I’m alive, but just barely. The past few weeks have been a whirlwind – I wrote a massive report, moved to San Diego, and took an exhausting week-long stem cell handling course at the Scripps Research Institute. And now I’m here to talk to you about Troilus and Cressida.
I will say, for the record, that I wanted to love this play. I don’t hate it, but I certainly don’t feel passion for it the way I do for Richard III, Henry V, and more recently, Julius Caesar. Troilus and Cressida is a strange play. It feels out of place, like it doesn’t belong with the other plays I’ve read.
I found a copy of The Meaning of Shakespeare by Harold C. Goddard at a used bookstore, and he believes that this play was written for a different audience. He writes: “The author of the preface to the Second Quarto indeed says that the play was ‘never staled with the stage, never clapper-clawed with the palms of the vulgar…[nor] sullied with the smoky breath of the multitude,’ which at the very least implies that the play was not produced on the popular stage.” So if this is true, then this play wasn’t made for the common viewer. Which means it wasn’t made for me or you – and maybe that’s why it’s so strange to read. Shakespeare usually writes for all of us, but not today.
We are in the midst of the Trojan War, where Troilus is refusing to fight because he’s too busy being madly in love with Cressida. Pandarus, Cressida’s uncle, has been trying to bring them together.
O, Pandarus! I tell thee, Pandarus:
When I do tell thee there my hopes lie drowned,
Reply not in how many fathoms deep
They lie indrenched. I tell thee I am mad
In Cressid’s love. Thou answer’st she is fair;
Pourest in the open ulcer of my heart
Her eyes, her hair, her cheek, her gait, her voice;
Handlest in thy discourse – O – that her hand,
In whose comparison all whites are ink
Writing their own reproach, to whose soft seizure
The cygnet’s down is harsh, and spirit of sense
Hard as the palm of plowman. This thou tell’st me,
As true thou tell’st me, when I say I love her.
But, saying thus, instead of oil and balm
Thou lay’st in every gash that love hath given me
The knife that made it.
This love-sick lamenting reminds me a lot of Romeo. But, unlike Romeo, I don’t like Troilus one bit. We will see later that he is incredibly self-absorbed. He knows how to use his words, but does he actually truly love and know Cressida outside of her beauty?
Before we move on, we need to refresh ourselves on what exactly is happening outside of Troilus’ feelings. Paris, Troilus’ brother, has taken the beautiful Helen from her husband Menelaus, the king of Sparta. A bloodbath (AKA the Trojan War) broke out in response to this, of course.
Larger issues aside, Pandarus is annoyed with Troilus for being impatient. He leaves Troilus, who continues to complain.
Peace, you ungracious clamors! Peace, rude sounds!
Fools on both sides! Helen must needs be fair
When with your blood you daily paint her thus.
I cannot fight upon this argument;
It is too starved a subject for my sword.
But Pandarus – O gods, how do you plague me!
I cannot come to Cressid but by Pandar,
And he’s as tetchy to be wooed to woo
As she is stubborn-chaste against all suit.
Tell me, Apollo, for thy Daphne’s love,
What Cressid is, what Pandar, and what we.
Her bed is India; there she lies, a pearl.
Between our Ilium and where she resides,
Let it be called the wild and wand’ring flood,
Ourself the merchant, and this sailing Pandar
Our doubtful hope, our convoy, and our bark.
Troilus knows he needs Pandarus if he’s ever going to win Cressida. He knows this, and can’t help but be ungrateful and impatient anyway. I really don’t like how entitled Troilus feels to Cressida. Up until now, all we know about her is that she’s beautiful and stubborn. What else is there, Troilus?
We cut to Cressida, who is gossiping with her man Alexander. Apparently, Hector (Troilus’ older brother) was knocked down in the field by Ajax, his nephew. Ajax, despite having Trojan blood, is fighting for the Greeks. Hector is very upset about being knocked down, apparently.
Pandarus enters and attempts to talk to Cressida about Troilus.
[Helen] praised his complexion above Paris’.
Why, Paris hath color enough.
So he has.
Then Troilus should have too much. If she praised him above, his complexion is higher than his. He having color enough, and the other higher, is too flaming a praise for a good complexion. I had as lief Helen’s golden tongue commended Troilus for a copper nose.
