An Analysis of TROILUS AND CRESSIDA (Shakespeare)


An Analysis of TROILUS AND CRESSIDA (Shakespeare)

by Joseph Suglia

Nicht, dass gekämpft wird, ist das Tragische der Welt.  Sie selbst ist das Tragische.

—Christian Morgenstern, Stufen

Troilus and Cressida (circa 1603) does not seem to belong in the age in which it was written.  This disenchantingly sordid play belongs to modernity.  It demythologizes war, it demythologizes love, it demythologizes heroism, it demythologizes the supernatural.  The sour luridness of the play, its fetid atmosphere, is so suffocating that it has obscured its status as one of the greatest works that Shakespeare ever composed.


Seven years deep into the Trojan-Grecian War, the Grecians and the Trojans alike are wracked with fatigue, demoralized, and insensitive to rank (e.g. Achilles is so arrogant that he dallies in bed with his male lover Petroclus instead of strategizing with the general).  Shakespeare reminds us, again and again, the war is not the glorious campaign that it is in Homer.

There is in this play an erotics of war.  By this phrase, I do not intend that the play beautifies war; I mean that it eroticizes war by conflating the martial and the erotic.  There is in the play a kind of erotic bellicosity and bellicose eroticism.  We see this when Aeneas issues a challenge to the Greeks: Let one of them defend the wisdom, beauty, and faithfulness of their lady (Greece) against the superior wisdom, beauty, and faithfulness of Hector’s lady (Troy): “[Hector] hath a lady, wiser, fairer, truer, / Than ever Greek did compass in his arms” [I:iii].

The entire Trojan-Grecian War is based on one man’s libidinal desires: Paris’ lust for Helen, Menelaus’ stolen wife.  The play suggests this to us through its raisonneurs, Hector, Thersites, Cassandra, and Diomedes.  So much blood is spilled over a “whore and a cuckold” [II:iii], as the divine slave Thersites phrases it: “Lechery, lechery, still wars and lechery; nothing else holds fashion” [V:ii].  Blood and death eventuate from one man’s sexual itchings.

Of course, Paris says the opposite.  “Sir,” Paris says to his father, the King of Troy, “I propose not merely to myself / The pleasures that such a beauty [Helen] brings with it” [II:ii].  But who believes him?  “[Y]ou speak / Like one besotted on your own sweet delights” [Ibid.], Priam says of his son Paris.  And is it not true?  Paris believes that the capture of one woman, the woman for whom he lusts, is worth infinitely more than the lives of the hundreds of thousands of men who are canalized into the slaughterhouse of war.  He also believes that his own ecstatic transports are worth more than the sorrow of the men and women who will mourn over the dead.

It would be facile to say that the play is anti-war.  It is anti-war, but it is anti-love in the same measure.  Love leads inexorably to betrayal—or, at least, to the perception of betrayal.  It is never entirely clear whether Cressida betrays Troilus or Troilus betrays himself.  Young Troilus ends up hating the woman he once loved, which spurs him to hack away at the enemy.  Its disenchantment with love removes the play from peacenik causes.

In all love, there is war, but one could evaginate this proposition: In all love, there is war, and in all war, there is love.  Troilus and Cressida suggests the interpenetration of love and war in each scene.  Empedocles knew well that love and conflict, attraction and repulsion, Philia and Neikos, were intimately bound together, and we see this Empedoclean dialectic bodied forth in Shakespeare’s play.  War issues from love, as love is riven by war.

Before his love transforms into hatred, Troilus sees Cressida as a spoil of war, as booty that is worth fighting over.  His infatuation with Cressida is the economic infatuation of a war-profiteer.  He says of Cressida: “Her bed is India; there she lies, a pearl” [I:i].  She is an exotic land to be conquered.  Helen is first likened to semen-stained bedsheets, then also likened to a pearl.  Troilus says of Helen, “We turn not back the silks upon the merchant / When we have soiled them” [II:ii].  Then: “Why, she is a pearl / Whose price hath launched above a thousand ships” [Ibid.].  Troilus is likely a virgin—or one who has been revirginized in the Virgin Machine—and, like many virgins, conflates the ecstasy of love with the ecstasy of death: “What will it be, / When that the water’y palates taste indeed / Love’s thrice-reputed nectar?  Death, I fear me, / Swooning destruction, or some joy too fine, / Too subtle-potent, tuned too sharp in sweetness, / For the capacity of my ruder powers” [III:ii].  As Troilus reminds us earlier, there is a battle going on within the walls of Troy—it is a battle for Cressida’s desire.  “[P]ress it to death,” Pandarus says of the bed in which Troilus and Cressida will couple [III:ii].  Again and again, there is war-in-love and love-in-war.

