Misogyny, the case of Cressida (part the last–putting her to bed)

Over these last few days, I’ve been talking quite a bit about the misogyny I’ve been finding in Troilus and Cressida. First, I began with the most general of references, then I took a (first, early) look at our title female, Cressida, a bawdy babe before she becomes the false femme of renown (or infamy), then I focused on the woman at the heart of the war that frames our play, Helen, and a couple of days ago, I returned to Cressida, as she began (or continued) her fall from not-quite-grace. Today, let’s finish that tumble.

When we last left Cressida, it was after her arrival in the Greek camp, and that strange and disturbing kissing scene. When we rejoin her, we are set for a Rashomon-like moment: we will hear what Troilus and Ulysses say about what they’re seeing transpiring between Cressida and Diomedes, we’ll hear Thersites’ commentary on both the actions of and reactions to the “Trojan drab” (V.i.98), and we’ll get to form our own opnions about what’s going on.

When Cressida whispers something to Diomedes, and Troilus asks if she can be “so familiar” (V.ii.9) with him so soon, we get this double commentary:

She will sing any man at first sight.
And any man may sing her, if he can take her clef. She’s noted.
  • V.ii.10-3

While Ulysses’ response is fairly innocent (she will sing the first time she is with a man; or she can read a man on a first sight, like a musician can sight-read music), Thersites takes Ulysses musical metaphor and runs with it, saying she’s notorious (“noted”) because any man can sing her, if he gets her clef–like a music clef but also a cleft or split or slit… or any female body part that may look like a slit.

When Cressida tells Diomedes, “Sweet honey Greek, tempt me no more to folly” (V.ii.20), it’s a mixed message for Troilus: on the one hand, she calls Diomedes “sweet honey Greek” but on the other, she tells him to stop tempting her (implying that he has done so in the past but she had not given in). When Thersites then comments, “Rougery!” (V.ii.21), though, it sets up both Troilus and us to believe the worst. And we get worse as Diomedes says that she has “forsworn” (V.ii.23) some act. Of course, Thersites cannot let this revelation go without comment: “A juggling trick–to be secretly open” (V.ii.25), implying what they’re witnessing is some kind of magic trick, where she appears chaste (“secret”) while being wanton (“open”).

While this statement further prepares us to believe the worst, we hear her admit to swearing an “oath” (V.ii.27) which she no longer wants to keep, causing a frustrated Diomedes to exclaim, “I’ll be your fool no more” (V.ii.33). She now appears to be manipulating two men simultaneously, Troilus and Diomedes. Ulysses, almost playing the anti-Pandarus, wants to separate Troilus (and by extension US) from this scene. But it’s to no avail. Shakespeare wants us to see and hear the rest.

Diomedes, too, wants to leave, but she gives him a “Come hither” statement (V.ii.49), literally, and then—to Troilus’ dismay—”strokes (Diomedes’) cheek” (V.ii.50). Troilus is fighting a losing battle with his composure–it’s hard to witness (for him and us). It doesn’t help that Thersites is using such sexually provocative innuendo as “fat rump and potato finger” (V.ii.55-6)… everything has been tainted with a grotesque sexuality.

We want to think the best of Cressida (though from all we know even before the play begins that this won’t turn out well), but when she gives as a token to Diomedes the very sleeve Troilus had given her, it’s crushing. Sure, she immediately wants it back, calling herself a “false wench” (V.ii.70), but all this does is incite Diomedes’ passion further. When Thersites then says, “Now she sharpens. well said, whetsone!” (V.ii.74-5), all we as an audience can do is remember “sharp”‘s sexualized connotation of arousal, and think back to Cressida’s own self-evaluation: “I show more craft than love” (III.ii.148), and how she told us then “Men price the thing ungained more than it is” (I.ii.282). Our conclusion can only be that this is an act, a craft to inflame Diomedes.

It works. On both sides: Diomedes stays a bit longer for more “fooling” (V.ii.101), and then alone (seemingly) Cressida admits, “Troilus, farewell. One eye yet looks on thee, // But with my heart the other eye doth see” (V.ii.109-10).

There’s nothing left to do now, save come to the realization that his Cressida is the same as “Diomed’s Cressida” (V.ii.140). He cannot convince himself otherwise, try as he might:

Let it not be believed for womanhood!
Think, we had mothers. Do not give advantage
To stubborn critics, apt, without a theme
For depravation, to square the general sex
By Cressid’s rule. Rather, think this not Cressid.
What hath she done, prince, that can soil our mothers?
Nothing at all, unless that this were she.
  • V.ii.131-7

No, the judgment is obvious: this is “false Cressid! False, false, false!” (V.ii.181), a “commodius drab” (V.ii.197), a whore in Thersites words.

Cressida is a whore, Helen a slut, Cassandra a madwoman, Andromoche a harpy trying to keep Hector at home, and Hecuba completely absent.

How’s that for “womanhood”?

It almost feels as if Shakespeare in Troilus and Cressida is president of Our Gang’s “He-Man Woman-Haters” club…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *