Which hero would you rather be, Achilles or Odysseus?
The live fast, die young crowd probably would go with Achilles: burn bright and become immortalized as the world’s greatest warrior. Who cares if you’re an asshole? You’re Achilles!
If your interests include sticking around living to fight another day, you’d pick Odysseus.
Shakespeare chose neither.
The characters and events in Troilus and Cressida were very familiar to Shakespeare’s audience, as its subject, the Trojan War, was basically the origin story for all of Western Civilization. As the story goes, the descendants of the Trojans that escaped the Greek’s onslaught of Troy went on the found the Roman Empire. Therefore, civilizations wishing to claim themselves as the heirs of Rome would also assert themselves to be heirs of Troy. Britain was not an exception, as evidenced by its cultural preoccupation with the Classical.
When considering the Trojan War, Roman culture its inheritors were very much “Team Troy.” The Trojan figures of Hector, Priam, and Troilus were often depicted as the moral superiors to the brutish Greeks. Virgil referred to Odysseus as “cruel” and “sly,” and Achilles as “savage,” and these perceptions ruled Western school of thought right up until Shakespeare’s time.
So, unsurprisingly, this is the depiction we get of the two in Troilus and Cressida, with the Trojan’s as foils. Ulysses is manipulative and Achilles is a thug. Same old story, told a million times.
However, multiple times in the play, Ulysses delivers some lines that make us say “huh.”
One such speech occurs in III.1, when Ulysses describes the how social order must be upheld and authority must be respected, or else everything will slip into discord. Without a doubt, Shakespeare wrote Ulysses to be a very cunning man, and his speeches show a deep philosophical understanding of the world. However, to equate this understanding with Shakespeare’s own would be ignorant, as the Machiavellian ideas expressed by Ulysses runs against the grain of his argument in texts like Henry IV and As You Like It.
The importance of hierarchy was an important and accepted idea in Shakespeare’s Britain. Social order was based around everyone having a “place,” from the peasantry to royalty. Why then, are these words coming out the mouth of Ulysses, the “cruel” trickster?
Is Shakespeare is choosing to have Ulysses voice this philosophy in order to associate his society with the Greeks rather than the Trojans? That would certainly fit within the themes of the play concerning the corruption inherent in war.
If Shakespeare was to pick a hero in this play, it would probably be the most unconventional hero imaginable:
Thersites, the one character who is able to look past the “Heroic” status of both the Trojan and Greeks, exposing them for what they are, and that England isn’t some sort of perfect political sovereign nation descended from ancient Trojan kings: they are just as much the heirs of “sly” Ulysses.