Troilus and Cressida

Troilus and Cressida Themes

De-Romanticizing Troilus and Cressida

In Troilus and Cressida, the main characters display startlingly little respect for tradition and history. In fact, one quality that endears the play to a modern sensibility is its disdain for the conventions of honor, class structure, and chivalry. Clearly Shakespeare sees his characters and their situation with a jaundiced eye - a perspective that speaks to the contemporary view towards politicians and wars.

It is important to remember, when looking at Troilus as an anti-Romantic play, that Shakespeare is not incorporating Homer and the Iliad, but is also taking on the tales of the Middle Ages. Troilus and Cressida were characters from English legend, not Greek mythology; in de-romanticizing their story he is thus addressing the tendency in his own era to see men as predominately true and women as predominately false. This view, popularized in Chaucer's work and promulgated in pamphlets and treatises, stemmed in part from the story of Troilus and Cressida. By showing the ghastly context of that romantic legend, Shakespeare removes much of its applicability. True, Cressida is still false, and as she herself says, she is guided more by her eye than her heart, but in setting this betrayal against a backdrop of relentless cynicism as opposed to chivalric heroism, Shakespeare takes some of the sting out of Cressida's falseness, and reveals Troilus' honor and honesty as inexcusably naive.

Domesticity and War

Achilles' tent and Pandarus' garden - two brief bastions in a brutal and senseless war - represent common grounds on either side of the Trojan Wall. In each location, a tested warrior (Achilles and Troilus, respectively) finds tranquility with his beloved (Patroclus or Cressida) while a bawdy comedian (Thersites or Pandarus) watches and comments on the action. In both instances - though to differing degrees - these places of seeming comedic contentment are in truth unlikely sources of anxiety. Troilus considers his passion for Cressida "womanish": his love for her keeps him from fully committing to the battlefield. And of course Achilles' choice to spend time in his tent rather than at arms is the Greeks' chief worry in the play. This decision, too, is feminized, as when Thersites comments that Patroclus is his "masculine whore."

This tendency to criticize Achilles and Patroclus or Troilus and Cressida in their attempts to establish domestic strongholds makes sense to some degree. In times of war, questions of domesticity often take a backseat to the action on the field. Yet there is a central irony here, in that the Trojan War is being waged in revenge for a domestic affront: the cuckolding of Menelaus. The dichotomy between domesticity and war falls apart upon closer examination, and many of the characters (particularly Thersites, who calls the argument a simple matter of a whore and a cuckold) are willing to enthusiastically point out this irony.

The question, then, is this: why should Achilles and Troilus neglect their own domestic pursuits in favor of those of Menelaus, Helen, and Paris? Why does one love affair warrant a war, while theirs must flounder? Troilus and Cressida does not answer this question explicitly, but the play does suggest that Paris and Helen are no different than any other set of lovers. That their dalliance hurt a king's pride is unfortunate, but that it resulted in a brutal and horrific war is the true tragedy of the play. The empty political language of honor is what ultimately drives the war. Without the stubborn selfishness of Paris and Menelaus, Troilus would have Cressida, Achilles would have Patroclus - and the pursuit of domestic happiness would not be seen as aberrant behavior.

The Exchange of Women

One of the chief ways that patriarchal societies - such as those of the Ancient world and Jacobean England - maintained themselves was through marriage. Traditionally, the head of the household - the man - reserved the right to give his daughter to another man. This exchange of a woman between her father and her husband is depicted in countless dramas of the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage. Usually when the patriarchal exchange is disrupted, tragedy ensues (think, for example, of Romeo and Juliet).

In Troilus and Cressida, however, this exchange of women is treated quite cynically. The go-between, Pandarus, who is Cressida's acting father after Calchas' defection, is little more than a pimp. His attentiveness to Cressida's virginity (or lack thereof) is alarming, and his relentless pandering cheapens the sanctity of love. If he is a merchant, to borrow Troilus' analogy from his first soliloquy, then Cressida is no more than merchandise being shipped from shore to shore.