The paradox of war-in-love and love-in-war can be seen in the antiphrasis of friendly enmity that runs throughout the play.  The warriors are friendly enemies and hostile friends.  Grecian embraces Trojan, as Trojan embraces Grecian.  The Trojan Hector embraces his Grecian cousin Ajax.  Ulysses and Troilus become Best Friends Forever, despite the fact that Ulysses is Grecian and Troilus belongs to the other side.  Enemies volley a fusillade of affectionate insults at one another.  They insult one another fondly.  Paris, overhearing Aeneas and Diomedes railing against each other lovingly, says that this is “the most despiteful’st gentle greeting, / The noblest hateful love, that e’er I heard of” [IV:i].  Diomedes, speaking to Paris, is never more admirable than when he condemns the unholy carnage of the war for the losses that it has inflicted on both sides.  “For every false drop in [Helen’s] bawdy veins,” Diomedes says to Paris, “A Grecian’s life has sunk; for every scruple / Of her contaminated carrion weight / A Trojan hath been slain” [IV:i].  The Grecian general Agamemnon gives Aeneas, emissary of the Trojan army, a feast and the “welcome of a noble foe” [I:iii].  Hector, on safe conduct, feasts with the Grecians, etc., etc.  Characters are friendlier to their enemies than they are to their friends; there are fractions within factions.  Enemies are loyal to one another with the piety of traitors.


Pandarus panders—as his name suggests, he is a pimp, a procurer.  He solicits his own niece Cressida to Troilus and seems to care more about the promise of Troilus’ erotic victory than he does about Cressida’s state of mind when Pandarus learns that Cressida has become a commodity that will be gifted to the Greeks in exchange for the enfranchisement of the prisoner Antenor.  This comes about thanks to the traitor Calchas, Cressida’s father, who is every bit of an agent of mediation, every bit of a “broker-lackey” [V:xi], as Pandarus is.  Calchas solicits his daughter Cressida, as Pandarus panders Cressida his niece.

Troilus cannot come to Cressida except by way of her uncle Pandarus.  This is yet another instantiation of what I have called elsewhere “the intervention of the third”: The one cannot relate to the other except by way of the mediator.  And yet, even though Pandarus is a mediator, he is a mediator who mediates nothing.  All of his intercessions, all of his intermediations, are in vain.

Whenever the two lovers meet, Pandarus is there, hovering in the background.  “So, so, rub on, and kiss the mistress,” he urges Troilus [III:ii].  “Have you not done talking yet?” [Ibid.], he says to the young lovers and “Go to, go to” [Ibid.], egging them on to put on a sex show while he slaveringly leers.  He is clearly prostituting his niece—presenting her as a “picture,” as a pornographic icon for his scopophilic pleasure: “Come, draw this curtain, and let’s see your picture” [III:ii].  Pandarus’ scopophilia extends so far that he projects himself through the medium of the imagination into his niece’s body.  “Well, Troilus, well, I would my heart were in her body” [I:ii], Pandarus says of his niece.

Shakespeare keeps reminding us, unto the final line of the play, that Pandarus is a syphilitic pimp.  “My business seethes,” he says to the subtly deprecating Servant [III:i]—but the Elizabethans knew what the word seethe connoted.  Shakespeare does not let us forget that seething connotes STDs and the sweating treatment that was used to cure them.  In the play’s last verse, Pandarus threatens to “bequeath [his] diseases” to the spectators [V:xi].  It is indeed a sodden and sordid play that ends with the imaginary transference of venereal diseases to the audience.


