The Tragedy of Misogyny in Shakespeare’s “Troilus and Cressida”

Echoing Homer’s Illiad, Shakespeare cites in the prologue to Troilus and Cressida that the Trojan war erupted because of the kidnap of Helen: ‘Menelaus’ queen,/With wanton Paris sleeps – and that’s the quarrel’ [prologue, 9-10]. We therefore believe from the outset that the war plot [and all the tragedies that occur as a result of it] exists because of this woman, whilst in the love plot it is the infidelity of Cressida which creates tragedy by destroying any hope of romantic love surviving in the play.

It appears then that the tragedy in the play orbits around these two women, but whether they can be held personally responsible for this is doubtful. Shakespeare mirrors the epic tradition of beginning his play in medias res; as far as the audience’s perception is concerned, the war has been constant. Because of this we are made constantly unsure whether the sexual quarrel is at the heart of the war or the war has become the heart of the sexual quarrel; as Kenneth Muir suggests, Shakespeare ‘turns his back upon his former ideals and the world’s ancient ideals of heroism and romance, and questions them’ by melding together the love and war plots. In particular, throughout the play we see war intruding upon the love plot in both language and action, where the men in the play perceive Helen and Cressida as military currency; Helen is a prize to be won whilst Cressida similarly is a product, sold and passed round various men. Perceived in this way, it is inevitable that the two women respond to this misogyny by acting out of a kind of tactical necessity, in a way that challenges the ideal of romantic love, and as a result makes the men’s quest for glory in the war appear meaningless and shallow.

In the prologue to the play, Shakespeare writes ‘Menelaus’ queen,/With wanton Paris sleeps’ [prologue, 9-10], misleadingly giving Helen an active role in ‘sleeping’ with Paris where it is clear elsewhere that she didn’t have much of a choice in the matter. Act 2 Scene 2 for instance centres almost solely around a discussion about whether or not to ‘keep’ or ‘let go’ Helen, without any consideration of her own desires. This scene is exemplary of Helen’s commodification and removal of autonomy as the men [with perhaps the exception of Hector] place her on a pedestal. Hector argues that ‘Every tithe soul ‘mongst many thousand dismes/Hath been as dear as Helen’, [2:2, 18-19] suggesting that Helen’s life is equal to every other and that her keeping is not worth the blood spilled in the war over her. Troilus, however, is adamant that Helen should be kept:

‘Is she worth keeping? Why, she is a pearl/Whose prize hath launched above a thousand ships[.]’ [2:2, 80-81]

Troilus neglects to mention anything about the worth of Helen as a person to Paris, and instead adopts the language of economy that he similarly uses in reference to Cressida later in the play. He glorifies Helen with ‘pearl’ and ‘prize,’ insinuating that her worth lies in her value as a precious commodity rather than in any human qualities she possesses. This language accelerates during the course of the scene, to the point at which Troilus describes Helen in the closing lines as ‘a theme of honour and renown.’[2:2, 198] Here, we see with the word ‘theme’ that he has idealized her to such a degree that she becomes a kind of military token, or mascot for the war, placing the war in the hands of the men fighting it rather than the woman who supposedly caused it.

Furthermore, Jessica Woolf points out in her essay on Shakespeare’s classic plays that in Troilus and Cressida, every character’s actions are ‘defined and limited according to prior versions of their own narrative.’ Though this is a somewhat obvious speculation, it is an important one, as Shakespeare was working with material familiar to a large part of his audience, and this is crucial to consider when examining characterisation in the play. The characters in the war plot have a status or reputation attached to their names preceding the play itself, meaning that the war plot is concerned with the forging of these reputations, described by Heather James as a lining up of the warriors ‘to fight out the question of their significance in time to come.’ When this is considered, the capture of Helen (though undeniably the catalyst for the Trojan war) seems somewhat incidental to the quest for glory; we are made to feel as though the war is not truly concerned with Helen but rather glory for glory’s sake.

