King Priam of Troy is
the ruler of the city besieged by the Greeks in the Trojan War. Despite
his regal position, Priam plays an insignificant role, calling to order
the war council in 2.2—but participating very little—and unsuccessfully
attempting, along with Andromache and Cassandra, to persuade Hector not to
fight on a day of disastrous omens in 5.3.
Priam was a
well-known figure in classical mythology and is referred to in a number of
Shakespeare's plays and in The Rape of Lucrece. His name was
proverbial for someone who has experienced extremes of good and bad
fortune. In the Iliad of Homer, Priam is an old man, the father of 50 sons
by various wives and concubines. His harem, along with his non-Greek name,
suggests to scholars that he represents a folk memory of some real Asiatic
monarch of the second millennium B.C. His death at the hands of
Neoptolemus is the most important incident of his life, both in Homer and
in later literature. It is described in the dramatic monologue recited by
the First Player in 2.2.464^493 of Hamlet.
Hector is the crown
prince of Troy, son of King Priam and brother of Troilus and Paris.
Hector, the leading Trojan warrior, holds to an ideal chivalric code
centered on the notion of personal honor and the possibility of glory.
Thus he is a principal element of the play's sardonic presentation of the
false glamour of war.
Though he is to some
extent a character type—the romantic warrior-hero—Hector is made more
humanly interesting through his deviations from the chivalric norm. He
recognizes the defects of his position when, at the Trojan council of war,
he advocates returning Helen to the Greeks and ending the fighting, and he
points out the evil consequences of permitting 'the hot passion of
distemper'd blood [toinfluence] a free determination / 'Twixt right and
wrong' (2.2.170-172). However, he subordinates such wisdom to his
enthusiasm for personal honor and glory and agrees with Troilus that they
must carry on the conflict. Like his Greek counterpart as a spokesman for
sanity, Ulysses, Hector presents an image of right behavior that he cannot
live up to himself, reinforcing the play's bitter commentary.
malleable ideals play a part in his death in 5.8, which results from an
ironic combination of obsessive adherence to, and temporary abandonment
of, his chivalric code. Citing 'the faith of valor' (5.3.69), he ignores
dire omens and refuses the pleas of his father, his wife, Andromache, and
his sister, Cassandra, that he not fight. On the battlefield he
chivalrously permits Achilles to recover from exhaustion in 5.6. Then, in
an uncharacteristic moment of greed and vanity, Hector kills a Greek
soldier in order to loot the corpse of its fine armour. While doing so, he
removes his own armour, and in this vulnerable moment he is killed by the
Myrmidons. Nevertheless, Hector remains one of the most positive figures
in the play, self-deluded and weak at a critical moment but essentially
Hector's name is
probably a variation of an ancient Greek word for 'holder' or 'stayer',
and this leads scholars to surmise that he is an invention of Homer or
earlier Greek poets, rather than a rendering of a historical person. He
has no importance in classical myth and literature outside Homer's Iliad,
though he was the subject of cult worship in several places, notably at
later settlements around Troy. Hector remained famous throughout medieval
and Renaissance times. He was one of the panoply of traditional heroes
known as the Nine Worthies, and as such he is depicted in the comical
pageant in Love's Labour's Lost (5.2.541-717).
Troilus is the one of
the title characters of Troilus and Cressida, a prince of Troy, a
Trojan leader in the Trojan War, and the lover of Cressida. As the only
character to have a major part in both of the play's plotlines—a fighter
for the honor of Troy in the warriors' plot and the victim of Cressida's
betrayal in the illfated love story—Troilus contributes greatly to the
play's central theme: the inadequacy of good intentions in a corrupt
world. Self-deluded both as a lover and a warrior, Troilus is a principal
component of, and a sufferer from, the play's atmosphere of error and
He is a typical
romantic hero, but his complex and credible responses make him interesting
as well. Most important, he is mistaken in his attitude towards Cressida.
Although Pandarus' lewd jests and salacious attitude make perfectly plain
what sort of game is afoot, Troilus persists in pretending to himself that
Cressida is 'stubborn-chaste' (1.1.97). In fact, their relationship is
never more than a sexual affair that cannot be expected to last long.
Subconsciously, he is aware of the truth; from the outset he is suspicious
that Cressida will prove unfaithful. His language is also revealing. With
romantic rhetoric, he describes Cressida as a 'pearl' (1.1.100), Pandarus
as a ship, and himself as a merchant; unconsciously, he devalues his lover
to the status of an object and the consummation of their love to that of a
commercial transaction. When he approaches his long-sought rendezvous with
Cressida, his thrill is distinctly sensual rather than emotional (as
compared to, say, Romeo). He hopes to 'wallow in the lily beds' (3.2.11)
when his 'wat'ry [i.e.,salivating] palate tastes . . . Love's . . .
nectar' (3.2.18-19). But he does not acknowledge this, preferring to see
himself as a romantic figure, 'a strange soul upon the Stygian banks'
His capacity for
self-deception is also important in the warriors' plot. Just as he deludes
himself about Cressida, he also deludes himself about the pointless war
for Helen. He feels that she is a 'pearl' (2.2.82) and the Trojans doers
of 'valiant and magnanimous deeds' (2.2.201) in defense other. In both
cases he confuses the real world with a grander, more ideal situation—like
that of traditional literature and legend.
