Troilus & Cressida

- Plot Summary

Context of this adaptation

Ostensibly, the action takes place at Ilium, the Trojan citadel, and in the Greek military encampment beyond the city walls during the Trojan war (c1300 BCE), a war about which few hard facts are positively known, but of which stories survive in myth and legend.

However, Shakespeare seems to have imagined the events as part of a conflict of his own day, and in this production they may be imagined as taking place in a theatre of war at almost any time since then, especially between the start of the First World War in 1914 CE and the present day

Note: Those who are less familiar with this play may wish to view or print this page out as a companion to the action while listening to this production. Or for more detail, download the full Programme in pdf format from the Download a Programme page.


The young Trojan prince Paris, on a visit to the court of Menelaus, King of Sparta (one of the kingdoms on the Greek mainland) met and fell in love with Menelaus’ wife Helen, who was reputedly the most beautiful woman in the world, as Paris himself was rated one of the handsomest of men. The pair fled back to Troy, though it is not known whether Helen went with Paris willingly or was abducted. The Trojan King Priam accepted her as his daughter-in-la, and when Menelaus demanded that she be returned and the Trojans refused, his brother Agamemnon raised a huge army from all the 69 tiny kingdoms of the Greek mainland and islands, and with a fleet of over 1000 ships sailed to Troy to make war. In Troy itself, Calchas, divining that eventually the Greeks would be successful, fled the city to take sanctuary in the Greek encampment outside the walls, leaving his daughter Cressida behind in the care of his brother Pandarus.

When the action of the play begins, the siege of Troy is in its seventh year; where thousands of lives on either side have been lost and the war is in stalemate.

ACT ONE (Prologue, 1.1 to 3.2 in the standard text)

Prologue The disaffected Greek Thersites, imagined in this production to be a war correspondent, introduces the play to the audience of listeners, acting as a sort of Chorus throughout and commenting sardonically on the actions of the other characters.

Scene 1 (1.1) Troilus, the youngest son of King Priam, finds himself distracted from the fighting because he is entirely besotted with Cressida, with whom he believes himself to be madly in love but is too shy and awkward to approach her. Pandarus, Cressida’s uncle, who has been acting as a go-between, sits complacently at breakfast and declares that he is tired of trying to bring the pair together because they won’t help themselves, and goes off pretending to be in a huff. Troilus joins the officer Aeneas and goes off to join the day’s fighting anyway.

Scene 2 (1.2) Later in the day Cressida is taking tea and listening tea and listening to the latest gossip from the waiter, Alexander, who tells her of the Greek lord of Trojan blood, Ajax, who is said to be immensely strong but rather stupid. (Ajax will play a major part in the action later in the play). Her uncle Pandarus joins them and brings gossip of his own. At this stage the Trojans seem to regard the war as a kind of game, and when the Trojan Princes (Hector, Paris and Troilus) return from their day’s fighting they strip off and display their physique and generally behave as if they have just been playing rugby. Pandarus comments on their physical beauty and tries to interest Cressida in Troilus; she feigns indifference, but left alone she confesses that she loves Troilus but is holding off because of some reason she cannot articulate. Maybe she has lost a previous lover to the war and cannot face the trauma again, but she also values what independence she has in a society where women have few rights, and she does not want to be under the control of any man.

Scene 3 (1.3) Apparently an uneasy truce has broken out, and the pompous Greek leader Agamemnon is trying to encourage his senior officers in their efforts. Menelaus, the husband of Helen whose defection to Troy is supposedly the cause of the war, appears to have lost all interest. Ulysses says that indiscipline has grown in the ranks, and points especially to the case of Achilles, their champion warrior, whose temperament is very unstable. He sulks in the tent, refusing to fight any more, and spends most of the day in bed with is lover Patroclus, a young man who has no taste for fighting anyway. The pair are said to be openly mocking all their senior officers. The Trojan officer Aeneas arrives with a message from the Trojan champion Hector, challenging any Greek officer to a personal (friendly) fight. Ulysses confers with Nestor, the senior Greek general after Agamemnon, and they conclude that the challenge is of course meant to apply to Achilles, but Ulysses convinces Nestor that they should choose Ajax instead to try to make Achilles jealous and to arouse him from his torpor. Nestor suggests that they submit their plan to Agamemnon.

Scene 4 (2.1) A proclamation has been issued throughout the Greek army inviting officers to compete for the honour of facing Hector in hand-to-hand combat, and the dull-witted Ajax tries to find out details from Thersites, who simply mocks him until Ajax loses his temper and beats Thersites. Achilles and Patroclus emerge from their tent in response to this encounter, and Thersites mocks them too. Achilles knows about the proclamation but pretends that he is not interested.

Scene 5 (2.2) In Troy, Priam and his sons discuss an offer from the Greeks to end the war if Helen is surrendered to them. Hector favours the idea, and old Priam is obviously weary of all the fighting and deaths, but Troilus’ response is proudly patriotic, and he wants to carry on the conflict. Obviously, Paris is unwilling to give up his Helen. Their sister Cassandra warns that Troy will be destroyed if they continue to keep Helen, but she is dismissed as mad by Troilus. Eventually Hector reluctantly gives his support to his brothers, and by doing so unwittingly signs his own death warrant. It is perhaps significant that none of them even suggest asking Helen what her wishes are,

Scene 6 (2.3) Back in the Greek camp Achilles and Patroclus continue to amuse themselves by listening to Thersites’ diatribes. When Agamemnon and other senior officers are seen approaching his tent, Achilles refuses to speak with them. Agamemnon, Ulysses and Nestor have all quite obviously arranged to praise Ajax for his modesty and lack of self-pride; Ajax is delighted and responds to their flattery. They choose him as their champion to face Hector, and they do this outside Achilles’ tent so that Achilles can hear them, but their former hero makes no response.

Scene 7 (3.1) We meet Helen for the first and only time in the play. She and Paris are still posing as the legendary lovers, but it seems unclear whether this is because it is what all Troy expects of them or if they are struck genuinely in love. Helen exchanges badinage with Pandarus and mildly flirts with him, and everything about her suggests a trivial attitude to life.

Scene 8 (3.2) Later the same evening Pandarus finally brings Troilus and Cressida together, and is perhaps the most delighted of the three. More and more Pandarus is emerging as an old voyeur. Cressida still seems a little unsure and is afraid of the possible outcome, but she and Troilus swear eternal love to each other with Pandarus as witness, and he practically puts them to bed himself.

ACT TWO (3.3 to 5.11, Epilogue (Sonnet 60))

Scene 9 (3.3) Early next morning in the Greeks camp Ajax is breakfasting with the high command and boasting about his own prowess as a fighter. Agamemnon has received a request from Calchas, who now lodges in the camp. To try to arrange a prisoner exchange, his daughter Cressida for the Trojan officer Antenor, taken hostage by the Greeks yesterday. Agamemnon despatches Diomedes to Troy to try to effect the business, and to inform Hector that they now have a champion to answer his challenge. Ulysses notices that Achilles and Patroclus are standing in the doorway of their tent and suggests that the Greek senior officers should pass him by in procession and completely ignore him. This they do, and Achilles is taken aback. He speaks to Ulysses, who has deliberately remained behind, and Ulysses tells him in effect that his great reputation will be lost if he continues to refuse to fight. She even tries some subtle blackmail – she says that it is common knowledge that Achilles is having an affair with one of King Priam’s daughters, Polyxena, and is presumably stealing into Troy under cover of night to meet her. It is not made clear if Patroclus knows of any of this). When they are left alone, Patroclus generously urges Achilles to return to the war, although he himself has a taste for it. At this moment Thersites appears with news of Ajax’ latest behaviour. Stalking up and down the field and boasting. Thersites urges Achilles and Patroclus to engage with him in a brief ‘Pageant of A JAKES’, with himself playing Ajax.

Scene 10 (4.2 and 4.4, with parts of 4/1 and 4.3 and some transposition of material) After their night of love Troilus and Cressida lie in bed talking of the day ahead. They are joined by Uncle Pandarus, as prurient as ever and now trying to embarrass his niece. Aeneas arrives with serios news; King Priam has ordered the hostage exchange suggested by Calchas, and Cressida is to leave for the Greek camp immediately with the escort sent by the Greeks, Diomedes. Cressida refuses to go, but Troilus and Pandarus, though they set up a wail of lamentation, do nothing to try to mitigate the process, and Pandarus runs from the room in tears. All Troilus can do is to appeal continually to Cressida to stay faithful to him, as if he already suspects that she won’t. Diomedes arrives, and his courtesy towards Cressida arouses Troilus’ jealousy.

