Shakespeare - Troilus and Cressida

Crazy Bitch

Quite obviously so much has been written on Shakespeare that one could spend a lifetime reviewing it and still not come to an end.  Indeed I suspect there is enough written about Troilus and Cressida to fill much more than the space between breakfast and lunch just gathering the titles. Since I’m convinced I have better things to do with my time, what follows will not pretend to scholarly exhaustiveness or even to being particularly scholarly. It is a pernicious fallacy to believe that, wherever a great deal of research appears to be required, no one but the experts who have bravely swum the ocean of the literature should be allowed to comment at all. That would have the effect of not only depriving the world of what might be worthwhile observations but also of tainting everything said – an effect as universal as it is probably unintended -  with the jade’s tricks of academic discourse.

So, what I am about to say may better be regarded as a disconnected set of musings – musings whose scholarly incompleteness may lead me to overlook that what I say may very well have already been said often and in a much better way, or else may have been decisively refuted in some journal  que j’ignore. Let me tip my ignorant cap in advance to those poor sub-sub devils not properly acknowledged. The occasion for my musings comes from comments in a somewhat recent edition of Troilus and Cressida made by the editor, one Daniel Seltzer. He says that it is hard to reconcile (more accurately, for an actress to consistently play) the Cressida who loves Troilus and the galled Winchester goose. His misgivings struck me as paradoxical since I feel the character of Cressida is completely consistent.

Cressida expresses a view of sexuality that will color her conduct through the rest of the play in I.3 298-305. We may take it as explaining why she takes new lovers even after she has sworn eternal love to one:

…Women are angels, wooing;
Things won are done, joy’s soul lies in the doing.
That she beloved knows nought that knows not this:
Men prize the thing ungained more than it is;
That she was never yet, that ever knew
Love got so sweet as when desire did sue.
Therefore this maxim out of love I teach:
Achievement is command; ungained, beseech.

Once Shakespeare found a pleasing or significant sentiment – an Elizabethan concetto, so to speak – he would often repeat it molded into different shapes in sometimes surprising contexts. Something like Cressida’s ruminations already appeared in Sonnet 129. Whereas Cressida’s thought is that males turn from slaves to masters once they overcome a woman’s resistance, the sonnet presents an image of sexual desire turning into a kind of self-hatred once it is satisfied. Lust is

Enjoyed no sooner but despised straight;
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had,
Past reason hated as a swallowed bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad:
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe


Cressida for her part concludes from her subtle foreshadowing of Rousseauistic psychology that she must not betray her real interest to Troilus (Even though she does so post fuck in IV 2 ll. 15-18). But at this stage she is not confronted with alternatives to real interest or with Troilus’ betrayal which could easily be interpreted as just the command she foresees and fears. At such time as Cressida understands she has transitioned to the commandee stage, there is no reason for her to remain faithful to the commander, and as a normal healthy sexual being, she feels no moral or emotional bond such as might prevent her from taking new fuck buddies. Cressida’s behavior is, as I said, perfectly consistent, indeed to be expected, and there is nothing to puzzle Seltzer.

It’s interesting that Cressida is the one who is responsible for all the “bawdy references” in the dialogue with Pandarus that precedes the solo reflections just quoted, although her sexual allusions are clearly meant as mockery of Pandarus’ fairly heavy handed attempt to play go-between. Nevertheless, even if it is not clear whether or not Shakespeare’s Cressida is Chaucer’s merry widow, she is clearly no clueless pansy. Most of Shakespeare’s raunchy word play, at least to this modern reader, requires at the very least a footnote and even with apparatus has all the appearance of a groanworthy stretch. Yet, as is often observed, humor doesn’t travel well across either space or time, and, as so often happens within Shakespeare’s plays, once sexual association is brought to mind both characters and audiences are apt to see it everywhere. That being said, Cressida is almost certainly predicting an erection for Troilus in l. 135. Her comments in ll. 272-282 are a virtual blushing bouquet of scarcely veiled sex talk mingled with what are apparently fencing metaphors.  Cressida will defend her belly while lying on her back. She will “lie” throughout the night.  If she takes a blow “it” may swell past hiding.

