Who and Who??
Troilus and Cressida
This play could have been called Achilles and Hector, or Achilles and Ajax, or Ulysses and Nestor Talk a Lot, or Thersites Hates Everybody, or Andromache and Cassandra Warn the Guys Not to Go to War. But it’s called Troilus and Cressida. I’m sure there’s a good reason for that and probably a lot of scholars know about it but I don’t. Tell me the truth. Unless you’re a Shakespeare expert or an Iliad or Chaucer expert, have you ever even heard of Troilus or Cressida? They weren’t even extras in the epic movie Troy (which some people loved - I didn’t).
I’m not going to try to solve the mystery of why these two somewhat minor characters are honored with the title of the play and I’m not so interested in Troilus who seems to be one of Shakespeare’s typical young hot-headed romantic fools, but Cressida? She’s in only about a fourth of the scenes and is talked about in another fourth but somehow emerges as one of the most interesting of the play’s characters.
But first let’s recap the contexts in which Cressida lives her life. It’s the Trojan War, you know the one blamed on Helen, a married woman who was kidnapped/ran away voluntarily with Paris of Troy. We arrive on the scene when the war has been going on for some time and at the moment it’s at a stalemate. Troilus is Paris’ little brother. Cressida is the niece of Pandarus, a lord in the court of Priam, father to Paris, Troilus, Hector, Cassandra and a bunch of other kids. The Greeks are: Achilles, Ajax, Ulysses, Nestor, Menelaus (husband of Helen) – you’ve heard of them all and Shakespeare makes them all look like jerks. The Trojans too, for that matter. It has been called Shakespeare’s most bitter play. It’s also very funny, mainly because Thersites, a Greek slave, is so hilariously nasty to everyone. Next time, maybe I’ll write about him.
Troilus and Cressida have met at court and are of course in love. Or think they are. Or say they are. Sort of.
The play actually opens, after the prolog, with Troilus sighing over the fair Cressida. He fancies himself in love with her but her uncle Pandarus has tired of the situation and refuses to continue being the necessary go-between. Why they can’t just sneak off like most lovers do is unclear but it’s probably because Cressida’s love for Troilus is less than ardent. Troilus moans: “I cannot come to Cressid but by Pandarus….As she is stubborn-chaste against all suit” (Act 1.1).
Indeed in the next scene, Act 1.2 – the longest one in which Cressida is on stage – she seems not so much stubborn as uninterested. Watching the parade of soldiers going by on the street below with her servant Alexander and then Pandarus she admires Ajax because the man “makes me smile”, Hector, and Achilles (a better man than Troilus) but merely laughs at Troilus when Pandarus tells her about an amusing encounter between Helen, Paris and Troilus awhile back. When Pandarus does his best to arouse Cressida’s interest in Troilus by over praising him, she counters, rightly, by calling Pandarus a “bawd”, that is a pimp.
Only when left alone on the stage does she reveal her feelings. Yes, she loves Troilus – “my heart’s contents firm love doth bear,” but she also knows that “women are angels, wooing;/ Things won are done.” In other words a man may call his sweetie sweet names to get her to bed but after that he’s out of there. So Cressida is not going to let him know how she feels.
What do we know about Cressida at this point? We are told that she is beautiful, that she has been left behind in Troy by her father who has defected to the Greeks. This puts her in a vulnerable situation. She is clearly accepted, or at least tolerated, by the Trojan court but possibly they don’t really trust her. We have seen that she is clever and has a good sense of humor and that while she can, and does, love, she’s not swept away by her passion. She observes and she thinks. Surrounded by warring, calculating Trojans and Greeks she has analyzed the way things work and so holds back. Cressida is not impulsive.
Why then in Act 3.2 does she end up with Troilus? Not, it seems, because she has become uncontrollably passionate. She enters, veiled, and Pandarus has to repeatedly tell her to quit backing away and get in here already. She is described as a wild bird to be subdued, captured and tamed. No words of undying love are spoken. Cressida uses instead such words as dregs, fear, stumbling, monstrous. Troilus admits that “the desire is boundless and the act a slave to limit,” to which she replies: “They say all lovers swear more performance than they are able, and yet reserve an ability that they never perform: vowing more than the perfection of ten, and discharging less than the tenth of one. They that have the voice of lions and the act of hares, are they not monsters?”
