Shakespeare may have used Homer's account of the Trojan War as a major literary source, but warfare in Troilus and Cressida is far from epic or heroic. Seven years into the war, the Greek camp is in total chaos and the deeds performed on the battlefield are gruesome, dishonorable, and shameful. (Just ask Achilles, who kills an unarmed soldier and then has his body dragged around the fields by his horse.) If the actions that go down on the battlefield of Troy are bad, the cause of the Trojan War is even worse. We're reminded over and over again that the Trojans and the Greeks are fighting because Paris stole Helen from the Greek King Menelaus. And even though the Trojans insist they fight to keep Helen as a matter of "honor," the play crudely states that that "all the argument is a cuckold and a / whore" (2.3.71-72). In other words, the conflict that costs countless lives, money, and time is being fought because of a torrid sexual relationship. Pretty ridiculous, wouldn't you say?
Troilus and Cressida reduces the entire Trojan War to a conflict caused by a steamy sexual hook-up.
Helen isn't the actual cause of the conflict in this play—she's just an excuse for the Greeks and Trojans to wage war and earn props from other men on the battlefield.
If Troilus and Cressida had a 21st century theme song it would probably be "We Found Love in a Hopeless Place." (Forget about the disturbing music video and the whole Rihanna / Chris Brown scandal for a minute and hear us out.) Troilus and Cressida is a story about how two people manage to fall in love under horrendous circumstances. When Troilus and Cressida fall for each other during the seventh year of a horrible, drawn-out war, they manage to carve out a little world for themselves where the ugliness of politics and warfare can't reach them. Sounds romantic, right? Well, it is... for about 2 seconds. Inevitably, the ugliness of politics and warfare creeps in and tears our couple apart, making this one of Shakespeare's most cynical plays about love. Come to think of it, Shmooperinos, the play sort of suggests that love can't possibly exist in such an ugly world and that romantic relationships boil down to one thing: sex. Like, check out all those references to sexually transmitted diseases. All the play's talk about syphilis and dirty jokes really harsh our couple's mellow. Not sounding quite so romantic now, is it?
Troilus doesn't really "love" Cressida. His desire for her is more sexual appetite than anything else, which totally explains why he's always comparing her to food.
Cressida's willingness to cheat on Troilus 2.5 seconds after she promises not to shows us that she's a very good actress who knows how to act like a woman in love.
Honor and principles? No such thing. In Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare flips classic ideas about honor, valor, chivalry, and romance on their heads. Troilus and Cressida shows us a world that is corrupt and fallen. Lovers cheat, leaders manipulate and lie, and traditionally epic heroes behave badly. The "great Achilles" refuses to fight for most of the play and when he does, he kills a guy who's unarmed... and then has the body dragged through the fields by a horse. Helen, whose "price hath launch'd above a thousand ships" is nothing more than a whore. Pandarus, the go-between for Troilus and Cressida, reduces their love to mere sex with his bawdy jokes and crude matchmaking. Even Ulysses is a cutthroat manipulator and hypocrite. Nope. Nothing is sacred in this play. Well, after seven years of a basically groundless war, we'd probably have our priorities mixed up, too.
Shakespeare's play takes heroic characters from classical mythology and literature (like Homer's Iliad) and turns them into a bunch of creeps.
Troilus and Cressida's bad attitude toward heroism is the exact opposite of what we find in most modern day superhero movies and comic books. In the world of Shakespeare's play, heroes simply don't exist.
Buying, selling, trading, and commerce. That's what makes the world go round in this play, and not the so-called heroic deeds of men. In Troilus and Cressida, the Greeks and Trojans tend to treat people (especially women) as if they're marketplace items that can be bought, sold, stolen, or traded. The Trojan princes talk about Helen like she's an expensive piece of silk fabric listed on eBay; Cressida is treated like a commodity when she's traded to the Greeks; and Ulysses talks about Ajax like he's a product the Greeks are trying to sell. Ultimately, we think that Shakespeare wants us to consider how we determine a person's "worth" and "value." Do people have some kind of inherent or automatic "value"? Or, does a person's "value" depend on whether or not other people think they are "worth" something?