Easy to miss in all the sex talk are the numerous allusions to the possibility of her conscious duplicity. Cressida talks about defending her wiles by way of her wit. She references her secrecy and her mask. Indeed there may be a double meaning to “lie” in the phrase “…I lie, at a thousand watches.” Given the context, the overt meaning is she will fuck through the night. But the counterpoint of deceptive behavior suggests that she means she will be mendacious as well. How can she simultaneously coyly dissemble and unreservedly intend to fuck like a bunny? Clearly Cressida herself sees no contradiction. It must be that when she mentions defending her “honesty” she is engaging in just the wily use of her wit she openly acknowledges. Her actual intent is heightened sex play and maintaining the male in the role of beseecher as long as possible.

Cressida was a normal, healthy, sexual girl (I use all these qualifications advisedly), a modern gel. The review of the returning Trojan soldiers underlines how sexual Cressida really is. She evaluates the men like  - well – so much meat. The only thing that could hold her back from multiple fuck buddies was the sense of obligation to one of them. But her premonition that any man would breach his reciprocal obligation by transforming himself from suppliant to lord and master is justification enough in her eyes to release her from that obligation if the circumstances are right. And Troilus’ command that she go captive to the Greeks with no prospect of return created for all intents and purposes an appropriate set of circumstances.

Cressida’s next appearance is in what might be called the courtship scene, although, because of the presence of Pandarus and also because the lovers jump into bed straightaway with no previous ritual legitimization of their status, as courtships go it is one of the stranger examples of romance in the Shakespearian corpus. Cressida’s attitude professed in her previous appearance should leave us in some doubt as to whether she is actually madly in love with Troilus in the same way that Juliet was madly in love with Romeo, that is whether she decides to lay aside her scruples about male psychology, or whether, as far as long term commitment is concerned, this is little more than a one night stand. Given that Cressida never voices her private thoughts in this scene, either option is possible. Indeed this scene is so fraught with ambiguity that Cressida herself might not really know what she is doing or thinking at any given moment. Far be it from me to suggest how an actress should play this scene, but since that appears to be a concern for more than a few literary critics, let me opine that she should maintain the ambiguity, leave unpierced the veil of opacity shrouding Cressida’s psyche.  When she enters she is veiled and clearly acting shy. The exaggeration with which she must be persuaded to approach Troilus leaves little doubt that she is play acting. The question is whether she is play acting because she wants to secure Troilus’ fidelity since she really is romantically attached to him, or whether it is because she enjoys that kind of sexual foreplay – or both. Troilus is equally diffident but we are in no doubt that he is a love smitten swain. Even after the “fee-farm” kiss Cressida makes as if to withdraw, but this time she expresses a reason in the speech that begins “They say all lovers swear…” Her comments recall her monologue from the previous scene, but it is worthwhile to notice the differences. This time Cressida does not say that men change from beseechers to commanders when women surrender to their love. Instead she says that men cannot live up to their promises. This difference may lead us to believe that Cressida is not expressing anything that really concerns her; she is uttering a commonplace. In fact, in what may be an inadvertent slip on the part of the veiled damsel of a few moments previous, by way of her reference to a male’s failure to discharge (his promises, his semen) and to swearing more performance (romantic, giving her an orgasm) than he is able, Cressida lets fall more than her veil.  Nevertheless, her subsequent assurance that she loved Troilus “night and day for many weary months” previous may be sincere. A coquette like La Torpille can fall in love and still act like a coquette. Or else it might be another conventional formula on Cressida’s part. The ambiguity is what gives the scene its dramatic interest. The speech that begins “Hard to seem won…” shows a Cressida who cannot read herself. She confesses what had been her real beliefs (“If I confess much you will play the tyrant”) and then stumbles in the apparent realization that she is contradicting herself (“In faith, I lie”). Her confusion grows to the point where she regrets having spoken at all, but I get the feeling that the end of the speech is not so sincere as the beginning and that Cressida is now playing the lover instead of voicing an uncomplicated confession. Is there a surprise change of meaning in the phrase “I wished myself a man…” of the winter of our discontent or music be the food love sort? Maybe. The play acting seems to continue in Cressida’s next speech but she reverts again to sincerity in the magnificent self-analysis of the two selves passage.  These twin short speeches punctuated with an insipid remark by Troilus encapsulate what I will describe as the psychological realism that this play exhibits. Cressida expresses her deception (“I showed more craft than love”) but confesses that one self “resides” with Troilus. Then, in response to Troilus’ profession of a lover’s simplicity she says, “In that I’ll war with you.” I think that she dons the veil again in response to Troilus’ anodyne refusal to understand what she has been trying to express by way of her “false as Cressid” comments. Even this speech has ambiguities, however, since in wearing away Troy the air, wind, water and sandy earth have not necessarily been false to it. Cressida introduced them to make vivid the imagery of a long period of time and now she assimilates the elements to her own imagined falsehood. Also I suppose there is some allusion I am unaware of in the phrase “or stepdame to her son,” but it does stand out as incongruous and, in the heavily sexual context in which it is uttered, a bit more than just bawdy. Finally notice how often Cressida is compared to a beast of prey in this scene. Pandarus calls her a falcon (and Troilus a tercel) and she compares herself to a fox, a wolf and a leopard.