As a self-deluded
warrior arguing for the continuation of the war, Troilus unconsciously
presents an important theme: the unreliable nature of value judgments that
are likely to change with time. In the Trojan council of 2.2 he argues
that circumstances determine worth: Helen is valuable enough to fight over
simply because she has been fought over already. 'What's aught but as
'tis valued?' (2.2.53), he says, but he is unaware that this argument
applies to himself. Cressida will eventually value him differently,
compared to the more available man, Diomedes.
witnesses Cressida's betrayal while eavesdropping on her conversation with
Diomedes in 5.2, his self-delusion becomes strikingly evident. He will not
acknowledge Cressida's flighty nature, or that he was wrong about their
romance. Instead, he hysterically insists that to do so would indict all
womanhood, and further, that all 'beauty', all 'sanctimony ... the gods'
delight', and 'unity itself (5.2.136, 139, 140) would be flawed. His grief
and confusion are real, but his expressions of it are shallow and
rhetorical. His focus is on literary images of betrayal, rather than on
the particular betrayal that has just taken place. He avoids admitting
that his romance was merely a sexual affair by translating it into
His final response is
just as displaced; he translates his love for Cressida into hatred for
Diomedes. Significantly, when the berserk Troilus encounters Diomedes on
the battlefield, he has completely forgotten why he was so enraged and
demands that his foe 'pay the life thou ow'st me for my horse' (5.6.7), a
line that is both funny and ironically revealing.
At the close of the
play, Troilus has forgotten Cressida and is instead caught up in the death
of Hector and Troy's loss of the climactic battle. Convinced that all is
lost, he proposes to fight to the death. His despair is even more pitiful
because, ironically. Troy will actually survive this immediate crisis.
Just as when he refuses to fight, in 1.1, because his love seems so much
more valuable than the war, Troilus attributes unwarranted grandeur to
events concerning himself. In this way he demonstrates in his own person
the central theme of the play. In the Iliad of Homer, Troilus was merely
one of the many sons of Priam, he dies well before Hector does, and his
role in the tale is insignificant. His connection with Cressida arose only
in legends from the Middle Ages.
Paris is a prince of
Troy, son of King Priam, and brother of Troilus and Hector. Before the
play opens, Paris' theft of Helen, wife of the Greek leader Menelaus, has
caused the Trojan War. Thus his story is one of the examples of human
folly that comprise a leading theme of the play. Paris is a decadent
figure; his father calls him 'besotted on your sweet delights' (2.2.144),
referring to Helen, and Paris confirms this judgment when he avoids the
battlefield, claiming, 'I would fain have armed today, but my Nell would
not have it so' (3.1.132-133). In his other appearances, he is merely one
among the Trojan warriors, remarking on the events of the war; he also
aids Troilus' courtship of Cressida, covering for his absence from a state
dinner and sending a warning to the lovers that a diplomatic delegation is
approaching in 4.1. In Act 5 Paris fights with Menelaus, provoking
sardonic remarks from Thersites on 'the cuckold and the cuckold-maker'
mythology, Paris was bribed by Aphrodite to select her as the most
beautiful of three quarrelling goddesses. She rewarded him by helping him
to kidnap Helen. Though this well-known legend was pre-Homeric, Homer does
not mention it, saying only that Paris abducted Helen because of her
beauty. In the Iliad, Paris is an effective warrior, specializing in
archery, though he flees Menelaus in a moment of cowardice. Recovering, he
challenges Menelaus to a duel but is defeated and must be rescued by
Aphrodite. According to a later legend, Paris was the eventual killer of
Achilles, placing an arrow precisely in his only vulnerable spot, his
Deiphobus is a Trojan warrior. Deiphobus
appears in five scenes but speaks only two lines, serving merely to flesh out
the Trojan aristocracy. In the Iliad of Homer, Deiphobus, a son of King Priam,
is a prominent warrior.
Helenus is a son of
King Priam. In 2.2.33-36 Helenus challenges Troilus' insistence on Trojan
honor as a justification for retaining the kidnapped Helen and continuing
the Trojan War, but Troilus dismisses him with the remark, 'You are for
dreams and slumbers, brother priest' (2.2.37), and an accusation of
cowardice, and Helenus is not mentioned again. Shakespeare took this
incident—which appears in two of his sources, William Caxton’s The
Recuyellof the Historyes ofTroye and John Lydgate's Troy Book—to help
establish Troilus' hot-blooded chivalrousness. Helenus himself is of no
consequence and has no personality.
