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.