Troilus and Cressida | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Troilus and Cressida | Symbols


The Love Tokens

The tokens the lovers exchange are symbols of the binding love between Troilus and Cressida. Troilus offers Cressida his sleeve, a clever play on wearing his heart on his sleeve. She, in turn, offers him one of her gloves. William Shakespeare once again undercuts the meaning of these tokens with regard to the future of their relationship, another act of foreshadowing. This action is not an exchange of marital tokens, no rings, no binding ceremony like that found in Romeo and Juliet. Essentially, the sleeve and the glove represent the empty promises of the two lovers: Troilus's sleeve is empty of his arm, and Cressida's glove is empty of her hand. They are hollow shells without the things that should fill them, just as their love is a hollow reflection of what true love actually is.

It is easy to see why Cressida can part with the sleeve so easily when she hands it to Diomedes later in the play. The empty sleeve that represents Troilus's love—his heart, if you will—means nothing to Cressida. The sleeve becomes a symbol for her infidelity, the faithlessness she becomes famous for. Diomedes promises to wear it into battle, not as a sign of her favor, but as a sign of her infidelity. He is effectively rubbing Troilus's nose in Cressida's betrayal.

Gloves were often a common token exchanged, but here the glove functions as a nice comparative callback to another set of young lovers—Romeo and Juliet. In the famous balcony scene, Romeo says, "O, that I were a glove upon that hand, / O, that I might touch that cheek!" If Romeo and Juliet are the pinnacle of true love, both willing to die for the other, then Troilus and Cressida represent the nadir. How superficial their exchange of tokens appears when compared to those of real lovers. It is for them the appearance of being in love that matters, not love itself, and thus the hollowness of their tokens.

Illness and Disease

A number of characters make references to diseases and illnesses throughout the play. Often, these occur while characters insult each other and sometimes in reference to the war. Troilus and Cressida is one of Shakespeare's most pessimistic plays, and the language used by its characters reflects this outlook.

Disease-ridden language symbolizes that the world is out of balance and sick. The Greek camp is in turmoil after seven years of war. Ulysses attributes it to the army's lack of discipline. "The General's disdained," he explains, and the discontent "grows to an envious fever / Of pale and bloodless emulation. / And 'tis this fever that keeps Troy on foot." It is not that Troy is powerful; it is the that Greek army is diseased because of rampant insubordination in their ranks. It afflicts the army from the top down with generals being disrespected by other generals. The infection flows down the entire chain of command. The natural order is overthrown by the diseased in its midst.

Shakespeare questions the morality of a war motivated by the desire to get back an adulterous woman who has been stolen away. What is supposed to be heroic turns into something pathetic. Thersites sums it up in a curse: "Vengeance on the whole camp!" He says, "Or rather, the Neapolitan bone-ache! For that, methinks, is the curse depending on those that war for a placket." He's wishing syphilis on the Greek army for going to war over a woman.

Thersites doubles down on the language of disease in Act 5 when speaking to Patroclus, whom he has just called a whore: "Now the rotten diseases of the south, the guts-griping, ruptures, loads o'gravel in the back, lethargies, cold palsies, ... take and take again." The men in this war are all diseased, the noble reason for the war is a sham, and only Thersites calls it out because he's one of the few who can. The language of illness and disease ties in to the lack of honor in the heroes. Because of the diseased world the play takes place in, expecting anyone to be heroic seems silly. Love can't thrive in such a place either, which is why the love story of Troilus and Cressida falls flat. Only iniquity and infidelity benefit from a diseased setting such as this.

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