Margarelon is an
illegitimate son of King Priam. In 5.7 Margarelon challenges Thersites on
the battlefield, identifying himself as 'A bastard son of Priam's'
(5.7.15). Thersites declares himself 'a bastard, too ... bastard begot,
bastard instructed, bastard in mind, bastard in valor, in everything
illegitimate' (5.7.16-18); he then flees. The episode serves only to
display Thersites' coarse wit and cowardice. Margarelon speaks only three
lines and has no personality.
In the earliest
editions of the play, which reflect Shakespeare's manuscript, this
character is identified merely as 'Bastard'. By a tradition dating from
the 18th century, he is given the name of a bastard of Priam's that
appears in a list of Trojan warriors (5.5.7). Shakespeare took the name
from either William Caxton’s The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye or
John LYDGATE'S Troy Book, where it is variously spelled Margareton or
Margariton. (The change from 't' to '1' was probably a typesetter's
error.) Margareton, one of Priam's many illegitimate sons, had no other
importance in classical mythology.
Aeneas is a leader of
the Trojan forces in the Trojan War. Aeneas serves as an herald, carrying
the challenge of Hector in 1.3, accompanying the visiting Greek delegation
led by Diomedes in 4.1-4, carrying a warning of their arrival to Troilus
in 4.2, and announcing Hector's arrival for his duel with Ajax in 4.5.
Aeneas represents the Trojan concern for chivalric honour: he is a stiffly
correct model of knightly manners. His exchange with Diomedes in 4.1 of
courteous declarations of intent to kill is a bleakly humorous picture of
mindless warriors who can reduce the horrors of war to an exercise in
In the Iliad of
Homer, Aeneas is a more important figure; he is a cousin of King Priam who
is notably favored by the gods. The sea-god Poseidon predicts that Aeneas
shall be a ruler someday. Later tradition developed this forecast into
Aeneas' leadership of the Trojan exiles who wandered the Mediterranean
world after the fall of their city, and Virgil’s Aeneid makes him
the founder of Rome. Shakespeare and his contemporaries saw Aeneas as an
ancestor figure because his great-grandson Brut was thought to have
settled England and founded London as New Troy. This is reflected in the
anti-Greek bias of the play.
Antenor is a Trojan
warrior captured by the Greeks and exchanged for Cressida. This exchange
is crucial to the development of the play's love plot, but Antenor s role
is otherwise insignificant. He appears in five scenes but never speaks,
serving merely to swell the ranks of the Trojan aristocracy. However,
Antenor has a hidden importance, for in the version of the legend known to
Elizabethan England, he later betrayed Troy to the Greeks Shakespeare does
not mention this, presuming that his audience would know it; the knowledge
makes evident a striking piece of dramatic irony. When Calchas a Trojan
deserter to the Greeks, proposes the prisoner exchange in 3.3, the
audience knows, although the characters do not, that he has thus laid the
groundwork for two more betrayals beside his own, that of Troilus by
Cressida and, more importantly, that of Antenor against Troy. This irony
is signaled by the remarks made about Antenor. He is seen as a very
important Trojan—Padarus praises him as 'one o th soundest judgements in
Troy' (1.2.194) and Calchas says that -Troy holds him very dear
their…negotiations all must slack, /Wanting his manage ‘ (3.3.19, 24-25).
Calchas is the father
of Cressida. Calchas, a Trojan priest, has foreseen the defeat of Troy in
the Trojan War and has deserted to the Greeks before the play begins. In
3.3.1-29 he proposes a prisoner exchange: the Greeks can repay him for his
treason by trading the newly captured Trojan prince Antenor for his
daughter. Thus Cressida is removed from her lover, Troilus, just as their
affair has begun, and she is exposed to the temptation that leads her to
betray Troilus in favor of the Greek warrior Diomedes. Aside from
triggering this development, Calchas' role in the play is insignificant.
In the Iliad of
Homer, Calchas is a Greek prophet who foretells the length of the war. His
transformation into a Trojan occurs in the later, pro-Trojan version of
the legend that was the basis for the English accounts on which
Pandarus is the uncle
of Cressida who encourages her love affair with Troilus. Pandarus, though
a comic character, is also a conventional representation of a procurer of
prostitutes. As such, he is a symbol of the moral corruption that
permeates the world of the play. (Although Pandarus promotes only a
single, non-mercenary affair, in both Shakespeare's play and its sources,
he was already well established in Shakespeare's day as a symbol of the
Pandarus uses a
variety of humorously exaggerated dictions: the rather affected language
of the court (as when he uses the word 'fair' is several ways in one
sentence, composing an elaborate compliment to Helen in 3.1.42-45);
babytalk ('Come, come, what need you blush? Shame's a baby' [3.2.39]); and
the bold language of braggadocio—e.g., in his deprecation of the Soldiers
as 'Asses, fools, dolts, chaff and bran, chaff and bran; porridge after
meat . . , crows and daws, crows and daws' (1.2.245-248). In these
passages Pandarus resembles such other Shakespearean comic characters as
Falstaff, Feste, and the Nurse of Romeo and Juliet. Aeneas parodies him in
4.2.56-59, emphasizing both his comic aspect and his inferior social
himself into other people's lives and is capable of outrageous
interruptions, as in his interception of Cressida's despairing cry to
Troilus, 'Have the god's envy?' with the thoughtless 'Ay, ay, ay, ay, 'tis
too plain a case' (4.4.27-28), and even if physical intrusiveness ('Let me
embrace, too' [4.4.13]). As we know from the eventual result of the
liaison he arranges, Pandarus is ultimately malevolent. This is strikingly
conveyed by his association with venereal disease in 5.4 and 5.10.
