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Troilus & Cressida: Time, Empire, & Feminism

Anton Lesser and Suzanne Burden star in the 1981 BBC adaptation of Troilus & Cressida.

Images courtesy of the BBC Shakespeare Collection

This is for Philippa Semper: an inspirational teacher whose lessons will never be confined to time’s oblivion, but will resonate on and on. 

Introduction

Shakespeare’s power partly resides in his ubiquity. He is a living embodiment of ‘all things to all people’. It is very difficult to ascertain Shakespeare’s own views from his plays because for every philosophical position put forward in dramatic monologue, another character, or even the same one, will often produce a position to counter it. As a result, Shakespeare has been interpreted and re-interpreted throughout history in a variety of different lenses, from Marxism to Fascism, from religious to anti-religious, from optimist to nihilist. This kind of ubiquity has at times worked against him, especially when we consider the phenomenon of what popular literary criticism refer to as his “problem plays”; plays that allegedly lack cohesion, or an ultimate “point”. However, we are increasingly coming to understand, with the scholarship of William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity being a case in point, that the ambiguity is, perhaps, precisely Shakespeare’s point.

Arguably Shakespeare’s most problematic play is Troilus & Cressida. Set during the Trojan war, and following events parallel in timeline to those of Homer’s Iliad, it cannot truly be called a History, as the events transpire in an age of ‘mythology’. Though the play is wrought with tragic and bleak overtones, neither Troilus nor Cressida actually die at the end of the play, which makes it hard to pin as tragedy. Lastly, though the play is full of comedy, mostly in the form of vicious satire, cynicism, and irony, it lacks the uplifting quality that defines Shakespeare’s other comedies such as Twelfth Night.

Troilus & Cressida has never been regarded as one of Shakespeare’s great plays. At least, certainly not by public audiences. But I think I am coming to the conclusion it is my favourite of all his work, precisely because it might be regarded as an “anti-play”, a deconstruction of his own dramatic tropes and heroic narrative. It is Shakespeare’s riposte to Homer, to Virgil, to Dante, to Marlowe, and what a riposte it is. As a writing coach, I believe there is an extraordinary amount we can learn from this confusing and ambiguous masterpiece. My analysis will, hopefully, shed some insight into why this play might be accounted among Shakespeare’s best work, and how we can learn to shape our own narratives using his techniques.

The title of this “essay”, if it can be called that, is Time, Empire, & Feminism. I intend to address these three core themes and how they interrelate.

Injurious Time

Kenneth Haigh (Achilles) & John Shrapnel (Hector) in the BBC adaptation of Troilus & Cressida (1981)

Perhaps the most explicit theme of Troilus & Cressida is time. Not only are there three key speeches pertaining to the nature of time, but the play is full to the brim of foreshadowing and anxieties about the future, from Cassandra’s baleful prophesying, to Ulysses’ taunts to Hector about the future of Troy.

The first key speech comes from Agamemnon (Leader of the Greek Armies, King of Kings, as it were). He bemoans the current state of military affairs in the Greek camp, saying that despite all they have done, and all the lives that have been lost: “after seven years’ siege yet Troy walls stand” (1.3.462). Seven years have gone by and nothing has really been achieved. In addition, the Greek camp is rotting from the inside. The soldiers are mutinous. Morale is low. There is little hope of progress. It is Ulysses that proposes a solution to shake things up and get their best men on the front lines again. He outlines that the problem is the disruption of the traditional hierarchy. In the past, this has been interpreted as Shakespeare advocating for “degree” and hierarchy, but given Ulysses is a proven-liar, and as deceitful as they come, rather it seems he is saying what he believes Agamemnon wants to hear. This is also a theme of Troilus & Cressida.

Nestor, the ancient advisor to Agamemnon, says that: “Most wisely hath Ulysses here discover’d / The fever whereof all our power is sick.” (1.3.591-592). However, I think this is incorrect, a lack of insight on Nestor’s part. The real problem is not the lack of respect for hierarchy, but rather time itself. Too much time has passed for anyone to care very much about Menelaus’ marriage to Helen (her betrayal being the cause of the whole war to begin with). Time naturally disintegrates and corrupts.

We see this confirmed in the second speech of the play, which comes from Ulysses in reply to Achilles. Achilles is upset that Agamemnon and the other commanders are no longer showing his respect. Ironically, Ulysses moves in to comfort Achilles, a premeditated tactic; Ulysses is the one to instigate the demotion of Achilles in the first place. Ulysses wants to get Achilles fighting again, and so he deploys a hearty dose of reverse psychology, inviting the commanders to send the message that we don’t need you.. Achilles laments, asking: “Are my deeds forgot?” (3.3.2020). Ulysses replies: “Time hath, my lord, a wallet at his back, / wherein he puts alms for oblivion, / a great-sized monster of ingratitudes;” (3.3.2021-2023).

In other words, time causes us to forget good deeds. None of our important actions matter, because in the long run, time will cause them to be forgotten. This commentary operates on a multitude of levels. Shakespeare is, in some ways, beginning to deconstruct the classical heroic literature. Ulysses is saying that Achilles’ good deeds will be forgotten. But the reverse is surely also true. We forget the bad deeds, and end up mythologising and deifying people who actually were not “good” or appropriate role models in any sense. The ending of Troilus & Cressida features a shocking twist, in which Achilles turns out not the be the warrior portrayed in Homer’s Iliad. In fact, at the end of the play, Achilles doesn’t defeat Hector in glorious single combat. Rather, whilst Hector is unarmed and without his armour, Achilles ambushes him, and gets his squad of thuggish Myrmidons to brutally murder him while he is weaponless and defenceless. There is no honour or glory in the act. Ulysses’ speech on time prepares us for this, because he invites us to consider what has been lost to time, and to question our heroes and whether we misremember them.

There is certainly a dialogue here with Shakespeare’s contemporary and role-model Marlowe going on. Marlowe’s most famous line of poetry was: “Is this the face that launched a thousand ships / And burned the topless towers of Ilium” (Dr Faustus). It is a description of Helen of Troy, allegedly the most beautiful woman in the world. Marlowe also was made famous in his day for his two-part epic Tamburlaine The Great, a heroic narrative of a conqueror. Shakespeare’s own interpretation of war is very different. It is ugly, the province of liars and thugs. Here, he challenges Marlowe’s version of the heroic narrative and Trojan story. But it is not merely contemporaneous commentary. Shakespeare’s deconstruction of war was modernistic before modernism had even been dreamt of. In a strange way, like Cassandra, he foresaw the horrors and dishonour of modern warfare before it’d become a reality.

Ulysses’ speech also serves to foreshadow the fate of Cressida and Troilus, our central protagonists (or are they? Even this seems to be challenged to an extent). Troilus and Cressida have admired each other from afar for quite some time before the play even begins (again, we play with time in unusual ways, flaunting the “unity” of the Ancient Greeks). However, after some back and forth using the quixotic Pandarus, Cressida’s uncle, as a messenger, they arrange a meet-up. If you are expecting a romantic encounter in the vein of Romeo & Juliet, you are in for a surprise. Cressida and Troilus’ encounter is overtly sexual. And while Troilus professes truth and beauty, it’s clear that the two intend to spend less time talking and more time in the bedroom. The language between the two is alive with sexual punnery, to the extent that the characters even remark upon their own euphemisms. Cressida asks Troilus to “Come you again into my chamber”. (4.2.2329) then realises what she has said: “You smile and mock me, as if I meant naughtily.” (4.2.2330). Apart from showing us that some things really do never change, Shakespeare is subtly beginning to challenge the idea of true romantic love.

It is a final irony that Cressida foreshadows her own infidelity by saying that if she is unfaithful, it will be remembered until “When time is old and hath forgot itself,” (3.2.1836). This is an oxymoronical paradox that frighteningly goes one step further than Ulysses’ speech, saying that not only can time make all things forget, but can forget itself. Does one sense that perhaps Cressida wants to be remembered? It seems to me that she experiences a kind of existential terror contemplating forgetfulness, and therefore seeks to immortalise herself through the despicable nature of her actions.

It’s intriguing that Cressida, after their first sexual liaison, is the one to ask: “Are you a-weary of me?” (4.2.2295), which Troilus firmly denies. However, this might well have been psychological projection on Cressida’s part. Troilus and Cressida are, tragically parted. The Greeks trade back a Trojan prisoner, and Cressida, who was born Greek, must be exchanged. No sooner have the lovers finally consummated their feelings, than they must be pulled apart. The timing is off, once again. They wasted time eyeing each other from afar, and now they have run out of time.

