Troilus and Cressida as a Problem Play

April 13, 2021 by Essay Writer

What Is a Problem Play?

A problem play is a play in which the playwright portrays the social, political and economic problems of the society he lives in. The problem play is a development form of the ‘drama of ideas'(Drama of ideas is a type of discussion play in which the most acute problems of social and personal morality is revealed). It is tragic in tone and deals with human dilemmas along with the social evils, i.e., it is a play in which a problem is discussed in all its aspects. The actors in a problem play debate about certain social issues on the stage through the voice of different characters who typically represent conflicting points of view within a realistic social context.It is a form of drama that evolved in the 19th century as part of the wider movement of realism in the arts and human expressions particularly taking after the advancements of Henrik Ibsen. The emphasis in a problem play is on the creation of living characters and plot is based on the fundamental human emotions such as love, anger, jealousy etc. There is an intense emotional disturbance during a violent clash and violent physical action can be seen during clash and conflicts.

Characteristics of a Problem Play

  • It portrays social issues through the voice of different characters.
  • It deals with all kinds of conflicts that takes place in a society.

Social Issues and Conflicts in Troilus and Cressida

Political vs Personal Life

In the play Troilus and Cressida, it is found that there is interference of one’s personal relationship with the person’s political duties. For instance, when Cressida is traded to the Greeks, the romance of Troilus and Cressida is opposed. Another example in this matter can be cited that of Achilles, whose decision to not fight the war and his choice of staying with his beloved instead of going to perform his military duties is highly criticized. On the other hand, the irony as well as the politics in all these problems created lies in the fact that the war is fought only because of Paris’ sexual relationship with Helen. These compels the audience to ponder on different questions such that why because of the satisfaction of one couple, all the other relationships in the play have to suffer? Why there is so much pain and suffering among the soldiers who too have relationships, family, children that did no wrong or no evil but will have to die innocent death just because of the happiness of one couple? To describe this situation in a larger sense and in context of a universal social issue, the fight of soldiers and their families’ struggle during the days of war is what the play asks the audience to think upon. The sacrifices of the soldiers which are completely personal are not remembered for long or not respected enough because the ultimate happiness lies in the eyes of the countrymen they fought for, though the soldiers do not know who they are, the people they are fighting for.Thus Troilus and Cressida, in some cases, argues that this conflict of political problem with an individual’s personal life is completely unsporting and inequintable.


At the time the play was written, i.e., the Elizabethan Period, the two genders, male and female were expected to perform according to the roles set by the society for them. To generalize this fact, men were expected to be gallant, brave, excel both at combat and politics and be fierce. To sum up, men were expected to be physically as well as mentally prepared and active. If a man refuses to perform his political or military duties, he would no longer be termed masculine and would be cited as an example of a worthless man. On the other hand, it was completely the other side of a coin for the fair gender. Women were expected to be silent and obedient to their husband and father. They were expected to be chaste. Any women who is involved in transient sexual relationships for feeding her family because she had no other choice, would be considered a whore and was seen as a threat to the society. Also, her disobedience towards her husband or father would lead her to be a disloyal woman, or, in modern words, a tough woman who has lost her principles and can no longer be handled. This difference in the treatment of men and women arises a sense of inequality in the audience’s mind and the portrayal of current social inequalities can also be paralleled with it.

Honor and Principles

The play, Troilus and Cressida, lacks honor, principles, values and other different ideas such as chivalry and romance. The play sketches a world that is corrupt, miserable and fallen. In this world, the lovers whose romance is said to last forever cheat each other, the leaders of the people manipulate them and lie to them, and the traditional idea of an epic hero is completely erased from the minds of the audience as the heroes are seen behaving and fighting in a not so heroic manner. Nothing can be seen as sacred in this play. The great hero, Achilles, refuses to perform his duties in most time of the war and when he does, he performs deeds that are completely different from what a war hero actually does. He first kills an unarmed soldier and then shamelessly drags his body around the battlefield with his horse. Paris, who steals Helen for his personal pleasures starts the war and then manipulates his soldiers to fight for ‘their’ freedom, even if all the benefits are personal and the soldiers have to die without doing any wrong. Helen, who is considered as the most beautiful woman in the entire universe, is nothing but a cheater. Even Ulysses is a mere hypocrite and cheater in the story and the character of Pandarus is also portrayed in a dark manner since he reduces the love of Troilus and Cressida to mere lust and nothing else. The actions that take place in the battlefield are bad and dishonorable, but the reason of the war is even worse. We are again and again reminded in the play that the major reason of the fight between the Trojans and the Greeks is because Paris stole Helen from the King of the Greeks, Menelaus. And moreover, they fight to keep Helen as a matter of honor in the play. The play states that “all the argument is a cuckold…whore.”(2.3.71-72). To continue in simpler words, the clash that costed countless lives, time and a huge amount of money was all being fought because of one mere relationship. The extreme level of cheat and manipulation by the leaders is what the play basically describes. This opens up different political situations in real life and how politicians, just for their personal satisfaction divide people on the basis of caste and religion. This play makes the audience politically active and aware of the hypocrisy of the society.

