Troilus and Cressida: It Gave Pander a Bad Name


Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida

Troilus witnesses Cressida betraying their sworn love in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, act v, scene ii. Engraving by Luigi Schiavonetti from painting by Angelica Kauffmann.

Shakespeare did not create the love story of heroic Troilus and unfaithful Cressida. Troilus and Cressida as delivered to and by Shakespeare has a long, complicated pedigree.

According to Karl Young in The Origin of Troilus and Criseyde, the couple’s romance dates to Le Roman de Troie, a poem about the fall of Troy written by Benoît de Sainte-Maure, a Frenchman living at the time of and in the continental lands of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. He didn’t make up the characters, but Sainte-Maure conjured the tragic love.

Next to chronicle and alter the story was Italian Giovanni Boccaccio in his poem Il Filostrato, and his account influenced Chaucer’s version, Troilus and Criseyde. Shakespeare got the story from Chaucer and altered and darkened it.

Trying to classify this play evidently is problematic, but it looks easy to me: It’s tragedy, and not a great one at that. The end is dissatisfying. As far as I can tell, the biggest contribution of the story of Troilus and Cressida (even before Shakespeare) was to add a troublesome word to our vocabulary: panderer. It comes from the role Cressida’s uncle, Pandarus, plays in bringing the couple together for one night.

Troilus and Cressida is set in the final days of Troy. When the plays begins, Cressida’s father, seeing Troy’s coming doom, has already defected to the Greeks, leaving his daughter—conveniently for the story—behind. Apparently disloyalty is a family trait.

The mighty Trojan Hector is busy challenging the Greeks to send their best fighter to take him on. The Greek’s greatest fighter, Achilles, is refusing to come out of his tent to fight, smitten by love of his own reputation and deeds and seemingly in the middle of a one-man work stoppage.

Troilus, Hector’s brave brother, is smitten by the second most beautiful woman in Troy (and maybe she’s more lovely than the renowned Helen). Cressida is attracted to Troilus, and Pandarus brings the couple together. Cressida swears loyalty, ever-lasting love, etc. to Troilus, but they wake to learn the Greeks have offered a swap, trading captive and great Trojan general Antenor for Cressida. The very agent, Diomedes, sent to bring Cressida to the Greeks seduces Cressida, who falls amazingly quickly. Shakespeare makes sure Troilus witnesses her disloyalty with his own eyes.

The question that is never adequately answered is why Cressida does what she does. She seems a pawn of the men around her and the cause of what they do. Helen plays the same role in the larger story of the Trojan War. Both women are merely objects to worship, to covet, to win. Yet it is clear from dialogue that both women are intelligent, witty, cleaver.

Shakespeare gives us no resolving justice to Cressida’s disloyalty, and to add to the play’s acrid flavor, Achilles finally comes out of his tent and kills Hector, not in brave fair battle, but by sending in his skillful, loyal Myrmidon to kill an unarmed Hector, while Achilles watches in safety. Achilles claims “the kill” and desecrates the Trojan’s body, all of this foreshadowing the coming fall of Troy.

Cynical and misogynistic might best describe this play. Instead of love that endures separation and hardship, instead of heroic battle, Shakespeare gives us sworn love easily surrendered and anticlimactic and anti-heroic battle death. The play seems to be pro-Troy (maybe that’s just because it lost the war), against pride and mocks bravery, courage and classical Greek and Trojan legends.

I could have passed on reading Troilus and Cressida. I’m classifying it as a tragedy play—the first I’ve read in my quest to read all of Shakespeare by the Bard’s 450th birthday—and I’m giving it one Bard:Troilus and Cressida is definitely tragedy and not Shakespeare's best.




Quotes I like (for various reasons):

Pandarus: He that will have a cake out of the wheat must needs tarry the grinding.

Agamemnon: Call them shames, which are, indeed, naught else but the protractive trials of great Jove to find persistive constancy in men?

Nestor: In the reproof of chance lies the true proof of men

Nestor: Even so doth valour’s show and valour’s worth divide in storms of fortune

Ulysses: 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, …this chaos, when degree is suffocate, follows the choking.

Hector: Modest doubt is call’d the beacon of the wise

Hector: ‘Tis mad idolatry to make the service greater than the god

Troilus: We turn not back the silks upon the merchant when we have soil’d them

Troilus: Is she [Helen] worth keeping? Why, she is a pearl, whose price hath launch’d above a thousand ships and turn’d crown’d kings to merchants.

Ulysses: The amity that wisdom knits not, folly may easily untie.

Ajax: Why should a man be proud? How doth pride grow?

Agamemnon: He that is proud eats up himself: pride is his own glass, his own trumpet, his own chronicle; and whatever praises itself but in the deed devours the deed in praise.

Ajax: I hate a proud man as I hate the engendering of toads.

Ulysses: He is so plaguy proud that the death of it tokens cry, No recovery.

Pandarus: Fair be to you, …and to all this fair company! Fair desires, in all fair measure, fairly guide them!—especially to you, fair queen! Fair thoughts be your fair pillow! Helen: Dear lord, you are full of fair words.

