Study Guide

Troilus and Cressida Themes

By William Shakespeare

  • Warfare

    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?

    Questions About Warfare

    1. According to the play, what's the cause of the Trojan War? Who can be blamed for it?
    2. What's the play's overall attitude toward warfare in general? Are there any moments when war seems noble or good?
    3. How does Shakespeare create a parallel between warfare and love in this play? Are there any places where that analogy falls apart?
    4. Why does Hector chase after and kill the armored soldier? What are the consequences?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Love

    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?

    Questions About Love

    1. What is Pandarus's role in Troilus and Cressida's relationship? Would they ever have gotten together without his help?
    2. How does the play draw our attention to the relationship between love and conflict?
    3. Do you think Troilus and Cressida ever really loved each other? What does love even mean in this play? Do we see any people who seem to love each other?
    4. How is Troilus like a typical "Petrarchan lover"? Does he have any other function in the play except being a whiny dreamboat?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Principles

    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.

    Questions About Principles

    1. According to Ulysses, why is the Greek camp so out of control? What's gone wrong with their principles?
    2. Why does Achilles refuse to come out of his tent and fight? Does he appear to have any sense of honor? If he truly is fighting because Polyxena asked him not to, does that excuse his behavior?
    3. How is Hector killed? What does this suggest about the play's attitude toward "honor"? Does Hector die with honor?
    4. Are there any real "heroes" in this play? Anyone we are supposed to admire?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Philosophical Viewpoints

    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?

    Questions About Philosophical Viewpoints

    1. Why doesn't Hector think Helen is "worth" such a costly war? Why does Troilus disagree?
    2. What does Troilus mean when he asks "What's aught but as 'tis valued?" Can we get a translation please? Okay, okay, you're right: that's our job. He's saying something like, "What is anything, except its price?" So—what does that mean?
    3. Why is Cressida traded to the Greeks? Is it really just because her dad misses her, or is there a deeper motive?
    4. Why does Achilles think his countrymen don't value him? What does "value" mean in this context? How would he know that they valued him enough?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Politics (vs. Personal Life)

    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.

    Questions About Politics (vs. Personal Life)

    1. Why is Achilles criticized for refusing to fight? What is it that finally brings him back to the battlefield?
    2. Why is Cressida traded to the Greeks?
    3. How does the Trojan War impact the personal lives of the play's characters?
    4. How does Troilus feel about fighting to keep Helen?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Art and Culture

    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."

    Questions About Art and Culture

    1. How does Troilus and Cressida draw our attention to the fact that we're watching a play? Why do you think Shakespeare is so self-conscious about the theater in this particular work?
    2. How does Shakespeare give a shout-out to the Globe Theater in this play? Can you think of any modern-day culture that does similar shout-outs? (Think movies and Hollywood.) 
    3. Which character acts like a "strutting player" for Achilles' entertainment? Why does this enrage the Greek leaders?
    4. How does Shakespeare question the conventions of classical mythology and literature in this play? What do you think he's trying to say?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Time

    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.

    Questions About Time

    1. Why does Shakespeare start this play in the seventh year of the Trojan War? Why not start at the beginning?
    2. What's the play's overall attitude toward the passage of time? Is time something to be feared? Does it bring anything good?
    3. According to the play, is there anything that can stand the test of time? Or, are all things destined to be forgotten?
    4. Why does Cressida think her love will outlive her mortal body? Is she right?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Gender

    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.

    Questions About Gender

    1. Why does Troilus say that he is "weaker than a woman's tear"? What does that say about male and female roles in the play?
    2. How do male characters earn props from other men in this play? What about from women? Are there scenes when we see women showing their approval of men?
    3. How are the play's female characters portrayed? How do we learn about women, and what are their roles in all this war?
    4. Compare the way the Greeks treat Cressida when she arrives at camp to the way they treat Aeneas when he shows up.

    Chew on This

    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.