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Troilus and Cressida /

A Modern Perspective: Troilus and Cressida

By Jonathan Gil Harris

Troilus and Cressida is the trickiest of Shakespeare’s plays to classify by genre. The title page of the 1609 Quarto edition brands it a “Historie,” but the Quarto’s preface to the reader markets it as a “Commedie.” The 1623 Folio edition of Shakespeare’s works complicates matters further. The play appears there as The Tragedie of Troylus and Cressida, but the Folio’s table of contents doesn’t include it among the opening lists of histories, comedies, or tragedies. Instead, the play-text is inserted indeterminately between Henry VIII, the last play in the section for histories, and Coriolanus, the first play in the section for tragedies.

As a result, Troilus and Cressida can resemble the famous anamorphic image of an animal that looks from one perspective like a rabbit and from another like a duck. That indeterminacy is why the play, even more than the similarly slippery All’s Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure, has become the chief representative of the antigenre called the Shakespearean “problem play.” Troilus and Cressida’s failure to fit into any one conventional category irked some of its earliest readers and critics, who judged it to be neither rabbit nor duck, but simply turkey. In 1679, for example, John Dryden described the play as a “heap of rubbish,” an assessment he offered as justification for his adaptation in which Cressida—improbably transformed into a conventional romantic heroine—remains faithful to Troilus.1

Yet Troilus and Cressida’s genre troubles confirm one of the play’s most distinctive preoccupations. When Troilus, spying on the supposedly false Cressida in the Greek camp, says “This is and is not Cressid” (5.2.175), he typifies the play’s insistence that everything can simultaneously be what it is not, that every object on which we gaze can hold several contradictory values, that the singularity we think we see (or want to see) is a naive but violent simplification of an altogether more complex plurality. For some readers, this insistence makes Troilus and Cressida a decidedly modern play—modern, that is, in the sense of displacing absolute truths with multiple and even paradoxical perspectives, like the modernist European Cubist canvases of the 1910s and 1920s. Hence the title of this essay, “Troilus and Cressida: A Modern Perspective,” might be taken as referring not just to a modern perspective on the play but also to the curiously modern perspective of the play.

This modern perspective—or rather, this modern multiplication of perspective—becomes apparent from the play’s outset. If, as is likely, Troilus and Cressida was written in 1601–02, the Prologue’s opening speech seems custom-made to quicken the pulse of an audience used to stirring war scenes from such recent plays as Shakespeare’s Henry V, performed in 1599, and perhaps also Thomas Dekker and Henry Chettle’s play about the Trojan War from the same year. The Prologue says:

In Troy there lies the scene. From isles of Greece

The princes orgulous, their high blood chafed,

Have to the port of Athens sent their ships

Fraught with the ministers and instruments

Of cruel war.

(Pr. 1–5)

Fittingly, the Prologue tells us that he is “armed” and “suited / In like conditions as our argument” (Pr. 23–25). All this would seem to promise an action drama modeled on the events described in Homer’s Iliad. Yet what do we get once we reach the play’s first scene? Troilus’s opening words are “Call here my varlet; I’ll unarm again” (1.1.1). Speaking in the conventionally paradox-ridden language of the Petrarchan lover, Troilus presents himself as a refugee from the Prologue’s martial universe, refusing war with the Greeks as long as another is waged in his heart over his love for Cressida. But this generic volte-face is itself reversed. When we next hear from the supposedly pacifist Troilus in Act 2, scene 2, he has become a strident apologist for war. So which play is he in? Is he a Romeo or a Hotspur, a romantic comedian or a bellicose tragedian? He is, of course, all these; the Troilus we first see in Act 1, then, is and is not Troilus.

