Written and performed in the early 1600s, Shakespeare's "Troilus and Cressida" uses well-known figures from Greek mythology to comment on members of the British political establishment. For this reason, the play was initially controversial. Drawing on Homer's "Iliad" and Chaucer's "Troilus and Criseyde," Shakespeare revamped a familiar mythological tale. The play begins in the midst of the Trojans' eight-year war with Greece, sparked by Paris's capture of the Greek beauty, Helen.
The protagonist, Troilus is the youngest son of King Priam of Troy. Bored with the war, he diverts his attention by courting Cressida, the beautiful daughter of a Trojan priest. Troilus is depicted as ever loyal to, if naively infatuated with, Cressida. For example, Troilus persistently woos Cressida despite her elaborate displays of disinterest. When Cressida declares her affection for the Greek general Diomedes, betraying Troilus, he hides, listens and continues to persist, fighting Diomedes during battle the following day.
In contrast to the naive, lovesick Troilus, Cressida is portrayed as fickle, petty and silly. Initially, these qualities are demonstrated by her repeated rejection of Troilus's advances -- despite her reciprocal feelings, she takes a vain pleasure in tormenting him by playing the coquette. After finally admitting her feelings for Troilus, she is taken away by the Greek general Diomedes and promptly declares the same feelings for him. Rather than being calculating or deceptive, Cressida is driven by her own vanity, addicted to romantic displays of affection.
Pandarus, Calchas and Diomedes
Calchas is Cressida's father, a Trojan priest who defected to the Greeks and left his daughter under the care of his brother, Pandarus. As Cressida's caretaker, Pandarus plays the middleman in her love affair with Troilus, relishing his role in a bawdy, voyeuristic way, rather than demonstrating true concern for Cressida's welfare. Diomedes is a Greek general sent to escort Cressida back to her father in Greece, in exchange for a Trojan prisoner of war. He too feeds Cressida's desire for male attention.
Hector and Achilles
Hector and Achilles are the greatest warriors on the Trojan and Greek sides, respectively. Even these classic heroes seem foolish in Shakespeare's retelling. Hector first advocates returning Helen to her husband, but then justifies the drawn-out war as a way of preserving his family's reputation. Then, when he becomes distracted by the beautiful armor of an anonymous Greek soldier, he is killed on the battlefield. Achilles is depicted as an able warrior with a childish personality -- he spends much of the war sulking in his tent and then violently slays Hector when his friend Patroclus is killed.
Ulysses and Thersites
Both Ulysses, a Greek commander, and Thersites, a Greek slave, provide insightful commentary about the motives and flaws of certain characters from both ends of the social hierarchy. For example, when the Greek general Agamemnon complains about his troops' morale, Ulysses cites Achilles's temperamental and egotistical behavior as a source of frustration. Thersites generates coarse insults for every character on an ongoing basis. His running commentary reinforces the cynical tone of the play.
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