By Heather Helinsky, dramaturg
According to legend, The Trojan War began when Paris of Troy took Helen from her husband, the Greek King Menelaus. Agamemnon, brother to King Menelaus, led his men on a campaign across the sea to Troy. When the play begins, Troy has already been under siege for seven years. Fighting continues, but there’s a stalemate.
Cressida is a beauty from Troy, whose father, Calchas defected to the Greeks. She’s left under the care of her Uncle Pandarus, who teases her about a young soldier named Troilus. Uncle Pandarus becomes the go-between these two lovers. As Troilus gives his servant a love token to give to Pandarus to give to Cressida, Cressida worries that men are no longer attracted after they conquer a woman.
On the battlefield, important decisions loom. The Greeks have offered a gesture of peace: if the Trojans will give back the famous Helen, they will end the war. The mystical priestess Cassandra begins to prophesize, warning the Trojans of Troy’s fall. The Trojans decide to reject the Greeks proposal to give Helen back, continuing the war.
On the Greek side, Agamemnon finds his troops dispirited by this unending war. Ulysses and old Nestor, respected commanders, place the blame on the famous Achilles. The great Achilles has become proud and moody, hiding in his tent with his best friend Patroclus. Agamemnon goes to Achilles’ tent to demand action, but Achilles refuses to speak to his commander.
Aeneas, a Trojan leader, arrives at the Greek camp with news. The great Trojan prince, Hector, has decided to challenge a noble Greek to a duel. Aeneas tells the Greeks to send a challenger when they hear his trumpet. Ulysses and old Nestor, irked by Achilles’ behavior, decide to plot together. Everyone recognizes this challenge is meant for Achilles, but they decide to support the lesser Ajax as their champion.
Ajax sees this opportunity to be the hero, but his efforts to prepare for battle are ridiculous. Anxious for news, Ajax beats the parasite Thersites. Thersites, like many of Shakespeare’s clowns, behaves foolishly yet speaks truthfully.
Back in Troy, Pandarus finds himself in the presence of the famous Helen of Troy. Afterwards, Pandarus arranges a meeting between Troilus and Cressida. It is love at first sight!—but they both express concerns about fidelity.
Meanwhile, at the Greek camp, Calchas asks the Greeks soldiers to exchange Cressida for the Trojan prisoner Antenor. In Troy, the Greek Diomedes is sent to bring Cressida back to Greece. Aeneas and Paris, aware that Troilus has spent the night with Cressida, empathize with the lovers, but cannot intervene. Troilus challenges Cressida to be faithful and that he will eventually come for her at the Greek camp. They once again exchange tokens and promises of love.
Cressida is brought by Diomedes to the Greeks. Hector arrives and prepares to fight. They are reminded that although they are fighting this war, they have ancestors in common. After Hector and Ajax exchange a few blows, Achilles arrives. He welcomes Hector and invites them all to the Greek tents. Other Trojans, including Troilus, arrive at the Greek camp in anticipation of Hector’s upcoming duel with the Greek challenger.
Thersites discovers that Achilles has received a letter from Queen Hecuba. Achilles is in love with Hecuba’s daughter. Troilus also makes a discovery and spies on Diomedes with Cressida. Troilus sees Cressida give away her love token to Diomedes, and interprets this as Cressida’s betrayal of her promise.
On the day of the battle, Hector is forewarned by his wife Andromache not to fight. Troilus engages in combat with Diomedes. Hector kills Patroclus. Achilles, hearing reports of Patroclus’ death, finally challenges Hector. Achilles catches Hector off guard and the Greek claim victory over Troy. Troilus reports Hector’s death and Pandarus is left to explain to the audience what this all means.