character, speakingi verse for the first time, as the formality of the
device demands. However, he is still comically reprehensible. His recital
on the humblebee, whose 'Sweet honey and sweet notes together fail' is a
completely appropriate ending for this play of mistakes,
misunderstandings, and failures. His flippant insults serve to distance
the audience from the play as it closes. Because the audience is actually
not composed of 'traitors and bawds . . . traders in the flesh . . .
Brethren and sisters of the hold-door trade' (5.10.37, 46, 52), it need
not identify with the play's discouraging ending and can feel itself
superior to its corrupt world. The satirical nature of the play is
confirmed, implicitly allowing for the existence of human virtues in
contrast to the vices depicted on stage. Thus Pandarus provides some sense
of the high-spirited resolution typical in Comedy.
Pandarus appears in
the Iliad of Homer, but although he is an unpleasant character in that
epic, he as nothing to do with Troilus or any other lovers (Cressida does
not appear in Homer). It was in the Middle Ages that Pandarus first
acquired his role as the lovers' go-between. By Shakespeare's day his name
had become a common noun (and later a verb), although the spelling had
changed slightly to pander, in which form it is still in common use.
Agamemnon is the
leader of the Greek forces in the Trojan War. Although Ulysses calls him
'Thou great commander, nerves and bone of Greece' (1.3.55), Agamemnon is
in fact an ineffectual leader. He preaches ponderously, but Achilles can
safely ignore his orders; the Greek forces are accordingly stymied in
their siege of Troy. Much of what Ulysses calls the absence of'degree'
(1.3.83, 101, 109, etc.)—a dissolution of the hierarchy on which Greek
society has been based—can be attributed to Agamemnon's recurrent
weakness. At the play's close, Agamemnon still lacks authority; in the
last line spoken by a Greek, he sends a messenger to request submissively
the presence of Achilles, just as he has had to do all along.
The Agamemnon of
classical myth and legend probably derives from a historical king who
ruled in the Argive, a region of Greece near Corinth, during the Bronze
Age. His post as commander of the Greek forces at Troy is recorded in the
Iliad of Homer, as are his lack of resolve and his inability to control
Achilles. Homer's Odyssey and later plays by Greek dramatists continued
his tale after the war: upon his return home, he is killed by his wife,
Clytemnestra, and her lover. This murder impels Orestes, his son, to kill
his mother in revenge. This event and Orestes' subsequent torment by
supernatural spirits constitute the Oresteia, the subject of works by all
the major Greek dramatists and many other writers, into modem times.
Menelaus is the king
of Sparta and a leader of the Greeks in the Trojan War. Before the play
opens, the theft of Menelaus' wife, Helen, by Prince Paris of Troy has
sparked the war. However, although he is the ostensible beneficiary of the
war and the younger brother of the Greek commander Agamemnon, he is an
inconsequential figure. He speaks more than one line in only one scene,
4.5, where in brief exchanges he is wittily mortified by both Patroclus
and Cressida. His insignificance makes the cause of the war seem all the
more trivial, an important motif of the play. This theme is further
supported by the frequent derisive references to Menelaus' status as a
cuckold. In the Iliad of Homer, Menelaus is intermittently a major
figure—defeating Paris in a duel but prevented from killing him by the
goddess Aphrodite, for example—but he consciously subordinates himself to
Agamemnon. In the Odyssey and later works he resumes a comfortable
domestic life with Helen after the war.
Achilles is a Greek
warrior in the Trojan War. Though acknowledged as the greatest Greek
warrior, Achilles refuses to fight because he feels he is insufficiently
appreciated; he is also motivated by a treasonous desire to please a
Trojan lover. Not until Act 5, after his close friend Patroclus is killed,
does Achilles, enraged with grief, return to the battlefield. Then, he
underhandedly has his followers, the Myrmidons, kill the chivalrous
Hector, thereby ensuring the defeat of Troy in the climactic battle. In
5.8 he further discredits himself by declaring that he will mutilate
Hector's body by dragging it behind his horse.
the Greek camp by ridiculing his superior officers, Agamemnon and Nestor.
Ulysses, in a significant passage, holds Achilles' attitude responsible
for the Greek failure to defeat Troy despite seven years of fighting.
Societies fail, he says, when hierarchical rankings are not observed.
