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Troilus and Cressida

Creation of the play

Troilus and Cressida was probably created in late 1601. The prologue of the play apparently refers to Ben Jonson’s Poetaster, published in 1601. Shakespeare’s play also seems to contain references to the Earl of Essex, who had been executed for treason early in 1601. Essex was often compared with Achilles during the last years of Queen Elizabeth I. The link was made explicit by George Chapman in Seven Books of the Iliads, published in 1598, one of Shakespeare’s principal sources for Troilus and Cressida. Although the play was entered on the Stationers’ Register in 1603, it was not finally published until 1609. It has been suggested that Troilus and Cressida was effectively banned because of government concerns over its apparent comments on Essex and his rebellion.

Early performances

The first quarto of Troilus and Cressida appeared in two different issues during 1609. The first of these stated on the titlepage that the play ‘was acted by the Kings Maiesties seruants at the Globe’. The second issue was given a new title-page, which made no mention of any such performances. It also had an additional leaf addressed ‘to an euer reader’ which stated that the play was ‘neuer stal’d with the Stage’, that is it had never been performed before its publication. It was once thought that Troilus and Cressida might have been performed at the Inns of Court, but this theory is contested. There are no records of performances either at the Inns of Court, at court, or in the public theatres before 1642. It has more recently been suggested that the Lord Chamberlain’s Men withdrew Troilus and Cressida (perhaps after a few performances) because it proved politically controversial.

Publication in quarto and folio

Troilus and Cressida appeared in three editions (the first of which survives in two states) before 1642.

  • Quarto a, 1609. Apparently printed either from an authorial manuscript or a transcript from such a manuscript. The title-page names the play as ‘The historie of Troylus and Cresseida’ and states ‘As it was acted by the Kings Maiesties seruants at the Globe’.
  • Quarto b, 1609. Differs from quarto a only in the titlepage and the addition of a single leaf. The title-page names the play as ‘The famous historie of Troylus and Cresseid’ with no mention of any performances. The additional leaf follows the title-page and is headed ‘A neuer writer, to an euer reader. Newes’. It offers ‘a new play, neuer stal’d with the Stage’.
  • First folio, 1623. Apparently printed from a quarto annotated with reference to a manuscript that had been used in the theatre. The folio text adds a prologue, and some extra lines. There are many small changes to words or phrases, and it has been suggested that these were revisions by Shakespeare. Troilus and Cressida was originally intended to follow Romeo and Juliet in the folio, but printing was delayed (perhaps because of copyright problems). It was the last play to be printed, and was inserted between Henry VIII and Coriolanus. A few copies of the first folio were issued without Troilus and Cressida.
  • Second folio, 1632. Printed from the first folio.

Troilus and Cressida was entered by the printer James Roberts on the Stationers’ Register on 7 February 1603. The play was apparently not subsequently printed by Roberts. Another entry, dated 28 January 1609, is by Richard Bonian and Henry Walley who had presumably bought the play from him. The first quarto was printed by George Eld for Bonian and Walley in 1609. This quarto was reissued the same year with the same imprint on a new title-page, and an additional leaf addressed to the reader of the play.

British Library copies of Troilus and Cressida contains detailed bibliographic descriptions of all the quarto copies of the play.

Shakespeare’s sources

Shakespeare made particular use of several sources.

  • Homer, translated by George Chapman, Seauen Bookes of the Iliades (1598). Probably used by Shakespeare for the action relating to the Trojan War in act 1 to act 4. He used Chapman’s translation for the character of Thersites, as well as the speech by Ulysses on order and degree in act 1 scene 3.
  • Geoffrey Chaucer, ‘Troilus and Criseyde’, in The Workes of Geffrey Chaucer (1561). Shakespeare used Chaucer for the characters Pandarus, Troilus, and Cressida, and for many details of the action of his play.