Scene 11 (4.5) Later that morning in the Greek camp, Ajax is looking forward to his encounter with Hector and receives more flattery from his peers. Diomedes arrives with Cressida, who is kissed lustily by many of the senor Greeks in turn, including Achilles and even by Patroclus. She protests angrily and feels humiliated, and Ulysses deliberately insults her. Then Aeneas arrives with new of Hector’s approach. But there is a problem: Hector has realised that Ajax is his cousin, the son of his aunt Hesione, Priam’s sister. The rules of war prohibit personal combat between cousins, so that planned contest is turned into a bizarre party, with Agamemnon and the garrulous Nestor greeting their ‘noble foe’. Achilles and Hector, however, exchange insults, and Achilles promises to fight Hector on the battlefield tomorrow, though for tonight ‘all friends’. Achilles invites Hector to his tent for a nightcap after the elaborate supper that Agamemnon is arranging for their Trojan guest.

Scene 12 (5.1, with some transpositions and interpolations) Thersites brings a letter to Achilles from Polyxena in Troy, imploring him not to fight Hector, who is his brother. Achilles appears not to have realised this, and vows that he will not return to the fighting after all, because his major vow, he says, is here. The Greek officers arrive at Achilles’ tent in the dark, scarcely sober after supper with Agamemnon, who himself can barely stand and retires to be with his latest quail (his mistress, a camp follower). Hector is still sober and seems somewhat embarrassed. The rest pile into Achilles’ tent, and Menelaus, usually taciturn and generally ignored by most of the other Greeks, sings a sentimental song. Thersites stands outside the tent, commenting in his usual manner on the others, but spies two people who were not at the party, Ulysses and Troilus, who has apparently arrived accompanying Hector. Troilus enquires of Ulysses after Cressida, and Ulysses, who always claims to know everything, tells him of Diomedes, who has arranged to meet Cressida that night. Ulysses bids Troilus come with him, and he will be able to secretly observe their encounter.

Scene 13 (5.2, with Sonnet 129) Diomedes meets Cressida outside her father’s tent, and she flirts with her, but in the end gives in’ and they go in together, Cressida confessing in a soliloquy that she is ashamed of her turpitude’. They have been observed by Ulysses and Troilus, who can scarcely believe that this is his Cressida. The bottom has dropped out of his world, and he vows vengeance on Diomedes. The meeting has also been observed by Thersites, who of course comments in his usual sardonic fashion to the audience.

Scene 14 (5.3) Back in Troy the following morning, Hector prepares to go out to fight, but not only his sister Cassandra but also his wife Andromache implore him not to go; they both have experienced a premonition that today he will be killed. Even his father Priam tries to make him stay at home. But Hector makes light of their fears, and departs for the battlefield accompanied by Troilus, who now hates all Greeks, especially Diomedes.

Scene 15 (5.4 to 5.11 with some transpositions, cuts and brief interpolations) The war is resumed with increasing ferocity, much of it at some distance with Thersites, keeping himself in relative safety, reporting to us what he sees, although he encounters personal danger in brief encounters with Hector and Margarelon, who introduces himself as ‘a bastard son of Priam’. Patroclus appears to have been killed by Ulysses and Nestor, to make Achilles believe that he had been slain by Hector last night when he entertained him in his tent. Troilus and Diomedes meet, and the Trojan youth is quickly disarmed by the Greek, who ‘corrects’ him with his riding crop as if he were a naughty schoolboy, takes his horse and has it sent to Cressida because he is now her ‘knight by proof’. Achilles, driven mad with grief at Patroclus’ death, ambushes Hector and instructs his private army, the Myrmidons, to club the Trojan hero to death. Agamemnon, hearing that Hector is no more, over-confidently predicts a speedy victory for the Greeks, but Ajax mourns the loss of his cousin. Bedraggled, muddy and bleeding, Troilus drags himself back to Troy to report Hector’s death, impotently vowing vengeance on Achilles, and seems to have forgotten all about Cressida. Pandarus has received a letter from her; Troilus tears it to pieces without reading it and curses Pandarus for bringing them together. The war continues.

Epilogue (Sonnet 60) At some time in the future, Cressida looks back on the event which have now been swallowed up by time itself.