Cressida’s declaration at the end of IV.2 that the base of her love “is as the very center of the earth” is consistent with my interpretation of her overall sexuality. The most flighty persons are apt to be deeply in love the morning after a first night of sex. And she has just learned that she is to be handed over to the Greeks like so much chattel. Indeed her exclamations and protestations are completely consistent with the interpretation of her motives that I have been trying to sketch. There is little question but that she is in love with Troilus (After all she just fucked him), but we should make no presupposition about a clear meaning of love. There is no necessity that love for her means Péret’s sublime love. Part of her grief is due to leaving Troy and becoming something of a captive to the enemy and to a traitor father she has abjured. Another part is the perfectly natural anguish at leaving Troilus so suddenly. But it is also consistent with the received view that she is either a victim or a whore. This is what I mean below when I say that Troilus and Cressida exhibits a psychological opacity not always relevant to an appreciation of Shakespeare’s plays.

Cressida comes to realize that she has to go in IV.4 ll. 30-54. Her first thought is when she will see Troilus again. But Troilus, who makes Rosalind’s Orlando look like a paradigm of grace and empathetic feeling, immediately puts his foot in it. His first comment is the rather insulting exhortation that she remain faithful. This selfish request has the further untoward effect of putting the idea of unfaithfulness in Cressida’s mind, and indeed she had made no previous mention of it. To make matters worse, when Cressida protests, Troilus doesn’t stop. He insists she swear faithfulness in a way that removes much of the reason for her to be faithful. Cressida’s last words to Troilus are the rather sullen “My lord, will you be true” She is almost certainly thinking, “I’m about to be a pawn in some sort of prisoner exchange and that’s all you can think about? It would serve you right if I fucked everything that moves. And by the way, people who think like you do are the ones most likely to be ‘unfaithful’.”  She is already lost to Troilus when Diomedes starts to flirt at the end of this scene.

I am, by way of aside, reminded of the theme of the exchange of women as a form of quasi communication between social groups, a theory that Lévi-Strauss elaborated with great care and detail. In this case the exchange is Helen for Hesione, Cressida for Antenor. ..


Well, Lévi-Strauss always said that the structure was flexible. And there is no indication that this exchange has anything to do with an incest prohibition (But remember that mysterious stepdame and son comment).

Cressida’s behavior in the famous kissing scene is dramatically shocking especially for audiences who had been led to expect a Juliet. But at second glance there is no inconsistency. There is nothing in the text to justify the wildly divergent and self-serving interpretations that Cressida is either generally repulsed or repulsed only at having to kiss old men like Agamemnon and Nestor. Her actual first words display her joining in what must have been the universal jocularity at the expense of the cuckold Menelaus.  Cressida’s exchange with Ulysses is ambiguous. She plays on the word “beg” to compel him to beseech – something the others did not have to do. This offends Ulysses who closes off the possibility by saying he will beg only if Helen becomes revirginized.  We may conclude that the reason Ulysess interprets Cressida’s wit as whorish flirtation is that he alone was denied a kiss. But Shakespeare is not Ulysses. In true High Renaissance style Cressida is not judged on moral grounds. The only disapproving parties are the “betrayed” suitors, Ulysses and of course Troilus. Those who either want to “save” Cressida or condemn her as a mere orange wench should look to Dryden, not Shakespeare.