Such multiplication of perspective typifies the play’s constant reframing of its characters. No sooner has the reader made an apparently decisive evaluation of a character than another perspective presents itself. Cressida parries with ribald prose Pandarus’s attempts to woo her for Troilus, but then poetically proclaims herself in love with him. Hector argues thoughtfully against keeping Helen and continuing the war, but on a whim says she should not be returned to the Greeks. Troilus describes himself as a paragon of constancy, but seems oddly disinclined to dispute the Trojans’ decision to hand Cressida over to the Greeks. The Greek characters are just as prone to such reversals. Ulysses is one minute the fierce defender of hierarchy and the puritanical adversary of the theatrically inclined Achilles and Patroclus, but resorts the next to Machiavellian scheming and carefully crafted histrionics. Achilles scandalously cavorts with “his masculine whore” Patroclus (5.1.18), but refuses to fight the Trojans because of his courtly love for King Priam’s daughter Polyxena. And Helen is described as “a theme of honor and renown” (2.2.208), but comes across as a vapid nymphomaniac in her one onstage appearance.

Some of these contradictions can be chalked up to the many competing versions of the Trojan story with which Shakespeare and his audiences might have been familiar. Ajax is “a man into whom nature hath . . . crowded humors” (1.2.25–26), a description that hints at the unlikely quilt-work of literary materials Shakespeare stitched together to produce his character: the valiant Ajax of Homer’s Iliad, the blockheaded Ajax of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, even the scatological Ajax—a pun on “jakes,” or toilet—of Sir John Harrington’s 1596 satire on sanitary plumbing, The Metamorphosis of Ajax. Odysseus in Homer is a brilliant military strategist, but he becomes in Ovid a dangerously deceptive politician; both avatars seem to inform Shakespeare’s Ulysses. Even his Helen is a composite of competing literary traditions: the beauty memorialized by Christopher Marlowe’s legendary “face that launched a thousand ships,”2 and reprised by Shakespeare as the “pearl / Whose price hath launched above a thousand ships” (2.2.87–88), is eclipsed in Act 3, scene 1, by the sluttish “Nell” of contemporary popular ballads. This yoking of competing sources is exemplified also by Troilus when he claims that the enigma of Cressida’s identity “Admits no orifex for a point as subtle / As Ariachne’s broken woof to enter” (5.2.180–81). “Ariachne” is, like the play’s Trojan and Greek characters, a conflation of different mythological figures—proud Arachne the weaver, turned into a spider by Athena, and Ariadne of Minos, who helped Theseus out of the labyrinth with a ball of thread.

But the impression of Cubist characters with multiple selves—underlined not just by Troilus’s “This is and is not Cressid” but also by Cressida’s own claim to “have a kind of self resides with you” and “an unkind self that itself will leave” (3.2.148–49)—has less to do with Shakespeare’s diverse source materials than with his treatment of a more modern phenomenon: the fluctuations of desire and value in the marketplace. Even though it is set in the Homeric age of heroes, Troilus and Cressida brims with mercantile imagery of a kind that belongs more to Shakespeare’s own time. In his first scene, Troilus describes Cressida as “a pearl” in “India” and himself as a venturing “merchant” (1.1.102, 105). This strain of imagery is developed throughout the rest of the play, and with extraordinary persistence; as a consequence, a profiteering mercantile impulse rather than the martial valor or chivalry that we might expect from the Homeric world comes to shape the characters’ actions and identities. The supposedly principled Ulysses, scheming to replace the sulking Achilles with Ajax in the proposed duel with Hector, says “Let us like merchants / First show foul wares and think perchance they’ll sell” (1.3.367–68). Troilus refers not to Helen’s face but her “price,” which he claims has transformed “crowned kings to merchants” (2.2.88–89). Paris, in his discussion with Diomedes of Helen’s worth, praises him for doing “as chapmen [i.e., merchants] do, / Dispraise the thing that they desire to buy” (4.1.81–82). The standoff between the Trojans and the Greeks increasingly comes across not as an epic struggle between heroic figures, but rather as a mercantile competition to “buy,” and favorably manipulate the market value of, hotly desired commodities.

Cressida in particular displays a keen sensitivity to the market forces that shape her own identity as a commodity. Upon revealing to the audience that she does indeed love Troilus, she explains why she is wary about admitting as much to him:

                           Women are angels, wooing;

Things won are done; joy’s soul lies in the doing.

That she beloved knows naught that knows not this:

Men prize the thing ungained more than it is.


