Questions on Shakespeare’s Comedies
Shakespeare, William. The History of Troilus and Cressida. (Norton Comedies, 2nd ed. 751-839).
1. How does the Prologue address the Homeric context of the play’s action? What attitude towards that context begins to become apparent?
2. In Act 1, Scene 1, what sets Troilus apart from the play’s heroic, martial context? How does he describe his state of mind at this early stage? What seems to be Troilus’ opinion of Pandarus and his motives for trying to make him a match with Cressida?
3. In Act 1, Scene 2, what difference becomes apparent between the way Cressida speaks to Pandarus about Troilus and the way she thinks of him privately? How does she explain her reluctance to enter a love match with Troilus? On the whole, how would you characterize Cressida at this point — is it feasible to make any assumptions about her at this early stage? If so, what assumptions?
4. In Act 1, Scene 3, what role does Ulysses (his name in Homer is Odysseus) play in explaining the current state of affairs and in devising a scheme to improve the situation? Why, according to him, is Achilles’ conduct in this seventh year of the war such a disaster for the Greek army? What does Ulysses plan to do about it?
5. In Act 1, Scene 3, Aeneas meets Agamemnon to deliver Hector’s challenge to any Greek warrior who dares meet him in single combat. What are the terms of this challenge? Refer back to Scene 2 for its source, and attend also to Agamemnon’s reply to Aeneas’ speech in responding to the following: what connections between love and war has the play posited up to this point?
6. In Act 2, Scenes 1 and 3, describe the interchange between Thersites, Ajax, and Achilles — what are the terms of his denunciation of these famous warriors? And how do they treat him in turn — what attitude do Ajax and Achilles, respectively, take towards this scold? In what sense might their opposing viewpoints be said to feed off each other, or even to require each other?
7. In Act 2, Scene 2, when the question of turning Helen over to the Greeks and thereby ending the war comes up, what argument between Troilus (and Paris) and Hector (and Helenus) ensues? Why exactly does Troilus think it would be wrong to give in, and why does Hector think otherwise? Why does he nevertheless come round to Troilus’ side? How does this interchange affect your view of Hector?
8. In Act 3, Scene 2, as Troilus awaits his long-sought encounter with Cressida, what fear most besets him? How does Cressida respond to Troilus? What kinds of declarations do the two lovers make? Characterize them. On the whole, what understanding of the concept “love” emerges from this scene?
9. In Act 3, Scene 3, the one-time Trojan priest Calchas, who has defected to the Greeks, calls in a favor — he wants his daughter Cressida returned to him in the Greek camp in exchange for the captured Trojan Prince Antenor. Ulysses offers a plan for getting Achilles involved again in the war against Troy. What is his plan, and how does he follow up on it in his encounter with Achilles? According to Ulysses, what is the basis of military reputation?
10. In Act 4, Scenes 2-5, Cressida will indeed have to be turned over to the Greek Diomedes. How do Troilus and Cressida view themselves and each other after they first consummate their love? Then, after they find out about Cressida’s imminent departure, how do they respond to that disastrous news?
11. In Act 4, Scene 6, how does Cressida conduct herself when she is introduced to the Greek warriors halfway between Troy and the Greek camp? How does Ulysses assess her character? To what extent does his view seem accurate?
12. In Act 4, Scene 7, Hector gets his challenge match with Ajax. How does the contest go? How do the Greek and Trojan warriors behave after it is concluded? What does Achilles do to shatter the good mood? At this point, what assessment can you offer regarding the relative worth of Hector and Achilles?
13. In Act 5, Scene 1, Thersites again targets our favorite Greek warriors, this time including Patroclus. Again, in what sense might these opponents be said to need one another? Overall, how would you characterize the role and significance of Thersites up to this point in the play?
14. In Act 5, Scene 2, Troilus is guided by Ulysses to the tent where he may see how Cressida bears herself in the presence of the Greek Diomedes. What does Cressida do, and how does she justify it to herself? How, in this and the next scene (Act 5, Scene 3), does Troilus deal with what he has witnessed?
15. In Act 5, Scene 5, we learn that Hector has just killed Patroclus, throwing the Greek camp into dismay, but of course his friend’s death at last brings Achilles into the battle. What happens in the initial contest between Hector and Achilles — the great event so long awaited for much of the Trojan War? How does this contest between Hector and Achilles conclude in Act 5, Scenes 7-9? This is obviously not the Achilles we find in Homer’s Iliad — what principle seems to motivate him in these scenes?
16. In Act 5, Scene 4, with Ajax proudly hanging back and the Greek army in a seemingly anarchic state, Thersites plans to sit back and enjoy the pageant of bloody foolery. What observations does he make, and what role does he end up playing in the fighting in this scene and in Act 5, Scene 8? What kind of impact does his behavior have on your view of the other fighting that occurs around these scenes?
17. By Act 5, Scenes 9-11, Hector has been slain by Achilles, and the Trojans are left to register the grievous loss. Troilus strikes Pandarus and bids him be gone, and the latter complains of his sufferings from venereal disease and his ill usage by Troilus. To what extent should we hold Pandarus responsible for the outcome of the love match between Troilus and Cressida? What was “in it” for him with regard to the matchmaking, anyway?
18. General question. By the end of the play, would you say that Troilus has become thoroughly disillusioned and cynical (like Pandarus), or that he has transferred his quest for an object to idealize to the war? Explain your rationale by referring to Troilus’ words and actions in the concluding scenes.
Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Four-Volume Genre Paperback Set. Norton, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93152-5.
Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake