In Homer’s Iliad, which in translation was one of Shakespeare’s sources for the play, the Trojan War is a noble affair in which great warriors perform heroic deeds that make them famous for future generations. However, in Troilus and Cressida Shakespeare does not take this attitude at all. On the contrary, he undermines it at every point, expressing cynicism, bitterness, and disenchantment about the war. His aim seems to be to debunk the myth and present the war more realistically, as a costly affair fought over a trivial cause. The war goes on not because the cause is worthwhile but because the participants are caught up in fine-sounding concepts like honor, which do not seem at all to reflect the battlefield realities.
The list of Greek warriors in the play is a long one (Achilles, Ajax, Ulysses, Agamemnon, Menelaus, Patroclus, Nestor, Diomedes)but few of them come out of the play with much credit. Achilles in particular is presented in a bad light. His deliberate sitting out of the war is taken from Homer, but Shakespeare is at pains to make Achilles, in his vanity and pride, seem as unattractive as possible. When it comes to the slaying of Hector, the great Achilles behaves not like a great warrior but more like a back-alley assassin. Of the other Greeks, Ajax is also presented as vain and boastful, and Menelaus is subject to ridicule and lacks all authority. As an army, the Greeks are in disarray, lacking unity of purpose.
The Trojans are presented more sympathetically, but even the noble Hector loses his life because he falls victim to greed. He makes a point of killing an unnamed Greek warrior because he wants to possess the man’s rich armor. Then when he is resting from that encounter Achilles and his men set upon him.
All in all, Thersites’ continually reiterated opinion, that the Greeks are a bunch of dimwits and fools, would seem to be that of the dramatist also. Thersites has his own opinion about what these Greeks really deserve. He implores Jove to infect them all with venereal disease, “for that methinks is the curse depending on those that war for a placket” (act 2, scene 3, lines 20-21). (A placket is a petticoat or skirt, thus referring to a woman.)
It is Thersites who cries,“Lechery, lechery; still, wars and lechery” (act 5, scene 2, lines 193), and he says it more than once. Thersites may be the most cynical character in the play, but his observation is not inaccurate. His point is that the entire war is being fought over lust, in the sense of who is to possess the beautiful Helen. He is also referring to Diomedes’ courting of Cressida. But there is even more to it than that in this play. Pandarus constantly indulges in bawdy remarks, and even Helen does so when she is with him. Paris and Helen make it clear that their love has a strong sexual component. Cressida also knows how to make sexually charged remarks, and Troilus speaks about her in terms of his physical desire for her. For example, speaking to Pandarus in anticipation of meeting Cressida, he says:
I am giddy: expectation whirls me round.
Th’imaginary relish is so sweet
That it enchants my sense: what will it be
When that the wat’ry palate tastes indeed
Love’s thrice-raptured nectar? (act 3, scene 2, lines 16-20)
He is imagining what it will be like to have sex with Cressida.
There is then, in this play, more sex than love, and the two do not necessarily come together.
“He that is proud eats up himself: pride is his own glass, his own trumpet, his own chronicle,” Agamemnon says to Ajax (act 2, scene 3, lines 156-57), referring to Achilles. Pride is a prominent theme in the play. Both Achilles and Ajax suffer from it. Agamemnon continues to Ajax: “Whatever praises itself, but in the deed, devours the deed in the praise” (lines 158-59). In other words, the kind of pride that reveals itself in an overestimation of one’s own worth obscures any virtue there may be in a person’s acts because he is too busy admiring them himself and telling others about them. Pride diminishes a person, it “eats” him up, as Agamemnon puts it. One of the problems with pride is that the proud do not recognize themselves as such, as is shown almost comically in the above passage, where Ajax confidently says to Agamemnon, “I know not what pride is” (line 154), yet Nestor, in an aside, comments that Ajax is full of self-love, which amounts to the same thing. Instead of pride, what is needed, especially for the Greeks, is the burying of pride and individualistic assertion and the emergence of true teamwork, which involves the recognition of each man’s role in the military and political hierarchy.
The main example of pride, of course, is Achilles, who believes that he is better than everyone else. Ulysses says that Achilles’ “Imagin’d worth / Holds in his blood . . . swol’n and hot discourse,” (act 2, scene 3, lines 173-74) and Ulysses sees no hope for him: “He is so plaguy proud that the death-tokens of it / Cry ‘No recovery’” (lines177-78). When the Greek leaders deliberately pass by Achilles and virtually ignore him, Achilles is angry because their behavior does not accord with his idea of his own worth. Ulysses, always the cunning one, plots to bring Achilles back into the fray by manipulating his and Ajax’s pride.