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Troilus and Cressida

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

For the Chaucer poem, see Troilus and Criseyde.
Title page of one of the two 1609 quarto editions of the play
Title page of one of the two 1609 quarto editions of the play

The History of Troilus and Cressida is a play by William Shakespeare, believed to have been written around 1602, shortly after the completion of Hamlet. It was published in quarto in two separate editions, both in 1609. It is not known whether the play was ever performed in its own time, because the two editions contradict each other: one announces on the title page that the play had been recently performed on stage; the other claims in a preface that it is a new play that has never been staged.

The play is considered an aberration by many. The Quarto edition labels it a history play, but the First Folio classed it with the tragedies. The confusion is compounded by the fact that in the original pressing of the First Folio, the play's pages are unnumbered, and the title has obviously been squeezed into the Table of Contents. Based on this evidence, scholars believe it was a very late addition to the Folio, and therefore may have been added wherever there was room. The play is not a conventional tragedy, since its protagonist does not die, but it does end on a very bleak note with the death of the noble Trojan Hector and destruction of the love between Troilus and Cressida. Throughout, the tone lurches wildly between bawdy comedy and tragic gloom, and it is often difficult to understand how one is meant to respond to the characters.

Date and Publication

The play was entered into the Register of the Stationers Company on Feb. 7, 1603 by the bookseller and printer James Roberts, with a mention that the play was acted by the Lord Chamberlain's Men, Shakespeare's company. No publication followed, however, until 1609; the stationers Richard Bonian and Henry Walley re-registered the play on Jan. 28, 1609, and later that year issued the first quarto, but in two "states." The first says the play was "acted by the King's Majesty's servants at the Globe;" the second version omits the mention of the Globe Theatre, and prefaces the play with a long Epistle that claims that Troilus and Cressida is "a new play, never stal'd with the stage...."[1]

Some commentators (like Georg Brandes, the Danish Shakespeare scholar of the late nineteenth century) have attempted to reconcile these contradictory claims by arguing that the play was composed originally around 1600-02, but heavily revised shortly before its 1609 printing. The play is noteworthy for its bitter and caustic nature, similar to the works that Shakespeare was writing in the 1605-8 period, King Lear, Coriolanus, and Timon of Athens. In this view, the original version of the play was a more positive romantic comedy of the type Shakespeare wrote ca. 1600, like As You Like It and Twelfth Night, while the later revision injected the darker material – leaving the result a hybrid jumble of tones and intents.


The play is set during the Trojan War, and essentially has two plots. In one Troilus, a Trojan prince, woos Cressida, has sex with her, and professes undying love just before she is traded with the Greeks for a prisoner of war. Trying to visit her in the Greek camp, he sees her with Diomedes, and decides she is a whore.

Despite being the titular story, this plot takes up very few scenes: most of the play revolves around a scheme by Nestor and Ulysses to get the prideful Achilles back into battle to fight for the Greeks.

The play ends with a series of battle skirmishes between the two sides, and the death of the Trojan hero Hector.

Dramatis Personae


  • Aeneas, a commander
  • Andromache, Hector's wife
  • Antenor, another commander
  • Calchas, a Trojan priest who has joined with the Greeks
  • Cressida, Calchas' daughter
  • Pandarus, Cressida's uncle
  • Priam, King of Troy
  • Priam's children Cassandra (a prophetess), Hector, Troilus, Paris, Deiphobus, Helenus and Margarelon


  • Achilles
  • Ajax
  • Diomedes
  • Helen, wife to Menelaus, living with Paris
  • Menelaus, King of the Greeks and leader of the Greek invasion
  • Nestor, wise and talkative
  • Thersites, an ugly and abusive low-class person
  • Patroclus, friend (or "masculine whore") of Achilles
  • Ulysses (Odysseus)


The story of Troilus and Cressida is a medieval tale that is not part of Greek mythology; Shakespeare drew on a number of sources for this plotline, in particular Chaucer's version of the tale, Troilus and Criseyde.

The story of the persuasion of Achilles into battle is drawn from Homer's Iliad (perhaps in the translation by George Chapman), and from various medieval and Renaissance retellings.

The story was a popular one for dramatists in the early 1600s and Shakespeare may have been inspired by contemporary plays. Thomas Heywood's two-part play The Iron Age also depicts the Trojan war and the story of Troilus and Cressida, but it is not certain whether his or Shakespeare's play was written first. In addition, Thomas Dekker and Henry Chettle wrote a play called Troilus and Cressida at around the same time as Shakespeare, but this play survives only as a fragmentary plot outline.


Troilus and Cressida is considered by some to be one of Shakespeare's problem plays, in particular for its disappointing last act. Others consider it an experimental piece that is attempting to break with the conventions of its genre, and consider its baffling characters to be comparable to those in Hamlet. Johann Wolfgang Goethe called the work Shakespeare's "imagination at its most free."

The play's puzzling and intriguing nature has meant that Troilus and Cressida has rarely been popular on stage and there is no recorded performance between 1734 and 1898. In the Restoration, it was condemned by John Dryden, who called it a "heap of rubbish" and rewrote it. It was also condemned by the Victorians for its explicit sexual references. It was not staged in its original form until the early twentieth century, but since then, it has become increasingly popular due to its cynical depiction of people's immorality and disillusionment especially after the First World War. Its popularity reached a peak in the 1960s when public discontent with the Vietnam War increased exponentially. The play's main overall themes about a long period of war, the cynical breaking of one's public oaths, and the lack of morality among Cressida and the Greeks resonated strongly with a discontented public and led to numerous stagings of this play since it highlighted the gulf between one's ideals and the bleak reality.

Themes and Tropes

  • Sex / War

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that the titular plot hinges around sexual relations during war, (and the whole war revolves around who has the right to sleep with Helen) sex and battle are linked constantly within the play. For example, a frustrated Troilus moans at the beginning: "I cannot fight upon this argument/ It is too starved a subject for my sword" -"sword" being an obvious phallic symbol. Similarly, the word "unarm" appears frequently in relation to the fighting; slang for losing an erection. When Troilus is about to have sex with Cressida, he fears the experience will be such bliss that "I shall lose distinction in my joys;/ As doth a battle, when they charge on heaps/ The enemy flying." This comparison makes sex seem a loveless, physical, almost brutal activity.

  • Thwarted expectations

From the very beginning of the play, the audience's expectations are constantly thwarted. Despite a Prologue claiming the emphasis of the play is militancy, it opens with a procrastinating Troilus calling for someone to "unarm" him. Despite being called "Troilus and Cressida", Cressida rarely appears. Despite being set in the Trojan War, there is virtually no fighting for the first four acts; just political maneuvering and petty squabbles. The Greek and Trojan heroes depicted are markedly different from their portrayals in the Homeric epics. Troilus is little like the betrayed lover in Chaucer. Having got used to the philosophy and punning comedy of the first four acts, we do not expect a harsh, unglamourized battle in the fifth. This experience of the audience is mirrored by most of the characters. Agamemnon tries to rouse his disillusioned generals by telling them that expectations are always thwarted: "the ample proposition that hope makes/In all designs... /Fails in the promis'd largeness".


The story has been adapted as an opera, Troilus and Cressida, by William Walton in 1954.


  1. ^ F. E. Halliday, A Shakespeare Companion 1564-1964, Baltimore, Penguin, 1964; pp. 501-3.

External links

Wikisource has original text related to this article:
Troilus and Cressida
  • The History of Troilus and Cressida - HTML version of this title.
  • Troilus and Cressida - plain vanilla text from Project Gutenberg
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