It’s here we get the third significant speech on time, by Troilus. It is, to my mind, perhaps one of the most agonising speeches ever rendered in the English language: “injurious time now with a robber’s haste/ Crams his rich thievery up, he knows not how: / As many farewells as be stars in heaven, /With distinct breath and consign’d kisses to them, / He fumbles up into a lose adieu, / And scants us with a single famish’d kiss, / Distasted with the salt of broken tears” (4.4.2472-2478). Here, time is portrayed as unjust (injurious) and a thief (a robber’s haste). Time is literally stealing from them: love, life, happiness. Shakespeare then, in true self-style, takes the simile one step further. The robber also steals their “farewells”. In other words, they do not even have time to say a proper goodbye. In exchange, he offers them a “famish’d kiss / distasted with the salt of broken tears”. By creating the neologism “distasted”, Shakespeare makes us taste the salty bitterness of the tears. This is also a classic example of one of Shakespeare’s mixed metaphors that a modern editor wouldn’t tolerate, but it is the mixed nature of the metaphor that grants it its power. Tears cannot be broken, of course, because they’re liquid. But, the fact the tears are “broken” suggests on a deeper spiritual level that they are not working. They are in some way dishonest or non-operational, meaning the grief is insincere and meaningless. Not only is the kiss “famished”, deficient and not fully satisfying, but it tastes bitter because of false tears. This is echoed by Pandarus’ comment: “Where are my tears?” (4.4.2483). He wonders why he cannot cry that the lovers are parted and that his own niece is going to be taken the Greek camp. The entire scene is cynical. Nothing is truly felt. Shakespeare may indeed be commenting on the nature of performance and acting in general, too.

Cressida has many extended monologues in this scene (Act IV Scene 4) that connote her grief at parting from Troilus. She also blames him repeatedly for not loving her by allowing them to part. Troilus is in a very difficult position, because the order has come directly from his own father, Priam, and his brothers, so to go against it would be to fight against his own blood. As I said before, Cressida seems to be projecting here, because no sooner is she out of Troilus’ sight, than she finds herself enjoying the sexual attentions of Patroclus (taking not one, not two, but three kisses from him) and then later Diomedes. She makes the same sexual pun to Diomedes as she did to Troilus: “Prithee, come” (5.2.3174). Cressida is inconstant. Troilus believes that it is time that has made her so: “never did young man fancy / With so eternal and so fix’d a soul” (5.2.3239-3240). In other words, Troilus regards himself as a constant and fixed point, therefore Cressida must have changed over time. However, it has been barely a day since they last saw each other. It is more likely that Cressida has always been superficial. She even warns him of it herself upon their first meeting. Troilus fails to listen to her. The theme of men not listening to women in Troilus & Cressida is something we’ll return to in Feminism.

Interestingly, it is Ulysses that reveals Cressida’s unfaithfulness to Troilus, and upon witnessing her unfaithfulness, Troilus proclaims that they must stay so that he can: “make a recordation to my soul / Of every syllable that here was spoke” (5.2.3188-3189). He wants to remember everything that Diomedes and Cressida said to one another. This is in direct contrast to Ulysses’ statement that time obliterates all memory.

Time is the great enemy in Troilus & Cressida. Or is it? Agamemnon blames time for the corruption of his men. Ulysses blames time for the forgetfulness of the generals. Troilus blames time for corrupting his Cressida. But ultimately, time doesn’t cause any of this. In fact, it is human frailty that causes all of these. Time is constant. Humans are inconstant. Time is the touchstone that equivocates and brings all of the dark deeds and secrets to light. Time, ironically, is not injurious at all. It is the fairest agent in the play.

End of Empires

Upon re-watching Troilus & Cressida I couldn’t help but think how startlingly it pertains to our own times. Most significantly, the political state of Britain. It is not my intention to turn this into a political monologue, but merely to observe how our times are not unprecedented, and in many ways, Shakespeare foresaw them in his own time.

Troilus & Cressida is, on the surface, about a war between two factions. One of the factions, the Greeks, have been stolen from. We shall return to this idea of “stealing” and “property” in the segment on Feminism, as I do believe that it is not Shakespeare’s intention to imply that women are property, but actually to challenge this abhorrent traditionally held notion in several striking ways. But on a basic level, Helen and Cressida have been stolen from the Greeks. Therefore, the Greeks have gone to war with Troy to win them back.

The Greeks are internally divided. They are in the midst of a crisis of leadership. Achilles will not fight, so who will rally their men? One is reminded, by the scheming of Agamemnon, Nestor, and Ulysses, of our own political machinations and smear-campaigns; the fragile leadership of the last few years seems exemplified in the posing Greeks. Achilles, essentially, is a diva. He isn’t getting enough attention, so he won’t fight. Agamemnon is incompetent and unimaginative, eager to abdicate responsibility to the bigger brain on the playground. Nestor is obsessed with the priority of his age. Menelaus is a loser, and no one cares what he thinks. They spend more time thinking about ways to snub each other than they do to solve the problem introduced by Agamemnon at the start of the play: that Troy’s walls still stand.

