessarily the main squeezes in this play, so what gives?
This play begins in the middle of a war and (spoiler alert) ends in the middle of a war. Pretty depressing, really. When Hector is slaughtered by Achilles and his Myrmidons (and then dragged through the fields by a horse), Troilus predicts that Troy will soon fall to the Greeks.
So, Hector's death should be where the play ends. But Shakespeare doesn't end on this tragic note. He wants us to feel even worse, so he sends Pandarus on stage to deliver a nasty speech that's as bitter as the rest of this play. Basically, Pandarus tells us that he's dying from a sexually transmitted disease as he gives a weird shout-out to all his fellow "traders in the flesh" (a.k.a. pimps). This seems kind of odd until we remember that Elizabethan theaters were in the same neighborhoods as brothels, so there probably were a few "bawds" in the audience.
And then it gets even weirder. At one point in the speech, Pandarus starts talking to us like we (the general audience) are all his "brethren and sisters" in the sex trade industry. Huh? Finally, he tells us that when he writes his will, he's going to "bequeath" us all his "diseases." Yep. Pandarus says he hopes we all get an STD and die, even though he thinks we probably already have syphilis.
What's going on? Well, it seems to us that Shakespeare's play is telling us that humanity in general is nothing more than a big lump of "disease[d]" flesh. Thanks, Shakespeare. We love it when you tell us mankind's future is totally bleak.
So, the play goes down during the seventh year of the Trojan War. You know, that epic war that gave us the model of Western "heroism" and a ton of great literature (like Homer's Iliad and Virgil's Aeneid) .
Does that mean that Shakespeare's play follows in the footsteps of Homer? Well, don't go getting your hopes up. Shakespeare's version of the Trojan War is totally cynical and calls into question everything Homer writes about it in the Iliad. In Troilus and Cressida, the battlefields are full of dishonorable acts, despite all the soldiers' big talk about "honor" and performing "magnanimous deeds." The war itself, we're reminded, is fought for a completely foolish reason. (Because Paris stole Helen from Menelaus.)
So, if the Trojan War is supposed to be the "founding event" of Western civilization and Shakespeare turns that event into a brutal joke, then what is this play trying to tell us about Western civilization in general? That Western civilization itself is a brutal joke?
Gee. It's no wonder the play wasn't very popular in Shakespeare's time. See, the Elizabethans considered the story of Troy and the Trojans a major part of their nation's history and identity. Basically, they thought of Troy as the birthplace of the British nation because they traced their history back to Brutus (a.k.a. Aeneas's great grandson).
According to tradition, Aeneas is the famous dude who high-tailed it out of burning Troy and went to Rome in Virgil's Aeneid. Well, his grandson Brutus had a boatload of followers called "Britons" and around 1074 CE, they showed up on a little island called Albion and named their most important city Troia Newydd (New Troy). Eventually, New Troy was renamed Londinium (a.k.a. what we now know as London) (source).
Nobody ever accused a Shakespeare play of being "easy." Here's a breakdown of the issues in Troilus and Cressida that students tend to have a tough time with. Don't worry, Shmoopers, you can handle it.
Lots of fancy, philosophical speeches about stuff like love, war, and sex: No doubt about it. This is one chatty play. Hello, that's why we analyze boatloads of quotes in our "Themes" section. See you there.
Nasty and Bitter Tone: One of the hardest things to swallow is that this one of the nastiest and bitterest pieces of literature we've ever read. Go to "Tone" and we'll tell you all about the play's bad attitude.
Two plots seem a little unconnected until the end: Yep. There are two major story lines (the "Love" plot and the "War" plot). And, sometimes they do seem a little unconnected until the end. That's why we break them down side by side in our "Classic Plot Analysis" and "Three Act Plot Analysis." (See? We've got a solution for just about everything.)
Most of Shakespeare's plays are written in a verse (poetry) style called iambic pentameter. Sounds kind of scary, so let's break it down.
An "iamb" is an unaccented syllable followed by an accented one. "Penta" means "five," and "meter" refers to a regular rhythmic pattern. So "iambic pentameter" is a kind of rhythmic pattern that consist of five iambs per line. It's the most common rhythm in English poetry and sounds like five heartbeats:
ba-DUM, ba-DUM, ba-DUM, ba-DUM, ba-DUM.
Let's try it out on this line from Troilus and Cressida:
"her BED is INDia, THERE she LIES, a PEARL."
FYI: The word "India" is pronounced here with only two syllables ("In-dya"), instead of three ("In-di-a").
So, who runs around talking like this? Princes like Troilus and other "upper-class" characters, that's who. The idea is that speaking verse fits their social rank.
