Troilus and Cressida | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Troilus and Cressida | Plot Summary

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Summary

Prologue and Act 1

The prologue explains the setting of the play to the audience. Prior to the action of the play, Greek forces gathered and sailed for Troy after Helen, Menelaus's wife, was taken by the Trojan prince, Paris. The Greeks are now camped on the shores of Troy, seven years into the war to retrieve Helen.

Pandarus, Cressida's uncle, meets with Troilus, a prince of Troy. Troilus does not want to fight because he is lovesick over Cressida. Pandarus has been acting as a go-between for his niece and the prince, wooing her on behalf of Troilus. After Pandarus leaves, Aeneas, a Trojan general, arrives. He persuades Troilus to return to the fighting and tells him Paris was wounded in battle with Menelaus.

Pandarus visits his niece, Cressida, and talks up Troilus's virtues, comparing him to Hector, the hero of Troy. Pandarus and Cressida watch the Trojan troops pass by. Pandarus compliments Troilus, while Cressida pretends to be less than impressed. Pandarus leaves to meet with Troilus. Finally alone, Cressida reveals she does have feelings for Troilus but believes Troilus will lose interest in her if she gives in too easily.

Agamemnon, commander of the Greek forces, meets with his generals. Ulysses believes the reason they haven't defeated the Trojans after seven years of war is the Greek army lacks discipline. This problem is exacerbated by Achilles's continued disregard for those of higher rank. They are interrupted by Aeneas, who brings a message from Hector. He offers a challenge to any Greek willing to face him in single combat.

Ulysses says Hector obviously means to fight Achilles. He suggests that instead of allowing Achilles to fight, they fix the lottery so Ajax is the one chosen. He believes this outcome will force Achilles to fall in line because his pride will not allow anyone to outshine him. Nestor approves.

Act 2

Ajax, another Greek commander, trades insults with his fool, Thersites, physically beating him when his insults become too much. Achilles and Patroclus join them and break up their argument. Thersites leaves, cursing them all. Achilles tells Ajax of Hector's challenge. Ajax leaves to find out more about Hector's challenge to see how he can win the right to fight Hector.

Hector meets with his father and brothers to discuss the Greek's latest demand: If the Trojans return Helen, the Greeks will leave. Hector wants to return Helen because the cost of keeping her is far too high in terms of Trojan lives. Troilus argues against this idea, as does Paris, saying it will make Troy look cowardly to return her. Although he believes Troilus and Paris are acting foolishly, Hector agrees their argument has merit and Troy's honor is at stake. He then tells them of his challenge to the Greeks.

Thersites stands near Achilles's tent with Achilles and Patroclus, insulting the Greek commanders. As Agamemnon and the other commanders approach, Achilles goes into his tent, refusing to acknowledge any of them. Patroclus tells Agamemnon Achilles is ill, but no one believes this excuse. Ulysses eventually goes inside the tent to speak with Achilles; he returns with Achilles's answer he will not accept Hector's challenge. Ajax begins to disparage Achilles for his pride. Agamemnon and the others comment on Ajax's growing pride in asides to the audience while appearing to support him.

Act 3

Pandarus goes to speak with Paris on Troilus's behalf to ask that Paris make an excuse to King Priam for Troilus's absence at dinner. Paris guesses Troilus will be with Cressida. Pandarus honors Helen's request for a song, and Paris agrees to convey Troilus's excuse. Pandarus leaves.

Pandarus meets Troilus at Cressida's father's house and goes inside to fetch her. Troilus swears his love to Cressida. Pandarus speaks for Cressida, swearing likewise. Cressida then confesses her true feelings for Troilus. She has loved him almost since she saw him, but was afraid he was only interested in her because she appeared unattainable. Troilus swears he will be true, that his name will one day be used as an example of faithfulness. Cressida goes on to swear if she betrays Troilus, her name will be used as an example of the faithlessness of women. Pandarus witnesses their vows and leaves them to their night together.

Calchas, Cressida's father and a Trojan priest, defected to the Greeks earlier in the war. He now speaks to Agamemnon, requesting something for his defection and the information he has provided: a prisoner exchange—Antenor, a captured Trojan warrior, for Cressida. Agamemnon agrees. He sends Diomedes to conduct the exchange. In the Greek camp, Ulysses implements a plan to rile Achilles. Agamemnon, Nestor, and Ajax ignore the Greek hero. Achilles, upset at this treatment, asks Ulysses why he's being treated thusly. Ulysses answers a man's value is defined by the opinion of others, and because of his behavior Achilles is seen as less valuable than Ajax, who is slated to fight Hector. By refusing to fight, Achilles has harmed his reputation. Achilles sends a letter to Ajax asking him to arrange a meeting with Hector.

Act 4

Paris and Aeneas meet Diomedes and Antenor for the prisoner exchange. Paris asks Aeneas to find Troilus at Cressida's house and inform him of the exchange before they arrive. Diomedes then speaks harshly of Helen to Paris, offering his negative opinion of her for her part in starting the war.

