The Prologue sets the scene, describing the background of the Trojan War: Paris has captured the heart of Menelaus' wife, Helen, inciting a war between the Greeks and the Trojans. Scene one opens with a conversation between Troilus and Pandarus. Troilus, a son of King Priam of Troy, is in love with Pandarus' niece, Cressida, and he has secured Pandarus as a matchmaker. Pandarus is a bawdy old flatterer, constantly making sexual puns; he agrees that Cressida is nearly as beautiful as Helen, though he adds that Cressida ought not to continue to stand behind her father, Calchas, who betrayed Troy by defecting to the Greeks. Troilus, meanwhile, is devastated by Pandarus' apparent lack of progress in convincing Cressida to love him in return. Pandarus responds to Troilus' criticism of his matchmaking by pretending to give it up altogether. Troilus gives the play's first soliloquy after Pandarus' exit, saying that both Pandarus and Cressida are difficult to interpret - Pandarus requires almost as much "wooing" (that is, sweet-talking) as Cressida herself - and expressing his ardent wish to be with Cressida. Troilus' famous brother Aeneas interrupts his soliloquy and convinces him to shift his attention to the field of battle. They exit together, setting off to join the fray.
Scene two begins with a conversation between Cressida and her servant Alexander about Ajax, a newly-arrived half-Greek and half-Trojan champion who is fighting on the Greek side. They jokingly suggest that Ajax is full of bluster and short on brains. Pandarus enters and deftly turns the subject to Troilus. Despite his declaration that he will no longer pursue Troilus' suit, Pandarus is still hard at work, comparing Troilus favorably to Troy's greatest champion, Hector. Cressida couldn't disagree more, saying that she finds Troilus totally unfit for comparison to Hector. The day in the battlefield has concluded, and Cressida and Pandarus watch as the Trojan champions parade back into the city. Pandarus provides a commentary on the warriors, praising Hector and Aeneas and assuring Cressida that Troilus will make a grand appearance. Cressida continues to tease her uncle by insulting Troilus. Upon his exit, however, Cressida reveals in a soliloquy that she desperately loves Troilus in return; she has kept this love to herself because she knows that as a woman she will be valued most while she is being wooed, and that her value will diminish significantly once she is "conquered."
Meanwhile, on the other side of Troy's famous walls, the Greek camp is in crisis. The three main strategists of the Greek cause, Agamemnon, Nestor, and Ulysses, each give a speech addressing their difficulties. Agamemnon states that their lack of success is a plot of the gods to find constancy in men; Nestor concurs with Agamemnon. Ulysses' speech takes a different point of view; he states that the reason their effort has been unsuccessful is that there has been mutiny in the ranks. Achilles, the Greeks' greatest warrior, has been stubbornly refusing to partake in the war as a show of his power. Ulysses says that Achilles' temperamental defiance of his superiors has become endemic to the camp as a whole: because he has snubbed his commanders, rank has lost its import amongst the Greeks - a situation which must be remedied if the Greek cause is to prevail. Following Ulysses' speech, which both Agamemnon and Nestor applaud, Aeneas enters to issue a challenge from Hector. This challenge is obviously intended for Achilles alone, though it is ostensibly directed to the Greeks in general. Upon hearing this, Ulysses takes Nestor aside to suggest a solution to the Achilles problem. He says that the Greeks should choose a warrior to answer Hector's challenge with a lottery, but that they should rig the lottery so that Ajax is chosen. They would then have reason to praise the doltish Ajax as the greatest warrior in their camp - a situation that would irk the prideful Achilles so much that he would almost certainly return to battle to prove his superiority.
The Prologue, during which a man in armor enters to tell the audience that they're going to skip the "vaunt and firstlings" of the war (in other words, the fighting) is either deliberately absurd - which, given the sardonic tone of much of Troilus and Cressida, is certainly plausible - or, alternatively, a segment that was not written by Shakespeare (many scholars, including Frank Kermode, hold this opinion). Either way, the Prologue draws immediate attention to a key complexity in the play: it is deliberately Homeric to some degree, beginning the story "in media res" (in the middle of things) - an epic convention - while at the same time cultivating a markedly un-Homeric tone. Whereas the ancient poet wrote of gods and heroes in high epic fashion, Troilus and Cressida shows us the flawed, human side of these supposedly god-like men, using Homeric bluster to ironic effect.
