Troilus and Cressida: Act Five plot synopsis

When we last left the Troilus and Cressida plot synopsis, it was the end of Act Four and Troilus and Cressida the play had Troilus and Cressida the characters separated by fate, or at least by the vicissitudes of war. Ulysses was taking Troilus to where he could see his beloved. As Act Five begins, how many out there think this is going to turn out OK? Hands? No one? Yeah, you’re probably right.

But before we can get to that, we’re back to Achilles and Patroclus, as the former readies for tomorrow’s battle with Hector by “heat(ing Hector’s) blood with Greekish wine tonight” (V.i.1). Thersites arrives to deliver a note, and as Achilles goes silent reading it, we get more in the insult wars between “Achilles’ male varlet” (V.i.16), or male whore in Thersites’ words, and “the whoreson indistinguishable cur” (V.i.28-9).

When Achilles speaks next, not only do we find out who sent the note, but also a reason Achilles has been sitting out the Trojan War:

Here is a letter from Queen Hecuba,
A token from her daughter, my fair love,
Both taxing me and gaging me to keep
An oath that I have sworn. I will not break it.
  • V.i.39-42

So he had made a promise before the war not to enter it. (That among other reasons, but more on that later in the discussions.)

Achilles and Patroclus exit into their tent, Thersites rails on the folly of the Greeks, and then–as if on comic cue–the Greek commanders show up, seemingly lost, looking for the tent in the dark. Troilus and Ulysses stealthily follow the commanders. Achilles welcomes them all, including Diomedes, who declines stating that he has “important business” (V.i.83). When he exits, he’s followed by Troilus and Ulysses. When all have left, leaving Thersites alone, his words do not bode well for Troilus:

That same Diomed’s a false-hearted rogue, a most unjust knave. I will no more trust him when he leers than I will a serpent when he hisses … They say he keeps a Trojan drab and uses the traitor Calchas’s tent.
  • V.i.90-2, 97-8

And of course, the Trojan whore (“drab”) is Cressida, and Calchas’ tent is where we head now for Act Five, Scene Two.

We, and Troilus, Ulysses and Thersites, watch as Diomedes arrives at the tent, greeted by Cressida with “My sweet guardian” (V.ii.8) and a whisper in his ear. Troilus wonders how she can be “so familiar” (V.ii.9) with Diomedes; Ulysses (remember he, the non-kiss recipient–but witness to much kissing–but the flirty welcome recipient when Cressida arrived at camp), tells Troilus (and remember Ulysses has no idea of the connection between the two) that “She will sing any man at first sight” (V.ii.10-1).

We hear some snippets of the conversation between Cressida and Diomedes, and they could be harmless, but they could also be interpreted more romantically, with discussions of “mind(s) coupled with your words” (V.ii.17), “Sweet honey Greek(s)” (V.ii.20), and “mine oath” (V.ii.27). Troilus reacts to them darkly, and Ulysses tries to get him to leave before his “displeasure should enlarge itself // To wrathful terms” (V.ii.36-7). Troilus doesn’t listen and thus is witness to her “strok(ing) his cheek” (V.ii.51), and worse, her giving Diomedes a “token for the surety of” (V.ii.60) some promise she had given him… and that token is… the sleeve Troilus had given to her on their separation. And yes, she attempts to take it back later, but the damage is done, and when Diomedes leaves her, she speaks what she thinks is in private (but overheard by Troilus), saying that while she still thinks upon Troilus back in Troy, her heart is ruled by the “eye” (V.ii.110) that sees Diomedes here in the Greek camp.

Before Aeneas can arrive and take Troilus back to Troy, Troilus admits to Ulysses that he was her love in Troy, swearing to take on Diomedes in the field tomorrow. Once Ulysses exits to take the Trojans to the gates, Thersites mocks Diomedes. But before we can begin to like Thersites, he also says that “Patroclus will give (him, Thersites) anything for the intelligence of this whore” (V.ii.195-6). And he leaves to do so. Why? I can think of no reason other than everyone is this play is a total tool.

Act Five, Scene Three, takes us back to the king’s palace in Troy the next morning, as Hector prepares to leave for battle. Andromache, his wife, attempts to keep him home with the same rationale Calpurnia used to try to keep Caesar at home on the Ides of March: dreams. Cassandra, his sister and a prophetess, arrives to warn him against the battle, too. He refuses, citing “honor far more precious-dear than life” (V.iii.28).

When Troilus enters, armed and ready for the fight, however, Hector’s tone changes and he tries to convince his little brother to “tempt not yet the brushes of the war” (V.iii.34). Even their father, King Priam, arrives to convince them to stay, to no avail. The women are sent off, and Priam walks Hector to the gate. Meanwhile, Pandarus brings a note to Troilus from Cressida. He reads it, but finds it to be only “words, words, mere words, no matter from the heart” (V.iii.108), and he tears the letter and leaves for battle.

Act Five, Scene Four takes us to the battlefield where Thersites provides sarcastic commentary on the skirmishes he sees. It’s not as ridiculous Pandarus’ narration of the union of Troilus and Cressida, but funny nevertheless, especially when Thersites describes what he wants to see:

I would fain see them meet, that that same young Trojan ass that loves the whore there might send that Greekish whoremasterly villain with the sleeve back to the dissembling luxurious drab, of a sleeveless errand.
  • V.iv.4-8

And he gets his wish. Troilus chases Diomedes onto the stage then tells him to stop running away. Diomedes’ response is pure, wonderful, flowery, b.s.: “I do not fly, but advantageous care // Withdrew me from the odds of multitude” (V.iv.20-1). Falstaff couldn’t have said it better about his “discretion.” They begin to fight, and continue to fight as they exit from the stage. Hector rushes Thersites, and wants to know if he’s Greek and wants to fight. The fool admits to being nothing more than “a rascal, a scurvy railing knave” (V.iv.27). Hector “believe(s)” (V.iv.29) him and leaves him to live, which he does by running offstage in the opposite direction.

Scene Five takes us to another part of the battlefield where we find that Diomedes has escaped from his fight with Troilus with his life. And for Troilus? His fate is uncertain, but Diomedes wants his own servant to take Troilus’ horse and “present the fair steed to my Lady Cressid” (V.v.2), and tell her Diomedes has won.

Agamemnon enters to tell Diomedes that things are going not so well for the Trojans, and we’re about to find out just how not well… Nestor enters, carrying the body of Patroclus, slain by Hector, of whom there appears to be “a thousand” (V.v.19). That Hector is amazing: “what he will he does, and does so much // That proof is called impossibility” (V.v.28-9). We also learn that Troilus “hath done today // Mad and fantastic execution” (V.v.37-8); and we must wonder if he’s alive (and thus Diomedes lying). If there’s any good news, Ulysses brings it:


Great Achilles
Is arming, weeping, cursing, vowing vengeance.
Patroclus’ wounds have roused his drowsy blood
  • V.v.30-2

And within lines, he enters, wanting revenge on Hector.

Act Five, Scene Six takes us to another part of the battlefield, where Ajax and then Diomedes (that lying sack of excrement) call out for Troilus, who arrives to challenge Diomedes again. And they exit fighting. Again. Hector arrives, then so does Achilles and they begin to fight. But then something happens (from the stage directions, we’re not sure what), and Hector offers his opponent the opportunity to pause. Achilles wants to “disdain (Hector’s) courtesy” (V.vi.15) but he needs the rest, and he exits. Troilus enters with news that Ajax has taken Aeneas, then exits to find another fight, while Hector chases another Greek away. Before we can even get a chance to think Hector heroic, however, he says he’s chasing the Greek to steal from him, as Hector “like(s his) armor well” (V.vi.29).

The short next scene finds Achilles with his Myrmidon troops, telling them to “empale (Hector) with (their) weapons round about” (V.vii.5).

In Scene Eight, Hector drags onto the stage another Greek victim, the one with the likable armor. Tired, he begins to take off some of his own armor, as his “day’s work is done” (V.viii.3) and he can rest. Once unarmed, Achilles and his troops enter, and Achilles tells Hector that his “life is done” (V.viii.8). Hector points out his own unarmed state and calls for Achilles to “forgo this advantage” (V.viii.9), as he had allowed Achilles to pause and flee earlier. Instead of the honorable pay-back, Achilles calls for his men to strike Hector down (and they do), then “cry all you amain, // ‘Achilles hath the mighty Hector slain’” (V.viii.13-4), which he really didn’t. He then has them tie Hector’s body to his horse so he can drag the corpse around.

News of Hector’s death reaches the Greek commanders in the nine-line Scene Nine, which ends with their prediction that this will lead to their victory over the Trojans.

In the Act’s tenth and final scene (and the last one of the play), the same death-news reaches the Trojan camp, and Troilus, too, seems to see the end of the war because of it. The other Trojans leave, and when Pandarus attempts to speak to Troilus, the prince dismisses him, “Hence, broker, lackey! Ignomy and shame // Pursue thy life, and live aye with thy name!” (V.x.33-4). Pandarus is left by Troilus onstage, only a pander now.

Pandarus then addresses the audience in the last speech of the play. He admits that he is despised now, and wonders if they/we can “weep” (V.x.48) for him, especially now that he fears that he will die of diseases of his “hold-door trade” (V.v.51), his pandering and pimping. Regardless, he closes, saying he will leave all his diseases to us.

And thus, ends the play.

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