Moreover, Achilles' insubordination has spread, and Ajax is behaving
similarly. The prideful warrior thus represents a social defect that is
one of the targets of the play's satire—the evil influence of morally
deficient leadership. Achilles' selfish, traitorous, and brutally
unchivalrous behavior is the centre-piece of the play's depiction of the
ugliness of war and the warrior's life, in principle dedicated to ideals
of valor and honor but in fact governed by immorality.
is rude and uncivil for the most part, and he falsely claims the honor of
having defeated Hector, whom he has merely butchered. His villainy is
underlined by the obscene and vicious raillery of his jester, Thersites,
whose remarks include the accurate observation that Achilles has 'too much
blood and too little brain' (5.1.47), and the imputation that he keeps
Patroclus as a 'masculine whore' (5.1.16).
The Achilles of
classical mythology, recorded first in the Iliad of Homer, is an outsider,
the son of a sea nymph and the leader of a semi-civilized tribe in remote
Thessaly—what is now north-eastern Greece. He is disliked as the only
Greek leader who still makes human sacrifices, and his treatment of
Hector's body is associated with his barbarian ways. He is noted for his
uncontrollable anger and his merciless rage in battle. He withdraws from
combat during a dispute with Agamemnon over a concubine, Briseis (the
original name of Cressida), returning, as in the play, upon the death of
Patroclus. Apparently under the influence of Homer, cults venerating
Achilles as a demigod were established in several distant regions of the
classical world. A later tradition, dating only from Roman times, states
that Achilles' mother dipped him in the sacred river Styx, rendering him
invulnerable except on the heel by which she had held him. He was later
killed by an arrow—fired by Paris—that struck that heel. This legend gives
us our name for the tendon attached to the heel: the Achilles tendon.
Ajax is a Greek warrior in the Trojan War.
For the most part, Ajax is a variant on the ancient Miles Gloriosus
character type: a braggart soldier, a laughable buffoon who is not to be
taken seriously. He presents a comic variation on an important theme: the
vanity of the warrior's lust for military glory. At the same time, he has
notable redeeming features that offer a counterpoint to the play's
generally acerbic tone.
Before he appears, Ajax is humorously
described by Alexander as a valiant warrior but a beastlike churl with
uncontrollable emotions. (Some scholars believe that this passage
[1.2.19-31] is a satirical description of Ben Jonson, though the point is
extremely disputable.) When he does appear, Ajax is laughably stupid,
incapable of responding to Thersites' teasing except by hitting him.
Selected by Ulysses as a substitute for Achilles, Ajax displays ludicrous
pride in his undeserved position, especially since he criticizes Achilles
for his pride, and elicits the amused asides of the other Greeks in
2.3.201-224. One of the play's funniest passages is Thersites' imitation
of Ajax' ego in 3.3.279-302. Ajax issues a preposterous parody of a
chivalric challenge as he directs his trumpeter to summon HECTOR for their
duel, saying, 'Now, crack thy lungs, . . . stretch thy chest, and let thy
eyes spout blood' (4.5.7-10).
However, Ajax proves
a brave soldier who behaves with valor and chivalrous generosity when he
actually faces Hector, getting the better of the fight (according to the
cries of the spectators in 4.5.113-115) but accepting the truce his
opponent desires. Strikingly, when Thersites describes Ajax as 'a very
land-fish, languageless, a monster' (3.3.262-263), we see that this
brutish fellow resembles a later Shakespearean figure—also sympathetic in
spite of his defects—Caliban, the fishy monster of The Tempest.
Ajax (Latin for the
Greek Aias) is the name of two characters in the Iliad of Homer;
Shakespeare combines them. The opponent of Hector corresponds to Aias
Telamon, described by Homer as the bulwark of the Greek forces, a
courageous warrior who is slow of speech but repeatedly a leader in
assault and the last to retreat; he successfully duels Hector, as in the
play. Otherwise, Shakespeare's character corresponds to Aias Oileus,
often called Aias the Lesser, also a fine warrior but notorious for his
pride, rudeness, and blasphemy. In the Odyssey, he is drowned by the
seagod Poseidon for cursing the gods while escaping a shipwreck. In a
later tradition, he raped Cassandra on an altar during the sack of Troy, a
misdeed whose punishment accounted for a custom by which his descendants
were annually required to provide two virgins who ran a gauntlet of the
townspeople and, if they survived, served for life in the temple of
Athena. The end of this barbaric practice around 100 A.D. was reported by
Plutarch, who said it had lasted 1,000 years.
Ulysses is a Greek
leader in the Trojan War. Ulysses is a voice of sanity among the Greeks,
who are fighting a dishonorable war for a pointless cause. Yet such is the
corruption of the world of the play that Ulysses fails to influence his
fellows and, indeed, gives up his own ideals. In both his idealism and his
failure he corresponds to Hector among the Trojans.