This impression of the war as a hollow quest for glory with Helen as a scapegoat is cemented by her actual appearance in the play, which inevitably disappoints. We are told earlier in the play that her ‘youth and freshness/Wrinkles Apollo’s and makes stale the morning’,[2:2,77-78] and that ‘the world’s large spaces’ cannot ‘parallel’ her, [2:2, 161] so it is inevitable that her appearance in the play can only fall short and prove an unsatisfactory premise for war. Indeed, Helen comes across as somewhat irritating in this scene, repeatedly interrupting Pandarus and making it difficult for him to convey his message to Paris. In addition, she addresses Pandarus in a flirtatious manner, calling him ‘honey-sweet lord,’ something which Pandarus picks up on where he says ‘My cousin [Paris] will fall out with you’.[3:1, 79-80] Such behaviour is disappointing to an audience who have been anticipating a woman of highest esteem and grace, yet see her flirt with the bawdy go-between who crudely lowers the tone of many of the scenes he is in. Considering that in the one scene she appears, Helen’s behaviour is flirtatious, we begin to understand her position in the play. If we return to the prologue’s ‘With wanton Paris sleeps,’ this scene leads us to believe that Helen’s capture may have been a willing or partly active one; she expresses no obvious desire to return to Menelaus at any point, and indeed in terms of self-preservation such an expression would be unwise. Helen appears to have internalised the men’s perception of her as a commodity and thus remains loyal only to those who have current possession of her. In which case, the war and its tragic consequences seem futile, and though Helen’s behaviour does not help the cause, it is the men’s deifying and objectifying of her which drives her behaviour; the reality of Helen’s character in this scene affirms that the war is of the men’s doing rather than hers.

Cressida’s infidelity to Troilus, one of the major tragedies of the play, is a result of a similar commodification and of the brutal war climate polluting their relationship. In such a climate, romantic love is unsustainable and Cressida’s actions, similarly to Helen’s, are born of necessity and driven by the men’s perception of her as a possession. In her writing on ‘Shakespearean Tragedies of Love,’ Catherine Bates asserts that love in literature is ‘opposed to all the forces of destruction,’ and is an ‘energy that counters anarchy and chaos,’ comments that stand in opposition to the relationship between Troilus and Cressida, which in effect is destroyed by the anarchy and chaos of the war. Helidora suggests that the two characters are ‘products of their environment,’ and indeed, Cressida views the whole process of wooing and eventually consummating the relationship in terms of warfare, worrying for example, ‘Things won are done – joy’s soul lies in the doing’. [1:1, 273] Here, Cressida refers to the act of having sex as something to be ‘won,’ and paired with her ‘holding off’ from wooing Troilus, the winning party in the scenario would be Troilus. As in a war, Cressida insists that ‘things won are done,’ perceiving the consummation of the relationship as the end point rather than a beginning, in which she becomes the defeated. Like Helen, Cressida also seems to have internalised her objectification, implying that the ‘thing’ to be won is herself, and that by giving herself away she loses her value. Pandarus’ go-between role in the bringing together of the lovers further encourages this view of Cressida as a commodity. The two do not discover each other as in Romeo and Juliet but instead are effectively forced together; Troilus goes to Pandarus to confess his desire for Cressida because as her uncle, he has a degree of possession over her and thus is in a position to hand her over. His mislabelling of Troilus, ‘Where? Yonder? That’s Deiphobus. ‘Tis Troilus’, [1:2, 215-216] iterates the shallow nature of Troilus and Cressida’s ‘love’ for one another and the interchangeability of the warriors in the play.

Heather James comments on the play that ‘There is some hope, at the play’s beginning, that its love plot will thwart the wholly reductive force of its military plot,’ a hope which is dismantled by Cressida’s infidelity to Troilus. Arguably, even during Act 3 Scene 2 when the lovers make their vows to one another, there is already a sense of looming tragedy in Cressida’s speech:

‘When they’ve said, ‘as false/As air, as water, wind or sandy earth,/As fox to lamb, as wolf to heifer’s calf,/Pard to the hind, or stepdame to her son’,/Yea, let them say, to stick the heart of falsehood,/’As false as Cressid’.’ [3:2, 181-186]

Cressida does not promise, like Troilus, to be true and faithful, and in fact does not mention the word ‘oath’ whatsoever. Instead, she merely prophesizes that her name will become a dependent for falseness if [or rather when, as many of the audience are aware] she is unfaithful to him. To even propose the notion of infidelity in a scene supposedly concerned with the exchange of loving promises undercuts it with a feeling of looming disaster, again a symptom of the war permeating and infecting the love plot in creating a climate where disaster is always inevitable. Cressida’s distorted perception of love, thanks to both the war and her commodification by the men in the play, instils her early in the play with the notion that her union with Troilus will not last, as like Helen, she may be exchanged between other men and must adapt accordingly.

