Troilus and Cressida is a tragedy by William Shakespeare, believed to have been written in 1602. The play (also described as one of Shakespeare's problem plays) is not a conventional tragedy, since its protagonist (Troilus) does not die. The play ends instead on a very bleak note with the death of the noble Trojan Hector and destruction of the love between Troilus and Cressida. Throughout the play, the tone lurches wildly between bawdy comedy and tragic gloom, and readers and theatre-goers have frequently found it difficult to understand how one is meant to respond to the characters. However, several characteristic elements of the play (the most notable being its constant questioning of intrinsic values such as hierarchy, honor and love) have often been viewed as distinctly "modern", as in the following remarks on the play by author and literary scholar Joyce Carol Oates;
Troilus and Cressida, that most vexing and ambiguous of Shakespeare's plays, strikes the modern reader as a contemporary document—its investigation of numerous infidelities, its criticism of tragic pretensions, above all, its implicit debate between what is essential in human life and what is only existential are themes of the twentieth century. [...] This is tragedy of a special sort—the "tragedy" the basis of which is the impossibility of conventional tragedy.
Essentially, two plots are followed in this play. In one, Troilus, a Trojan prince (son of Priam), woos Cressida, another Trojan. They have sex, professing their undying love, before Cressida is exchanged for a Trojan prisoner of war. As he attempts to visit her in the Greek camp, Troilus glimpses Diomedes flirting with his beloved Cressida, and decides to avenge her perfidy.
While this plot serves as an eponym for Troilus and Cressida, it accounts for only a small part of its run time. The majority of the play revolves around the leaders of the Greek and Trojan forces, Agamemnon and Priam. Agamemnon and his cohorts attempt to get the proud Achilles to return to battle and face Hector, who sends the Greeks a letter telling them of his willingness to engage in one-on-one combat with a Greek soldier. Ajax is originally chosen as this combatant, but makes peace with Hector before they are able to fight. Achilles is only prompted to return to battle after his friend and (according to some of the Greeks) lover, Patroclus, is killed by Hector before the Trojan walls. A series of skirmishes conclude the play, during which Achilles catches Hector, baresark, and has the Myrmidons kill him. The conquest of Troy is left unfinished, as the Trojans learn of the death of their hero.
The story was a popular one for dramatists in the early 1600s and Shakespeare may have been inspired by contemporary plays. Thomas Heywood's two-part play The Iron Age also depicts the Trojan war and the story of Troilus and Cressida, but it is not certain whether his or Shakespeare's play was written first. In addition, Thomas Dekker and Henry Chettle wrote a play called Troilus and Cressida at around the same time as Shakespeare, but this play survives only as a fragmentary plot outline.
The play is believed to have been written around 1602, shortly after the completion of Hamlet. It was published in quarto in two separate editions, both in 1609. It is not known whether the play was ever performed in its own time, because the two editions contradict each other: one announces on the title page that the play had been recently performed on stage; the other claims in a preface that it is a new play that has never been staged. The play was entered into the Register of the Stationers Company on February 7, 1603 by the bookseller and printer James Roberts, with a mention that the play was acted by the Lord Chamberlain's Men, Shakespeare's company. No publication followed, however, until 1609; the stationers Richard Bonian and Henry Walley re-registered the play on Jan. 28, 1609, and later that year issued the first quarto, but in two "states." The first says the play was "acted by the King's Majesty's servants at the Globe;" the second version omits the mention of the Globe Theatre, and prefaces the play with a long Epistle that claims that Troilus and Cressida is "a new play, never stal'd with the stage....
Some commentators (like Georg Brandes, the Danish Shakespeare scholar of the late nineteenth century) have attempted to reconcile these contradictory claims by arguing that the play was composed originally around 1600-02, but heavily revised shortly before its 1609 printing. The play is noteworthy for its bitter and caustic nature, similar to the works that Shakespeare was writing in the 1605-8 period, King Lear, Coriolanus, and Timon of Athens. In this view, the original version of the play was a more positive romantic comedy of the type Shakespeare wrote ca. 1600, like As You Like It and Twelfth Night, while the later revision injected the darker material – leaving the result a hybrid jumble of tones and intents.
The play's puzzling and intriguing nature has meant that Troilus and Cressida has rarely been popular on stage, and neither during Shakespeare's own life time nor between 1734 and 1898 is there any recorded performance of the play. In the Restoration, John Dryden rewrote it. Dryden announces that he intended to uncover the "jewels" of Shakespeare's verse, hidden beneath a "heap of rubbish" (not only some "ungrammatical" and indecorous expressions, but also much of the plot.) In addition to his "improvements" to the language, Dryden streamlined the council scenes and sharpened the rivalry between Ajax and Achilles. Dryden's largest change, though, was in the character of Cressida, who in his play is loyal to Troilus throughout.
It was also condemned by the Victorians for its explicit sexual references. It was not staged in its original form until the early twentieth century, but since then, it has become increasingly popular, especially after the First World War, due to its cynical depiction of people's immorality and disillusionment. Its popularity in the United States reached a peak in the 1960s when public discontent with the Vietnam War increased exponentially. The play's main overall themes about a long period of war, the cynical breaking of one's public oaths, and the lack of morality among Cressida and the Greeks resonated strongly with a discontented public and led to numerous stagings of this play since it highlighted the gulf between one's ideals and the bleak reality.