Troilus vows that he “shall be such to Cressid as what envy can say worst shall be a mock for his truth; and what truth can speak truest, not truer than Troilus.” True, true , true Troilus. Hmmm, methinks….Would you trust him?
But apparently she does because now she dares to speak.
“Boldness comes to me now, and brings me heart.
Prince Troilus, I have loved you night and day
For many weary months.”
She then immediately backs away again, ashamed of her boldness, and though Troilus gives a convincing performance of loving her, she tries to leave. Troilus won’t let her and she admits that “to be wise and love/ Exceed man’s might.” And woman’s apparently. Troilus again proclaims his faithfulness and Cressida is prompted to give the declaration that has ever since been used against her: “If I be false, or swerve a hair from truth…let them say, to stick the heart of falsehood/ ‘As false as Cressid’.”
Pandarus then butts in (he’s been there for awhile) and urges them to seal their vows (why does he care?) while confirming himself as a pimp and his name Pandar to mean go-between. And off the two lovers go, to bed.
A lot happens with the Greek and Trojan warriors – there is a war going on after all – but then in Act 4.2 it’s the morning after. Cressida is upset because Troilus is leaving: “You men will never tarry.” Pandarus shows up (how would you like your uncle to walk into the bedroom just after you’ve made love?) and she turns to him and accuses him of first flaunting her, then mocking her. Which is more or less the case. Exit T&C.
Two seconds later Aenaes comes and tells Pandarus that Cressida is to be handed over to the Greeks, to Diomedes specifically, in exchange for the Trojan prisoner of war Antenor. Troilus comes in and hears the news but doesn’t seem terribly upset. He seems more concerned that his night with Cressida be kept a secret, then off he goes.
In Act 4.3 (after no real break with Act 4.2) Cressida is told her fate. She is upset. “O you immortal gods! I will not go.” And Pandarus says, “Thou must.”
Those two words pretty much say it all. Cressida weeps, tears her hair, sobs, and promises to “break my heart/ With sounding Troilus! I will not go from Troy.”
In Act 4.5 she and Troilus weep together but instead of declaring that he will defend her and keep her with him, he blames the gods for being angry with him for loving her – “…the blessed gods, as angry with my fancy…take thee from me” – and adds, “Hateful truth,” but, yeah, she has to go. Then he nags at her again and again, “Be thou but true…” and says it so often that she is deeply hurt, because he doubts her. They both protest their fidelity to the other, and I use the word advisedly because they clearly do not trust each other. Not only that but Troilus says, “And suddenly …injury of chance…strangles our dear vows…” What? Is he saying that they have, by this forced separation, been freed from their vows? Why is he so upset later on then? Because he means that she hasn’t been freed.
And in comes Diomedes who says, “OK, come on, you’re mine now.” Or words to that effect. Troilus, after actually welcoming him, hands her over. He does make a few noises about you better treat her right or else but Diomedes says casually, “When I am hence/ I’ll answer to my lust.” Instead of challenging Diomedes here on his own territory – well, Cressida’s – Troilus mutters you better be scared of me then tells Cressida, OK you gotta go now.
Cressida literally has no say in the matter. She speaks not a word more in Act 4.5. She leaves with Diomedes. She must. She really has absolutely no choice. There is a war going on. She is a young woman alone and deserted by her father. The men have decided. The man she loves has given up on her. She is a pawn. She goes.
And arrives in Act 4.6 in the Greek camp where she is passed from Agamemnon to Nestor to Ulysses to Achilles to Patroclus to Menelaus for a welcome kiss from each about which Cressida rather tartly wonders, “In kissing do you render or receive?” Whether they admire her for her “quick sense”, as Nestor calls it, or condemn her as “wanton” as Ulysses does, is unclear. Whichever, she leaves with Diomedes who could at this point be seen as a protector against all the lusty men of the Greek camp. Maybe.