However, the common
sense and political wisdom of Ulysses provide a background against which
to view the corrupt world of the play. He diagnoses the Greek failure in
the war as due to their departure from strict adherence to a system of
social hierarchy, like that of the 'heavens themselves' (1.3.85). However,
in his effort to convince Achilles that he should return to the battle he
abandons this idea and instead encourages the reluctant warrior to
consider the loss of status he risks by permitting Ajax to receive the
laurels he could receive himself. In giving up his ideals to promote this
rivalry, Ulysses reveals himself to be a pragmatist, but the event
contributes to our sense of disorder in the play's world. Moreover, his
compromise fails in its purpose, for Achilles again withdraws from the
battle, and only Patroclus' death finally brings his sword into play.
Ulysses, though wise, is no less subject to the chances of war than anyone
Ulysses' judgments of
the other characters, though firmly stated, are distinctly, if slightly,
mistaken, adding to the play's network of self-deception and error. In
4.5, on the strength of his first impression, he declares Cressida to be a
prostitute; while he has perceived her sexuality, he has misread it, for
she is merely a frankly sensual woman whom circumstance has placed in
temptation's way. Ulysses praises Diomedes for a spirit that 'In
aspiration lifts him from the earth' (4.5.16); he recognizes an intensity
of purpose, but he fails to see that Diomedes' energies are to be expended
on an extremely earthly aspiration: the seduction of Cressida. Similarly,
Ulysses says of Troilus that he 'gives not till judgment guide his bounty'
(4.5.102), yet we know that Troilus has committed himself to Cressida
without judgment. However, Troilus is an idealist in love, and Ulysses'
opinion is not wrong, merely uninformed. We are made aware that wisdom and
objectivity are no guarantee of knowledge in the world of the, play.
Ulysses (better known
by his Greek name, Odysseus) is a principal character in the Iliad of
Homer. He is noted for his wisdom and good sense as a strategist, and he
is also a valiant warrior. He is the central figure in the Iliad's.
successor, the Odyssey, which recounts his long series of adventures after
the war. In Homer, Odysseus was famous for craftiness—reflected in the
play in Thersites' reference to him as 'that. . . dog-fox Ulysses'
(5.4.11). Although he lies fluently when he needs to he is essentially
honorable. In later tradition, however, especially in the ancient Greek
dramatists, he appears as a cowardly rascal. He was worshipped as a
demigod in the cults of later antiquity.
Nestor is the oldest
of the Greek leaders in the Trojan War. Though respected for his great
age, Shakespeare's Nestor is a faintly ludicrous old man who boasts about
his longevity and is full of platitudes and long-winded speeches. For
instance, agreeing with Ulysses that another character's purpose is plain,
Nestor says, 'True; the purpose is perspicuous as substance / Whose
grossness little characters sum up' (1.3.324-325). He is chiefly a
supporter of Ulysses' schemes to coax Achilles into battle and does very
little otherwise. Nestor was first presented in the Iliad of Homer, where
he is the same self-righteous and ineffectual old man we see in
Shakespeare. In Homer he is somewhat more than 60, a very respectable age
in the ancient world; in the Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which
Shakespeare read, he is an improbable 200 years old.
Diomedes is Greek
warrior and seducer of Cressida. Diomedes plays a very minor role in the
Trojan War until he is assigned to oversee the exchange of prisoners
whereby Cressida is traded for Antenor. When he arrives among the Trojans:
he expresses a sharply cynical view of Helen that makes plain his lack of
the romantic idealism that has led Troilus to deceive himself about love.
Thus, when he manipulates Cressida's emotions in 5.2, using an affected
disinterest—the tactic with which she herself beguiled Troilus—we
recognize him as a cold blooded seducer. When she agrees to a sexual
assignation he demands from her the love token given her by Troilus, thus
climaxing her betrayal. Diomedes is coolly amoral, contributing to our
sense of the corruption that infects the play's world.
In the Iliad of
Homer, Diomedes is the king of Argos, a Greek state owing allegiance to
Agamemnon, and he is second only to his overlord in prestige and power He
plays a prominent part in the Trojan War, both as a warrior and
strategist, and he is closely associated with Odysseus (the play's
Ulysses). He has no love life in the Iliad (his connection to Cressida
arose Only with the development of her story in the Middle Ages), though a
post-Homeric tradition gave him a wife whose infidelity while he was at
Troy causes him 'to emigrate to Italy after his return; there he founded
several cities and chivalrously refused to fight the Trojan refugees who
also came there. He was an object of cult worship in Italy, especially on
the shores of the 'Adriatic, where the sea birds were believed to be the
souls of his followers.
Patroclus is a Greek
warrior in the Trojan War and friend and follower of Achilles. While he
himself is not an important figure, Patroclus' death is a key event in the
plot, for it sparks Achilles to abandon his withdrawal from the combat and
resume fighting, with the result that Troy loses the climactic battle.
Batroclus represents Achilles in his dispute with the Greek leader,
relaying his friend's statements of non-cooperation and carrying messages
back to him. And, in an incidental episode that heightens the aura of
decadence that surrounds the warriors, Achilles' jester, Thersites, taunts
Patroclus with a piece of malicious gossip, saying, 'Thou art said to be
Achilles' male varlet ... his masculine whore' (5.1.14, 16), though the
imputation is carried no further and has no dramatic significance.