But commoners and slaves (like Thersites) tend to just speak regular old prose. Here's an example:
The plague of Greece upon thee, thou mongrel
Nope. We don't catch princes like Troilus running around talking like that. This speech is reserved for the crude slave that has something nasty to say about everybody.
"Ulcer of my heart." "Plague of Greece." "Jaundies." "Botchy core." "Scab." "Colic." "Neapolitan bone-ache."
Grab your hazmat suits, Shmooperinos, because there's more puss, blood, and body fluids oozing through this play than a wounded soldier's open "gash." Gross? Yep. But don't get mad at us. Shakespeare's the one who crams this drama full of disease, decay, and death. Let's kick off our discussion with some famous examples:
• Troilus declares that his love for Cressida has left him with an "open ulcer [in his] heart" (1.1.53).
• The Greek military leaders declare that their army is "infect[ed]" with a kind of moral "sickness" and lack of respect for authority (1.3.5-8; 101-102; 140-141).
• Thersites imagines what it would be like if Agamemnon had a bunch of nasty boils and running sores all over his body (2.1.2-9).
• Thersites wishes the entire Greek army would get the "Neapolitan bone-ache!" (a.k.a. syphilis) because they're willing to fight a war over a promiscuous woman (2.3.17).
• Pandarus tells us he's dying of a sexually transmitted disease (we're guessing syphilis) and that he hopes we all get an STD and die (5.10.35; 55-56).
What the heck is going on here? According to some literary critics, Troilus and Cressida is chock full of nasty disease because Shakespeare himself suffered from syphilis and was obsessed with STD symptoms (source). Okay. Even if we could prove this, which we can't, it doesn't help us with our analysis of the text. What we need to figure out is how Troilus and Cressida's references to disease and sickness affect our experience and understanding of the play. Here are a couple of our favorite theories:
When Shakespeare loads the play with references to disease, decay, and death, he establishes the idea that the whole world (or at least the world of the play) is a corrupt place that's full of moral decay. Come to think of it, this is a lot like what we see in plays like Hamlet, where Hamlet runs around saying that the world is like a "rank" (i.e. nasty and stinky) garden that's full of disease and rot. We talk about this more in "Setting."
Plus, the constant references to sexually transmitted diseases basically spit in the face of true love. It's hard to take Troilus and Cressida's love declarations seriously with all the play's talk about the "Neapolitan bone-ache," don't you think? And, in case you hadn't noticed, the whole play has a pretty pessimistic attitude toward love.
But, hey, what do you expect from a playwright who named a character in King Lear after a nasty sexually transmitted disease? (We're looking at you, Gonorrhea—we mean, Goneril.)
You know how you're always going around talking to your sword like it's a person who gets super hungry and a little cranky if it doesn't get its fill of blood and guts? Oh wait. You never do that? Well, Hector and Achilles do, so let's talk about it.
Check out how Hector speaks oh-so-lovingly to his sword after a long, hard day on the battlefield:
Now is my day's work done; I'll take good breath:
Rest, sword; thou hast thy fill of blood and death. (5.8.3-4)
Oh, Hector. You sweet talker! Just kidding, Shmoopers. There's nothing sweet about this— Hector has just killed a soldier because he wanted the guy's armor. Did we mention that the guy was just trying to run away from him? Here's the point we're trying to make: when Hector tells us his sword has finally had its "fill of blood and death," we're reminded that he has been acting a little greedy and a little bloodthirsty on the battlefield.
Okay. Now compare that to the way Achilles talks about his sword after he stabs Hector in the guts just a few moments later:
My half-supp'd sword that frankly would have fed,
Pleas'd with this dainty bait, thus goes to bed. (5.8.19-20)
Achilles has just killed Hector, but he brags that his sword's tummy isn't quite full from all the blood and guts it's "fed" on that day. Still, he admits that Hector was a tasty little snack, so his sword is kind of satisfied... for now. (Or, okay, maybe he's saying that it totes wasn't as much fun to kill Hector as he expected to be. Either way.)
Aside from being as cold-blooded as Samuel L. Jackson's famous "Ezekiel 25" speech from Pulp Fiction, what's going on here? Well, Hector and Achilles are supposed to be noble warriors, but, when we hear them talk and act like this, we begin to question everything we think we know about our so-called epic heroes.
Plus, all this hungry sword talk shows us how warfare and appetite are linked. Check it out:
The Prologue describes the Greek war ships as bodies that "disgorge" (throw up) their cargo and soldiers on the shores of Troy (Prologue, 12-13). And later, Nestor compares warfare to a giant, gluttonous bird that eats up everything in sight when he says that "honor, loss of time, travail, expense, / Wounds, friends, and what else dear that is consumed / In hot digestion of this cormorant war (2.2.4-6).