In Cressida’s final scene, Act 5.2, she is being spied upon by Troilus and Ulysses who are being spied upon by Thersites. She is with Diomedes. It is here she is shown as being unfaithful to Troilus. Or is she? Does she deserve to be literature’s synonym for unfaithful?
Shakespeare doesn’t seem to think so. In the end she seems to accept, though reluctantly, that she is leaving, or lost to, Troilus:
Troilus, farewell. One eye yet looks on thee,
But with my heart the other eye doth see.
Ah, poor our sex! This fault in us I find:
The error of our eye directs our mind.
What error leads must error. O then conclude:
Minds swayed by eyes are full of turpitude.
Whatever happens, she isn’t happy about it. She sees her own wavering as shameful but she certainly isn’t suddenly in love with Diomedes. It’s one of Shakespeare’s most mysterious scenes. What does she whisper in Diomedes’ ear? If it’s a promise to go to bed with him, why does she whisper it and not say it aloud? Whatever she whispers, why doesn’t she say it aloud? And why does she keep changing her mind? “Well, well, ‘tis done, ‘tis past, - and yet ‘tis not. I will not keep my word.”
But which word? To Troilus? To Diomedes?
It’s almost like Hamlet’s to be or not to be. In the end Hamlet wasn’t. In the end Cressida wasn’t. Hamlet is a hero. Why isn’t Cressida?
Maybe she is. Maybe that’s what Shakespeare was telling us. That just like the heroic Ajax, Achilles, Ulysses and Nestor of the Iliad are made to be loud mouthed foolish braggarts in Shakespeare’s version, the Cressida shown in the Iliad as the sluttish betrayer of Troilus’ true love, thus symbolizing the untrustworthiness of women, isn’t the real Cressida. In this the bitterest and most hilarious of plays about a deadly vicious war fought because men believe they own women, Cressida – the one who has the least choice of anybody - comes off as the only likeable person of the play, the only one with any depth or insight, and maybe the truest. Maybe not to Troilus, who was hardly worth it anyway, but to herself. After all, remember what Polonius said. To thine own self be true. At least she tried, didn’t she? Isn’t she just trying to survive?
The Norton Shakespeare, based on the Oxford Edition. Ed. Greenblatt, Stephen et al. Second edition. 2008.
While not quoting other scholars, I am indebted to the following for information and inspiration:
- Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare - the Invention of the Human. 1998.
- Cohen, Walter. Introduction to the Norton Edition.
- Dotterer, Dick, editor. For Women: Pocket Monologs from Shakespeare. 1997.
- Earley, Michael and Philippa Keil, editors. Soliloquy – The Shakespeare Monologues, the Women. 1988.
- Knight, Wilson. The Wheel of Fire. 1930 and 1989.
- Kott, Jan. Shakespeare Our Contemporary. 1964.
- BBC, 1981. Directed by Jonathan Miller. Cast: Cressida – Suzanne Burden; Troilus -Anton Lesser; Hector – John Shrapnel; Ulysses – Benjamin Whitrow; Pandarus – Charles Gray; Thersites – the Incredible Orlando; Achilles – Kenneth Haigh; Ajax – Anthony Pedley: Agamemnon – Vernon Dobtcheff; Cassandra – Elayne Sharling; Diomedes – Paul Moriarty; Andromache – Merelina Kendall. This is an uneven production. Anton Lesser gives the most solid performance and makes Troilus almost likeable, at least we feel a little sorry for him. Suzanne Burden starts out good but can’t really manage to carry through and when it really matters she goes from unnecessary hysterics to inappropriate coquettishness, falling for the stereotype of Cressida, the one Shakespeare is trying to change. Charles Gray is convincing as an aging gay Pandarus and the Incredible Orlando is an outrageous old drag queen as Thersites, not at all how I picture him but a funny and very possible interpretation. The others do OK generally but I certainly would like to see a modern movie production of this play by say…oh why not Kenneth Branagh or Julie Taymore?
Seen on stage: no.