Misogyny, Helen the fair quean (not a typo)

Over these last few (and next few) days, I’m discussing the misogyny I’ve been finding in Troilus and Cressida. First, I began with the most general of references, and yesterday, I took a (first, early) look at our title female, Cressida, a bawdy babe before she becomes the false femme of history. Today, let’s take a gander at the woman at the heart of the war that frames our play: Helen.

Even before we meet her, we hear her worth and value debated by King Priam and his sons (including her kidnapper Paris). As noted in my first blog entry in this series, all this “worth”y talk points more to the possession and objectification of members of the gender.

And for Helen, it’s about to get worse…

Helen appears in only one scene, Act Three, Scene One. But before we (and Pandarus) see her, we get a bit of bawdy banter between Cressida’s uncle and Paris’ servant. As I noted in an earlier bawdy blog entry, the servant calls Pandarus’ “seething” (III.i.40) business “Sodden,” “a stewed phrase” (both III.i.41), with a stew relating to “a brothel” (Shakespeare’s Bawdy, Partridge, Eric. New York: Routledge Classics, 2001; page 249), according to Eric Partridge. In the very next speech, with Paris and Helen’s entrance, Pandarus greets her with “fair queen” (III.i.45), which is nice enough, but the servant and the audience, privy to the previous exchange about brothels would note the homophone of “quean” which meant “prostitute” (“quean, n.; 1.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, June 2014. Web. 15 July 2014.).

Once the pleasantries of greeting have been made, Pandarus attempts to ask Paris to cover for Troilus’ absence in that evening’s family dinner. But he keeps getting interrupted:

PANDARUS
Well, sweet queen, you are pleasant with me.—But, marry, thus, my lord: my dear lord and most esteemed friend, your brother Troilus—
HELEN
My Lord Pandarus, honey-sweet lord—
PANDARUS
Go to, sweet queen, go to—commends himself most affectionately to you—
HELEN
You shall not bob us out of our melody. If you do, our melancholy upon your head!
PANDARUS
Sweet queen, sweet queen, that’s a sweet queen, i’ faith—
HELEN
And to make a sweet lady sad is a sour offence.
PANDARUS
Nay, that shall not serve your turn, that shall it not, in truth, la. Nay, I care not for such words, no, no.—And, my lord, he desires you that if the King call for him at supper, you will make his excuse.
HELEN
My Lord Pandarus—
PANDARUS
What says my sweet queen, my very, very sweet queen?
PARIS
What exploit’s in hand? Where sups he tonight?
HELEN
Nay, but, my lord—
  • III.i.61-80

It feels as if there’s something weird going on here. Helen keeps cutting Pandarus off. His first two lines of the section are cut off mid-sentence, and his third is cut off without expressing any thought save for referring to Helen. Even his fourth, which is his longest line of the section, is a jumble, first a response to Helen then finally a completion of his request to Paris. She is relentless and rude in her request for a song. And while I suppose the sequence could be played with Helen either imperiously or impetuously interrupting Pandarus, I think there’s a physical bent to this as well; I see her interrupting him with touches and caresses, grabs and hugs, attempting to use her body to get what she wants.

I think this concept of sexualized physicality is supported by her bawdy response to Pandarus’ statement that Cressida and Troilus are not a couple, that they are separate (“twain” [III.i.99]: “Falling in after falling out may make them three” (III.i.100). Here, she’s saying that the make-up sex (“falling in”) after the break-up (“falling out”) can cause a pregnancy (“make them three”). Like for Cressida yesterday, sex is the goal for Helen.

This makes the reading of Helen’s last speech hypersexualized as well. When Paris asks her to “help unarm our Hector … (with her) white enchanting fingers” (III.i.143, 144), she responds,

‘Twill make us proud to be his servant, Paris.
Yea, what he shall receive of us in duty
Gives us more palm in beauty than we have,
Yea, overshines ourself.
  • III.i.141-51

What “duty” shall he “receive” from Helen? I’m sure there’s a clean way to read this, but trying to think of what will give her “more palm” than what she already has, leads me only to a sexualized “handy” reading. Of course, it doesn’t help, in hindsight, that from this point on she is only mentioned in the most degraded of terms, as Diomedes talks of “her soilure… her dishonor… every false drop in her bawdy veins… her contaminated carrion weight” (IV.i.56, 59, 69, 71).

She’s a dirty, dirty girl. Influential as well, as we shall see how Helen-like Cressida grows. Tomorrow.

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