Troilus and Cressida Summary
by William Shakespeare

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(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 3,290 words.)