Troilus and Cressida | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Troilus and Cressida | Themes

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Appearance versus Reality

One of the major themes in Troilus and Cressida is appearance versus reality. Troilus falls in love with the person he thinks Cressida is, not with whom she is in actuality. Pandarus talks up his niece in every meeting with Troilus, comparing her beauty to Helen's, something readers should take note of, considering Helen's own infidelity. However, Troilus chooses to idealize Cressida. Troilus and Cressida only have Pandarus's descriptions of each other's character to go by, and because he appears to have a vested interest in getting them together, his characterizations are suspicious. Troilus has trust in Cressida's fidelity, so he is all the more stunned when she betrays him in Act 5. To Troilus, beauty equates with goodness; if she is beautiful, she must be faithful. He is ill-equipped to deal with the revelation of her true nature, so he believes the woman betraying him for Diomedes to be a different person. He asks Ulysses for confirmation he is awake and seeing Cressida pass along his love token to another man. "Rather, think this not Cressid," Troilus says, and he goes on to say, "No, this is Diomed's Cressida. / If beauty have a soul, this is not she; / If souls guide vows, if vows be sanctimonies." He must separate the two Cressidas in his mind, for this one does not live up to the fictionalized vision he had of the Cressida he fell in love with.

Hector also weighs in on the theme of appearance versus reality. During the last scene before his death, Hector is peeling away the dead Greek's fancy armor when he notes, "Most putrefied core, so fair without, / Thy goodly armor thus hath cost thy life." The outer beauty of the armor masks the rot beneath it, hiding the truth of the pride of the Greek soldier. This scene is a microcosm of the entire play. When Diomedes speaks of Helen and her role in the war, it is William Shakespeare commenting on the nature of this war. It isn't fought for noble aims—the Trojan War was fought because a woman had an affair and left her husband who then crossed the sea to wage war on the man who took her. That isn't heroic, though on the surface it may appear to be. Instead, it is a selfish waste of life. The noble ideal does not live up to the actual reality of people dying over what amounts to an extramarital affair. The Trojan War is not an epic account of heroism; it's an overblown domestic dispute.

Thersites keeps up a running commentary on appearance versus reality and how it permeates the play. In Act 5 he calls Diomedes a "false-hearted rogue, a most unjust knave," and compares him unfavorably to a serpent. After seeing Cressida with Diomedes and observing Troilus's reactions, he says, "A proof of strength she could not publish more, / Unless she said 'My mind is now turned whore.'" The only person who seems to surprise him is Hector. When Hector challenges him and Thersites responds he is a coward not worth fighting, Thersites says, "God-a-mercy, that thou wilt believe me!" because it is so shocking to find someone actually honorable in all of this insanity.

Ajax, in particular, is abused by Thersites and the rest of the company pretty regularly. When Ulysses, Agamemnon, and Nestor attempt to speak with Achilles, Ajax is furious at Achilles's prideful response and begins to rail about his behavior. While the other generals appear to support him and agree with him, they constantly cut him down in asides to the audience. They do not respect him and think him nearly as bad as Achilles, but they need him and use him accordingly, justifying their two-faced behavior.

War

With Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare gives his take on one of the most famous wars known in literature. Instead of Homer's rousing heroic epic of great warriors doing famous deeds for which they will be forever remembered, Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida is an illustration of what truly happens to people in war. There is nothing stirring in his interpretation of the events of the Trojan War. Hector doesn't even want to keep fighting over Helen. In Act 2 he states, "Since the first sword was drawn about this question, / Every tithe soul, 'mongst many thousand dismes, / Hath been as dear as Helen; I mean, of ours. / If we have lost so many tenths of ours / To guard a thing not ours—nor worth to us." War over Helen is not worth all those senseless deaths of Trojans, especially when Helen doesn't even truly belong to them.

This is a strange sentiment—and a surprisingly cogent argument—from a warrior of Hector's caliber. He finds the carnage unnecessary and would just as soon stop the madness, regardless of fame or daring deeds. His care is for the people fighting the war, which makes him more heroic to modern audiences but less in keeping with an epic hero. Shakespeare allows Hector a more modern view of warfare. Unfortunately, Shakespeare must have Hector change his view in order to continue the story—he must capitulate to Troilus's argument, despite functioning as the voice of reason.