Indeed, Cressida’s father, Calchas, bargains for the return of his daughter, using the language of economy so common is discussion of women in the play: ‘Let him be sent, great princes,/And he shall buy my daughter’. [3:3, 27-28] This conception of her as a product is uncomfortably evident in Act 4, Scene 5 where each of the Greeks kisses her in turn, fulfilling her role as a sexual object. Heliodora comments on this scene that ‘Cressida had been carefully trained to be pleasing to the opposite sex, and the sane thing to do in Troy was to take on Troilus as a lover: arriving at the Greek camp, after leaving Troy without a single attempt on Troilus’ part to keep her there, she repeats the ‘sane’ behaviour that was supposed to help her to a secure position, only with greater ease, since it is not the first time.’ Here, she touches on the point I have made about Cressida’s infidelity being a diplomatic necessity for her own self-preservation. We see in the previous scene her grief at being forced against her will to leave Troilus, lamenting ‘The grief is fine, full perfect, that I taste/And violenteth in a sense as strong/As that which causeth it’, [4:4, 2-5] and it is her seemingly instantaneous abandonment of this grief in the very next scene which causes many to conceive of Cressida as immoral and thus actively responsible for the tragedy that is her own infidelity. Though indeed her adulterous exchange with Diomedes in Act 5 Scene 2 is not physically forced, upon examination, we see that she has not a great deal of choice in the matter. For example, her moment of decision comes on the line ‘Troilus, farewell! One eye yet looks on thee,/But with my heart the other eye doth see’ [5:2, 105-106], illuminating again the pollution of war upon Cressida, which has infiltrated so far that she has even begun to war with herself, battling ‘one eye’ which loves Troilus, and the ‘other eye’ which looks on Diomedes, and is regretfully aware that becoming his lover is the ‘sane’ thing to do having been handed back over to the Greeks. The tragedy here is again the fault of the men who idealize her; Troilus comments upon seeing Cressida’s infidelity, ‘This she?/No; this is Diomed’s Cressida’ [5:2, 135-136], demonstrating in his language the transferal of the object Cressida from himself to Diomedes, and by doing so implicitly accepting and respecting the system in which women can be bought and sold.

Though it has been long debated as to what genre Troilus and Cressida belongs in, the play certainly ends on a tragic note with the relationship between Troilus and Cressida destroyed, and the beloved Hector murdered unceremoniously whilst unarmed. Seemingly, this fruitless war has been caused by Helen and the glimmer of hope which Troilus and Cressida’s love offered has been destroyed by Cressida’s infidelity. Whilst on the surface it may be easy to attribute the tragedy to these women’s behaviour, as Kenneth Muir succinctly expresses in his introduction to the play, the ‘idealization of Helen, as well as of Cressida, is fraught with tragic consequences.’ By perceiving and treating the two women as commodities to be exchanged, bought, and sold, the men in the play remove their autonomy and thus responsibility for their actions, which are performed in interest of their own self-preservation. Shakespeare challenges and criticises the glorification of love and war by melding the two together to produce a hollow quest for glory and a world of debased sexual economy.