True to the promise of the Prologue, the first act of Troilus is short on action. We find ourselves in the midst of two major plotlines - the first, Troilus' pursuit of the beautiful Cressida via her uncle Pandarus; the second, Ulysses' scheme to get Achilles to reenter the Trojan War. These two plots are quite different on the surface, yet both address the delicate balance between domestic and political power that lies at the heart of the play.
Troilus' pursuit of Cressida speaks to the natural human instinct to seek out domestic happiness and security during times of war. The war that embroils his countrymen is less interesting to him than matters of the heart. Ironically, however, the war is a domestic matter, as well: it is a dispute instigated by a cuckolded husband - Menelaus of Greece - whose beautiful wife, Helen, has been taken from him by Paris of Troy. Because these men are both members of royal families, what might have been an insular domestic matter becomes a far-reaching political one. Troilus finds himself in the tricky position of balancing his own domestic welfare (which he sees as tied up in winning Cressida) with that of his brother Paris, (which is tied up in winning the war). By focusing on this subject, Shakespeare complicates the premise of the Trojan War. Why is one beautiful wife - Helen - worth dying and killing for, while another - Cressida, whom Pandarus regularly compares to Helen - is not? What makes one domestic dispute a political issue, and another a private affair?
Shakespeare does not provide a clear answer, and this, perhaps, is his point. The only distinction between one story of unfaithfulness and another is in the purely arbitrary way that each story is perceived. Troilus and Cressida, then, is a play about the manner in which stories are created. In this play, Shakespeare relates a story that held significant import in the domestic language of his time: in Elizabethan England, a "Troilus" was a faithful husband, a "Cressid" was an unfaithful wife, and a "Pandar" was an unprincipled pimp or go-between. He also offers a story (that of Menelaus, Paris, and Helen) that had taken on significant weight as a political reference during his era. He seems to suggest, ultimately, that the distinction between the first story and the second is difficult to determine, as domestic issues are always laden with political elements.
Gender is another significant issue that Shakespeare confronts in Troilus and Cressida. After Troilus has delivered his soliloquy about the Pandarus-Cressida-Troilus triangle, Aeneas asks him why he is not at battle, to which Troilus replies, "womanish it is to be from thence." Of course, since the whole war is being waged because of a domestic conflict, this distinction is problematic. "Womanish" matters, in this case, appear to be matters fit for war. For her part, Cressida is very aware of the way in which her "womanish" status intersects with questions of power. She declares in her soliloquy that she will play coy with Troilus in order to gain leverage; she knows that once she is conquered, she will be rendered powerless. Troilus goes off to prove himself mannishly on the field of battle to support a domestic cause, while Cressida wages her own battle for power in the domestic realm.
Meanwhile, in the Greek camp, Ulysses' speech on "degree", one of the most famous in Troilus and Cressida, offers yet another set of ironies and paradoxes. He declares that the way for the Greeks to win the war is to follow in lockstep the social hierarchy. Yet consider what he himself is doing: he is weaving a plot to win the war his own way. Ulysses has no intention of deferring power to his colleagues Nestor and Agamemnon, both of whom outrank him (one on grounds of age, the other on grounds of military status). His speech on degree, then, is a manipulative performance of sorts; his respect for rank and order, to a great degree, is a smokescreen for his own political machinations.
On both sides of the Trojan War, strategy and deceptiveness abounds. Whether we consider Pandarus' smooth-tongued attempts to peddle his own niece, Cressida's witty reserve for the sake of securing power in a male-dominated world, Agamemnon's torturous grandiloquence, or Ulysses' glib scheming, the question remains: what purpose do all of these machinations serve? Are they merely byproducts of an overblown argument between a jealous husband and an unfaithful wife, or a larger commentary on the political nature of domestic disputes?