Troilus and Cressida also provides us with an odd example of a reverse-exchange. The Greeks and Trojans conspire to take Cressida from her husband and give her back to her father. This husband-to-father exchange flies in the face of the traditional social order. If Cressida was not debased enough by Pandarus, her status as chattel is clarified in this second exchange. Indeed, to hammer the point home, Shakespeare has Cressida passed around by the Greeks upon her entrance to their camp. Cressida's subsequent decision to forsake Troilus for Diomedes can only be considered in the context of her treatment. At least with Diomedes, perhaps she will find stability. =


One of the most frequent criticisms of Troilus and Cressida has to do with genre. Is it a comedy, a history, or a tragedy? Nowadays, it is often categorized as a tragedy or a "problem play" - a designation that includes All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure. In the seventeenth century, however, it was considered a comedy, at least judging from the original publisher's foreword ("A Never Writer to an Ever Reader"), even though its full title is "The History of Troilus and Cressida."

Jacobean critics, playwrights and playgoers were much less attentive to the question of genre than modern audiences. Tragedies were often called histories, and both genres almost always had comedic elements. But there is something about Troilus and Cressida's modulations between bawdy comedy and bitter tragedy that makes it at once difficult to characterize and a commentary on genre itself. Speech to speech, scene to scene, the genre of the play seems to shift, and yet there is method to this madness: a current of cynicism and disappointment runs through the whole of the drama. In addition, part of this disappointment stems from the failings of the language of romance and chivalry - in other words, a failure of genre language. This is a love story, but it isn't. It's a heroic history, but it is hardly heroic.

Part of the play's point thus seems to be to subvert the very conventions of genre. The speeches of Agamemnon, Nestor, and Ulysses belong to a recognizable tradition of epic rhetoric; the play's high tones are consistently brought down-to-earth by the ugliness of the events being depicted. Likewise, Troilus' sincere protestations of love cannot stand up to the political maneuverings that rend Cressida from him and cast her into the society of the Greeks; their love language takes on wartime reality, and ultimately fails. That each character seems to speak in his or her own genre - and that each of these genres, except perhaps Thersites', is undermined by the events - makes this a play about plays. It is a drama about genres - and specifically, about how genre can be problematic.

Homoeroticism, Performance, and Privacy

Patroclus and Achilles are more than good friends, more than fellow actors with a shared sense of humor about their blustery leaders: they are quite unquestionably lovers. Our modern conception of homosexuality - that some are born biologically predisposed to be sexually attracted to their own gender to the exclusion of the other - did not exist in Shakespeare's time. And as we see from Achilles' oath of marriage to a Trojan princess and Thersites' remark about Patroclus that he loves a "commodious" prostitute, neither Achilles nor Patroclus is exclusively attracted to men. Still, Thersites' vitriolic comment that Patroclus is Achilles' "masculine whore," combined with their own sweet and romantic exchanges, leaves little doubt as to the nature of their relationship.

Though in ancient Greco-Roman societies physical relationships between older and younger men were to some extent acceptable, Achilles' relationship with Patroclus is a source of great anxiety in the play. His decision to spend his days in his tent with Patroclus is seen by Ulysses and many other Greeks as the chief reason for their lack of success at Troy. Homoeroticism, privacy, and the cynical performances that the lovers put on together are conflated in the Greek leader's anxiety about Troy. They see Achilles' tent - and the dalliances and masques that go on within it - as their foremost threat.

However, it is worth questioning the accuracy of this interpretation of Achilles' defiance. The Trojan War, as Troilus reminds us again and again, is a horribly confusing event. The whole enterprise is full of cynical performances, with Ulysses standing as the reigning cynic. The Greeks displace their misgivings about the venture as a whole onto the threat emanating from Achilles' tent; however, what Achilles and Patroclus know - that the Trojan War is to a great extent a farce - is no less true because of this displacement. At the end of the play, although Achilles is restored to marriage and battle and Patroclus is dead, the tent - that bulwark against the absurdities of war - still looks like a most welcoming alternative to the battlefield.