Pandarus: Sweet queen, sweet queen; that’s a sweet queen, I’ faith. Helen: And to make a sweet lady sad is a sour offence.

Helen: Let thy song be love: this love will undo us all.

Troilus: I am giddy; expectation whirls me round. The imaginary relish is so sweet that it enchants my sense: what will it be, when that the wat’ry palate tastes indeed love’s thrice-repured nectar? Death, I fear me; swooning destruction; or some joy too fine, too subtle-potent, tun’d too sharp in sweetness, for the capacity of my ruder powers; I fear it much

Pandarus: Words pay no debts, give her deeds

Troilus: Fears make devils of cherubims; they never see truly.

Cressida: They that have the voice of lions and the act of hares, are they not monsters?

Cressida: Where is my wit? I know not what I speak.

Ulysses: Pride hath no other glass to show itself but pride

Achilles: Not a man, for being simply man, hath any honour; but honour for those honours that are without him as place, riches, and favour, prizes of accident as oft as merit: which when they fall, as being slippery standers, the love that lean’d on them as slippery too, do one pluck down another, and together die in the fall.

Ulysses: Those scraps are good deeds past; which are devour’d as fast as they are made, forgot as soon as done: perseverance, dear my lord, keeps honour bright: to have done is to hang quite out of fashion, like a rusty mail in monumental mockery.

Patroclus: Those wounds heal ill that men do give themselves

Thersites: A plague of opinion!

Troilus: Sometimes we are devils to ourselves, when we will tempt the frailty of our powers, presuming on their changeful potency.

Thersites: Thou picture of what thou seemest, and idol of idiot worshippers

Cressida: Minds sway’d by eyes are full of turpitude.

Thersites: Lechery, lechery; still wars and lechery; nothing else holds fashion

Andromache: Do not count it holy to hurt by being just: it is as lawful, for we would give much, to use violent thefts, and rob in the behalf of charity.

Hector: Life every man holds dear, but the dear man holds honour far more precious dear than life.

Finally, Cressida and Pandarus proclaim their own destinies:

Cressida: If I be false, or swerve a hair from truth, when time is old and hath forgot itself, when waterdrops have worn the stones of Troy, and blind oblivion swallow’d cities up, and mighty states characterless are grated to dusty nothing; yet let memory from false to false, among false maids in love, upbraid my falsehood! When they have have said—as false as air, as water, wind, or sandy earth, as fox to lamb, as wolf to heifer’s calf, pard to the hind, or stepdame to her son; yea, let them say, to stick the heart of falsehood, as false as Cressid.

Pandarus: Go to, a bargain made: seal it, seal it; I’ll be the witness. Here I hold your hand; here my cousin’s. If ever you prove false one to another, since I have taken such pains to bring you together, let all pitiful goers-between be called to the world’s end after my name, call them all Pandars; let all constant men be Troiluses, all false women Cressids, and all brokers between Pandars!

Next Up: Timon of Athens

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11 Responses to “Troilus and Cressida: It Gave Pander a Bad Name”

  1. Krist Says:

    As far as characterizing Cressida goes, it seemed abundantly clear to me in the “seducing” scene that Troilus witnesses that Cressida is putting on an act. Much like how she admits earlier in the play to have acted distant and uninterested in Troilus because of the (not unfounded) belief that men only want what they can’t have, and will ditch you once they get what they want out of you, Cressida seems to know how to “play” Diomedes in that scene. But she can only do it for so long before she catches herself, attempts to undo the act, and fails at it. She begs Diomedes not to take Troilus’ favor from her, but he does so anyway.

    I’m not sure if I’m wording this right, but basically I saw Cressida as a crafty character who either learned or was taught to hide her true emotions and “act” as required per the situation. She had the luxury of being distant and cold to Troilus and his courting attempts because she wasn’t thrown IMMEDIATELY into his bed (so to speak) as she was with Diomedes. She had a chance to avoid any overt advances.

    She kind of reminded me of Sansa Stark from Game of Thrones, but in a more sexually active way. Sansa is only learning how to play the game of thrones and learn about political nonsense and whatnot, whereas Cressida is already a player, and was seemingly instructed (as Cersei would sarcastically instruct Sansa) to “use that bit between her legs” to her advantage. Her reluctance to give in to Troilus at first would could be seen as her reluctance to include him in such wiles and reverting to really the only option she had left: disinterest and distance. Or it could be just another part in the game itself, thus her affection for Troilus would all be feigned because she had no other option left. You can compare her to Helen in the sense that she is given this image as an idol and a prize to be won instead of being regarded as a person, so Cressida behaves according to this.

    Long story short (too late) I feel as if Cressida’s true emotions were always hidden from us as the readers of the play and the characters in the play itself, except for that one scene in which she begs Diomedes to return Troilus’ favor. Whether or not she loved Troilus is debatable, but I will not deny that I believe whole-heartedly that his favor symbolized something great to her, and to lose THAT was unbearable for her.