In the Iliad of
Homer, which contains the original version of Patroclus' story, Patroclus
was somewhat older than Achilles. He was an attendant of the warrior
because, as a boy, he had been taken under the protection of Achilles'
father after accidentally killing someone. In Homer, Achilles' devoted
friendship for Patroclus is one of the warrior's fine attributes, and
there is no hint of a homosexual relationship. However, the tradition that
the two were lovers was established by the 6th century B.C.
Thersites is the
jester, or Fool, to Ajax and Achilles. Thersites rails against everyone he
encounters, and his diatribes are vicious and hateful. He is also a coward
who avoids combat by unashamedly declaring himself too roguish a person to
be fought by a chivalrous knight. The unhealthy aura of disgust that
distinguishes this play and contributes greatly to its satire owes much to
Thersites' outbursts. Thersites is not likeable, but his language is
inventive and funny and he is capable of amusing imitations of his
targets' especially when he enacts the prideful Ajax in 3.3 279-302.
Further, his perception of the follies of the warriors of the Trojan War
is refreshingly acute, and we respect his capacity to see through the
combatants' pretensions to reason and honor when they persist in fighting
a sordid, irrational war.
Thersites is a
composite of two ancient character types: the boastful Miles Gloriosus, a
braggart soldier; and the scathing critic, a sort of Chorus whose usually
comic commentary provides telling asides on the main action. As a court
jester, he is licensed to insult his superiors, and he thus resembles, in
a perverse way, other Shakespearean fools such as Feste and the Fool in
King Lear. However, unlike them, Thersites is "lost in the labyrinth
of [his] fury' (2.3.1-2), and his obscene jests often tell us more about
his own disturbed nature than about the warriors he mocks. He displays a
morbid excitement when other characters are suffering most, as when he
cries out, 'Now the pledge: now, now, now!' (5.2.65), when Troilus
witnesses Cressida surrendering to Diomedes the token he had given her.
Moreover, he often directs his venom at himself, declaring, for example,
'I am a rascal ... a very filthy rogue' (5.4.28-29), and T am a bastard
... I am bastard begot, bastard instructed, bastard in mind, bastard in
valor, in everything illegitimate' (5.7.16-18). Thersites' pathology has
dramatic value, heightening the sense of disease that the play's world
Thersites plays a
similar, though much less prominent, role in the Iliad of Homer, the
ultimate source of the drama. In one episode, he rails at Agamemnon until
Odysseus (Shakespeare's Ulysses) beats him into silence. In a later
tradition, Achilles kills him for insulting him while he is in mourning
for an Amazon queen he has slain in combat.
Alexander is a servant of Cressida.
Alexander appears only in one scenewhere he tells his mistress that the
Trojan prince Hector is furious because he has been humbled in battle by
the Greek warrior Ajax. He describes Ajax in humorous terms as a beastlike
man. This brief episode introduces the rivalries of the warriors in a
fashion that signals the play's satiric intents.
Servant is an
employee of Prince Paris. In 3.1 Pandarus asks the Servant about Paris;
the Servant replies with saucy witticisms that go over Pandarus' head. The
episode exposes Pandarus' foolish and supercilious manner. Second Servant
is a follower of Diomedes. In 5.5 the Servant is instructed to take
Troilus' captured horse to Cressida as Diomedes' testament to his
superiority to her ex-lover.
Helen is the mistress of Prince Paris of
Troy. Years before the play opens, Paris stole Helen from King Menelaus
of Sparta, thereby sparking the Trojan War. Helen appears only in 3.1,
where she is portrayed as a simpering lady of fashion whose vapid coquetry
induces Pandarus to sing a love song while she entirely misses her guest's
transmission of a message to Paris. That the object of the conflict should
be this inane society hostess illustrates the play's lessons on the false
glamour of both sex and war, and these lessons are confirmed by the
warriors' own opinions of Helen. She is repeatedly declared an inadequate
cause of war by Hector, Priam, Diomedes (with particularly scathing
remarks in 4.1.56-67), and even by Troilus in 1.1.90-94, although
elsewhere Troilus, arguing for the continuance of the war, calls Helen 'a
pearl / Whose price hath launched a thousand ships' (2.2.82-83).
(Shakespeare's alteration of this famous line by Marlowe—even better known
then than it is now—is significant; Helen's price, rather than her/acc, as
in Dr Faustus, launches the ships.) In classical mythology, Helen is one
of the offspring resulting from the rape of Leda by Zeus, who was
disguised as a swan. She was accordingly born from an egg, whose shell was
reputedly preserved as a relic in Sparta into historical times. This cult,
and the fact that her name is not Greek, may reflect Helen's status as a
'faded' deity, a goddess in an earlier, now lost religion.