The Problem of Value in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida

Why, she is a pearlWhose price hath launched above a thousand shipsAnd turned crowned kings to merchants. (2.2.81-3)The world of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida does not distinguish decidedly between the Greeks and the Trojans. Though the Greek camp is a makeshift assembly of tents pitched on the shores of Troy, and the Trojan society is the courtly palace of Priam and his sons, both societies value the same ideas and objects: honor in men, and beauty and faithfulness in women, as revealed haphazardly through appearances and acts. The inadequacy of such measures of worth, their failure to be absolute and their failure to be made known, results in the incestuous, inbred world of Troilus and Cressida, where war is conducted as among brothers and sisters: filled with petty rivalries, meaningless, repetitive commerce between camps, and showy tramping back and forth in place of true conflict. Unable to live or act without considerations of value, the cast of Troilus and Cressida create and operate in their own fallen world.Troilus and Cressida opens immediately in this world of judgment and appraisals. Troilus’s mini-blazon in appreciation of Cressida — “Her eyes, her hair, her cheek, her gait, her voiceâ€? (1.1.56) — is soon followed by Pandarus’s attempt to raise Troilus’s station in Cressida’s eyes: “Have you any eyes, do you know what a man is? Is not birth, beauty, good shape, discourse, manhood, learning, gentleness, virtue, youth, liberality, and such like, the spice and salt that season a man?â€? (1.2.262-266). The humor in the opening scenes of the play does not arise from the gap between the way women are celebrated and the way in which men are, but rather from Shakespeare’s demonstration that the modes of appraisal are in fact the same; both reduce men and women to objects of desire. In the opening scenes of the play, the lovers do not confront each other except as mediated by Pandarus, who undertakes first to sell Cressida to Troilus (already a lovesick buyer), and then to sell Troilus to Cressida (who is merely playing at being hard to get), through a series of comparisons to other lovers and actors in their tightly scripted world.Pandarus’s role in Troilus and Cressida, mediating action by attempting to mediate — or provoke — desire, is a problematic one. His exchanges with both Troilus and Cressida are awkward not just because he is the uncle of a well-born woman reduced to the role of a fool or a go-between, but because his praises at times seem to border on the unnatural and the incestuous. In his praise of Cressida, for example, Pandarus cannot help but twice throw in the admission that she is his niece, which forces us to take the dialogue uneasily even if we had not understood it in that way. “For my part, she is my kinswoman,â€? says Pandarus; “I would not, as they term it, praise herâ€? (1.1.45-47). A few lines later, he again laments: “Because she’s kin to me, therefore she’s not so fair as Helen. An she were not kin to me, she would be as fair a’ Friday as Helen is on Sundayâ€? (1.1.78-80). Speaking of Troilus to Cressida one scene later, Pandarus returns to the theme of illicit admiration. Unable to exalt Troilus as much as he would like himself, he posits a non-existent female relation to perform the desire for him: “Had I a sister were a grace, or a daughter a goddess, he should take his choiceâ€? (1.2.244-46).Though this is all part of the “show,â€? the business-side of love, Pandarus nonetheless helps to set the claustrophobic and ingrown atmosphere of the play. Taken together, these scenes put Pandarus beyond the role of go-between until he seems not just the champion of the young lovers but their pimp, which he will come to realize by the play’s end. In his closing remarks, Pandarus, the “poor agent despised,â€? identifies himself with “bawdsâ€? and “traders in the fleshâ€? (5.10.36, 46). If the society of Troilus and Cressida is diseased, and the actors in this society are “brethren and sisters of the hold-door trade,â€? Pandarus has willingly held the door open for others to pass through (5.10.51).But he is not alone in this charge, which is symptomatic of the undifferentiated society of the play. It reaches the highest levels, as seen marvelously through Ulysses’s humiliating treatment of Cressida upon her arrival at the Greek camp. After the Greek general Agamemnon receives Cressida with a kiss, Ulysses — for no apparent purpose — extends the reception to include all of the other Greeks, from ancient Nestor to cuckold Menelaus: “Yet is the kindness but particular. / ’Twere better she were kissed in generalâ€? (4.5.20-21). Ulysses places himself at the end of this string of kisses, but when it comes to be his turn, rejects Cressida’s induced generosity. “Why then, for Venus’ sake, give me a kiss, / When Helen is a maid again, and his,â€? Ulysses says, imposing an impossible condition, the sullied Helen’s maidenhood, on the kiss (4.5.49-50). Ulysses, it seems, sets up this scenario in order to expose Cressida as a woman befitting of his conception of her, so that he is able to then pass judgment upon her as she exits with Diomedes:Fie, fie upon her!There’s language in her eye, her cheek, her lip;Nay, her foot speaks. Her wanton spirits look outAt every joint and motive of her body. (4.5.54-57)Ulysses, too, in his lowest moment, reveals himself to be an agent in the hold-door trade.Ulysses’s lines are also significant for another reason. When he requests that Cressida be kissed “in general,â€? rather than in “particular,â€? Ulysses offers the reader one of the play’s major dichotomies, that of the gap between what is general — absolute or unified — and what is particular — contingent or private. It is apt (as far as something like this can be “aptâ€?) that Agamemnon, as the general of the Greeks, should kiss Cressida; it is not apt that all of