*Troy. Ancient city in Asia Minor that is ruled by King Priam. Faced with an unrelenting siege by the more powerful Greeks, the Trojans debate the wisdom of continuing their resistance. Troilus, who loves the Greek woman Cressida, represents the Trojans, who idealize love as integral to chivalrous behavior. Hector, a reasonable man epitomizing Troy’s best values and strengths, urges his brothers to abandon the war as neither justified nor worth the cost.
Greek camp. Military encampment outside Troy, which the Greeks have been besieging for seven years. In contrast to the idealistic Trojans, the Greeks, who are soldiers, not courtiers, are pragmatic and ego-centered—differences reflected in the play’s two centers. Lack of progress in the siege has demoralized the Greek leaders, whom Agamemnon, the overall commander, tries to hearten by declaring that the long siege has been a test of Greek stamina. Ulysses argues that the problems of the Greeks lie in a lack of order and discipline, not in Trojan strength. Rather than debate their motive for war, the leaders urge their greatest hero, Achilles, to fight.
Battlefield. The two sides meet with the strength initially on the Trojan side. The Greek victory spells the end of Troy and its chivalric code as well.
Elizabethan audiences would probably have been intimately familiar with the details and nuances of the Trojan War from both medieval and classical accounts. The Elizabethan age glamorized and romanticized the myths and accounts of antiquity. Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida disappoints that romanticism by presenting a picture of the Trojan War, in which all its participants fall short of their mythological proportions and become all too human and frail. But Shakespeare's intention, perhaps, is not to present a pessimistic world both inside and outside the walls of Ileum in order to induce a similar pessimism and cynicism in his contemporary audiences; rather, he reduces the mythological figures of the antique world to human proportions in order to debunk the notion that the antique world embodied a nobility and virtue against which the Elizabethan world could not compare. It is worth noting that the practice of idealizing the past is not limited to the Elizabethan's idealization of antiquity. Many societies look back on past times and wistfully recall values that the present time may lack.
Many of the characters in Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida border on the despicable, and none of the characters are consistently noble and virtuous. Thersites is a character so vicious, unsavory, and ungovernable that the Greeks, not only tolerating his presence but finding him amusing, condemn their own virtue. Pandarus, by his own admission, is a bawd pure and simple. Helen, renowned throughout the ages for her beauty and command of men, is pictured as a trifling and superficial woman. At the beginning of the play, it is related that she has found great amusement in flirting with the young Troilus as she counts the hairs in his fledgling beard. Later, we see her at play, singing and dancing while the brutalities she has instigated are safely distanced from her by the walls of Troy. Paris is as his father, Priam, accurately describes him when he says to him,
Paris, you speak
Like one besotted on your sweet delights.
You have the honey still, but these the gall;
So to be valiant is no praise at all.
Shakespeare's Cressida is no better than Helen; she is, most critics agree, a coquettish whore. Achilles, the great and powerful Greek warrior, is so self-indulgent and proud that he will not leave his tent to fight and maintain the reputation that has evoked the praise to which he has been accustomed. And his furtive and cowardly killing of Hector hardly allows us to understand why he has been so highly praised throughout the play. Even Hector, the Trojan pillar, is not consistent. He withdraws his objection that Helen is not worth the lives her defense has...
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