The story of Troilus and Cressida comes to us from the Trojan war. I doubt that any conflict has created more pure literature in Western civilization. I don't remember either Troilus or Cressida being mentioned by Homer in the Iliad but that fault might be mine.
So what happens? Our story opens with a priest from Troy named Calchas. He has forseen that the Greeks will win and Troy will be burned. He decides to change over to the winning side. The Trojans are understandably upset by this. His daughter Cressida was left behind in disgrace. Hector took her into his house to shield her honor.
Next we meet Troilus, one of the sons of the Trojan king Priam. He falls for Cressida at a distance. His love is so strong that instead of asking for her hand, he sulks in agony. Pandarus, a fellow soldier and Cressida's uncle, finds him and eventually finds out why he is upset.
And then very little happens. Pandarus tells Cressida about Troilus' love. She won't commit herself to him because she knows that men are flighty. Troilus writes a letter. Pandarus contrives to have them meet. Cressida falls for him. Pandarus makes a plan for them to spend a night together. After much, much hesitation, they do. (The actions in this paragraph take some 500 stanzas of poetry.)
Then the twists come. Calchas asks that Cressida be given to the Greeks as part of a prisoner exchange. Troilus is of course opposed but he can't publicly proclaim it. He goes to seize Cressida (if she's ok with it). She declines. Instead, she'll go to the Greeks but escape ten days later and come back to him.
Alas, she can't escape. Ten days later, she is convinced by a Greek commander, Diomede, to become his lover. Eventually Troilus realizes that she isn't coming back. Later he dies in battle.
Let me start by saying that this wasn't my favorite piece of writing. Epic poetry isn't quite my taste. Though, 'Paradise Lost', coming up in August, is quite good. Maybe I would have enjoyed this more if it was set out in a narrative, though frankly I doubt it. If it were a modern novel, I'd say that it suffers from serious pacing issues. The first three books were a slog.
Language barrier? Some, maybe. I used the version put out in the Great Books volume 22. It has the middle English stanzas next to a translation by (I'm not making this up) George Phillip Krapp. I mostly read the translation but bounced back and forth. It wasn't too hard to figure out things like this:
But ye loveres, that bathen in gladnesse,
If any drope of pitee in you be,
Remembreth yow on passed hevinesse
That he han felt, and on the adversitee
Of othere folk, and thenketh how that ye
Han felt that Love dorste yow displease;
Or ye han wonne him with to greet an ese.
It may help to try and read it out loud. (The spell-check in Blogger hates it.) The translation:
But O ye lovers, bathed in bliss always,
If any drops of pity in you be,
Recall the griefs gone by of other days,
And think sometimes upon the adversity
Of other folk, forgetting not that ye
Have felt yourselves Love's power to displease,
Lest ye might win Love's prize with too great ease.
It's not hard to look back and forth and figure it out. I did this mostly in seeing how certain phrases would translate out. The translation seems to be very good in terms of staying right with the story. This Krapp job wasn't a crap job.