Of course, bloodthirstiness isn't the only kind of dangerous appetite in this play. Check out what we have to say about "Love and Food."
This one's a freebie, Shmoopers. Food = sex. Every time we turn around someone is comparing sex to food. King Priam says that lusty Paris is all about enjoying Helen's "honey" (2.2.144) and Pandarus compares Troilus's desire for Cressida to baking and eating a cake (1.1.14-26).
Even Troilus uses a food metaphor when he tells us that he can't wait to hook up with Cressida. He says the girl's got him salivating because he's always thinking about what it will finally be like to "taste" her sweet "nectar" (3.2.21-22). Okay. We get it Shakespeare. Guys like Troilus and Paris have got big sexual appetites. So what?
Well, eventually, all this sexy food talk turns into something pretty disgusting. Check out what Troilus says when he finds out Cressida's a cheater:
The [...] orts [scraps] of her love,
The fragments, scraps, the bits and greasy relics
Of her o'er-eaten faith, are given to Diomed. (5.2.158-160)
Translation: Troilus thinks Cressida's love is like "bits of greasy" food that's been eaten and then puked back up. Or, to put it as crudely as Shakespeare does, Troilus is saying that Diomedes is getting his "sloppy seconds."
Um. Gross. Why is Shakespeare trying to make us sick with all this food talk gone wrong? Well, it seems like there's a point being made about the folly of Troilus' feelings for Cressida. When he talks about her as though she's a delicious slice of this, that, or the other thing, it's pretty obvious that his so-called "love" for her is nothing more than sexual desire. He doesn't actually see her as a person—she's just something to be consumed.
So, you've probably noticed that characters like Troilus, Cressida, and Pandarus are always running around talking about themselves as if they're familiar with their own myths, even though they obviously don't know that they're literary characters. In other words, Troilus and Cressida are constantly making references to their doomed relationship, even though they have no idea that it's doomed.
It turns out this is a pretty big deal because it's one of Shakespeare's most famous and heartbreaking uses of dramatic irony. Dramatic irony happens when we, the audience, know way more than the characters do, so that the characters' words and actions have a different meaning for us than they do for the characters onstage.
You want a specific example, right? Here you go. (And by the way, this is just one of many, many examples of how Troilus and Cressida promise to be faithful forever.)
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! Say, amen.
We don't want to spoil the ending for you, Shmooperinos, but this is exactly what's going to happen in the play. We know this because Shakespeare didn't invent the story of Troilus and Cressida. It was passed down to him from medieval literature, especially Chaucer's famous poem Troilus and Criseyde. This love story was so legendary in Shakespeare's time that "Cressida" was already a name associated with unfaithful women, "Troilus" with fidelity and loyalty, and "Pandarus" with, uh, pimps.
No wonder Shakespeare scholar Anne Barton says this moment is "positively hideous in its irony" (source). In this case, Troilus and Cressida really do believe all those promises they make to each other and, as we watch them struggle to stay together, we know that they are completely powerless to avoid their fates, no matter how hard they try. Cressida will betray Troilus because her story has already been written. And there's absolutely nothing she can do to change that.
To be honest, we think it's kind of gut wrenching to watch.
Just before Troilus and Cressida are separated after their first night together, they exchange love tokens. (Aw. How sweet!) Cressida gives Troilus her glove and Troilus gives Cressida his sleeve as the two lovebirds promise not to cheat on each other (4.4.69-71). And, no, the sleeve isn't still attached to Troilus' shirt, but it's probably really fancy and has lots of embroidered embellishments.
This is a chivalry thing, kids. Knights often wore their ladies' "favors" (a.k.a. scarves, veils, handkerchiefs, etc.) when they jousted or went into battle. And, yeah, we know this play technically goes down in ancient Troy, but Shakespeare is writing Troilus like a throwback to those chivalric medieval knights we've all read about.
So, the love tokens are supposed to symbolize the couple's love and commitment to one another, right? But, of course, Cressida betrays Troilus about a nanosecond later when she promises to become Diomedes' lover. Just in case we don't get what a traitor she is, Shakespeare has her give Troilus' sleeve to her new man… while Troilus watches from a hiding spot (5.2.66). Ouch.
Not only that, but Diomedes brags that he's going to wear the sleeve on his helmet the next day in battle just to taunt the guy who gave it to Cressida in the first place (5.2.92-93). Double ouch.
In the end, the sleeve becomes a big, glaring symbol of Cressida's sexual infidelity. Does this sound kind of familiar? Shakespeare does something similar with the infamous handkerchief in Othello. Othello gives Desdemona his handkerchief as a symbol of his love, which then gets stolen and winds up in the possession of another man. Well, Othello sees the handkerchief as evidence that his wife's a cheater, even though she is most definitely not.
Here, though? The girl's totally cheating. There's a perfect match between the thing (the sleeve) and the thing it symbolizes (the infidelity).
As Troilus salivates over Cressida, he can't stop thinking about how A-MA-ZING a steamy hook-up would be. The first time we meet him, the guy tells us he's so eager to be with her that he's completely disinterested in participating in the Trojan War (1.1). Yep, this is definitely anticipation.
When Troilus finally hooks up with Cressida, he thinks he's the luckiest guy alive. But this doesn't last very long because Troilus basically gets only one night of bliss with Cressida. (Oh, and Achilles's little dream stage with Patroclus is about to come to a screeching halt, too.)
Like we just said, Troilus only gets to be with Cressida for one night. That's because her dad convinces the Greeks to trade her for a Trojan prisoner, which means Cressida has to leave Troy and Troilus behind. Frustrating for Troilus? You bet. For Cressida? Well, apparently not so much.
Also frustrated at this point are Ulysses and the other Greek leaders, who are seriously trying to get Achilles onto the battlefield again.
When Troilus heads over to the Greek camp to spy on his "fair Cressid," he sees her flirting with a dude named Diomedes. Before we know it, Cressida is agreeing to sleep with this new guy and even gives him a love token that Troilus had given her the night before. This is a nightmare for our boy Troilus, all right. Also a nightmare? Hector killing Patroclus. At least if you're Achilles.
Okay. We can definitely see how Troilus goes through a "death wish" stage. His world is rocked so hard by Cressida's betrayal that he vows to kill Diomedes the next day in battle. The problem is that when Troilus and Diomedes do square off, nothing really happens and neither one of them is killed. (Can you say anti-climax?)
That's why a lot of literary critics say this isn't a true Shakespearean tragedy, because our hero Troilus doesn't die. Instead, Shakespeare gives his audience the blood and guts they've been waiting for by killing off Hector, the great Trojan warrior who gets slaughtered by Achilles. This seems to forecast the fall of Troy in general, and, since we're kind of Hector fanboys-and-girls, it's a little tragic for us, too.
Troilus wants to hook up with Cressida, not fight in some dumb war that's been dragging on for the last seven years. Problem is, Cressida's been playing hard to get. Meanwhile, the Greeks wish their best warrior (Achilles) would come out of his tent and fight, but Achilles is playing hard to get, too. Basically, in the exposition, Shakespeare sets up and develops two separate plots (a love plot and a war plot). Confused? Don't worry—that's what the rising action is for.
Cressida is traded to the Greeks and betrays Troilus with a dude named Diomedes. Also, Hector kills Achilles' lover/ bestie, which really irks Achilles. Meanwhile, Troilus battles Diomedes but, uh, nothing really happens. Now we're all ready to see what happens when Achilles storms out of his tent for the big climax.
Troilus' battle with Diomedes may have been anti-climactic, but Shakespeare finds a good substitute when Achilles and his gang of Myrmidons mow down Hector. Our hero is slain: definitely a climax.
A guy like Hector deserves some props but Achilles is totally disrespectful when he has the dude's corpse tied to a horse so it can be dragged through the dirt. Now we're seeing the effects of all the upsetting climax: dishonor, dishonor, and more dishonor. We're not exactly expecting a happy resolution.
Now that their best soldier and military leader is dead, Troy isn't looking so good. Bummer, right? Well, Shakespeare can't just leave well enough alone. In the last lines, Pandarus tells the audience that he hopes we all get an STD and die. Gee. Thanks. Way to wrap it up, guys.
As big-shot Shakespeare scholar Marjorie Garber says, Troilus blows off the Trojan War while he tries to get Cressida into bed. Meanwhile, the Trojan military leaders want to get the great warrior Achilles out of bed and back onto the battlefield. And that, Shmoopers, is what we call an Act I set up. (Okay, okay, even though what we've got here is really five acts.)
Troilus finally sleeps with Cressida, but the next morning, she's dragged off to the Greek camp after being traded for a Trojan warrior. Meanwhile, the Trojan military leaders try to make Achilles jealous of another warrior so he'll put his armor back on and join the fight. Things are looking really bad, guys.
Cressida betrays Troilus about 2 seconds after arriving at the Greek camp, where she agrees to sleep with Diomedes. Troilus is so enraged that he goes into battle looking to kill the guy who stole his girl. When Hector kills Achilles's lover on the battlefield, Achilles roars into action and slaughters the guy responsible for his lover's death. Moral of the story? Love makes people do really stupid things. Remember that.