Although Troilus repeatedly insists that both he and Cressida possess an intrinsic and fixed value, she fears that her value is variable, and in ways that she can only partially control. Cressida realizes that she is subject to re- and devaluation according to laws of supply and demand; so long as she remains “ungained” or in scarce supply, she believes she will be an “angel”—also an Elizabethan term for a valuable coin—highly “prize[d]” by Troilus. But she is afraid that her value will depreciate if and when she makes herself available to him. The play hints that her fears are justified. After Cressida relents and gives herself sexually to Troilus, Shakespeare presents us with a morning-after exchange that can come across as a cruel parody of Romeo and Juliet’s famous aubade scene. Romeo and Juliet cannot bear to be separated from each other after their first night together; Troilus seems in a hurry to leave his newly bedded love. Romeo and Juliet try to will the morning larks into nightingales; Troilus complains impatiently that the lark “hath roused the ribald crows” (4.2.12). Little wonder Cressida laments that “I might have still held off, / And then you would have tarried” (4.2.21–22).

Cressida’s experience of her fluctuating market value, and of the different commodified selves these fluctuations produce, is ingeniously anticipated by the extended debate between Troilus and Hector about the nature of value. Troilus argues that value originates in the evaluator; Hector counters that

       value dwells not in particular will;

It holds his [i.e., its] estimate and dignity

As well wherein ’tis precious of itself

As in the prizer. ’Tis mad idolatry

To make the service greater than the god;

And the will dotes that is attributive

To what infectiously itself affects

Without some image of th’ affected merit.


Hector here presents extrinsic value as an infection that passes from the sick appetite to an object without regard for the object’s inherent “merit.” This literally pathological vision of valuation resonates with that of the English mercantile writer Gerard de Malynes in his treatise The Canker of England’s Commonwealth, published in the same year—1601—that Shakespeare most likely began writing Troilus and Cressida. Malynes endeavors to explain the causes of England’s economic problems, which he attributes to a crisis in understandings of value. According to Malynes, money should have an intrinsic value and serve as a universal gold standard for measuring the value of everything else. But thanks to the new markets in foreign currencies, which take advantage of fluctuating exchange rates generated by the local scarcity or abundance of national denominations, money’s value has become extrinsic, variable, and dependent on the greedy whims of bankers. Malynes regards this usurpation of intrinsic value by individual appetite as a sickness, one that he calls a “canker”—a term, we might note, that serendipitously rhymes with banker.

While Malynes’s treatise provides a key with which to unlock Hector’s critique of infectious valuation, it also helps illuminate Ulysses’ famous speech about why the Greeks have failed to win the war. Like Malynes, Ulysses is nostalgic for a lost gold standard—in his case, “degree” or hierarchy—with which the fixed value of everything else was once measured. Also like Malynes, Ulysses sees this loss of “fixture” (1.3.105) as a disease that frays the cohesiveness of the Greek army: it prompts “plagues,” for without degree, “The enterprise is sick” (1.3.100, 107). And like Malynes, Ulysses attributes this illness to the unrestrained appetites of individuals who disrespect the supposedly natural order of things:

Then everything includes itself in power,

Power into will, will into appetite,

And appetite, an universal wolf,

So doubly seconded with will and power,

Must make perforce an universal prey

And last eat up himself.


Ulysses describes a world within which the only constant is appetite, a force that unsettles all stable identities by transforming everyone into what they are not. His vision sheds light on the play’s self-contradictory characters. Troilus and Cressida may materialize what it means to be both rabbit and duck at once; but this animal plurality is itself the outcome of the “universal wolf ” Ulysses identifies.

The character who most insistently recognizes the “universal wolf ” of infectious appetite is not Ulysses, however, but the misanthropic fool Thersites. He repeatedly insists that appetite is the corrosive force that unites the seemingly lofty pursuits of war and love. In the process, he offers a quasi-Freudian interpretation of human behavior: all socially valued actions are merely sublimated expressions of sexuality. Thersites sees both war and love as “Nothing but lechery” (5.1.106), and the play bears him out on both fronts. Troilus’s supposedly pure love for Cressida is shown to be a raging lust hurtling toward the “little death” of sexual climax (“What will it be,” Troilus asks, “When that the wat’ry palate taste indeed / Loves thrice-repurèd nectar? Death, I fear me” [3.2.19–21]). And Hector’s much-vaunted chivalry reveals its appetitive underbelly, thereby costing him his life, when he is seduced into pursuing the “goodly armor” of a soldier who turns out to be nothing but a “putrefied core” (5.9.1–2). Shakespeare uses that most Freudian of devices—the pun—to suggest the Janus-faced conjunction of chivalry and lust: after the Greek generals have welcomed (or, depending on one’s perspective, collectively molested) Cressida upon her entrance to their camp, they pause to note the clarion call of “The Trojan’s trumpet” (4.5.73). When we read this line, we might see in it only a reference to a martial ritual; but in performance, we can hear the play’s reevaluation of Cressida as “the Trojan strumpet.” With this pun, the shadow of appetitive sexuality—the Greeks’ as much as Cressida’s—is shown to lurk beneath the performance of chivalry.

