Troilus and Cressida | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Troilus and Cressida | Act 5, Scene 1 | Summary

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Summary

Achilles plans to get Hector to over-imbibe in food and drink at the evening's feast so he can defeat him easily in battle the next day. Thersites enters with a letter from Troy for Achilles. It is from Queen Hecuba, the mother of Polyxena, a princess of Troy and Achilles's lover. She writes to remind him of his oath to her to not fight the Trojans; she asks him not to break his oath. While he reads the letter, Patroclus and Thersites exchange insults. Achilles returns and says he will not break his vow, and he and Patroclus leave for the banquet where the other generals wait to feast with Hector and Troilus. Diomedes leaves the banquet, and Troilus and Ulysses follow him. Thersites follows them.

Analysis

Shakespeare undercuts the idea of Achilles as a hero by having him plan to sabotage Hector into overindulging and hampering his ability to fight the next day. Achilles does not behave like an honorable epic hero, even if he looks and styles himself as one. Thersites insults Patroclus by calling him "Achilles' male varlet" and "masculine whore," a reference to the pair as lovers, and cursing him with a number of commonly known sexually transmitted diseases. With these insults, Shakespeare reinforces the theme of appearance versus reality, of how something can appear lovely on the surface but be rotten and corrupt beneath it.

Achilles's reason for not fighting is revealed, and it is as Ulysses guessed in an earlier scene: he pledged an oath to Queen Hecuba of Troy and the princess he's in love with to not fight against the Trojans. While this promise might seem an honorable choice, it also conveniently gets him out of fighting with Hector the next day, another delay in the coming climactic battle. The audience knows the history and knows the fight has to take place. By having Achilles say once again he will not fight builds tension—and frustration. This decision also serves to further undercut Achilles's hero status, especially now that he has witnessed Hector fighting Ajax.

After the feasting is done, Diomedes leaves to see Cressida. Ulysses suggests to Troilus they follow him. Thersites follows as well, offering further insults to Diomedes. He does not trust Diomedes, saying he is a "false-hearted rogue" and he "will no more trust him when he leers than I will a serpent when he hisses." Diomedes may appear honorable and heroic, but here the appearance is simply that, reinforcing Shakespeare's theme of false appearances. Thersites also insults Cressida, making reference to a rumor in the camp Diomedes keeps a "Trojan drab." Drab is another word for whore. Shakespeare must work quickly in turning Cressida into the faithless woman she is famed to be in this final act of the play. Cressida has been in the camp for less than a day and already she has fallen for Diomedes. Whether she did so willingly or as a way to protect herself from the other generals is not clear because Cressida is mostly silent from this point on.

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