For seven years the Greeks and Trojans have been at war following the Trojan prince Paris' abduction of Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world, from her Greek husband Menelaus. The besieging Greek army is encamped under the walls of Troy and, at the point at which the play begins, the war has reached stalemate. The Greeks are quarrelling amongst themselves. Achilles, their greatest champion, refuses to fight and has withdrawn to his tent with his lover, Patroclus. Ulysses tries to entice Achilles back to the field by arousing his jealously against Ajax, a rival warrior, whom he acclaims as their new hero and elects to meet Hector, the Trojan champion, in single combat. Equally at odds with themselves, the Trojans are debating the value of continuing the war merely for the sake of keeping Helen. Hector declares her not worth the lives she costs but when his brother Troilus contends that honour demands they continue to fight for her, Hector is brought round to his point of view. Although the single combat between Ajax and Hector ends in a show of amity, hostilities are resumed the following day. Troilus, however, is much distracted from these military concerns by his love for Cressida, the daughter of Calchas, a Trojan who has defected to the Greek camp whilst leaving his daughter in Troy. The young lovers are eagerly abetted by Cressida's uncle Pandarus, who acts as their go-between. However, after only one night together they are parted when, in exchange for the captured general Antenor, Cressida is sent to join her father in the Greek camp. Almost immediately she betrays Troilus with the Greek Diomedes and, discovering this, Troilus is plunged into despair. Despite his sister Cassandra's prophecies of doom, Hector goes into battle and is treacherously murdered by Achilles, who has finally been roused into action by the death of Patroclus. With the fall of Troy certain, Troilus, disillusioned as a lover, assumes Hector's role as the Trojan champion and vows revenge on Achilles. The dying, disease-ridden Pandarus is left to end the play.
The play is about the siege of Troy by the Greeks. An Elizabethan audience would have interpreted the play as a discussion of the issues at stake in the siege of the Netherlands.
Pandarus is an unflattering representation of William Cecil. Pandarus sets up an amorous rendezvous between Troilus (de Vere) and Cressida (the Queen).
Achilles and Patroclus are Grecian officers who are part of the force besieging Troy. Rather than fight and serve honorably with their fellow Grecians, Achilles and Patroclus prefer to spend their days in their tent, privately enjoying each others pleasures. The satirist Thersites outlines the rumours against Achilles and Patroclus.
THERSITES [to PATROCLUS] Thou art said to be Achilles male varlet.
PATROCLUS: Male varlet, you rogue? What's that?
THERSITES: Why, this masculine whore. Now the rotten diseases of the south [venereal disease] … take and take again such preposterous discoveries!
PATROCLUS: Why, thou damnable box of envy, thou, what means thou to curse thus?
THERSITES: Do I curse thee?
PATROCLUS: Why, no, you ruinous butt, you whoreson indistinguishable cur, no.
THERSITES: No? Why art thou then exasperate, thou idle immaterial skein of sleeve silk, thou green sarsenet [fine silk] flap for a sore eye, thou tassel of a prodigal's purse, thou!
Elizabethan authors had equated Essex with Achilles at least four times prior to 1599. De Vere disliked Essex. His depiction of Achilles as an inept leader is a criticism of Essex. Patroclus could have been a representation of Southampton, who de Vere had promoted as a husband to his daughter Elizabeth. The dialogue suggests that Southampton's reaction to rumours was to not deny the rumours, but attack the communicator of the rumours.
In the play, Ulysses is the model officer. Ulysses gives Achilles a lesson on the transitory character of courtly favour.
ACHILLES: What, am I poor of late?
'Tis certain, greatness, once fall'n out with fortune,
Must fall out with men too ...
What, are my deeds forgot?
ULYSSES: Time hath, my lord, a wallet at his back,
Wherein he puts alms for oblivion,
A great-siz'd monster of ingratitudes.
Those scraps are good deeds past, which are devour'd
As fast as they are made, forgot as soon
As done ...
For beauty, wit,
High birth, vigor of bone, desert in service,
Love, friendship, charity, are subjects all
To envious and calumniating Time.
One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.
De Vere would have known how easy it is to fall out of favour in court, based on his experiences in the early 1580s. His advice could have been directed at Essex, although he disliked Essex and would be unlikely to want to provide advice to him. More likely, his advice was directed at Southampton.
In 1600, William Gilbert's theory of geomagnetism was published. The play references the theory ("As true … as iron to adamant, as earth to the center.")