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Troilus and Cressida

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Troilus and Cressida

The heavens themselves, the planets, and this center
Observe degree, priority, and place

Act 1, scene 3, lines 89–90

Pride is his own glass, his own trumpet
Act 2, scene 3, line 163

For Troilus and Cressida, set during the Trojan War, Shakespeare turned to the Greek poet Homer, whose epic poems the Iliad and the Odyssey treat the war and its aftermath, and to Geoffrey Chaucer, author of The Canterbury Tales and the great romance of the war, Troilus and Criseyde.

In Homer's telling, his magnificent heroes attract the interest of the gods. Greeks and Trojans battle over Helen, wife of Menelaus, who was taken from him by Paris, a son of Priam, king of Troy, and held in the city. Chaucer’s Trojan prince Troilus and the widow Criseyde, with whom he falls in love, are fitting company for Homeric heroes. Troilus loves Criseyde even after she is sent away and accepts the Greek Diomedes as her lover. Chaucer is sympathetic to Criseyde, too, in her vulnerable state.

In sharp contrast, however, none of Shakespeare’s characters are exemplary. The leaders of the Greek army scheme to get the warrior Achilles to fight through deception and cheap theatricality. On the Trojan side, Hector argues for returning Helen to the Greeks and then, on a seeming whim, agrees to continue the war to keep her.

Unlike Chaucer’s Troilus, Shakespeare’s Troilus is self-absorbed, almost indifferent to Cressida’s plight. Shakespeare’s Cressida substitutes calculated manipulation for the thoughtful reflection of her Chaucerian predecessor. By throwing a relentlessly satirical light on Homer and Chaucer's characters, Shakespeare makes his play a savage attack on ideals that serve as cover for greed, violence, and lust.

Scholars believe that Shakespeare wrote Troilus and Cressida in 1603, or a year or two earlier. The play was published as a quarto in 1609.

Adapted from the Folger Library Shakespeare edition, edited by Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. © 2007 Folger Shakespeare Library


Further reading
Barbara E. Bowen. Gender in the Theater of War: Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida. New York: Garland Publishing, 1993.

Heather James. Shakespeare's Troy: Drama, Politics, and the Translation of Empire. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

David McCandless. Gender and Performance in Shakespeare's Problem Comedies. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997.
Alexandre Bida. Cressida and Pandarus view passing warriors (Troilus and Cressida I.ii). Watercolor, ca. 1890


Past Exhibitions: Designs from Fancy: Romney's Sketch of Cassandra Raving

From the Collection

1623 First Folio, Troilus and Cressida

1609 quarto b edition of Troilus and Cressida

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