  2. admin Says:


    Thanks for your thoughts. I agree that both Helen and Cressida have become objects in the play and to the men of the story. You are right, I think: It is hard to see into Cressida’s heart, but if she really did love Troilus, it makes her betrayal all the harder for me to understand. Maybe she is just playing the game, but then where is the benefit in giving into such a non-herioc figure as Diomedes? Shakespeare’s left it all so unclear and unresolved at least for me.

  3. Aaron Says:

    It was a pretty good summary I must say. But I was just wondering about the part where you mention Helen is obviously clever. Throughout the play she struck me as really dumb. She was easily duped by Pandarus (who kept calling her a whore once over and over, and it was clear she thought he was complimenting her) and she seemed oblivious to the fact that Trojans and Grecians were both dying because of her choice to be stolen by Paris.

  4. admin Says:

    Thanks for the feedback and insight. Shakespeare, seemingly, can be interpreted in so many ways. Through my lens, I saw Helen’s interchange with Pandarus very differently. Just before they meet, Pandarus has an exchange with a servant, and Pandarus seems to be thoroughly outwitted in their discussion about who’s playing music, etc. When Helen and Paris arrive, she seems immediately to mock him for his “fair” and “sweet” words, and she continues to pester him. His business is with Paris, but she refuses to leave and pesters Pandarus constantly about singing a song, until he gives in and does it. He had simple business with Paris, but she forces Pandarus to keep up conversations with both her and Paris at the same time. Then when he agrees to sing, she wants a song of love, and I think she does reveal her understanding of the situation with her comment, “Let thy song be love: this love will undo us all.” Indeed it did. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Victoria Says:

    Hello, I am studying this play for an upcoming audition. I thank you all for your different insights and interpretations of the characters. I will be thinking of these when I prepare my monologues. I would also like to comment that very often Shakespearian works objectify and idolize women but also portray women as the more clever and level headed characters. I believe that Shakespeare makes the women he writes about worthy of the worship they receive not only in physical being but also in their intellect.

  6. admin Says:


    Thanks for your comments. I believe you’re right in your insight that Shakespeare created women worthy of physical and intellectual worship. Thank you for sharing that, and best wishes for your audition. Let us know how it goes.


  7. Jess Hole Says:

    Found this all very interesting – I am playing Cressida in an audition monologue and exploring her character has struck me that she is someone that I and many other modern day girls can relate to still. Of course times have changed in terms of equality of the sexes but the idea of men holding the power to speak first whilst the woman plays hard to get if they want a chance of a lasting relationship still applies today! Although witty and intelligent, she is naive and vulnerable in the world of love and does her best to protect herself from harm, but of course this is hard with her Dad being such a traitor. I admire her for her honesty and passion, and think she like me is the kind of person that struggles to balance living for the moment with playing fair demonstrating good morals. Whilst she years for a stable life blessed with love, she also cannot calm the wild desire for fun and spontaneous excitement being a woman from an upper class background, sheltered from experience. Loved all these ideas here! Jess 🙂

  8. admin Says:

    Thanks for your thoughts and insights, and good luck with your audition.

  9. Eddie Lew Says:


    In discussing Troilus and Cressida, I suggest you check out this Harvard Lecture on the play:

    I hope it helps to illuminate this wonderful play.

  10. admin Says:

    Thanks. I will do it.

  11. Warren Criswell Says:

    I think we’re all missing the point here. I too had never read this play before, and I was just as disappointed in it as you guys – until it suddenly hit me what Shakespeare was up to! We’re expecting true lovers like Romeo and Juliet and valiant warriors like Prince Harry, but in this play Shakespeare the romantic has become Shakespeare the existentialist, the cynic! True, at one point Cressida has second thoughts about giving Diomedes Troilus’s sleeve, but hey, if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with. At first I wondered why Shakespeare had left out the reason Achilles was sulking in his tent instead of fighting, which, according to Homer, was that Agamemnon had snatched his girlfriend Briseis, but now I see that that would have given some legitimacy to Achilles’ childish and cowardly behavior, which is exactly what this play is out to deny him, as we see clearly when he has his men slaughter Hector and then instructs them to announce that “Achilles hath the mighty Hector slain!” I couldn’t help but think of Dubya in his battle jacket, announcing “Mission accomplished!”

    After watching Frank Underwood doing Richard III in “House of Cards,” the asides in this play really cracked me up. Like when Ajax says of Achilles, “Can he not be sociable?” Ulysses says to us, “The raven chides blackness.” And Cressida has some good ones too. Victoria is right, the women are the smart ones in this play. They make fools of the men, who fight over them like dogs. Shakespeare is showing us the fragility of love, the power of sex, and the stupidity and deception of war and politics. The romantic becomes the realist! And in masterful irony, the panderer Pandar becomes the voice of the play: “O traitors and bawds, how earnestly are you set a-work, and how ill requited!” And he sums it up with a poem:

    “Full merrily the humble-bee doth sing,
    Till he hath lost his honey and his sting;
    And being once subdued in armed tail,
    Sweet honey and sweet notes together fail.”

    Could be torn from today’s headlines. So, as hard as it was to read this play – a lot of the dialog was not Shakespeare’s best, imho – and as unsatisfying as the ending was, I’m now thinking this was one of his greatest.

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