Troilus and Cressida: Act Three plot synopsis

Act Two of Troilus and Cressida ended with more inter-personal backbiting by the Greek generals (primarily against Ajax and Achilles), and when Act Three begins, we are back in Troy with Pandarus attempting to see Paris, so that he can ask the prince to make an excuse for Troilus, when Troilus doesn’t attend dinner that night (as Pandarus is hoping to bring Troilus and Cressida together). But first he needs to get past Paris’ servant, a comic fool. The interplay feels a bit like that of Viola and Feste … just replace “‘Do you live by your tabor?’ ‘No, I live by the church.’” with

Do you not follow the young Lord Paris?
Ay, sir, when he goes before me.
  • III.i.1-3

After some banter, Paris and Helen arrive, and Pandarus welcomes her as “fair queen” (III.i.45), which seems nice enough, except that it’s a homophone to “quean” which meant “prostitute.” That, in and of itself, might seem a bit of a stretch, but Helen’s words makes one wonder. She calls Pandarus, “honey-sweet lord” (III.i.64), and says that “Falling in after falling out may make them three” (III.i.100), meaning make-up sex can lead to pregnancy. When speaking to her, the breaks in Pandarus’ lines almost give the impression of him having to fight her off physically. Later in the scene, she seems more than happy to go and “unarm our Hector” (III.i.143) after he returns from the field. She doesn’t exactly seem to be the picture of chaste suffering for her husband.

Act Three, Scene Two takes us to Pandarus’ garden, where Pandarus asks Troilus’ servant boy if the prince is already at Cressida’s house… he’s not, he’s waiting for Pandarus to take him. By his own admission, Troilus has been “stalk(ing) about her door” (III.ii.7), but is too afraid to go in. Pandarus tells him to wait, and leaves to bring Cressida to him.

While Pandarus is gone, Troilus soliloquizes, and it sounds like nothing more than Juliet’s soliloquy as she waits for the night-time and her Romeo to come: “giddy…expectation…imaginary relish” (III.ii.16, 16, 17, respectively). It’s not all fun and games, though; there’s a little bit of Romeo, post-Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech, as well: “Death, I fear me…” (III.ii.20).

When Pandarus returns with Cressida, what follows is some of the strangest play-by-play this side of Dodgeball. For 14 lines, the two lovers don’t say a word, and Pandarus takes over. Don’t get excited, it’s not a sonnet. Rather, it’s a prose description of what the lovers are doing and thinking. It’s a little weird (and worthy of deeper discussion later in the months to follow). Troilus’ first line following Pandarus’ commentary make some excuse: “You have bereft me of all words, lady” (III.ii.52). (Nice catch, Willy.)

Pandarus leaves the lovers alone, and we listen as they verbally feel each other out, unsure and anxious, but anticipating love as well. There’s a little Romeo and Juliet (orchard scene there), not to mention a bit of As You Like It’s love lessons between Orlando and Rosalind/Ganymede. Troilus speaks words of love, Cressida is a little more reserved. What’s interesting here, though, is unlike those other two scenes, this is in prose. And frankly, mostly prosaic. It’s only after Pandarus’ re-enters the scene to bawdily (and, kind of, bodily) bring the two together that they begin to speak verse.

Cressida still plays (at least somewhat verbally) hard-to-get, to the point where even she must admit, “I show more craft than love” (III.ii.148). She fears the position her gender creates for her–to not lead the conversation–and rightfully so, since at the scene’s start Troilus is so “bereft” of language. By the end of the scene, though, the two are swearing their love: Troilus to be true, Cressida to not be false. Pandarus proclaims a “bargain” (III.ii.192), and says that if either proves false to the other, let future “goes-between be called to the world’s end after my name; call them all Pandars” (III.ii.195-7). Since we know a word for pimp to be “pander,” we should not have a good feeling about this.

The next scene takes us back to the Greek command where a priest with prophetic “sight” (III.iii.4) who had “abandoned Troy” (III.iii.5) is asking for “recompense” (III.iii.3). The Greeks have captured one of the Trojan commanders, Antenor, and this priest, Calchas, is asking for a “right great exchange” (III.iii.21) for his daughter. And who’s his daughter? You guessed it, Cressida. Agamemnon agrees, and orders Diomedes to both make the exchange and return with word if Hector has agreed to a fight with Ajax, who is “ready” (III.iii.35) to meet in the single-combat courtly-love match.

When Diomedes leaves, the commander notice Achilles and Patroclus standing in their own tent. The commanders decide to walk by him while “put(ting) on // A form of strangeness as (they) pass” (III.iii.50-1). They all pass by him, pretty much ignoring him, as Ulysses lingers behind, reading. Their plan works: Achilles is left to wonder, “What mean these follows? Know they not Achilles?” (III.iii.70). He’s confused, and a little hurt that they didn’t give him “such rich beholding // As they have often given” (III.iii.91-2).

Achilles questions Ulysses what is going on, and Ulysses answers that “no man is the lord of anything” (III.iii.1115), and that the command has found a new champion in Ajax: “Heavens, what a man is there!” Ulysses interjects, “A very horse” (III.iii.125-6). He describes how the Greeks now “clap (him) on the shoulder, // As if his foot were on brave Hector’s breast” (III.iii.139-40). When Achilles asks, “What, are my deeds forgot?” (III.iii.144), Ulysses takes great pains (and nearly 45 lines) tell him

That all the Greeks begin to worship Ajax,
Since things in motion sooner catch the eye
Than what stirs not. The cry went once on thee,
And still it might, and yet it may again,
If thou wouldst not entomb thyself alive
And case thy reputation in thy tent
  • III.iii.181-6

Ulysses leaves, and Patroclus takes the blame for making Achilles seem “an effeminate man” (III.iii.218), as the Greek commanders “think (Patroclus’) little stomach to the war, // And (Achilles’) great love to (Patroclus), restrains (Achilles) thus” (III.iii.220-1). He then calls upon Achilles to re-enter the fray. Achilles, his “reputation…at stake” (III.iii.227), decides to have the fool Thersites take a message to Ajax to bring the commanders back to his tent after the combat.

As luck would have it, Thersites happens by. After listening to Thersites describe the ego-maniacal Ajax, Achilles calls for Patroclus to go to the beast and have him instead invite Hector to his tent with “safe conduct … et cetera” (III.iii.274, 279). And with that, and some more grumbling over Ajax by Thersites (think of that as our “et cetera”), this scene and act of Troilus and Cressida is done.

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