Troilus and Cressida contains a logic of exchangeability: Characters are fungible, and they interchange with one another.  Paris substitutes for Menelaus as Helen’s new lover.  Cressida substitutes for Antenor (her transference to Grecians liberates the imprisoned Antenor), and Achilles is replaced by Ajax.  As Ulysses says, “Ajax employed plucks down Achilles’ plumes” [II:i].  Calchas and Ulysses are both agents who effect substitution.  Calchas solicits his daughter in exchange for Antenor; the ever-crafty Ulysses exchanges Ajax for Achilles.

Most interestingly, we see the logic of substitutability, of taking-one-for-another, in the romance between Troilus and Cressida.  Cressida is the replacement for Helen, as Troilus is the replacement for Menelaus, and Diomedes is the replacement for Paris.  Just as Menelaus was cuckolded by Paris, Troilus will be cuckolded by Diomedes.  One cuckold replaces another cuckold; one conflict replaces another conflict.  Here is the dreary repetition of war prompted by sexual jealousy.  The conflict between Troilus and Diomedes repeats the conflict between Paris and Menelaus—this suggests that erotically generated war will never cease.

When he lines up to Kiss the Girl with the rest of the Grecian army, Menelaus is the only suitor who is refused by Cressida.  Could this be because he is superannuated, irrelevant, having been replaced by a newer cuckold—namely, by Troilus?

Such is the cosmic irony of the play: The Trojans refuse to give up the Queen of the Greeks, Helen, but willingly give up Trojan-born Cressida.  Troilus presents specious arguments against giving back Helen to the Greeks, and yet his own beloved Cressida is given to the Greeks instead.  History is presented as a series of infinite permutations; the same elements are infinitely rearranged.


Characters refer to themselves in the third person, a practice which is usually coincident with a beclouded mind.  “O foolish Cressid” [IV:ii], which Cressida says of herself, is one example of this.

Troilus, Cressida, and Pandarus historicize themselves—or are conscious of their being-in-history.  Troy claims to be as “true as Troilus”; Cressida says that she should be known as “false as Cressid” [III:ii], if she betrays Troilus.  Pandarus affirms, “Let all constant men be Troiluses, all false women Cressids, and all brokers-between panders” [III:ii].  And this auto-reflexivity is unimpugnable: Literate people today do indeed associate faithful men with Troilus, faithless women with Cressida, and officious mediators with Pandarus.

When Achilles kills Hector, he does so by way of a trick.  He waits for Hector to unarm himself.  Achilles does not even kill Hector himself—he has his Myrmidons do the dirty work for him.  His Myrmidons ambush Hector when he is vulnerable.  The murder of Hector and the grotesque desecration of his carcass are recreant and dishonorable—and yet this is championed and broadcast as if it were the result of valor and fair play.

“On Myrmidons, and cry you all amain, / ‘Achilles hath the mighty Hector slain.’”  The quotation marks are important.  This is an act of speech and an act of writing that will be transmitted to the ages—the news is fake, but the fake news will be memorialized.  All historical memory is fake news, Shakespeare appears to suggest.

The characters have historical consciousness—that is, they are conscious of their place in historical memory.  They anticipate their reception in the future.  They are conscious of their own status as representations in the future perfect; they are conscious of their readers and spectators.  They are conscious of their reverberations through the abysses of time.


There is almost no supernaturalism at all in the play.  Whereas in Homer, the gods and goddesses, such as Athena and Aphrodite, intervene in human affairs and shape the Trojan-Athenian War, there are no gods in Troilus and Cressida.  The closest we, as readers, come to the supernatural is by way of the brief appearance of the Sagittary—who is half-horse, half-man—the only creature who could be described as mythopoeticized.  All of the other characters are human, all-too-human.

The play demythologizes both gods and heroes alike.

Most of the so-called Grecian and Trojan “heroes” are lazy, languid, lethargic, including Paris, who lounges about with his stolen mistress instead of battling against the enemy: “I would fain have armed today, but my Nell would not have it so” [III:i], he says to Pandarus.

Ajax, who is best known for having been bedeviled by Athena and bewitched into slaughtering sheep, is a “blockish” blockhead [I:iii].

Shakespeare’s Achilles is not the great warrior of the Illiad.  Shakespeare’s Achilles is a layabout, lying in bed with his ladyboy Petroclus, who is described by Thersites as Achilles’ “male varlet” and as his “masculine whore” [V:i].  In the first scene of the second act, Petroclus is characterized by Thersites as a “brach,” an obsolete word that means “bitch hound,” “fawning hanger-on,” “prostitute,” or “catamite.”

