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Troilus and Cressida is a tragedy by William Shakespeare, believed to have been written in 1602. It was also described by Frederick S. Boas as one of Shakespeare's problem plays. The play ends on a very bleak note with the death of the noble Trojan Hector and destruction of the love between Troilus and Cressida. Throughout the play, the tone lurches wildly between bawdy comedy and tragic gloom, and readers and theatre-goers have frequently found it difficult to understand how one is meant to respond to the characters. However, several characteristic elements of the play (the most notable being its constant questioning of intrinsic values such as hierarchy, honour and love) have often been viewed as distinctly "modern", as in the following remarks on the play by author and literary scholar Joyce Carol Oates:
Troilus and Cressida, that most vexing and ambiguous of Shakespeare's plays, strikes the modern reader as a contemporary document—its investigation of numerous infidelities, its criticism of tragic pretensions, above all, its implicit debate between what is essential in human life and what is only existential are themes of the twentieth century. ... This is tragedy of a special sort—the "tragedy" the basis of which is the impossibility of conventional tragedy.
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In the seventh year of the Trojan War, a Trojan prince named Troilus falls in love with Cressida, who is the daughter of Calchas, a Trojan priest who has defected to the Greek side. Troilus is assisted in his pursuit of her by Pandarus, Cressida's uncle. Meanwhile, in the Greek camp, the Greek general, Agamemnon, wonders why his commanders seem so downcast and pessimistic. The wise and crafty Ulysses informs him that the army's troubles spring from a lack of respect for authority, brought about by the behavior of Achilles, the greatest Greek warrior, who refuses to fight and instead spends his time sitting in his tent with his comrade (and dearest friend) Patroclus, mocking his superiors. Shortly thereafter, a challenge to single combat arrives from Prince Hector, the greatest Trojan warrior, and Ulysses decides to have Ajax, a headstrong fool, fight Hector instead of Achilles, in the hopes that this snub will wound Achilles's pride and bring him back into the war.
In Troy, the sons of King Priam debate whether it is worthwhile to continue the war—or whether they should return Helen to the Greeks and end the struggle. Hector argues for peace, but he is won over by the impassioned Troilus, who wants to continue the struggle. In the Greek camp, Thersites, Ajax's foul-mouthed slave, abuses everyone who crosses his path. His master, meanwhile, has been honored by the commanders over the sulking Achilles, and is to fight Hector the next day.
That night, Pandarus brings Troilus and Cressida together, and after they pledge to be forever true to one another, he leads them to a bedchamber to consummate their love. Meanwhile, Cressida's father, the treacherous Trojan priest Calchas, asks the Greek commanders to exchange a Trojan prisoner for his daughter, so that he may be reunited with her. The commanders agree, and the next morning—to Troilus and Cressida's dismay—the trade is made, and a Greek lord named Diomedes leads Cressida away from Troy. That afternoon, Ajax and Hector fight to a draw, and after Hector and Achilles exchange insults, Hector and Troilus feast with the Greeks under a flag of truce. As the camp goes to bed, Ulysses leads Troilus to the tent of Calchas, where the Trojan prince watches from hiding as Cressida agrees to become Diomedes's lover.
The next day, in spite of unhappy premonitions from his wife, sister, and his father, Hector takes the field, and a furious and heartbroken Troilus accompanies him. The Trojans drive the Greeks back, but Patroclus is killed, which brings a vengeful Achilles back into the war, finally. Achilles is unable to defeat Hector in single combat, but he later catches Hector unarmed and, together with a gang of Greek warriors, slaughters him. Achilles then drags Hector's body around the walls of Troy, and the play ends with the Trojan warriors retreating to the city to mourn their fallen hero.
The Quarto edition labels it a history play with the title The Famous Historie of Troylus and Cresseid, but the First Folio classed it with the tragedies, under the title The Tragedie of Troylus and Cressida. The confusion is compounded by the fact that in the original pressing of the First Folio, the play's pages are unnumbered, and the title has obviously been squeezed into the Table of Contents. Based on this evidence, scholars believe it was a very late addition to the Folio, and therefore may have been added wherever there was room.
The story of Troilus and Cressida is a medieval tale that is not part of Greek mythology; Shakespeare drew on a number of sources for this plotline, in particular Chaucer's version of the tale, Troilus and Criseyde, but also John Lydgate's Troy Book and Caxton's translation of the Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye.
The story was a popular one for dramatists in the early 17th century and Shakespeare may have been inspired by contemporary plays. Thomas Heywood's two-part play The Iron Age also depicts the Trojan war and the story of Troilus and Cressida, but it is not certain whether his or Shakespeare's play was written first. In addition, Thomas Dekker and Henry Chettle wrote a play called Troilus and Cressida at around the same time as Shakespeare, but this play survives only as a fragmentary plot outline.
The play is believed to have been written around 1602, shortly after the completion of Hamlet. It was published in quarto in two separate editions, both in 1609. It is not known whether the play was ever performed in its own time, because the two editions contradict each other: one announces on the title page that the play had been recently performed on stage; the other claims in a preface that it is a new play that has never been staged. The play was entered into the Register of the Stationers Company on 7 February 1603, by the bookseller and printer James Roberts, with a mention that the play was acted by the Lord Chamberlain's Men, Shakespeare's company. No publication followed, however, until 1609; the stationers Richard Bonian and Henry Walley re-registered the play on 28 Jan. 1609, and later that year issued the first quarto, but in two "states". The first says the play was "acted by the King's Majesty's servants at the Globe;" the second version omits the mention of the Globe Theatre, and prefaces the play with a long Epistle that claims that Troilus and Cressida is "a new play, never stal'd with the stage ..."
Some commentators (like Georg Brandes, the Danish Shakespeare scholar of the late 19th century) have attempted to reconcile these contradictory claims by arguing that the play was composed originally around 1600–02, but heavily revised shortly before its 1609 printing. The play is noteworthy for its bitter and caustic nature, similar to the works that Shakespeare was writing in the 1605–08 period, King Lear, Coriolanus, and Timon of Athens. In this view, the original version of the play was a more positive romantic comedy of the type Shakespeare wrote ca. 1600, like As You Like It and Twelfth Night, while the later revision injected the darker material – leaving the result a hybrid jumble of tones and intents.
The play's puzzling and intriguing nature has meant that Troilus and Cressida has rarely been popular on stage, and neither during Shakespeare's own lifetime nor between 1734 and 1898 is there any recorded performance of the play. In the Restoration, it was rewritten by John Dryden, who stated that he intended to uncover the "jewels" of Shakespeare's verse, hidden beneath a "heap of rubbish" (not only some "ungrammatical" and indecorous expressions, but also much of the plot). In addition to his "improvements" to the language, Dryden streamlined the council scenes and sharpened the rivalry between Ajax and Achilles. Dryden's largest change, though, was in the character of Cressida, who in his play is loyal to Troilus throughout. The play was also condemned by the Victorians for its explicit sexual references (though the sex, while explicitly and importantly present, is portrayed satirically and highly negatively). It was not staged in its original form until the early 20th century, but since then, it has become increasingly popular, especially after the First World War, owing to its cynical depiction of immorality and disillusionment. Because certain aspects of the play, such as the breaking of one's public oaths during a protracted wartime and the decay of morality among Cressida and the Greeks resonated strongly with a discontented public, the play was staged with greater frequency during and after this period.
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