Troilus and Cressida is a play set during the latter years of the Trojan War, continuing the plotline from The Iliad from Achilles’ initial refusal to battle up until the point of Hector’s death. Whilst the love-story between Troilus and Cressida gives the play its title, it accounts for only a small part of the play’s duration, with the majority of the play revolving around the two respective warrior camps, Greeks and Trojans, led by Agamemnon and Priam respectively. Therefore, this play is rife with a number of famed, mythological warriors: Hector, Achilles, Ajax, Ulysses, etc. whom might all stake a claim for the title of ‘hero’ in this play. However, despite the large amount of acclaimed and renowned warriors presented in this play, the manner in which Shakespeare depicts them is rather un-heroic. Shakespeare satirizes the Greek heroes as he depicts them as childish and barbaric, perhaps indicating sympathy towards the more pragmatic Hector. Shakespeare contrasts Homer’s depiction of these figures greatly:
‘Where Homer sings of heroic conflict culminating in the epic battle between Hector and Achilles, Shakespeare gives centre stage to a love story that, like the event of the Trojan War itself, he treats in sceptical, arguably cynical, fashion’ (Cohen, 1847, Introduction to Troilus and Cressida, Complete Works).
Homer seems to find a tragic grandeur in the events he portrays, whereas Shakespeare seems to find only carnage – carnage not relieved by a romantic plot that ends in disillusionment and disaster. Shakespeare re-imagines a traditional plotline in a darkly ironic manner, considering concepts such as sexuality and politics from radically modern perspective. Rather than glorifying and re-celebrating both these past ideals and acclaimed warriors, Shakespeare chooses to portray the majority in a critical and even negative light, providing a consistently satirical frame around the play. Nevertheless, it is still possible to consider whether or not any of these warriors can be determined as the ‘hero’ of this play, instead of the youthful Troilus. For example, Troilus’ eldest brother Hector, is described as ‘the noblest character in the play’ (Cohen, 1852), and is renowned as the best Trojan warrior. Hector’s nobility is often shown in stark contrast to the proud and deceitful Greeks, particularly Achilles. Hector displays these noble qualities in Act Two, Scene Two during the Trojan War council, as the warriors debate the merits of fighting for Helen. Hector and Troilus debate:
Hector: ‘Brother, she is not worth what she doth cost The holding.’
Troilus: ‘What’s aught but as ‘tis valued?’
Hector: ‘But value dwells not in particular will. It holds his estimate and dignity As well wherein ‘tis precious of itself As in the prizer.’
In response to Troilus’ subjective view, then, Hector offers an objective standard that, he insists, must carry equal weight. The pair continues to debate the matter; with Hector seemingly winning the debate by claiming that to keep Helen is both self-destructive and immoral. However, he is then inspired by the desire for chivalric glory:
Troilus: ‘For I presume brave Hector would not lose So rich advantage of a promised glory As smiles upon the forehead of this action For the wide world’s revenue.’
Hector: ‘I am yours…’
Thus, despite winning the initial debate, Hector succumbs to Troilus’ flattery and promise of glory, collapsing intellectually and agreeing to fight for the Trojan cause. This scene is interesting as it portrays Hector in a heroic light, arguing to cease the war and stop further bloodshed; however, Hector is unable to make good on his words, succumbing to Troilus’ persuasion and thus losing some of his nobility. What are we to make of Hector who can be so calm and objective with regard to the public good, but so 'committed and egocentric' (Kimbrough, 121) with regard to his own?
Act Four, Scenes Six and Seven are other useful scenes to help analyse Hector’s character. In Scene Six Ajax and Hector fight, although Aeneas remarks before the duel takes place that Hector’s whole heart will not be in the fight as the pair are related. Shortly before the fight takes place, Agamemnon asks Ulysses:
‘What Trojan is that same that looks so heavy?’
To which he replies:
‘The youngest son of Priam, a true knight: They call him Troilus. Not yet mature, yet matchless-firm of word…Manly as Hector but more dangerous, For Hector in his blaze of wrath subscribes To tender objects, but he in heat of action Is more vindictive than jealous love. They call him Troilus, and on him erect A second hope as fairly built as Hector.’ (4.6.98-110).
At this stage in the play, Ulysses offers an insightful and accurate summary of Troilus’ character; he notes that he is ‘not yet mature,’ indicating his youthfulness, whilst also describing him as ‘more dangerous’ than Hector, indicating his courage and skills in battle. Ulysses also notes how the Trojans ‘erect a second hope’ on Troilus, meaning that the Trojans value Troilus almost as highly as their best fighter, Hector. This moment may foreshadow the end of the play when Hector is slain by Achilles and the Myrmidons, resulting in Troilus declaring that: ‘Hope of revenge shall hide our inward woe’ (5.11.31), indicating that he will now lead the Trojan troops in any hope of vengeance. Nevertheless, Hector and Ajax proceed to fight for a time, before breaking off, agreeing to call the duel a draw and embrace as kinsmen. Hector and Troilus are then invited into the Greek tents, where they meet the Greek commanders; Hector greets each commander complimentarily until meeting Achilles. The pair trade insults and Achilles arrogantly states that he has the ability to kill Hector wherever he likes: Shall I destroy him - whether there, or there, or there’’ (4.7.127). To which Hector retorts: ‘I’ll kill thee everywhere, yea, o’er and o‘er’ (4.7.140). This moment marks the first meeting between the best, respective fighters from each camp, whilst Shakespeare chooses to depict the warriors in a less than flattering light. The warriors are shown as petty, insolent and arrogant, whilst Hector allows Achilles to bring him down to his own level, coaxing insults out of the normally composed and noble Hector. As a result, although Hector is often described as the most noble character in the play, in a similar manner to Act Two, Scene Two, where Hector allows Troilus to convince him into continuing the war, in these later scenes, Hector once again abandons his own morals, coming down to the less noble level of the other characters.
This scene is also useful in analysing Achilles as he sinks even lower in the audience’s estimations. Achilles is meant to be the greatest of the Greek warriors, yet he is presented in the play as an arrogant, vicious thug, who refuses to fight in the war due to his own injured pride. Achilles should be the very epitome of the heroic figure, however, he is presented in this play as anything but heroic. Achilles refuses to fight until Ulysses craftily uses Ajax as a foil to spark him into fighting once more. Ulysses helps to organise the fight between Hector and Ajax, sparking interest from Achilles to finally re-join the war and fight Hector. This scene portrays Achilles in a distinctly negative manner as is unable to even show courtesy to a guest (Hector), whilst he is absurdly boastful to Patroclus about how he will kill Hector the next day. Achilles is certainly a great fighter, but he is certainly not portrayed as the ‘hero’ of this play; if anything, he is probably the antagonist. Nonetheless, this scene helps to foreshadow the final duel between Hector and Achilles – a duel that will also be an anti-climax, leaving us with no distinctive ‘hero’.
Works Cited:Kimbrough, Robert. Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida And Its Setting. Oxford University Press: UK. 1964. Print.