Andromache is the wife of Hector. In 5.3, disturbed
by dire omens, Andromache unsuccessfully tries to persuade Hector not to
fight. The episode humanizes the warrior by showing that he has a loving
spouse, and it also stresses his fatal destiny. According to classical
mythology, Andromache became the slave of Achilles' son after the fall of
Troy, later marrying Helenus.
Cassandra is a
princess of Troy, the daughter of King Priam and sister to the princes
Hector, Troilus and Paris. Cassandra, a seer, twice foretells the fall of
Troy. First, she hysterically interrupts a council of war to warn, 'Troy
burns, or else let Helen go' (2;2 113), only to be dismissed as the victim
of 'brain-sick raptures' (2.2.123). In 5.3, in calmer tones, she joins
Andormache and Priam in trying to persuade Hector not to enter battle on a
day of ill omens. Rebuffed again, she bids her brother a sad farewell.
Although the other characters do not believe her, Cassandra's prophecies
contribute to the play's atmosphere of fateful destiny, for they are known
by the audience to be ironically correct.
In the Iliad of
Homer, Cassandra is a minor figure and not a seer. She first appears as a
prophet in Greek literature of the 5th century B.C. According to the
dramatist Aeschylus, her prophetic power was given to her by Apollo, but
when she refused his love, he transformed it into a curse, causing her to
be always disbelieved. This myth has been well known since ancient times
and Shakespeare could presume that his audience would recognize Apollo's
curse in the Trojans rejection of Cassandra's warnings.
Cressida is one of
the title characters and lover of Troilus. Because Cressida's betrayal of
her lover in favor of the Greek Diomedes is the focal event of the love
plot, many commentators have seen her role as that of a villain, though in
fact Shakespeare did not treat her unsympathetically. Her disloyalty is a
necessary element of his story, and she is representative of human or
perhaps (for Shakespeare) feminine weakness, but she is certainly not a
vicious breaker of hearts, nor, despite Ulysses’ mistaken assumption upon
meeting her in 4.5, is she a prostitute, for she shows no hint of
mercenary motives. Diomedes courts her in 5.2 with the same wiles she used
on Troilus earlier—affecting disinterest and a readiness to ignore her—and
she is susceptible, though she resists confusedly. She is a frankly
sensual woman, as has been evident from her affair with Troilus, and now,
alone in a new world, having just been removed from Troy to the Greek
camp, she succumbs to her nature.
Cressida is frequently associated with
Helen, the worthless prize of the Trojan War, in order to underscore her
similar deficiency as a motive for Troilus. She is a much more alert and
interesting personality than Helen, however. She is a knowledgeable flirt,
able to consider the tactics of courtship, and she is scornfully aware
that Pandarus is 'a bawd' (1.2.286). Once united with Troilus in 3.2, she
frankly confesses her love, but in confusion she regrets abandoning her
tactical game. Tellingly, she speaks other 'unkind self, that itself will
leave / To be another's fool' (3.2.146-147). Swept up in the excitement of
the moment, she deludes herself that a real romance is in the offing, but
her profession of faith is couched in negative terms, allowing the
prediction—recognized by the audience to be accurate in a textbook
instance of dramatic irony—that the future will call 'false maids in love
... "as false as Cressid" ' (3.2.188-194). Although she pledges her
loyalty to Troilus in the enthusiasm of passion, she recognizes her need
for Diomedes in Troilus' absence. She admits her guilt, attributing it to
her gender: 'Ah, poor our sex! . . . The error of our eye directs our
mind' (5.2.108-109). Such simple awareness of guilt is unique in this play
filled with hypocrisy and self-delusion.
Cressida's name stems
from a character in the Iliad of Homer, Briseis, a slave and concubine of
first Achilles and then Agamemnon and a source of dispute between them;
she had nothing to do with Troilus. The name evolved through Briseida, to
Griseida, and then Criseyde—in the works of Sainte-Maure, Boccaccio, and
Chaucer respectively—before Shakespeare used the variant that is now
Boy is a servant of
Troilus. In 1.2 the Boy summons Pandarus to his master's house. The
incident leaves Cressida alone to soliloquize on her love for Troilus.
One is an anonymous Greek warrior killed
by Hector. In 5.6 Hector spies the Greek fighter wearing a sumptuous suit
of armour, and he declares he will take it from him. The Greek flees, but
in 5.8 we see that Hector has killed him, and as the triumphant warrior
takes off his own armour to put on his prize, he is treacherously killed
by Achilles and the Myrmidons. While stripping the dead Greek, Hector
addresses the corpse as, 'Most putrefied core, so fair without' (5.8.1),
contrasting the dead body with the pomp and splendour of his armour (in
words reminiscent of Christ's condemnation of the Pharisees as 'whited
sepulchres' [Matthew 23:27]). The symbolic significance of the One is thus
clear: he sums up the hypocrisy of the warriors' pretensions throughout
the play. At the same time, the episode also reveals Hector's death to be
the result of his abandonment of his code of honorable combat to pursue a
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