Oftentimes Shakespeare's plays contain a "keyword" of sorts - a word that is repeated again and again, almost obsessively, that gives a unique vantage into the imagination of the playwright at the time he was writing. Macbeth's might be "time," Hamlet obsesses about "action," Timon of Athens returns again and again to "dogs," and Titus Andronicus focuses on "hands." In this vein, the scholar Frank Kermode offers "opinion" as the keyword to Troilus and Cressida. He notes that the word is spoken ten times over the course of the play - more than in any other Shakespearean play - and that it uniquely captures the play's particular obsession with the contingency of values.

The words that Troilus is so careless in throwing around - honor, glory, love, worth - all depend upon opinion. These concepts aren't valuable in and of themselves - they aren't even real in and of themselves; rather, they depend on being situated in a particular point of view. Consider how many times in the play the question of whether the Trojan War is worth fighting is raised. The conversation always turns to Helen's value: is any woman, however beautiful she might be, worth so much bloodshed? Is there a way to quantify beauty in terms of other people's lives? When the Trojan princes debate about whether or not to give Helen up, they ultimately decide that Helen's actual value is not important - what is important is how much she is desired. As long as Troy holds onto such a woman, Troilus suggests, Troy will hold onto its honor. But honor, like anything, is a matter of opinion; if the Greeks ceased to want Helen, no doubt Troy would cease to want her too. Where does that leave the city's honor?

Opinion, then, is like a vortex without a bottom. It is constructed out of many voices, many minds, all of which can and do change constantly. Achilles' worth is a matter of opinion (a fact that Ulysses realizes and manipulates in his Ajax-Achilles scheme); the validity of Cassandra's prophecies is a matter of opinion; even constancy is a matter of opinion. Just think: if Troilus had never seen Cressida kissing Diomedes, her subsequent letter would have been the truth to him; his opinion of her would have been different. Whether she truly remained constant or not, she would have remained so to him. Even when he sees her cheating on him, he tells himself that his Cressida - the Cressida of his opinion - is more important than "Diomed's Cressid" - the false Cressida of public opinion.

Troilus and Cressida confronts us with a basic problem of human life: the problem of subjectivity. We can see things only as ourselves. Nothing is valuable in and of itself - because nothing exists in a vacuum. Everything must pass through the rigors of opinion, and opinion is anything but constant.

Words and Deeds

Some readers might feel that, for a war play, Troilus and Cressida has too many words. Indeed, until the Fourth and Fifth Acts the play is nothing but words - promises, speeches, debates, flirtations. Only at the end of the play is the audience rewarded with violence, and even then viewers may be left dissatisfied. Ajax's big fight with Hector, built up over many scenes, is little more than a skirmish, and Achilles' massacre of Hector when he is unarmed is simply murder. The play's deeds, then, belie the play's highbrow words.

The connection between words and deeds is one that Shakespeare explores in almost all of his mature plays. However, in Troilus more than in any other this very exploration provides the chief action of the play. Troilus and Cressida behave more like philosophers or scholars of romantic language than young lovers. They ask searching questions about the nature of words - of imagined desire, of love's promises, of oaths and vows - and fail to consider the import of acts. Troilus wonders how actually being with Cressida could ever compare to imagining her; Cressida delves into her own language constantly, wondering whether she should defer the act with Troilus forever so as to hold on to the promise of their words of love.

In Troilus, the relationship between words and deeds falls apart. The more highbrow the language, the more sodden and depressing the actions attached to it. Consider Troilus and Cressida's promise to be true to each other, Agamemnon and Nestor's pompous discourses, and Troilus and Paris' protestations that keeping Helen is somehow honorable, though an audience member would be loath to discover how. Mere language dissipates before the grim realities of an unjust war.