Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1414
During the Trojan War, Troilus, younger son of Priam, king of Troy, falls in love with the lovely and unapproachable Cressida, daughter of Calchas, a Trojan priest who went over to the side of the Greeks. Troilus, frustrated by his unrequited love, declares to Pandarus, a Trojan lord and uncle of Cressida, that he will refrain from fighting the Greeks as long as there is such turmoil in his heart. Pandarus adds to Troilus’s misery by praising the incomparable beauty of Cressida; Troilus impatiently chides Pandarus, who answers that for all it matters to him Cressida can join her father in the Greek camp.
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Later, Pandarus overhears Cressida and her servant discussing Hector’s anger at receiving a blow in battle from Ajax, a mighty Greek warrior of Trojan blood. Pandarus extols Troilus’s virtues to Cressida, who is all but indifferent. As the two discourse, the Trojan forces return from the field. Pandarus praises several Trojan warriors—Aeneas, Antenor, Hector, Paris, Helenus—as they pass by Cressida’s window, all the while anticipating, for Cressida’s benefit, the passing of young Troilus. When the prince passes, Pandarus is lavish in his praise, but Cressida appears to be bored. As Pandarus leaves her to join Troilus, Cressida soliloquizes that she is charmed, indeed, by Troilus, but that she is in no haste to reveal the state of her affections.
In the Greek camp, meanwhile, Agamemnon, commander of the Greek forces in Ilium, tries to put heart into his demoralized leaders. Old Nestor declares that the seven difficult years of the siege of Troy are a real test of Greek stamina. It is the belief of Ulysses that the difficulties of the Greeks lie in a lack of order and discipline, not in Trojan strength. He reminds his fellow Greek leaders that the disaffection of mighty Achilles and the scurrilous clowning of Patroclus, a Greek leader, provoke disorder in the Greek ranks. Even Ajax, usually dependable, is fractious, and his follower, deformed Thersites, embarrasses the Greeks with his taunts.
As the Greek leaders confer, Aeneas delivers to them a challenge from Hector, who in single combat will defend the beauty and the virtue of his lady against a Greek champion. When the leaders go their several ways to announce the challenge to Achilles and to other Greeks, Ulysses and Nestor decide that the only politic action to take, the pride of Achilles being what it is, is to arrange somehow that Ajax be chosen to fight Hector. Ajax, Achilles, and Patroclus hear of the proclamation but tend to disregard it. Their levity causes the railing Thersites to break with them.
In Troy, meanwhile, Hector is tempted to concede to a Greek offer to end hostilities if the Trojans return Helen to her husband, King Menelaus. Troilus chides his brother and Helenus for their momentary want of resolution. As the brothers and their father, Priam, discuss the reasons for and against continuing the war, Cassandra, prophet and daughter of Priam, predicts that Troy will be burned to the ground by the Greeks. Hector heeds her warning, but Troilus, joined by Paris, persists in the belief that the war, for the sake of honor, must be continued. Hector, although aware of the evil the Trojans are committing in defending Paris’s indefensible theft of Helen from her husband, concedes that for reasons of honor the fighting must continue.
The Greek leaders approach Achilles, who keeps to himself since his quarrel with Agamemnon. Refusing to confer with them, Achilles retires into his tent and sends his companion, Patroclus, to make his apologies. Achilles persists in refusing to deal with the Greek commanders, who seek in him their champion against Hector. Ulysses plays on the pride of Ajax with subtle flattery and convinces this Greek of Trojan blood that he should present himself as the Greek champion in place of Achilles.
In the meantime, Pandarus prepares the way for a tryst between Troilus and Cressida by securing the promise of Paris and Helen to make excuses for Troilus’s absence. He brings the two young people together in his orchard, where the pair confess to each other their undying love. Cressida declares that if she is ever false, then all falsehood will forever afterward be associated with her name. Pandarus witnesses these sincere avowals of faith and himself declares that if Troilus and Cressida do not remain faithful to each other, then all go-betweens will be associated with his name. These declarations being made, Pandarus leads the young people to a bedchamber in his house.
In the Greek camp, Calchas, Cressida’s father, persuades Agamemnon to exchange Antenor, a Trojan prisoner, for Cressida, whose presence he desires. Diomedes, a Greek commander, is appointed to effect the exchange. Planning to ignore Achilles, the Greek leaders pass the warrior with only the briefest recognition. When he demands an explanation of that treatment, Ulysses tells him that fame is ephemeral and that great deeds are soon forgotten. Fearful for his reputation now that Ajax has been appointed Greek champion, Achilles arranges to play host to the unarmed Hector after the contest.
Diomedes returns Antenor to Troy, and, at dawn, he is taken to Pandarus’s house to escort Cressida to the Greek camp. When Troilus and Cressida learn of Diomedes’ mission, Troilus appeals unsuccessfully to the Trojan leaders to allow Cressida to remain in Troy. Heartbroken, he returns to Cressida and the young couple repeat their vows in their farewells. Troilus then escorts Cressida and Diomedes, who comments on Cressida’s beauty, as far as the city gates. When Diomedes and Cressida encounter the Greek leaders outside the walls, Cressida is kissed by Agamemnon, Menelaus, Nestor, Patroclus, and others. Ulysses observes that she appears wanton.
Warriors of both sides assemble to watch Hector and Ajax fight. The two companions clash for only a moment before Hector desists, declaring that he cannot harm Ajax, his cousin. Ajax accepts Hector’s magnanimity and invites the Trojan to join, unarmed, the Greek commanders at dinner. Hector, accompanied by Troilus, is welcomed among the Greeks with many warm compliments, but Achilles, meeting Hector, rudely mentions that part of Hector’s person in which he will one day inflict a mortal wound. Stung by Achilles’ pride and lack of manners, Hector declares hotly that he will destroy all of Achilles at one stroke. The result is an agreement to meet in combat the next day. Ajax manages to calm heated tempers, however, and the feasting begins.
Troilus, anxious to see his beloved Cressida, asks Ulysses where he might find Calchas, and Ulysses promises to be his guide. After the banquet, they follow Diomedes to Calchas’s tent, where Cressida meets him and, in affectionate overtures toward Diomedes, reveals to the hidden Troilus that she already has all but forgotten him. As she gives Diomedes, as a token of her love, a sleeve that belongs to Troilus, compunction seizes her for a moment. She quickly succumbs, however, to Diomedes’ charms and promises to be his at their next meeting. Diomedes leaves, vowing to kill in combat the Trojan whose sleeve he will be wearing on his helmet. Troilus, unable to believe that Cressida is the woman he loves so passionately, returns to Troy. He vows to take the life of Diomedes.
As the new day approaches, Hector is warned by Andromache, his wife, and by his sister Cassandra not to do battle that day; all portents foretell disaster. When their words prove ineffectual, King Priam tries vainly to persuade Hector to remain within the walls. During the battle, Diomedes unhorses Troilus and sends the horse as a gift to Cressida. Despite his overthrow, Troilus continues to fight heroically. Hector appears to be, for his part, invincible. When Patroclus is severely wounded in the action, Achilles, enraged, orders his followers, the Myrmidons, to stand ready. As the action subsides, and Hector is unarming himself at the end of the day, the Myrmidons, at Achilles’ command, close in on brave Hector and fell him with their spears.
Troilus announces to the retiring Trojan forces that Hector was killed by treachery and that his body, tied to the tail of Achilles’ horse, is being dragged around the Phrygian plain. As he makes his way to the gates, he predicts general mourning in Troy and expresses his undying hatred for the Greeks. He encounters Pandarus, whom he abruptly dismisses as a cheap panderer, a man whose name will be infamous forever.