Diomedes echoes this sentiment in Act 4 of the play when he oversees the prisoner exchange. When Paris asks him who deserves Helen, Diomedes's response is not of a proud Greek ready for battle but of a man disgusted by the slaughter around him. Helen, he says, "is bitter to her country. Hear me, Paris: / For every false drop in her bawdy veins / A Grecian's life hath sunk; for every scruple / Of her contaminated carrion weight / A Trojan hath been slain." Like Hector, he rails against the loss of life he has witnessed over the past seven years, lives lost on both sides. This is not the typical heroic speech about fame and honor and great deeds. Rather, this is a speech from a man who is heartily sick of the waste he sees on the battlefield for a prize that doesn't seem to be worth winning.

Thersites mirrors Diomedes sentiments in Act 2. He observes that "all the argument is a whore and a cuckold, a good quarrel to draw emulous factions and bleed to death upon." It seems no one wants to be fighting this war save for Menelaus, Paris, Ajax, and Troilus. It is a futile enterprise. Likewise futile is Diomedes and Troilus's battle with each other. With Cressida functioning as the Trojan version of Helen, the battle between those two men is a lesser version of the Trojan War and likewise not worth the effort. Cressida, like Helen, proves herself false. She's not worth the effort to keep her, and Thersites comments on the pointlessness of such action.

Honor and Heroism

Honor, or the lack thereof, plays an important part in Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida. Shakespeare treats his heroes much like he treats the Trojan War, inverting the typical behavior expected of heroes into something base and pathetic. Achilles, the great hero of the Greeks, comes off as a bullying coward, Ajax as an imbecile, and Ulysses as a manipulator. As with the nature of war, Shakespeare uses several characters to comment on the concept of honor.

Thersites has harsh words for his master, Ajax, throughout the play. In Act 2 he calls out Ajax's hypocrisy with "Thou grumblest and railest every hour on Achilles, and thou art as full of envy at his greatness as Cerebus is at Proserpina's beauty, ay, that thou bark'st at him." Ajax is envious of Achilles's martial prowess, and at every turn he tries to cut him down. When Achilles's refusal to fight gives him the fight against Hector, Ajax swaggers around the camp, acting just like he accused Achilles of doing earlier.

Ulysses makes use of this enmity between the two heroes and their own weaknesses to forward his own agenda. He lies to Ajax, cheats at the lottery to ensure Achilles does not win, and generally manipulates the other generals. While cunning, these are also suspect actions that would ordinarily never be found in a chivalric tale. However, Shakespeare isn't telling a heroic story, and so his heroes are almost all corrupted.

Thersites rages at Diomedes in Act 5, referring to him and the other Greek commanders as "nothing but lechery! All incontinent varlets!" A war brought about by lechery has lechers fighting it. Shakespeare casts Diomedes as the adulterous Paris in his micro-instance of Helen of Troy with Troilus in the cuckolded Menelaus role. Still, this isn't a tale of love and honor. Just like Paris and Helen, their "love" is manipulated. Aphrodite manipulated Paris and Helen so she could win the 'For the Fairest' contest, offering Paris the most beautiful woman in the world. Troilus and Cressida are manipulated by Pandarus, who tells each of them what they want to hear. The closest both couples come to love is lust, spurred on by other entities.

Hector is the only character to truly exhibit any kind of heroic mentality. Even Troilus is focused on the fame and reputation of his family rather than on making the honorable choice and returning Helen after seven years of warfare. Hector argues against continuing the war effort, disgusted by the loss of life. He treats Ajax with honor, refusing to kill him because they are related. He even gives Achilles an opportunity to rest when they meet on the battlefield.

Hector's heroic nature makes his death all the more disappointing because Achilles behaves as anything but a hero. Even after Hector gives him a reprieve, Achilles uses his Myrmidons to attack and kill Hector while he's unarmed and unarmored. Shakespeare altered the battle detailed in The Iliad and other source material to make Achilles appear a villain. In the source story, Achilles and Hector fight honorably, but Shakespeare takes creative license to dismantle the idea of epic heroism. The hero of the Greeks is shown to be a sneaking coward who cannot defeat Hector in a fair fight.

After Hector's death Troilus falls further from the behavior of an epic hero as he becomes obsessed with vengeance. His last speech in the play encourages the Trojans to keep fighting to get revenge on the Greeks for Hector's death. However, this speech reads more as a reaction to his own inability to kill Diomedes. He will keep fighting a war now hoping to get revenge on the man who stole Cressida from him, making the parallels between him and Menelaus complete.

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