V ii is a tour de force of fugue-like whispered discourse, commentaries and commentaries on commentaries that as a virtuoso mastery of the form reminds me for one of the multiple orchestra scene in Don Giovanni. Indeed there is a musical quality to Ulysses’ and Troilus’ repetitive assertions as if they were as much dictated by a formal need for reprise as by dramatic tension. Much of what Diomedes and Cressida say is either sotto voce or alludes to comments we haven’t heard. As Thersites says, they’re “secretly open.” In the same way the contents of Cressida’s letter to Troilus are never read aloud although his comments indicate it contains some sort of profession of undying love (or is he hiding the truth from Pandarus?). Anyone who continues to maintain that Cressida is not playing a virtuoso flirtation game (Indeed playing Diomedes - who with his threats to just leave is much more adept at the game than Troilus, dependent on Pandarus, ever was -  like an Aeolian harp. Indeed Cressida’s behavior is push-pull intended to maintain Diomedes in the role of beseecher as long as possible. Whenever he apparently is at the point of leaving for good, she switches from push to pull.) is fooling himself. Why would she do this? Well, sex is fun.

This scene is Cressida’s last appearance although her spirit obviously continues to haunt Troilus. It should be noted, however, that as the battle progresses, Troilus appears to be as much upset by the loss of his horse to Diomedes as by the loss of his woman. There is indeed a sort of foreshadowing of Achilles’ treachery in Cressida’s faithlessness, but we would be mistaken to draw didactic conclusions from the parallel. This is precisely the error committed by many directors, often driven by a left wing agenda, who want to turn Shakespeare into a form of Brechtian Epic Theatre. It is also the error of legions of Shakespeare commentators, mainly conservative, who try to use the plays as a platform for ethical ruminations and judgments about the characters’ dilemmas and motives. The playwrights of Shakespeare’s generation were trying to shake off the overt moral didacticism of an earlier time in the English theatre and depict a world that was morally neutral – where things just happen. Burckhardt and Nietzsche discerned this attitude in the Italian Renaissance and it applies equally well to the English theatre of this period. It was one sense of Machiavellianism for Marlowe and Shakespeare, which is not to say that they did not address some of the failures of a morality of power that is implicit in the more robust version of Machiavellianism. Moralizing would work its way back in to European literature at the end of the 17th century in a new more secular and emotional garb. But Shakespeare and his compatriots were not Oliver Goldsmith or Samuel Richardson. And, with the exception of Troilus and Cressida any attempt to plumb the motivations, attitudes and inner life of Shakespeare’s characters is tantamount to trying to psychoanalyze Tinkerbell.

Is Cressida’s faithlessness of a piece with the generally wretched condition of the war and its exposure of the worst in human nature? To believe that Shakespeare intentionally wants us to draw the parallel is fatuous. Troilus and Cressida is a story with all the moral weight of other stories, and, as I have been trying to show, this particular story has a great deal of psychological density that, uncharacteristically for the soliloquy loving Shakespeare, makes us guess about the inner life of some of its characters. So should we on our own adopt Thersites’ view that there is an analogy between war and “lechery”? Personally I see the situation as somewhat more nuanced. What is pointless and dispiriting is not the sexuality itself or Cressida’s exercise of her freedom of choice. It is Troilus’ vendetta against Diomedes and the senseless fight over something he never really possessed that parallels the senseless Trojan defense of an abduction that most of them do not really regard as worth fighting over, and the senseless Greek conformity to Agamemnon’s strategy that has dragged the war out for nearly a decade.