the men should then follow suit. By divesting the Greek camp of even this small level of hierarchy in command, Ulysses further contributes to the pervasive lack of hierarchy in all aspects of the play’s world. Ironically, the compulsion of characters in Troilus and Cressida to judge and assess the value of people and actions leads, in the end, to a non-hierarchical society in which everyone is low and equally low. The beautiful Helen flirts shamelessly with Pandarus in 3.1, her only appearance in the play, and Pandarus’s insinuations extend not just to Helen and Cressida but even to Cassandra, the mad prophetic daughter of Priam and not so much a traditional sex object. As he tells Troilus before being cut off: “I will not dispraise your sister Cassandra’s wit, but —â€? (1.1.48-9).The role of the pimp, as exhibited by Pandarus in Troilus and Cressida, is an unnecessary social role because desire does not have to be “performedâ€? — through Pandarus’s attempts to raise the stock of both Cressida and Troilus — or mediated. The people do not need a pimp because they have their own private desires and decisions that can be played out in their own time. This is perhaps what gives Troilus and Cressida its trace of tragedy: the play world is hostile to any sort of true union between Troilus and Cressida because it insists on turning private and subjective valuations into public and absolute ones. Ulysses’s speech in 1.3, upholding the “specialty of ruleâ€? and the observance of “degree, priority, and placeâ€? in warfare as in human societies, seems bombastic in the context of the play (78, 86). Ulysses celebrates these ideas in word but not in act, as seen in his tasteless setup of Cassandra, inviting and then rejecting her kiss.Like Ulysses, the men and women of Troilus and Cressida take pleasure in the human ability — and need — to judge and choose, but then show themselves to be dissatisfied with the results of their judgments and choices because they allow for a world of unclear authority and no absolutes. In 2.2, set at Priam’s palace in Troy, Priam and his sons discuss the merits of returning Helen to the Greeks rather than continuing to wage war against them. Hector opens with a call to let Helen go, conjuring up all the Trojan lives that have been lost in her defense:If we have lost so many tenths of oursTo guard a thing not ours nor worth to us,Had it our name, the value of one ten,What merit’s in that reason which deniesThe yielding of her up? (2.2.21-4)Hector’s mathematical calculation, perhaps an exasperated one after long years of war, is met by Troilus’s disgust, that Hector would “weighâ€? the “worth and honorâ€? of Priam’s kingdom on a scale of “common ouncesâ€? (2.2.26-8). Troilus rejects reason as an empty tool designed to give men comfort, something to line gloves with (2.2.38), and when Hector gently reminds him, “Brother, she is not worth what she doth cost / The keeping,â€? Troilus responds with the play’s central question: “What’s aught but as ’tis valued?â€? (2.2.51-3). Troilus’s question, and his tragic awareness of the emptiness objects take on absent from any desire or esteem, drives the action of Troilus and Cressida, from Achilles sulking in his tents to Cressida’s infidelity with Diomedes and even to Troilus’s pre-consummation apprehension toward his beloved.When Hector claims that value does not reside in the assessor, but possesses its own “estimate and dignity / As well wherein ’tis precious of itself / As in the prizerâ€? (2.2.54-6), Troilus responds with a strange rhetorical illustration in which one chooses a wife from one’s appetites and desires but then follows through in marriage for his honor (2.261-8). In other words, appetite compels honor through the link between our two types of “valuation;â€? we will honor something, that is, “valueâ€? it, because we have once desired it, “valuedâ€? it, in another way. Value does not exist independently of the valuer, as an absolute, because it demands motive, from appetite or from honor, for its livelihood. It is a complicated argument, but in the end comes to this: Helen must be fought for because she was once valued.Hector loses the argument because he is, like Troilus and Paris whom he reproaches, a young man “whom Aristotle thought / Unfit to hear moral philosophyâ€? (2.2.166-7). The Trojans, like the Greeks, want to have it both ways, to be able to desire and to pass judgments of worth, but also to reach after absolutes, to conduct societies and wars based on standards of absolute authority and transparent laws. Thus, though Hector suggests that taking Helen away from her husband is morally questionable, he allows Helen to remain, because the appearance of “joint and several dignitiesâ€? must be preserved (2.2.193).In Act IV of the play, Paris, in a light and “philosophicalâ€? moment, asks Diomedes, “Who, in your thoughts, deserves fair Helen best, / Myself or Menelaus?â€? (4.1.53-4). Diomedes responds with perhaps the play’s only clear-minded treatment of the problem of overestimating value in conducting both public and private life. Menelaus, he says, deserves Helen because he seeks her though she has been contaminated, without consideration for pain or cost; Paris deserves her because he still defends her, ignoring his debasement of her and his own debasement through causing the loss of his kin (4.1.55-60). “Both merits poised,â€? says Diomedes, “each weighs nor less nor more; / But he as he, the heavier for a whoreâ€? (4.1.65-6). Though cynical, it is a fitting sentence in a cynical play, in which Shakespeare gives each man and woman his or her own script — the freedom to value and assess and the freedom to act based on these judgments — and then presents to us the ill-fated result. This is the realization that Pandarus comes to at the end of Troilus and Cressida, when he laments, perhaps in Shakespeare’s voice, “Why should our endeavor be so loved, and the performance so loathed?â€? (5.10.39-40).