Important Themes of the Play


O Pandarus! I tell thee, Pandarus, —

When I do tell thee, there my hopes lie drown’d,

Reply not in how many fathoms deep80

They lie indrench’d. I tell thee I am mad

In Cressid’s love: thou answer’st ‘she is fair;’

Pour’st in the open ulcer of my heart

Her eyes, her hair, her cheek, her gait, her voice,

Handlest in thy discourse, O, that her hand,85

In whose comparison all whites are ink,

Writing their own reproach, to whose soft seizure

The cygnet’s down is harsh and spirit of sense

Hard as the palm of ploughman: this thou tell’st me,

As true thou tell’st me, when I say I love her;90

But, saying thus, instead of oil and balm,

Thou lay’st in every gash that love hath given me

The knife that made it.(1.1. 51-63)

The play is basically about a couple, Troilus and Cressida, who fall in love with each other in the seventh year of the long, miserable and horrible Trojan war and the above lines said by Troilus to Pandarus quite describes his love for the woman. When the two fall for each other during the terrible life taking war, they try to make a world of their own where politics, corruption and the ugliness of warfare cannot reach them. However, this doesn’t seem to last too long in the story. This love is brutally torn apart by politics and is limited to mere lust.

The play basically seem to inject an idea in the minds of the audience that love cannot escape from the ugliness of the society and its norms and it is impossible to last in such an ugly world. The lesson it gives from such fundamental human emotions like love is praiseworthy. The play is not a tragedy, but the tearing apart of this couple arises pity and sympathy among the minds of the audience.

Trade and Commerce

The play revolves around the basic idea of buying and selling, i.e., trade and commerce. The Greeks and Trojans in the story treat people like they are not humans but mere commodities in the market that can be bought and sold anywhere, anytime. The value given to the emotions of general people in the play seems to be null. Women are seen as sexual objects and nothing else. They act as objects that give babies and are made for fulfilling the sexual pleasures of men. The Trojans talk about Helen in a way as if she is an expensive piece of newly woven dress in the market. Cressida is sold to the Greeks and is treated as a commodity, and the powerful Ajax seems to be a product the Greeks are trying to sell.

Shakespeare, in a way, is trying to make the audience understand the different qualities that decide a person’s worth. The play deals with the judgements of the society that is passed everyday according to our deeds without our interpretation. The play teaches the audience to know one’s worth and refrain oneself from being seen from somebody else’s eyes.


As the play opens, time seems to be running slowly, at the pace of a snail for those who had already spent seven long, tiresome drawn out years in the war. But Shakespeare soon gives his audience the knowledge that time doesn’t just fly, but also destroys everything in its way as the play starts picking up momentum. The characters in the play are seen taking time as their biggest threat as it is inevitable and can play with their existence. Time is depicted as the most powerful element in the play, it is a destructive and unfaithful force that erases lives and is capable of bringing changes in the plot of the story no one would ever think of. Time kills, heals and also gives birth to new lives and stories. The stories of the Trojans and the Greeks, which they thought would be remembered by everyone in the time to come becomes true. Thus Shakespeare describes time as powerful and nobody can escape its claws.

Appearance vs Reality

The last, but most probably the major theme in this play is appearance vs reality. Troilus falls with the Cressida he thinks she is, not with the Cressida that she actually is. He choses to idealize Cressida. The character of Pandarus is suspicious in the play as Troilus and Cressida have only the description of themselves as given by Pandarus and that is all they have to go with. Troilus has trust in Cressida and he beliefs that she is never going to shift her loyalties. Troilus finds Cressida beautiful, and it appears to him that beauty comes with loyalty and faithfulness. However, the reality is a bit disappointing for Troilus when he finds out that Cressida betrays him (ACT 5). Troilus is unable to deal with this betrayal and again falls against reality. He beliefs that the woman that betrayed him for Diomedes is not his Cressida, but somebody else. He asks Ulysses to confirm whether she is the one that is going for another man. Troilus says that this is not the woman he fell in love with, this is Diomedes’ Cressida and decides to separate the two Cressidas in his mind for he believes that if beauty comes with a soul, she is not the one he fell for.

This theme gives a major lesson to the audience. The things that we love and fight for may not always be ours, or may not be faithful to us. The different fundamental emotions that the society develops upon losing something or somebody that they lost needs to be stopped and the fact that everything lasts for a certain amount of time must be accepted by people, because that is the ultimate reality of life.


To wrap up the play in a nutshell, I conclude that Troilus and Cressida as a problem play deals with different social issues such as gender inequality, woman in the society, love and its place in the society, basic human emotions such as love, anger, jealousy (as mentioned in the introduction) and the reality of life in depth. Shakespeare is seen succeeding in arising different thoughts in the minds of the audience who can now question certain societal norms. To conclude, the genre of TROILUS AND CRESSIDA can be fully termed as a problem play because it fulfills all the characteristics required for a play to be one.

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