Seltzer’s indecision is given substance in the essays that follow the play in his edition through the various interpretations of Cressida dating from Dryden to the “post modernist” lesbo left. We are told there are only two choices. Either Cressida is a virtuous and love struck innocent who succumbs against her will (Vide Dryden, who exhibits a measure of anti-female violence in killing her off, or the feminists who see her as a victim of capitalist male tyranny), or she’s just a damned whore (Technically speaking she never accepted money for sex, although in my opinion she would have made a killing had she done so particularly from Troilus). The very use of the word “whore,” borrowed though it may have been from the original witnesses, betrays our literary critics and directors as a hanging jury. Since she fucked more than one man she was without question a whore unless, by way of the only saving grace available, she was forced into acquiescence by the bourgeois imperialist males she fucked. What is paradoxical about Seltzer’s comment reveals itself as the result of moral rigidity in the interpretations of the scholars and directors. Why should sainthood and whoredom be the only mutually exclusive alternatives? (And why, pace Thersites, should lechery be the moral equivalent of unjust war?)

So the type Cressida represents is neither the damned whore nor the sweet innocent oppressed by the male chauvinist, imperialist, racist and of course bourgeois power structure that rapes not only women but freedom loving peoples everywhere. She embodies an early appearance of a different type, a personage who is in many ways the mistress of, if not her own destiny, at least her attitudes and, to whatever extent possible, her behaviors - a sexually free woman who is not bound by the monogamic restraints of romantic love. This type would begin the flourish in the literature of the Restoration (Cf. e.g. Aphra Behn’s superb The Feigned Courtesans) only to go underground in the moralizing 18th century (the underground in this case being 18th century pornography). She would re-emerge in the 19th century in an intriguing all out war between writers like George Sand and J.S. Mill, on the one hand, and Baudelaire and Nietzsche, on the other. (These generalizations and those that follow are best classed as no more than intuitive hypotheses since the entirety of the literature from these many centuries is not readily available, if indeed it still exists.)

I agree with those who single out Troilus and Cressida as Shakespeare’s most modern play. Actually “most naturalistic” or “most psychologically realistic” might be better descriptions, since, whatever “modern” may mean, it certainly means much more than those elements we find striking about this play. What I wish to say is that we feel entitled to comment on the psychological states and motivations of (most of) the characters in a way that is inappropriate for the comedies (What sense does it make to ask after Katharine’s deep motives in Love’s Labour’s Lost?) or the romances which like the comedies move or rather float through a mythical space where uniformity of psychological nature is as little welcome as strict adherence to Newton’s laws, or even most of the tragedies whose roots are equally mythical (Pressing too hard as to what makes Cordelia tick gets us precisely nowhere). But Troilus and Cressida is different. Achilles, Hector and Cressida are psychologically complex in ways that invite investigation from our current world views. Even the ancillary characters do not subsist in mythical space. Rather they debate policy, demand reasons and behave in ways we can recognize as conforming to self-interest or moral codes. (Note how revenge, which is the primary and supposedly self-evident motivator in much of Renaissance drama down to Hamlet, is given short shrift by the Trojans as a reason for holding on to Helen and easily explained away in Achilles on the basis of his homoerotic  bond with Patroclus. Incidentally I assume someone somewhere has noticed that Briseïs is not once mentioned as the cause of Achilles’ insubordination which is set down rather to displeasure at Agamemnon’s time consuming and fruitless military strategies. Furthermore, Chaucerian Calchas in Homer was not a Trojan traitor.) The Histories raise interesting questions of personality and motive but these questions are complicated by the intertwining of historical and literary personae.

