Troilus and Cressida: Act One plot synopsis

As The History of Troilus and Cressida begins, we get a prologue, “Spoken by a man in armor” (Prologue, opening stage direction). Instantly, we are taken both by this costuming direction and the opening words “In Troy” (Prologue, 1), to a time of war, the Trojan war. Our choric soldier tells us of the 69 warships sent from the “isles of Greece … To ransack Troy” (Prologue, 1, 8). What’s “the quarrel” (Prologue, 10)? To rescue the “ravished Helen, Menelaus’ queen // (who) With wanton Paris sleeps” (Prologue, 9-10). We learn of the Trojan siege, but then the Prologue states that our play

Leaps o’er the vaunt and firstlings of those broils,
Beginning in the middle, starting thence away
To what may be digested in a play.
  • Prologue, 26-9

The Prologue closes on a blatantly ambiguous and seemingly objective note: “Like or find fault; do as your pleasures are; // Now good or bad, ’tis but the chance of war” (Prologue, 30-1). This chorus may be armed, but he doesn’t seem to be a partisan to either side.

The first scene takes us inside the besieged city of Troy, where we meet two men–a lover, Troilus, and… well, we’re not sure what to make of his this other man, Pandarus. Troilus calls for his servant boy to help him “unarm” (I.i.1), stating there is no need for him to “war without the walls of Troy” (I.i.2) since he is not the “master of his (own) heart” (I.i.4), and “weaker than a woman’s tear” (I.i.9). Pandarus wryly responds to Troilus’ statements, peppering them with subtly bawdy commentary (discussing Troilus’ “gear,” “grinding,” “bolting” and “burn[t]…lips” [I.i.6, 15, 17, and 26, respectively]). Quickly enough, we learn why Pandarus is teasing Troilus…

Troilus is in love. While he sits “at Priam’s royal table” (I.i.29)–we will learn Troilus is one of Trojan King’s sons–he pines for “fair Cressid” (I.i.30). Pandarus admits her beauty since he saw her just the night before; she is Pandarus’ “kinswoman” (I.i.44), and it becomes obvious that Pandarus has been attempting to bring the two together: “gone between and between, but small thanks for my labor” (I.i.71-2). With her father’s departure to “the Greeks” (I.i.80), Pandarus tires of his own “meddl(ing)… i’th’matter” (I.i.82). So tired, in fact, that he leaves Troilus.

Alone, Troilus bemoans his state–depending on the “tetchy” (I.i.95) Pandarus for access to the “stubborn and chaste” (I.i.96) Cressida. But he isn’t alone for long. Trojan commander Aeneas arrives to ask why Troilus isn’t in the field, and to deliver the news that Paris has returned to the Troy, injured in battle by Menelaus. Troilus jokes that the injury is a “gor(ing) with Menelaus’ horn” (I.i.111), a sarcastic statement of Paris’s cuckolding of Menelaus, and within moments, Troilus leaves with Aeneas to head to the field of battle.

The second scene takes us to the other side of the love equation: Cressida, who speaks with her servant Alexander. Obviously, we’re in the middle of some excitement, as Cressida immediately asks who has just gone by. The answer? Hecuba, Queen of Troy and her kidnapped daughter-in-law Helen, heading off “to see the battle” (I.ii.4). We also hear of the “wrath” (I.ii.11) of Hector, Troilus’ older brother, caused by Ajax, who is described as “a lord of Trojan blood, nephew to Hector” (I.ii.13). This is actually some confusion on Shakespeare’s part (it as Ajax’s half-brother who is the relation, but the half-brother doesn’t appear in this play). Regardless, Ajax is with the Greeks, and the day earlier had defeated Hector on the battlefield.

Within moments, Pandarus–he from the first scene–enters and we learn that he is her uncle (I.ii.41). Uncle and niece talk of Hector, and Pandarus begins to expound on how “Troilus is the better man of the two” (I.ii.59-60), and we see more of his trying to bring the prince and his niece together. There is much playful banter (some bawdy–from both sides… like uncle, like niece?) comparing the two Trojan princes. In fact, the seeming matchmaking goes so far as to have Pandarus trying to stoke Cressida’s jealousy by saying how much more “Helen loves (Troilus) better than Paris” (I.ii.105-6), which only prompts a nationalist insult from Cressida, “Then she’s a merry Greek indeed” (I.ii.107).