Troilus and Cressida prepare to part after their night together when they are interrupted by Pandarus. They are interrupted again by Aeneas, who asks to speak to Troilus. Troilus reveals himself, and Aeneas tells him of that a deal has been made for Cressida to join her father in the Greek camp in return for Antenor's release. Troilus and Aeneas then set out to meet Paris and Diomedes. Pandarus tells Cressida she is to join her father in the Greek camp, but she refuses. Pandarus argues with her, saying she has no choice but to do as the king commands.

Troilus returns to fetch Cressida, telling her there is no alternative but for her to join her father in the Greek camp. He is upset at the exchange, but he must go through with it. He assures her he will sneak into the Greek camp to see her as often as he can and asks her to remain faithful to him. He warns her against the wiles of the Greeks and tells her she must be on her guard against them. She worries about his ability to remain faithful, but he reassures her.

Diomedes compliments Cressida's beauty, angering Troilus. He orders Diomedes to treat her with respect. Diomedes deliberately misinterprets Troilus's warnings, causing more angry words. Troilus accompanies Diomedes and Cressida to the gate before relinquishing her into Greek custody. A trumpet sounds, signifying the beginning of Hector's challenge. Paris and Aeneas hurry to join Hector.

The Greek generals gather to watch Ajax and Hector, when Diomedes arrives with Cressida. They greet her with kisses after which Diomedes escorts her to her father's tent. Hector, Troilus, and the other Trojan warriors arrive. Hector decrees it will not be a fight to the death, as Ajax is his cousin (Ajax's mother is King Priam's sister). They fight, and it ends in a draw. The two camps agree to a banquet at the Greek camp where Achilles boasts he will kill Hector. Hector says he will do the same to Achilles. They agree to meet in battle the next day. Troilus asks for Ulysses's help in finding Calchas's tent to check on Cressida.

Act 5

Achilles shares his plan for Hector with Patroclus. He plans to get Hector to overindulge so he is compromised during their battle tomorrow. Achilles receives a letter from Queen Hecuba on behalf of her daughter, his lover. It reminds him he has promised not to fight against the Trojans. Achilles says he will honor that vow.

Diomedes leaves to see Cressida. Troilus and Ulysses follow. Also following them is Thersites who thinks there will be mischief. They all watch as Diomedes speaks with Cressida about a promise she made to him, and then asks for a love token. She returns with Troilus's sleeve as a token of his love before they parted. (The sleeve is detached from Troilus's shirt and likely decorated.) Troilus is shocked and vows to kill Diomedes should he wear the sleeve into battle. Angered at her betrayal, Troilus now considers Cressida the pinnacle of faithlessness. Thersites disgustedly observes the whole scene, saying Cressida has been playing the whore with Diomedes.

The next morning Hector's wife, Andromache, and his sister, Cassandra, try to convince Hector not to fight that day. They have both had ill omens and bad dreams. Even King Priam attempts to stop him, but to no avail. Troilus backs Hector, dismissing their concerns. Pandarus arrives with a letter from Cressida, which Troilus tears up after reading. He leaves for the battlefield.

Thersites watches the battle and calls out insults at the Greek commanders, and he watches as Troilus and Diomedes fight. Hector enters and challenges Thersites to fight him. Thersites says he is a cowardly servant, and Hector leaves, believing him a useless opponent. Diomedes then orders a servant to take Troilus's horse to Cressida to show her he defeated Troilus. Ajax joins the battle, having heard Troilus killed a friend of his, and both he and Diomedes fight Troilus.

Meanwhile, Hector kills Patroclus, causing Achilles to finally join the battle. Hector and Achilles fight, but seeing Achilles is winded, Hector allows him a rest. Angry, Achilles vows to meet Hector again. Hector and Troilus meet briefly before Hector leaves in pursuit of a Greek wearing ornate armor.

Achilles orders his soldiers, the Myrmidons, to hold themselves back in the battle and save their strength until they see Hector, at which point they are to all attack him. Thersites is still watching the battle as Menelaus and Paris fight. Soon, Thersites is challenged by the bastard son of King Priam, but he pleads his own cowardice and flees.

After killing the Greek with the ornate armor, Hector begins to change into it. He is quickly surrounded by the Myrmidons who kill him. Achilles orders Hector's body to be tied behind his chariot. As news of Hector's death reaches the Greek camp, Agamemnon orders Achilles to be sent to his tent. They believe the fall of Troy will be soon and the war won.

Troilus brings news to the Trojans of Hector's death. He exhorts them to keep fighting for vengeance against Achilles and vows to continue fighting. Pandarus tries to speak to him, but Troilus will not acknowledge him.

Troilus and Cressida Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction

Introduction

1 Neither side has won the advantage in seven years of war.

Rising Action

2 Pandarus passes messages between Troilus and Cressida.

3 The Greek generals discuss ways to get Achilles to fight.

4 Troilus and Cressida spend the night together.

5 The Greeks exchange a Trojan prisoner for Cressida.

6 Troilus witnesses Cressida betray him with Diomedes.

7 Troilus vows revenge on Diomedes.

8 Patroclus is killed, rousing Achilles to join the fighting.

Climax

9 Achilles and his Myrmidons kill Hector.

Falling Action

10 Achilles drags Hector's body behind his horse.

11 The Trojans withdraw grieving from the field.

Resolution

12 Troilus urges Troy to continue fighting.

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