I suspect that any political “moral” of Troilus and Cressida was not so much anti-war as anti-democratic. What other sense is there to Ulysses’ oration on degree? We may intimate here the first rumblings of an opposition to puritanism (and those annoying London councilors) that would come to fruition in Hobbes. There may be an allusion to the Nine Year War in Ireland, but the front page news of the day was the death of Elizabeth I and the accession of James I. The association in the contemporary playgoer’s mind could very well have been the potential treason of the papists as well as brewing insubordination of parliament and the puritans. To associate this insubordination with the homosexuality of Achilles was just an additional dig. We have no verifiable idea what Shakespeare’s religious or political inclinations may have been (He may perhaps best be described as an Anglican leaning Renaissance humanist whose beliefs stemmed from Erasmus, Montaigne and Machiavelli, i.e. as not very different from his audience) and yet his relations with the censorious puritans could have hardly been amicable, and Twelfth Night, not to mention much of Jonson, gives us to think that this sentiment must have been widespread at least among the theatergoing public. This political moral, however, does not constitute the meaning of the play. It is simply a presupposition shared by the playwright and his audience, much as many Hollywood films presuppose some form of American patriotism. For that reason I am not so enamored of the degrees speech and I do not regard it as the centerpiece of the play in the mold of those academic faggots whose goal is to use Shakespeare to teach good behavior to the frat boys and football players and in the course of doing so make him as boring as the blowhard Milton. Had Shakespeare wanted to make an original point he would have taken the opposite view, viz. that insubordination and anarchy are just fine. But then the play would never have reached the stage. Regardless, any moral of the need for subordination to a strong monarch would hardly be popular with audiences in our own times among whom in this instance I count myself.

One obvious objection is that this interpretation of Cressida’s psychology is so “modern” that it is thoroughly outside the scope of what Renaissance audiences or readers or writers could even conceive much less condone. Three thoughts spring to mind:

1) When we speak of a cultural/historical formation we are wont to make giant generalizations based on a few surviving texts written by the small community of the power brokers from that period. We have none or little testimony as to the viewpoint of the jades, wenches, pimps and assorted rascals from the same period, and there is nothing to justify the assumption that not only their moral universe but also their conceptual frame with respect to human motivation and psychology might not be much closer to our own than that of the mavens of the approved cultural formation. This problem goes far beyond the case at hand. It is so pervasive that a proper recognition of its implications should cause us to throw out much of the cultural history we have.

2) The Renaissance, or more properly speaking the late, really late, Mannerist and Jacobean Renaissance, already entertained a concept of individual freedom and depth psychology we find recognizable as the wellspring of our own. Montaigne’s writings and some of Shakespeare’s own plays attest to this.

3) Literature of the kind I have called psychologically realistic escapes from its author in a way that deprives him of his authority to pronounce on the motives and feelings or even the moral uprightness of his characters and their actions. The characters are as alive as actual persons and independent of a controlling authorship.  (Think of Gaarder’s Sophie’s World.) They and the situations they are in possess an opacity that mirrors the opacity in real life where we might fruitfully speculate on what was really going on in a persons’ mind or on the multifaceted rightness or wrongness of someone’s actions as reported in the news. The writer of psychologically realistic fiction is no more in control of his characters than the news reporter of his subject. (That I limit these comments to psychologically realistic fiction distinguishes what I am saying from the so-called intentional fallacy; in addition, I most emphatically believe there must be limits on the popular so-called hermeneutical theory that the meaning of a work of literature lies in what any given reader or audience member chooses to put in it, a theory I regard as critical anarchism and which leads us to tolerate nonsense like schoolboys playing their favorite songs backwards.)

But Troilus and Cressida is equally if not more concerned with the converse to Cressida’s type of the sexually free woman. That other type is embodied by Troilus who actually tends to get lost in the shuffle of modern criticism. The topos of the jilted lover, if so it may be called, is not particularly well represented in Western literature. The males in The Insatiate Countess and ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore hardly count as romantic lovers. Nor do the motley deceived fathers and elderly husbands from Terence onwards. Saint Preux, Werther and Frédéric Moreau loved women who were already taken. And for the 18th century the party that was seduced and abandoned was invariably the female. Troilus’ real heirs appear in our own emergent era. Charles Bovary is a much unrecognized Troilus. Apollinaire’s intermittently unhappy love life forms an important context for much of his lyric poetry.  There is an almost cliché contrast between his awkward physical presence and the music of his verse in, for example, La Chanson du mal-aimé and the Poèmes à Lou. Sinclair Lewis’ Dodsworth is a Troilus perhaps (in Lewis’ possible desire to create a contrast to Babbitt) too enervated to slay his multiple Diomedes and whose loss is compensated by the somewhat artificial happy ending of finding another woman.  But above all Henry Miller managed to sublimate his personal loss into a compelling literary elegy. Nexus might actually be regarded as a meditation on Troilus and the identification of literary activity as a substitute gratification for lost monogamic romance.