In Hellenic mythology, Cassandra was cursed with unbelievableness by Apollo for refusing his advances.  In Shakespeare, however, Cassandra is believed by Hector, at least.  He commends her “high strains / [o]f divination” as genuine signs of prophecy [II:ii].  Her ravings are dismissed by Troilus as “brain-sick raptures” [Ibid.]—but this is the imputation of pathology.  The point is not that Cassandra’s augury is pathologized by Troilus; the point is that she is not divinely sibylline.  There is no evidence that she was ever gifted with prophecy by Apollo or cursed with unbelievableness by Apollo.  Shakespeare breaks with the myth.

The general of the Greek army is openly slighted by Aeneas and Achilles, Menelaus is presented as a drowsy cuckold, and Helen, who hardly appears at all, appears as a non-entity.  Achilles and Petroclus mock their fellows in the Grecian army, “break[ing] scurril jests, [pageanting them] with ridiculous and awkward action—which, slanderer, [Achilles] imitation calls” [I:iii].  Thersites mocks everyone indiscriminately.  All of the great heroes of Greek mythology are subjected to deposition.


Troilus and Cressida is a fractured, disjointed play. The failed romance between Troilus and Cressida, which is itself elliptical, is elliptically presented. Instead of a sustained, continuous presentation, the play appears as a series of vignettes or tableaux vivants.

Not merely is the form of the play fragmentary; the characters are fragmentary, as well.  Ajax is described by Alexander, Cressida’s man-in-waiting, as the agglomeration of scissile animal parts (he is of elephant, lion, and bear) [I:ii].  In the fifth scene of the fourth act, Ajax is characterized by his cousin Hector as the agglutination of fissile Grecian and Trojan parts.

And what of Cressida?  Who is Cressida, in herself?  The answer is that she is self-doubling.  At first, it might seem that either she dislikes Troilus or she is pretending to dislike him.  But this is a false dichotomy.  One of her selves likes Troilus; another one of her selves dislikes Troilus.  She has a fissiparous self—that is to say, she has a multiplicity of selves rather than a single self.  She is divided into a “kind of self” and another “unkind self” [III:ii], a self that is loyal to Troilus and a self that betrays Troilus.  She says to Troilus: “I have a kind of self resides with you, / But an unkind self that itself will leave / To be another’s fool” [Ibid.].

The self-duplication of Cressida prompts Troilus to say, “This is and is not Cressid” [V:ii], when he sights her at Diomedes’ camp.  One should observe her ambiguous conduct: She both gives and snatches back the sleeve that Troilus pledged to her—she is both faithless and faithful, both disloyal and loyal.

There is a misogynistic logic in Troilus’ thinking: If one woman is impure, he suggests, then all women are impure.  “Think, we had mothers” [V:ii], he says to Ulysses.  Since mothers are pure, he implies, and since mothers exist, how could any one woman be impure?  Epexegesis: It could not have been Cressida that he saw, since Cressida is a woman, and if the Being He Saw were a woman, this would impugn all womanhood.

As the play opens, Troilus urges the gods to reveal her selfsameness to him: “What Cressid is” [I:ii].  And yet Cressida is not One Thing, not a unified substance, not a substantialized, hypostatized self.  On the one hand, she is dedicated to Troilus.  On the other hand, she is doubtful of Troilus’ bedroom performance skills and seems hesitant to take things further with him: Men “swear more performance than they are able, and yet reserve an ability that they never perform,” she says to Troilus [III:ii].

Cressida herself will be inaccessible, for she knows the finitude of male desire: Once a man gets what he wants, he doesn’t want it anymore.  Once a man gets the woman he wants, he doesn’t want her anymore.  Cressida says in the one scene in which she is alone: “Men prize the thing ungained more than it is” [I:ii].  She will be inaccessible, therefore; she will never be only One Thing.

Disenchanting love, disenchanting war, disenchanting heroism, disenchanting theophany, disenchanting the world of the supernatural—all of these forms of disenchantment make of Troilus and Cressida Shakespeare’s most curiously futuristic play.  It looks backward in order to look forward.

Dr. Joseph Suglia