There’s still doubt over whether William Shakespeare’s play Troilus and Cressida, set in the Trojan War, was intended to be a history or tragedy. It was most probably written in 1602, since when it has never enjoyed significant popularity, although it was revived in the latter half of the twentieth century. Based in part on Homer’s Iliad, together with Geoffrey Chaucer’s epic poem Troilus and Criseyde (c 1385), it has been painted in its own right, although not widely.
A prologue sets the scene as the city of Troy during the later years of the Trojan War.
The Trojan Troilus, one of King Priam’s sons, laments slow progress being made by Pandarus in wooing Cressida on his behalf. He goes to join Aeneas fighting the Greeks outside the city walls. When she’s alone, Cressida admits her love for Troilus, but is delaying him intentionally.
Henry Corbould’s original painting of Pandarus and Cressida, here in an etching from 1825-40, shows Pandarus trying to persuade a reluctant Cressida.
In the Greek camp, Agamemnon is discussing their failure to achieve victory with his warriors, with the significant exception of Achilles, who is in his own tent making sarcastic jokes with his friend Patroclus. Aeneas brings them news of a challenge to single combat with Hector clearly targeting Achilles. The Greek warriors agree to rig their selection in order to pick Ajax instead of Achilles.
Back in Troy, King Priam discusses with his sons whether they should keep Helen, when their sister Cassandra arrives and warns them that Troy will be destroyed unless Helen is returned to the Greeks.
George Romney’s portrait of Cassandra Raving from 1795 is seen here as an etching made for the prints accompanying Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery.
Edwin Austin Abbey’s Cassandra in Troilus and Cressida from 1907 portrays her closer to madness, with extensive gold snake jewellery on her left arm.
The leading Greek warriors meet, but Achilles again withdraws to his own tent, leaving them to bolster the confidence of Ajax to meet Hector’s challenge.
Pandarus tells Paris, who is with Helen, that Troilus won’t be meeting them at supper that night. Later, Pandarus brings Cressida to meet Troilus in an orchard, where the couple kiss enthusiastically. Making promises to one another, the couple adjourn to a nearby bedchamber.
Corbould’s Troilus and Cressida in the Garden of Pandarus, from 1873, shows the couple together in the orchard, with no sign of their go-between Pandarus.
Cressida’s father has defected to the Greeks, and asks their leader Agamemnon for his daughter to be exchanged for Antenor, a Trojan held prisoner by the Greeks. Agamemnon agrees to that. Ulysses tells Achilles that their commanders are aware that his refusal to fight is the result of his relationship with one of King Priam’s daughters, Polyxena. Achilles asks that Hector is invited to his tent after his duel with Ajax.
Early the following morning, Diomedes the Greek arrives in Troy to take Cressida, who is distraught at her forced separation from Troilus. They exchange love tokens, a glove and a sleeve, before she is removed from the city. As she passes through the Greek warriors assembled to watch Ajax’s duel with Hector, each tries to kiss her in turn.
John Opie’s Portrait of a Lady in the Character of Cressida from 1800 shows Cressida being admired by two of the Greeks. Although this could depict Pandarus with the couple in the orchard, those don’t appear to be fruit trees behind them.
Hector, accompanied by Troilus, arrives to fight, but calls a halt because he and Ajax are cousins. The arrogant Achilles promises to fight with him the following day, and they agree a truce until then. As requested, after supper Hector is taken to Achilles’ tent, while Ulysses and Troilus go to that of Calchas.
Troilus, who is concealed, is horrified to see Cressida flirt with Diomedes, to whom she gives the sleeve that Troilus had given her as a token of his love. When Diomedes leaves, she laments her fickleness. Troilus is angered and swears to kill Diomedes the following day.
Angelica Kauffmann’s painting of Diomed and Cressida from 1789, is shown as the original above and an engraving below, which is clearer in its details. Cressida is flirting with Diomedes, as the shadowy figure of Troilus looks on in secret, restrained by Ulysses.
Henry Fuseli shows the couple even further advanced, with her left breast bared, in Cressida and Diomedes Flirt, engraved from his painting before 1804.
In the morning, Andromache pleads with her husband Hector not to fight with Achilles, as she’s convinced that he’ll be killed. Troilus is given a love letter from Cressida, but tears it up, and ignores attempts to persuade him to stay in Troy. Hector and Troilus then go to fight Greeks.
Troilus takes on Diomedes, while Achilles, who has been spurred to fight by the sight of the body of his friend Patroclus, is determined to kill Hector. Hector gets the better of Achilles, who leaves and tells his troops to surround and kill the Trojan, which they do as the light of day is fading and Achilles has laid down his arms. The body of Hector is then dragged around behind Achilles’ horse, filling the Greeks with assurance of their victory. Troilus is left to return to Troy and tell Priam and the others of the death of Hector, against his own thoughts of vengeance for the loss of Cressida.
Wikipedia on Shakespeare’s play.
Full text at Project Gutenberg.
Michael Dobson and Stanley Wells (eds) (2015) The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare, 2nd edn, Oxford UP. ISBN 978 0 19 870873 5.