Troilus and Cressida | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Troilus and Cressida | Act 3, Scene 3 | Summary



Calchas, Cressida's father, defected to the Greek side sometime previous to the events in the play. He now asks Agamemnon for a reward for his help by requesting a prisoner exchange: the Trojan prisoner, Antenor, for Cressida. Agamemnon agrees to the exchange and sends Diomedes to oversee it.

Ulysses sees Achilles and Patroclus standing outside his tent, so he suggests all the generals ignore Achilles to upset him, opening the way for Ulysses to speak with him about his behavior. Agamemnon agrees to this course, and he and the other warriors pass him by without acknowledgment. Achilles is upset at the treatment.

Ulysses arrives and tells Achilles a person's value is defined by the way others see them, and Achilles is seen as less valuable than Ajax because of Ajax's fight with Hector. If he wins, his value will only increase, thus lessening Achilles's value in the eyes of the men. Patroclus agrees with Ulysses, saying Achilles has hurt his reputation by refusing to fight. Thersites joins them and continues to insult Ajax. After some back-and-forth with Patroclus and Thersites, Achilles decides to send a letter to Ajax.


Shakespeare begins to draw the political plot together with the romantic plot. Usually, this weaving occurs earlier in his plays. Yet another reason Troilus and Cressida is considered one of his less successful endeavors: the two plots proceed in parallel with each other, taking far too long to come together, which leaves both of them feeling rather hurried and unfinished at the end of the play. Calchas's request sets in motion the action for the latter two acts of the play on the romantic front, forcibly separating the two lovers. Again, Shakespeare's audience knows the outcome of both the romantic plot and the political plot, so he is working within the constraints of a preestablished narrative, but that leaves elements feeling shoehorned in to satisfy those constraints.

Ulysses's cunning once again comes into play as he and the other generals enact another scheme to motivate Achilles. After setting up Achilles to be offended at his treatment by the other Greek commanders, Ulysses swoops in with a speech that echoes the value judgment in Act 2, Scene 2 with Helen. A man is only as good as the value those around him assign him. Without his reputation, Achilles is just another soldier. With Ajax fighting Hector while Achilles sits out battles, the men have no reason to think highly of Achilles, and soon he will lose the thing he values most—his reputation for being the greatest of the Greek assembly.

Ulysses also states everyone knows about Achilles's relationship with Priam's daughter, Polyxena, revealing the men assume that's the reason he won't fight. He explains how that belief will follow Achilles home to Greece, tainting his reputation forever. Instead, it will be Ajax who gets the glory and will be more greatly valued because of his deeds in fighting Hector and the Trojans. Ulysses's words begin to get through to Achilles who wonders if he is sacrificing his reputation. While still not roused to fight, Shakespeare must bow to the established narrative and get Achilles back into the battle, and yet he does so very slowly. Perhaps Shakespeare is attempting to build tension, which the structure of this play lacks.

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