Sometimes when you read a play, especially without having seen it or heard it before, something hits you, sticks in your brain… you just get a vibe. It might not be real, it’s a… well, a feeling. And like all feelings, while it might be based on evidence in the text, it might not be a legitimate conclusion. But it would be a shame not to dive a little deeper into it, right? Well, such is the case of Troilus and Cressida, and the second biggest vibe I got from it (beyond the cynicism I’ve been writing about for much of the last month): Misogyny.
Hatred or dislike of, or prejudice against women.
- “misogyny, n.” Oxford English Dictionary Online.
Oxford University Press, June 2015.
Web. 11 July 2015.
A word, by the way, that didn’t even exist in Shakespeare’s day. The word may not have existed, but that vibe sure did.
It doesn’t take long for it to rear its pretty little head. In only the third non-choric speech of the play, lovesick Troilus describes himself to Pandarus,
Tamer than sleep, fonder than ignorance,
Less valiant than the virgin in the night,
And skilless as unpracticed infancy.
Troilus is weaker than a woman’s tear, and so begins a string of comparisons: sleep, ignorance, a virgin, a babe. This equation of women to these less than aware, smart, seasoned concepts is just the beginning of the contempt for women shown in the play.
The reduction of women continues with Aeneas’ delivery of Hector’s challenge to the Greeks, a heroic, courtly love single combat, one which if not accepted will mean that the “Grecian dames are sunburnt and not worth // The splinter of a lance” (I.iii.282-3). Women are thus to be catalogued (fair or sunburnt, dark, and ugly) and valued (either worthy of starting a war over or less than a piece of trash, a leftover splinter from a broken [and therefore useless] weapon).
This concept of worth continues as the Trojan sons of Priam discuss the latest peace offering from Hector. The men debate Helen’s value:
- “a thing not ours nor worth to us // (Had it our name) the value of one ten” (II.ii.22-3)
- “she is not worth what she doth cost // The keeping” (II.ii.51-2)
- “Is she worth keeping? Why she is a pearl” (II.ii.81)
Helen’s worth is in her value, monetary or symbolic. There’s no emotion there, no mention of love, not even when Paris speaks of her; she is not his love or his wife, she is his “possession” (II.ii.152), “the thing that you desire to buy” (IV.i.76). Later, we will learn that Cressida, too, has worth. Diomedes tells Troilus of Cressida, “To her own worth // She shall be prized” (IV.iv.132-3).
If women have worth, what is it? How great can it be? When a man is called a woman, it’s meant as an insult. When we first meet the scurrilous Greek Thersites, Ajax calls him “Mistress Thersites” (II.i.35), a slam against the non-soldier’s non-masculinity. Later, when Thersites refers to Patroclus as “Achilles’ brach” (II.i.113-4), there is no other way to take it than as an insult. As I wrote earlier in my discussion of homosexuality in the play, “brach” was “a term of abuse (meaning) bitch” (“brach, n.; b.” OED Online.), which in turn not only meant “dog” when “applied to a man” (“bitch, n.; 2.b.” OED Online.), but also “a lewd or sensual woman” (“bitch, n.; 2.a.” OED Online.). In one word, Thersites is able to insult both a man in particular and women in general.
I’ve discussed the commentary this Thersites brings to the play so it’s interesting that while the opening chorus refers to the kidnapped queen as “the ravished Helen” (Prologue, 9), she’s nothing more than a prostitute for Thersites:”All the argument (of the war) is a whore and a cuckold” (II.iii.71-2). A whore. A woman with no value, only a price. Something as disposable as an undergarment. Remember, Thersites calls this conflict a “war for a placket” (II.iii.19), which Eric Partridge describes as “an opening in–or the opening of–a petticoat…placed in contiguity with the pudend” (Shakespeare’s Bawdy, Partridge, Eric. New York: Routledge Classics, 2001; page 209), or vagina. The war is for a woman, or more specifically, for just a part of a woman.
If a woman is like a petticoat, a piece of clothing, then she is reduced to what Paris talked about earlier: a possession. This concept comes up again when we meet Cressida’s father, the traitor priest Calchas, who tells the Greek commanders, “I have abandoned Troy, (but) left my possession” (III.iii.5). What he refers to as having left behind is not his house, but rather Cressida, and he asks that the newly captured Trojan leader “be sent… And he shall buy my daughter” (III.iii.27, 28). His daughter is worth an enemy leader, he feels.
He may be right, but only if the leader in question has value, is–for lack of a better term–a manly man. As Patroclus tells Achilles, “A woman impudent and mannish grown // Is not more loathed than an effeminate man” (III.iii.217-8). Now, whether or not this is just Patroclus’ manifestation of guilt over Achilles’ fallen–dare we say it?–value to the Greek command, the perception is real, and Achllles can only admit, “I have a woman’s longing” (III.iii.237). By having a “woman’s longing,” Achilles is less than a “real” man.
A woman in Troilus and Cressida is not a character, she is a type–a whore (Helen), a crazy woman (Cassandra), a betrayer of men (Cressida), a harpy (Andromache), or absent (Hecuba). And a type is but a thing. Thus, a woman is a thing. And like Hamlet’s statement of Claudius, “The King’s a thing” (Hamlet, IV.i.28), it’s reductive, scornful.
Being a thing is not a good thing.