Troilus and Cressida by William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare's Trolius and Cressida, is widely considered one of just three works that are true "problem plays." Along with two other works, these plays are characterized by their shifting tone, moving between extremely dark drama and much lighter comic material. Trolius and Cressida is also characterized as a tragedy and was written in 1602.

Throughout this work Shakespeare's tone moves quickly between raucous comic action and intensely tragic despair. Many audiences and critics have found this constantly shifting tone to be distracting and difficult to understand. But literary critic and scholar Joyce Carol Oates wrote that in reality these shifts complimented the values Shakespeare questioned in the play, love, honor, and hierarchy. She argued that this problem play is in fact remarkably modern for its time.

According to Oates' interpretation, Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida is indeed one of his most intriguing plays ever written. But by questioning its main themes and giving equal attention to the dark and light elements, the entire play can represent the implicit duality that exists in life. She believed Shakespeare wrote a grand existential statement with "Troilus and Cressida," and that it was a new kind of very contemporary tragedy.

The play begins during the Trojan war, near the war's end in the last years of the conflict. It uses the ancient text of The Iliad as a precursor for the story, following its plotline faithfully after the Greek war hero Achilles and Hector battle. Hector refuses to join Achilles and fight against him instead staying in front of the Greek City of Troy which is stormed. Hector is killed in front of Troy.

There are two major plot points o the play. In the first, the Trojan prince Troilus, son of Priam, seduces Cressida, who is also a Trojan. They are intimate physically and declare their love for each other, but then Cressida is captured and held as a prisoner of war. Troilus tries to break into the Greek camp to visit his love but instead stumbles across the warrior Diomedes flirting openly with Cressida. A heartbroken and jilted lover, he vows to take revenge on Cressida.

This romance runs throughout the play but it is overshadowed by the war drama between the Greek and Trojan forces, led by Agamemnon and Priam. King Agamemnon tries desperately to get the proud and headstrong warrior Achilles back to face Hector in battle. This is after Hector has sent the Greeks word that he would fight one of their soldiers if it was combat between himself and just one other.

Warrior Ajax is set to fight with Hector before the two reconcile. Achilles is finally lured into the battle after hearing that his close friend Patroclus has been killed by Hector. He returns to face Hector and several small battles are waged, the final one being Achilles capturing Hector. Hector is killed at the hands of the Myrmidons, which undoes the Trojans as they learn of his death in despair.

Shakespeare used many different sources when writing Trolius and Cressida, but other than the luring of Achilles to battle Hector, the events are not based on Greek mythology. He seemed to prefer the prose by Chaucer entitled Troilus and Criseyde as inspiration, along with a book by John Lydgate and a translation by the British William Caxton. It's unclear if Shakespeare's Trolius and Cressida was ever performed in his lifetime, though the subject matter provided a wealth of material for many other writers and playwrights.