Over these last few (and next couple of) days, I’m been talking more than a little 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), and yesterday, I focused on the woman at the heart of the war that frames our play: Helen. Today, we play a little ping-pong, and I return to our titular (love that word) female lover, Cressida.
When we last left Cressida, we had just seen her in her natural (pre-“false”) verbal state, a more sexualized version of the whip-smart Beatrice from Much Ado. Quick-witted, yet with sex as a goal. Once that coupling has taken place (through machinations of Pandarus the pander), we learn that she is to be traded to the Greeks in exchange for the captured leader Antenor. The news is delivered quickly, brutally, to Troilus, whose immediate response is “Is it concluded so? … How my achievements mock me!” (IV.ii.66, 69). There is no attempt to forestall, no attempt to fight for her. She is merely property, that which can be taken from him. His acceptance comes so easily (compare this to one of the possible reasons why Achilles doesn’t fight).
When the lovers part, they exchange tokens. He gives her his sleeve, she gives him her glove. I’ve wondered before if we should have known Cressida would be untrue by her choice of love token? Troilus give her a sleeve, an article of clothing that fits only one body part (an arm), while Cressida gives him a glove, into which five fingers fit. It would make sense if we take the implication that Troilus will be monogamous, and Cressida, not so much.
All of this is prelude to — in my opinion — the strangest scene in the play… Cressida’s arrival at the Greek camp and her welcome by the commanders:
Most dearly welcome to the Greeks, sweet lady. [Kisses her.]
Our general doth salute you with a kiss.
Yet is the kindness but particular.
‘Twere better she were kissed in general.
And very courtly counsel. I’ll begin.
So much for Nestor. [Kisses her.]
I’ll take that winter from your lips, fair lady.
Achilles bids you welcome.
I had good argument for kissing once.
But that’s no argument for kissing now,
For thus popped Paris in his hardiment
And parted thus you and your argument. [Kisses her.]
O deadly gall and theme of all our scorns,
For which we lose our heads to gild his horns!
The first was Menelaus’ kiss; this mine.
Patroclus kisses you. [Kisses her.]
O, this is trim!
Paris and I kiss evermore for him.
I’ll have my kiss, sir.—Lady, by your leave.
In kissing, do you render or receive?
PATROCLUS (Menelaus in other texts)
Both take and give.
I’ll make my match to live,
The kiss you take is better than you give.
Therefore no kiss.
I’ll give you boot: I’ll give you three for one.
You are an odd man. Give even, or give none.
An odd man, lady? Every man is odd.
No, Paris is not, for you know ’tis true
That you are odd, and he is even with you.
You fillip me o’ th’ head.
No, I’ll be sworn.
It were no match, your nail against his horn.
May I, sweet lady, beg a kiss of you?
I do desire it.
Why, beg, then.
Why, then, for Venus’ sake, give me a kiss
When Helen is a maid again and his.
I am your debtor; claim it when ’tis due.
Never’s my day, and then a kiss of you.
Lady, a word. I’ll bring you to your father.
Exuent Diomedes and Cressida
A woman of quick sense.
Fie, fie upon her!
There’s language in her eye, her cheek, her lip;
Nay, her foot speaks. Her wanton spirits look out
At every joint and motive of her body.
In my copy of the play, I have scribbled near the top of this scene “YUCK” and underlined it. I stand by that assessment.
Agamemnon kisses her first. But how? It (hell, all of these) could be simple courtly kisses of her hand. But there’s no text to support that, and in a bit I’ll get to the text that supports its opposite. These are full mouthed kisses. But for how long? Is it a short peck or a long, drawn-out snog? Agamemnon’s line is full iambic pentameter, so the argument could go either way. However, the line does end with a feminine ending (“lady”), which often metrically pushes a speech to the next line, so I would argue this is a long one, a really long one. Maybe she resists, and Nestor’s comment of the salute comes during the kiss; maybe she doesn’t, and his comment is one of condescension.
Ulysses then puns on Nestor’s use of the word “general,” saying that the kindess of the kiss was particular to Agamemon, and it would be better if she were kissed by all (“kissed in general”). Following Agamemnon’s long kiss and Ulysses statement, it’s no surprise that the other leaders line up for their satisfaction. Nestor’s kiss line is a short one, so I’d argue his kiss is long as well. The next is Achilles; his line is still not a full iambic pentameter line, but it’s longer than Nestor’s, thus his kiss is shorter than Nestor’s but still no mere peck (does this shortening of his kiss metrically support the interpretation of Achilles as homosexual? maybe… I think so since…). The next kiss comes from Achilles’ “brach” (II.i.113); coming after a full iambic pentameter line, I’d say this is a short one (again supporting the homosexual angle). Leading up to and during this kiss is some locker-room-style trash-talk at the expense of Menelaus, the cuckold. When Patroclus first kisses Cressida, it is for Menelaus; the second kiss is for Patroclus himself–coming as it does at mid-line, the break in a perfect antilabe shared between lines by Patroclus and Menelaus. This must be another quick kiss.
And this is where it gets weird.
Menelaus voices his desire for a kiss. It is only then, for the first time in the scene, that Cressida speaks, asking Menelaus, “In kissing, do you render or receive?” She’ll be kissed, it seems, by generals, old pervs, and bi and gay men alike, but she draws the line and speaks up when it’s a professed cuckold who is about to lay lips on her. What follows is a ten-line exchange, filled with antilabes (sometimes seen as the metrical example of romantic compatibility), pauses and rhymes. If you pulled those ten lines out of context, it could be easily seen as flirtation, on the level of Berowne and Rosaline, Benedick and Beatrice, Petruchio and Kate, Hotspur and his Kate. It’s fun. But very strange in this context, as if Cressida has resigned herself to the situation and is now playing along, more evidence of her “craft” (III.ii.148).
Her flirtation continues with Ulysses in another exchange with an antilabe and more rhymes (here, Ulysses even answers her line with a rhyme [“due” and “you”]). This dialogue continues to layer on the weirdness, and Diomedes (the only character onstage that doesn’t get a kiss or ask for one–IRONY ALERT) takes her away. Nestor says Cressida has “quick sense” which could mean that she’s smart (and he recognizes her decision to go along with the perversity to save herself) or that she’s sexually fast. Ulysses responds with what every entitled but unsatisfied male says: She wants it. He sees that her spirits are wanton, and her “lip” speaks the language of sexuality. And it is this “lip” reference that makes me believe that all of the kisses leading up to this are fully mouthed kisses, not simple pecks on her cheek or hand.
Ulysses has watched kisses both rendered and received. He knows what a “sluttish…daughter” (IV.v.62, 63) looks like and Cressida fits the bill.
And we’re one-step closer to her becoming the poster-child for “heart of falsehood” (III.ii.190).