Achilles is afraid he's worthless because he believes that a person's value depends on his reputation, or what other people think of him.
Over the course of the play, Cressida is portrayed as a commodity that can be bought, sold, borrowed, or traded. Same goes for Helen.
If you've read what we have to say about the themes of "Love" and Warfare," then you already know that one's political duty can often interfere with one's personal relationships in this play. Troilus and Cressida's romance is thwarted when Cressida is traded to the Greeks, Achilles is highly criticized when he chooses his love life over his military duties, and so on. The irony of all this is that the Trojan War is being fought because of Paris' personal (read: sexual) relationship with Helen. Ultimately, the play raises the following questions: Why does Paris get to go to war over Helen when all the other personal and romantic relationships in the play have to suffer? And why the heck should there be so much death and suffering just so one couple can be together? In a larger sense, the play is asking us to think about a larger, more universal issue: when it comes to political and military duty, soldiers and their families are required to make personal sacrifices in order to further the interests of their countries. Troilus and Cressida argues that in some cases, this is completely unfair.
Paris is the only Trojan whose life benefits from the Trojan War—everybody else's suffers.
Even though most of the Trojans think it's wrong to fight the war in order to keep Helen, their sense of public duty leads them to support the war anyway.
So, you probably noticed all the shout-outs to actors, play-going audiences, and even the Globe Theater. What's up with that? Well, like a lot of Shakespeare's dramas, Troilus and Cressida is really self-conscious about its status as a stage play, and it's always drawing our attention to the fact that we're watching (or reading) a dramatic performance. The trick lets Shakespeare explore all kinds of nifty stuff like: (1) the relationship between real life and the theater and (2) the relationship between the theater and politics. To complicate matters, this particular play is also all worried about its relationship to the literary classics. (Someone give it some literary Valium, please, and stat.) Shakespeare always reminds us that his play's storyline depends on a long literary tradition. Yet, at the same time, the play debunks Homer's epic account of the Trojan War by recreating characters that don't live up to their literary reputations as "heroes."
Acting and impersonation are associated with disorder and rebellion in Troilus and Cressida.
By making all the heroes and heroines actors, Shakespeare is suggesting that we're all just playing a part.
Troilus and Cressida is obsessed with the passage of time. When the play opens, we get the sense that time has been moving at a snail's pace for those who have endured seven long, drawn out years of warfare. Yet, as the play picks up momentum, we quickly realize that time doesn't just fly—it destroys everything in its path. That's why the characters in this play see time as the biggest threat to their existence. As they try to come to terms with their own mortality, they describe the passage of time as a powerful, cruel, destructive, and unfaithful force—something that's capable of bringing about death and of erasing the past. Is there anything that can resist the ravages of time and death? Well, notice how the Greek and Trojan soldiers hope that winning "honor and renown" on the battlefield will make them famous "in time to come." And in the end, they do. After all, we're still reading about them thousands of years later.
According to this play, not even love can withstand the ravages of time and death.
In Troilus and Cressida, time is like a gigantic monster that devours the good deeds of men and threatens to erase their pasts.
In the world of Troilus and Cressida, men and women are expected to behave according to the kinds of gender roles that were typical in Elizabethan England at the time Shakespeare was writing this play. Basically, men are expected to excel at combat and politics if they want props from their peers. When a man refuses to fight in the Trojan War, he's accused of being "dainty," effeminate, and worthless. Women, on the other hand, are expected to be chaste, silent, and obedient. When a woman is sexually promiscuous—even if she had no choice—she's referred to as a "whore" and is seen as a threat. And if she's disobedient to her husband or father and voices an opinion of her own, she's dismissed as being "superstitious," "brain sick," or disloyal.
Female sexuality is portrayed as dangerous and threatening in Troilus and Cressida.
In order for men to have any street cred in this play, they have to go around eating enemy soldiers for breakfast.