I swear to you, I think Helen loves him better than Paris.
Then she’s a merry Greek indeed.
Cressida is wonderful, much like Shakespeare’s other heroines. Cressida is spunky, and has a sharp tongue. She’s my kind of girl, that’s for sure. Pandarus seems to be trying to make her jealous, but she pays him no mind. I wonder how much of the Dark Lady’s personality is in Cressida…?
Cressida acts very disdainful of Troilus, and yet…
Words, vows, gifts, tears, and love’s full sacrifice
He offers in another’s enterprise;
But more in Troilus thousandfold I see
Than in the glass of Pandar’s praise may be.
Yet hold I off. Women are angels, wooing;
Things won are done; joy’s soul lies in the doing.
That she beloved knows naught 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,
Then though my heart’s content firm love doth bear,
Nothing of that shall from mine eyes appear.
Cressida loves Troilus, but she refuses to see it. She needs to protect herself, and to protect herself, she needs to protect her virginity. Once women are possessed, they become nothing more than things. Poor Cressida. I am sorry that she lives in this world, and I am sorry that her virginity is what makes her valuable. She is courageous and witty, but none of that seems to matter to anybody.
This play tells two stories: the story of Troilus and Cressida, and the larger story of the war. They are very loosely interwoven, and I have some of Goddard’s insight to share about what they might have in common later. But, for the most part, I’d rather we skip through the long, rambling passages about slaughter and focus on the more interesting bits. If I didn’t, we’d be here all day.
After so many hours, lives, speeches spent,
Thus once again says Nestor from the Greeks:
“Deliver Helen and all damage else –
As honor, loss of time, travel, expense,
Wounds, friends, and what else dear that is consumed
In hot digestion of this cormorant war –
Shall be struck off.” – Hector, what say you to ‘t?
Cassandra enters. She is the daughter of Priam, and therefore sister to Troilus, Hector, and Paris.
Virgins and boys, mid-age and wrinkled elders,
Soft infancy, that nothing canst but cry,
Add to my clamors. Let us pay betimes
A moiety of that mass of moan to come.
Cry, Trojans, cry! Practice your eyes with tears.
Troy must not be, nor goodly Ilium stand.
Our firebrand brother Paris burns us all.
Cry, Trojans, cry! A Helen and a woe!
Cry, cry! Troy burns, or else let Helen go.
Cassandra’s prophecies are true, but everybody dismisses her as a raving lunatic. This is her curse. But she is like every other woman in this play, really. Nobody pays them any mind, even though they speak the most sense.
They decide to let the war continue.
Hector, who is still salty, decides that he wants to challenge a Greek soldier to battle so he can prove himself. Achilles, objectively, is the best soldier in the Greek camp. He has been acting out, however, and refuses to speak to the Greek leaders. They choose to heap praise onto Ajax instead, to give him enough confidence to accept Hector’s challenge.
Why should a man be proud? How doth pride grow? I know not what pride is.
Your mind is clearer, Ajax, and your virtues the fairer. He that is proud eats up himself. Pride is his own glass, his own trumpet, his own chronicle; and whatever praises itself but in the deed devours the deed in the praise.
I do hate a proud man as I hate the engendering of toads.
And yet he loves himself. Is ‘t not strange?
Most of this is just silly – what’s more important is that Achilles is refusing to go to the field.
On the Trojan side, meanwhile, Pandarus has finally brought Troilus and Cressida together.
TROILUS, [to Cressida]
You know now your hostages: your uncle’s word and my firm faith.
Nay, I’ll give my word for her too. Our kindred, though they be long ere they are wooed, they are constant being won. They are burrs, I can tell you; they’ll stick where they are thrown.
Boldness comes to me now and brings me heart.
Prince Troilus, I have loved you night and day
For many weary months.
Troilus asks her why she was so hard to win, and she tells him. But there is absolutely no way he understands. Troilus is so caught up in his own passions. He really does not understand the risk Cressida is taking by giving herself to him like this.
Tina Packer compares this play to Antony and Cleopatra and Romeo and Juliet, but a big difference between those plays and Troilus and Cressida is that the two main characters are not equals to one another. Mark Antony and Cleopatra certainly are, and so are Romeo and Juliet. But Cressida is nothing compared to Troilus – by giving herself to him, she is giving him everything. If he leaves her, she is left with absolutely nothing. She knows this. Troilus cannot possibly understand – he is one of Priam’s sons, and a great warrior. He is losing nothing here, and that is incredibly frustrating to realize.
In any case, they promise to be true to each other. A pretty promise, but one that will prove difficult to keep.
The Trojan leader Antenor has been captured by the Greeks, and in exchange for him, Cressida’s father is willing to give her up to the enemy camp. Here it is: this is what will truly test the love between Troilus and Cressida.
Achilles, meanwhile, is still stirring things up in the Greek camp. The Greek leaders are tired of him, and so is everyone else.
To this effect, Achilles, have I moved you.
A woman impudent and mannish grown
Is not more loathed than an effeminate man
In time of action. I stand condemned for this.
They think my little stomach to the war,
And your great love to me, restrains you thus.
Sweet, rouse yourself, and the weak wanton Cupid
Shall from your neck unloose his amorous fold
And, like a dewdrop from the lion’s mane,
Be shook to air.
Shall Ajax fight with Hector?
Ay, and perhaps receive much honor by him.
I see my reputation is at stake;
My fame is shrewdly gored.
Why is Achilles behaving this way? He clearly loves his fame and notoriety. Ulysses calls him out for being in love with one of Priam’s daughters. Could this be true?
Troilus and Cressida have spent all night making love, and now morning is here. Cressida has truly made the ultimate sacrifice: she has given up everything for love. Everything hangs on Troilus being faithful to her. But, like I said, I don’t think he understands. I think that, more than anything, Cressida is a prize to him. I’m not sure how much her personality plays into his intense feelings.
Pandarus enters, and a very awkward exchange ensues.
How now, how now? How go maidenheads? Here, you maid! Where’s my Cousin Cressid?
Go hang yourself, you naughty mocking uncle. You bring me to do – and then you flout me too.
To do what, to do what? – Let her say what. – What have I brought you to do?
You have to very consciously stop reading this play through a modern lens sometimes, that’s all I’m going to say. This is probably normal Trojan behavior that my 2017 mind just can’t comprehend.
But Pandarus has bad news.
Good uncle, I beseech you, on my knees I beseech you, what’s the matter?
Thou must be gone, wench; thou must be gone. Thou art changed for Antenor. Thou must to thy father and be gone from Troilus. ‘Twill be his death; ’twill be his bane. He cannot bear it.
O you immortal gods! I will not go.
But she has to go. Cressida has no say, what she wants doesn’t matter. She and Troilus exchange love tokens, and once again promise to be true to each other.
Diomedes has been sent to fetch Cressida, and he immediately begins to speak in the language of courtly love. Right in front of Troilus.
Fair Lady Cressid,
So please you, save the thanks this prince expects.
The luster in your eye, heaven in your cheek,
Pleads your fair usage, and to Diomed
You shall be mistress and command him wholly.
Ballsy move, Diomedes. I immediately felt uneasy about Diomedes, though. He clearly has other plans for Cressida.
When poor Cressida is brought to the Greek camp, the leaders each kiss her in turn. It’s a very uncomfortable scene, rape-but-not-rape. As always, Cressida has no say. She cannot fight or use more than her words. And even then she is walking on eggshells. Oh, poor Cressida. It is so difficult to be a woman.
Hector and Ajax fight, but neither of them is declared a winner. Instead, they acknowledge their familial ties to each other. Hector then meets Achilles, who is sure that he would have won the fight.
Tell me, you heavens, in which part of his body
Shall I destroy him – whether there, or there, or there –
That I may give the local wound a name
And make distinct the very breach whereout
Hector’s great spirit flew. Answer me, heavens!
It would discredit the blest gods, proud man,
To answer such a question. Stand again.
Think’st thou to catch my life so pleasantly
As to prenominate in nice conjecture
Where thou wilt hit me dead?
I tell thee, yea.