Thersites’ vision of the sexual appetite, like Hector’s understanding of the evaluative appetite and Ulysses’ of the appetite for power, is relentlessly pathological. Sexual appetite, in Thersites’ view, leads inexorably to venereal disease. He wishes “the Neapolitan bone-ache”—a common term for syphilis—on his fellow Greeks, “For that, methinks, is the curse depending on those that war for a placket [i.e., a petticoat, woman, or female genitalia](2.3.19–21). And in one particularly splenetic tirade, he wishes the full range of syphilitic symptoms on his lecherous companions:

Now the rotten diseases of the south, the guts-griping, ruptures, catarrhs, loads o’ gravel in the back, lethargies, cold palsies, raw eyes, dirt-rotten livers, whissing lungs, bladders full of impostume, sciaticas, limekilns i’ th’ palm, incurable bone-ache, and the rivelled fee-simple of the tetter, take and take again such preposterous discoveries.


With these rants, Shakespeare expresses more fully the disgust at sexuality and “the thousand natural shocks / That flesh is heir to” that had characterized his previous play Hamlet (3.1.70–71). But whereas Hamlet’s flight from flesh leads him eventually to an intuition of transcendence—the “special providence in the fall of a sparrow” (5.2.234)Troilus and Cressida offers no such solution. This play ends not with the redemptive fall of a sparrow but with the sick actions of another bird: a goose.

It is Pandarus who introduces this odd bird. After accusing the audience of being, like him, syphilitic whoremongers, he tells them he expects to die soon:

Some two months hence my will shall here be made.

It should be now, but that my fear is this:

Some gallèd goose of Winchester would hiss.

Till then I’ll sweat and seek about for eases,

And at that time bequeath you my diseases.


Pandarus’s “goose of Winchester,” slang for both prostitute and pustule of syphilitic infection, conflates the marketplace, sexual appetite, and venereal disease, all of which he “bequeath[s]” to the audience. Nowhere else does Shakespeare spit so much bile at his paying customers. Some readers have therefore speculated that Troilus and Cressida was performed only for a private audience—perhaps lawyers at the Inns of Court—who were more accustomed to vitriolic satire in this vein. But the mere fact that most of Shakespeare’s audiences were paying customers engaged in the appetitive act of evaluation—as the Prologue says, “Like, or find fault; do as your pleasures are” (Pr. 30)—must have made them an inescapable target in a play so horrified by the pathological effects of the marketplace and sexuality.

Pandarus’s final speech anachronistically brings the Trojan past into Shakespeare’s present. But Troilus and Cressida looks forward to our own time as well. The play’s fiercely skeptical view of the reasons leaders take their citizens to war, its obsession with sexuality and venereal disease, and its compulsive reduction of everything to market forces all potentially speak to the play’s modern readers. Some of these themes are uncannily reflected in the newer connotations of the play’s most famous names-cum-commodities. For most Americans, “Trojans” suggest sexual accessories rather than doomed Homeric heroes, and the name “Cressida” calls to mind a marketable brand of Toyota rather than an unfortunate young woman. Perhaps, then, Troilus and Cressida is no longer a “heap of rubbish” in need of generic discipline, but a play whose problematic time has come.

  1. John Dryden, Troilus and Cressida, Or Truth Found Too Late, A Tragedy (London, 1679), sig. A4v.
  2. Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus, ed. Roma Gill, 2nd ed. (London: A & C Black; New York: Norton, 1989), 12.81.