Troilus and Cressida | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Troilus and Cressida | Act 1, Scene 1 | Summary

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Summary

Troilus, a prince of Troy, states he cannot join the fighting against the Greeks for he is sick with love of Cressida. Pandarus, Cressida's uncle and go-between for Troilus and his niece, compares Cressida's beauty to Helen's, upsetting Troilus in the process. Angered, Troilus snaps at Pandarus, who says he will no longer carry Troilus's messages to Cressida. Before he leaves, he mentions that Cressida's father, a priest named Calchas, has defected to the Greek side of the conflict, leaving Cressida alone. Troilus does not like that he must rely on Pandarus to communicate with Cressida.

Alarms sound. Aeneas, one of the Trojan generals, arrives. He reports Paris was injured in battle with Menelaus, Helen's Greek husband. Troilus responds with, "Let Paris bleed. 'Tis but a scar to scorn; / Paris is gored with Menelaus' horn." Troilus then leaves for the battlefield with Aeneas.

Analysis

Troilus and Cressida is often described as one of Shakespeare's "problem plays" because it doesn't fit neatly into one of the traditional Shakespearean boxes as a tragedy, comedy, or history play. For example, Troilus is almost a comic figure with his childish moping while in the middle of a war. His exchange with Pandarus mimics other exchanges typically found in Shakespeare's comedies. But the mood of the play is at odds with the subject matter, which again, his audience would have been aware of.

Pandarus's name contains the root pander, which is a verb describing someone who provides clients with sexual partners. That is, he's someone who acts as a pimp. Pandarus, true to his name, serves as a go-between for Troilus and Cressida. He talks up his niece and her virtues to Troilus to maintain his interest in the face of her perceived disinterest, and expounds on Troilus's virtues to Cressida. Pandarus takes to the task with an almost unseemly relish. With her father gone, Pandarus functions not just as a go-between for the two lovers, but as Cressida's caretaker, making his character and actions even more suspect.

Shakespeare also uses Pandarus to introduce Cressida's father, a Trojan priest who has joined the Greeks and whose later request of a prisoner exchange complicates things for the two lovers. This brief mention is a bit of foreshadowing of the political plot that takes place alongside the romantic one. Yet this is also another way in which Troilus and Cressida is a problem play. Typically, Shakespeare has a deft touch when weaving his various plotlines together—A Midsummer Night's Dream is a fine example of multiple plotlines converging and uniting. Troilus and Cressida deals with the conflicts of the Trojan War, a love story, and Troilus's own personal conflict of political requirements vying against personal desires, but the plotting feels haphazard and random. The romance, at times, reads as an afterthought, and Cressida's characterization vacillates wildly when she moves from Troy to the Greek camp. What should be climactic scenes end with whimpers rather than bangs. The tone of the play is set with this scene and it continues forward, as if the play is not quite sure what it wants to be.

Finally, Troilus mentions Menelaus and his cuckolding. A cuckold is a husband with an adulterous wife, often signified by the wearing of horns or references to them. Troilus's response to news of Paris's wounding indicates Helen's infidelity. She "horned" Menelaus and now he uses that same horn to injure Paris, the man she ran away with. Troilus seems to enjoy the divine retribution of the event.

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