Proud is probably the best word to describe Achilles. His pride alienates everybody else, and he comes off as being a caricature of the person he is supposed to be. We never even get to see him be a great warrior on the field, and it’s a shame. He does challenge Hector though, because of course he does. This is Achilles we’re talking about.
Achilles receives a letter from Hecuba, the Trojan queen.
My sweet Patroclus, I am thwarted quite
From my great purpose in tomorrow’s battle.
Here is a letter from Queen Hecuba,
A token from her daughter, my fair love,
Both taxing me and gaging me to keep
An oath that I have sworn. I will not break it.
Fall, Greeks; fail, fame; honor, or go or stay;
My major vow lies here; this I’ll obey.
So Ulysses was right – Achilles is in love with a Trojan princess. And with Patroclus. I can’t shame him for loving people. He probably shouldn’t have challenged Hector though, since he’s supposed to be keeping peace with the Trojans.
We move back to poor Cressida, who has been reduced to Greek property.
How now, my charge?
Now, my sweet guardian. Hark, a word with you.
[She whispers to him.]
Yea, so familiar?
ULYSSES, [aside to Troilus]
She will sing any man at first sight.
Cressida calls Diomedes her guardian – she hopes he will guard her and protect her, I’m sure.
Will you remember?
Nay, but do, then, and let your mind be coupled with your words.
What should she remember?
ULYSSES, [aside to Troilus]
Sweet honey Greek, tempt me no more to folly.
Nay, then –
I’ll tell you what –
Foh, foh, come, tell a pin! You are forsworn.
In faith, I cannot. What would you have me do?
A juggling trick: to be secretly open!
What did you swear you would bestow on me?
I prithee, do not hold me to mine oath.
Bid me do anything but that, sweet Greek.
If it isn’t clear, Diomedes is pressuring Cressida into having sex with him. There is something so irritating about having men listen in on this exchange, about having them judge her. Does it looks like she has any choice? Cressida is stuck, she is splintering.
She tries to appease Diomedes, to keep him happy. He asks her for a token, and she gives him Troilus’ sleeve. But she snatches it back immediately. She is stuck between a rock and a hard place. She cannot antagonize Diomedes, but she can’t force herself to betray Troilus.
Has Cressida broken her promise to remain true?
No. Troilus has.
Troilus has the reputation of being true, but he is the one who breaks his promise to Cressida. She has no choice – she is a woman of no rank, and she is no longer a virgin. She gave Troilus everything. Everything. And Troilus? He could have stepped in to defend her. Being true does not only mean remaining faithful sexually. To be true is to remain loyal – outside of the bedchamber, I mean. Troilus is not loyal. He does not think to ask Cressida about her feelings, or ask her about why she did what she did. He simply storms off. Cressida was nothing but a prize to him – a beautiful husk.
Later, the men ignore warnings from Hector’s wife Andromache and Cassandra, and Hector is sent off to battle. Pandarus gives Troilus a letter from Cressida. A letter that he tears to shreds. Troilus is so caught up in his own heartbreak that he can’t see things from Cressida’s side. This romance was doomed from the beginning – not because of the war, but because of who Troilus is.
Achilles comes upon an unarmed Hector and takes him down. There is no honor in that, no honor at all. Achilles should be ashamed. Is this what it means to be a great warrior?
The Trojans march back to Troy, and the play ends very abruptly. Cressida is abandoned, by Troilus and by Shakespeare. We don’t know what happens to her. All we know is that she is to remain at the Greek camp. Spunky, brave Cressida is gone – she is a shadow of her former self. All she needed was for a man to stand up for her. As a woman in her position, that was the only thing that could have helped. But she was left behind.
There are a lot of storylines in this play, and far too many characters. A lot of the storylines seem to be unrelated, but if we are to take this play at face value, then we aren’t giving it the thought it deserves. “What the author is saying,” according to Goddard, “is that the problem of lust and the problem of violence, and so of war, are the same problem seen from different angles.”
When you think about Troilus and Cressida this way, a lot of things start to make sense. The problem wasn’t Cressida’s unfaithfulness, but the fact that Troilus only felt lust for her at the end of the day. And when women are seen as objects, things can only end in tears.