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Ulysses (Odysseus)

Troilus and Cressida

Synopsis and plot overview of Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida

TL;DR (may contain spoilers): Troilus loves Cressida, but she betrays him; Achilles loves Patroclus, but he is killed; the Trojan War goes on; no one is happy.

Troilus and Cressida Summary

Trojan prince Troilus falls in love with Cressida, as war rages around them. After vowing to be faithful, Cressida is traded to the Greek camp, where she then agrees to see another man. Troilus witnesses Cressida's unfaithfulness and vows to put more effort into the war. The play ends after further deaths on both sides, and with no resolution in sight.

More detail: 1.5 minute read

Act I

During the Trojan War, King Agamemnon and his brother Menelaus preside over the Greek encampment. They work along with their counsellors, Ulysses and Nestor. Their great soldier, Achilles, is refusing to fight. Instead, Achilles spends his time complaining about his Greek commanders with his friend (perhaps more than friend) Patroclus. 

In a modern white dress, Cressida sits bare-legged by a pool. An older man, wearing a striped blazer and white shorts, sits with his bare legs in the pool. He is explaining something to Cressida, and his left hand is stretched out in front of him.
Troilus and Cressida, RSC, 1990

In Troy, King Priam argues with his sons, Hector and Paris. Paris had stolen Menelaus's wife Helen seven years previously, starting the Trojan War. The arguments concern whether they should return Helen and end the conflict. But they decide to continue fighting. The princes' sister, Cassandra, prophesises destruction for all. Their younger brother, Troilus, is increasingly distracted from the conflict. He has met and fallen in love with a woman called Cressida, whose father, Calchas, has defected to the Greek camp. 

The Trojan warrior Hector challenges Greece to send its mightiest warrior for one-on-one combat.  

Things won are done, joy's soul lies in the doing. That she beloved knows nought that knows nought this: Men prize the thing ungained more than it is.

— Troilus and Cressida, Act 1 Scene 2


Cressida's uncle, Pandarus, assists Troilus and Cressida, so that they can consummate their union by sleeping together. During the same night, Cressida's father arranges to exchange his daughter for a Trojan prisoner. Despite her protests, Cressida is sent away to join her father. Cressida swears eternal loyalty to Troilus. 

On the Greek side, the commanders answer Hector's challenge by sending Ajax rather than Achilles. They hope that this will hurt Achilles's pride and ignite within him a desire to fight. But Hector withdraws from the fight because Ajax is related to his family. Meanwhile, the Greek slave Thersites rails against all mankind and the stupidity of war and conflict.

In Edwardian dress, a dark-suited Troilus holds the waist of Cressida, in a dark dress with a white design, whose arms are on Troilus's shoulders. A white-suited Pandarus stands in the background looking on.
Troilus and Cressida, RSC, 1998

Act IV

In the Greek camp, a prince named Diomedes befriends Cressida. At that same time, Troilus has secretly left Troy to seek her. Cressida does not know, and she responds to Diomedes's friendship. Troilus and Ulysses overhear their encounter. Heartbroken, Troilus realises that Cressida has broken her vows of faithfulness. He returns to the city to fight against the Greeks.

One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.

— Troilus and Cressida, Act 3 Scene 3

Act V

In the final battle, Hector kills Patroclus, motivating Achilles to finally join the fighting. While originally overcome by Hector, Achilles succeeds in trapping him. Hector, unarmed, is slaughtered by Achilles's troop of soldiers. Troilus swears revenge for his brother's death and also (inwardly) for the loss of Cressida and his youthful innocence. Pandarus, Cressida's uncle, cynically ends the play. He sees no hope for a world where politics overrule the desires and needs of the individual.

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