A military retreat is sounded, and we see the warriors return from battle, with Pandarus providing expository (and comically comparative) descriptions of the men, all the while talking up and anticipating the entrance of Troilus. When the young prince does enter, Pandarus is so exuberant and extreme in his praise that Cressida has to quiet him (“Peace, for shame, peace!” [I.ii.225]). We also get a distinct view of the class system at work when the “common Soldiers” (I.ii.234 stage direction) enter, only to be described by Pandarus as “asses, fools, dolts; chaff and bran, chaff and bran; porridge after meat” (I.ii.237-8).

When Troilus’ servant boy calls for Pandarus to come and speak with the prince, Pandarus tells his niece that he’ll return soon enough with “a token from Troilus” (I.ii.273), to which Cressida can only say that “by the same token, (Pandarus is) a bawd” (I.ii.274). Witty and slightly bawdy… but I’ve got to wonder, is Pandarus name a conscious choice by Shakespeare to link him to the concept of a bawd or a “pander”? Something to explore later…

Once alone, Cressida admits in soliloquy to her own attraction to Troilus (“more in Troilus thousandfold I see // Than in the glass of Pandar’s praise may be” [I.ii.277-8]), but knows the power of playing hard-to-get: “Women are angels, wooing… Men price the thing ungained more than it is” (I.ii.279, 282). And with that bit of wisdom, Cressida exits and the scene ends.

As Troilus and Cressida is a love story set during the Trojan war, Act One, Scene Three takes us from the lovers to the military headquarters of the Greek army, with the assembled commanders, with the supreme Agamemnon addressing among others, Nestor, Ulysses, and Menelaus. The war, he says, is not going as well as hoped: “after seven years’ siege… Troy walls stand” (I.iii.12). We get some “when the going gets tough, the tough get going posturing by Ulysses and the aged adviser Nestor, but even Ulysses has to admit “Troy in our weakness stands, not in her strength” (I.iii.137). When Agamemnon asks Ulysses what the remedy is, the answer is simple: the absence of Achilles–who is not currently fighting–is hurting the Greek war effort. Once this subject is broached, Nestor continues the finger-pointing, this time at Ajax-keeping to his tent as well–but is also

A slave whose gall goins slanders like a mint

To weaken and discredit our exposure
  • I.iii.192-3, 195

Before Agamemnon can respond or offer a solution, a trumpet sounds and the Trojan general Aeneas arrives with a message for Agamemnon. There’s some more posturing and much third-person self-referencing (by both) before the Trojan delivers his message: Prince Hector is willing to challenge any Greek to single combat. Now before we begin to think, “Cool, war is about to get solved,” Aeneas reveals that this is less about the macro-conflict of the Trojan war than a micro-battle over the worth of their respective ladies:

If there be one among the fair’st of Greece

That loves his mistress more than in confession
With truant vows to her own lips he loves
And dare avow her beauty and her worth
In other arms than hers—to him this challenge.
Hector, in view of Trojans and of Greeks,
Shall make it good, or do his best to do it,

If none, he’ll say in Troy when he retires
The Grecian dames are sunburnt and not worth
The splinter of a lance.” Even so much.
  • I.iii.265, 269-74, 281-3

Oh, snap.

So, instead of a rousing mano-y-mano to alter the course of history and the enslavement of entire city-states, we get a proposed throw-down in the name of courtly love. Never mind that courtly love is an anachronism… it won’t come into being until medieval Europe… roughly 2000 years after the events of this play. Message and challenge delivered, Aeneas exits with Agamemnon and some of the other Greek commanders, leaving only Nestor and Ulysses to debrief over the events. They perceive that though the challenge “is spread in general name, // (it) Relates in purpose only to Achilles” (I.iii.222-3). This provocation may be just what it takes to get Achilles out of his tent, and back onto the battlefield.

And yet, as the two plot to get Achilles back in the fight, Ulysses has an even greater plan, but he needs the aged adviser’s help; he tells Nestor,

Do not consent
That ever Hector and Achilles meet

No, make a lott’ry,
And, by device, let blockish Ajax draw
The sort to fight with Hector.

If the dull brainless Ajax come safe off,
We’ll dress him up in voices; if he fail,
Yet go we under our opinion still
That we have better men. But, hit or miss,
Our project’s life this shape of sense assumes:
Ajax employed plucks down Achilles’ plumes.
  • I.iii.361-2, 373-5, 380-4

It appears by the end of this first act that love story is filled with teasing and randy undertones, and the war story is filled with cynical backbiting. A romance that seems unchaste, and an epic that feels less than heroic.

Might the oft-derided genre name “problem play” fit this play like a glove?

We’ll see…

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