    ‘Troilus and Criseyde’, Geoffrey Chaucer, The Workes
    'Troilus and Criseyde', Geoffrey Chaucer, The Workes, 1561. British Library, 641.m.10, f. clxxii verso. Larger image

  • Raoul Lefèvre, translated by William Caxton, The Auncient Historie of the Destruction of Troy (1596). Shakespeare made much use of Caxton’s translation for the military action in the latter scenes of the play.
  • Robert Henryson, ‘The Testament of Cresseid’ included in the edition by Thomas Speght, The Workes of our Antient and Lerned English Poet, Geffrey Chaucer (1598). A continuation of Chaucer’s ‘Troilus and Criseyde’ dealing with Cressida’s illness and death. It may have contributed to the disillusionment evident in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida.
  • Henry Chettle and Thomas Dekker, Troilus and Cressida, the text does not survive but the play was apparently performed at the Rose by the Admiral’s Men in 1599. It has been suggested that Shakespeare’s play was written as part of the rivalry between the Admiral’s Men and the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.

Story of the play

Note: the links below will take you to the page in the quarto where each act begins, according to standard modern editions. (The quartos themselves have no act divisions.) The quarto shown for each play is always the earliest in the Library's collection - unless it is a 'bad' quarto in which case it is the earliest 'good' quarto.

Troilus and Cressida is set in the city of Troy and the camp of the besieging Greek army, during the Trojan War.

(Prologue) A speaker, in armour, explains why the Greeks and Trojans are at war.

(Act 1) Troilus, son of King Priam, tells Pandarus that he is in love with Cressida. Pandarus visits Cressida and tells her of Troilus’s love. They watch the Trojan leaders returning from the day’s fighting, and Cressida criticises Troilus. Alone, she admits she is in love with him. In the Greek camp, Agamemnon debates with his commanders their lack of success, and the refusal of Achilles to fight. From Troy, Aeneas brings Hector’s challenge to single combat. Ulysses plots to prevent Achilles from fighting Hector.

(Act 2) Thersites taunts Ajax and Achilles in turn about their jealousy of each other. Priam and his sons debate whether they should return Helen to the Greeks. They decide she should stay in Troy. Agamemnon visits Achilles’s tent, but Achilles refuses to see him and sends instead his companion Patroclus. Achilles continues his refusal to fight.

(Act 3) Pandarus brings Troilus and Cressida together. Cressida confesses to Troilus that she loves him. They swear to be faithful to each other. In the Greek camp Calchas, a Trojan priest who defected to the Greeks, asks for his daughter Cressida to be exchanged for a Trojan prisoner. Diomedes agrees to undertake the exchange. Agamemnon and his commanders ignore Achilles as they pass his tent, but Ulysses goads him by praising Ajax. Achilles invites Hector to visit his tent after the next day’s fighting.

(Act 4) Troilus and Cressida have become lovers. Diomedes arrives in Troy to fetch Cressida. Aeneas and Paris tell Troilus of the exchange, while Pandarus tells Cressida. Before the lovers are parted, they swear to be faithful to each other. Diomedes arrives in the Greek camp with Cressida, who is kissed by each of the Greek commanders in turn. Hector fights with Ajax, but refuses to harm him. When Hector and Achilles meet, they swear to fight each other.

(Act 5) Achilles receives a letter from Queen Hecuba, reminding him of his oath not to fight. Troilus, visiting the Greek camp, sees Cressida with Diomedes. She gives Diomedes the pledge of love Troilus had given her. Troilus, in despair over her faithlessness, swears to fight Diomedes. Hector prepares to fight, despite warnings from his wife Andromache, his sister Cassandra, and his father Priam. Troilus prepares to fight. In the ensuing battle, Troilus fights Diomedes and Hector kills Patroclus. Achilles enters the battle and, with his followers, kills Hector. Troilus laments Hector’s death. When Pandarus enters, Troilus spurns him. Pandarus makes a plea for the audience’s sympathy.


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