What is the central quandary of the Trojan generals? In Act II, Scene 2, Priam, Hector, Aeneas, Paris, Troilus, Cassandra and Helen are all gathered, debating whether to return Helen or continue to defend her. The room is split, with Troilus and Paris vote to continue to defend Helen, for the sake of honour. Whereas Hector and Priam are of the opinion that too much has been lost already, and that she should leave. Now, you can probably already see where I’m going with this. Their debate is strikingly reminiscent of the Remain / Leave narratives of modern times. The Leavers view the past seven years as a terribly heavy investment and that they should cut their losses by returning her. The Remainers are convinced that they should stand upon principle, whatever the cost and whatever the future might hold. What was the point in taking Helen in the first place if not to keep her? So, the room is divided, and the debate wages pointlessly on, until finally Hector is persuaded, using the honour argument, that they should keep Helen. His decision sways everyone else.

Of course, it is the wrong decision (I make no inference here about Brexit, merely within the context of Shakespeare’s play, it is clearly the wrong decision for Hector personally, and for the nation of Troy). As a result of this decision, Hector is killed, and, though this is not covered within the scope of the play, Troy is ransacked and burned to the ground. We know Troy’s fate because of numerous portrayals in classical literature (pretty much everyone in the West knows of the Trojan Horse, even today). The most famous portrayal of this fall might well be Virgil’s in his epic, The Aeneid; the opening chapters depict the heroic Aeneas saving the last survivors of Troy in order to flee and found a new country: Rome. It is worth me mentioning at this point that Aeneas is possibly the only person in the entirety of Troilus & Cressida whom Shakespeare portrays in a good light. Aeneas seems to be the only person who is authentically who he is. He deals with people fairly, and even covers for Troilus when he discovers Troilus and Cressida in bed together, despite the fact that the two are on opposite sides of the war, and he has no reason to defend Troilus’ reputation and honour. He stays away from politics, and focuses on making the best of a bad situation: defending his people.

This favourable portrayal is possibly due to the fact that Aeneas, as mythologically the “first Roman”, is someone whom Shakespeare feels indebted to, given that his chief inspirations were the writings of Ovid and the Roman playwrights such as Plautus and Terence. Shakespeare may well be paying a literary debt here by sparing Aeneas from his otherwise ubiquitous character-assassinations (Ulysses is a liar and cheat, Ajax is an imbecile, Achilles is a diva and coward, Menelaus is a cuck, Troilus is naive, Pandarus is a pander, Priam is doddery and senile, Hector is arrogant).

But to return to Troy’s fall, we see this foreshadowed numerous times. Ulysses taunts Hector, saying that:

“Sir, I foretold you then what would ensue:
My prophecy is but half his journey yet;
For yonder walls, that pertly front your town,
Yond towers, whose wanton tops do buss the clouds,
Must kiss their own feet.” (4.5.2841-2845)

Ulysses says that he has prophesied the towers will fall. There is a ghost of Marlowe’s mighty line here: the “topless towers” are echoed in “Yond towers, who wanton tops do buss the clouds”. There are several meanings to unpack. Shakespeare here rebukes Marlowe. His towers are described as “wanton”. In other words, they are phallic. They represent male arrogance, and imply Troy is a seat of sexual deviancy, which, from what we’ve seen, it is. They are not “topless” but “buss the clouds”. Like Babel, they attack the seat of the gods, which is in classical literature represented symbolically by the sky above us. If the towers are like Babel, it is inevitable they will fall. And here, I think we reach Shakespeare’s true insight. He understood that all empires must end. All towers, no matter how tall, must one day be brought down. In the West we believe that our empire will somehow remain eternally, but four-hundred years ago Shakespeare understood the truth that we deny: that one day even the greatest civilisations must end. All that’s required is time.

If you have any doubt about this, simply consider the image of the towers falling. The towers of our empire have already literally fallen, just as Ulysses predicted they would. The image he uses of “kissing their own feet” is a kind of profane act. To kiss someone’s feet is to honour and humble yourself before them. But to kiss your own feet is to humble yourself before yourself. It is a self-reflective act of collapsing inward. And, it must be observed, that all empires collapse from within before they collapse from without. Shakespeare’s Troy is a perfect example of this. Pandarus sleeps with young boys. Cressida and Troilus engage in extra-marital sexual liaisons, as do Helen and Paris. There is an air of corruption and iniquity that pervades every scene of the play.

We are left with a haunting image at the end of Troilus & Cressida that encapsulates this moral collapse: Pandarus wandering through the streets, dying of venereal disease. Rather than try to find a way to die nobly and in peace, Pandarus instead proclaims he will “bequeath” his “diseases” to find “eases”. In other words, he will sleep with as many people as possible to feel better and ease the pain, regardless of whether it passes on his STD. It is a repulsive and bleak image to end on. So, we see, collapse of empire is inevitable. Troy preceded Rome. Rome preceded Britain. Britain preceded America. The empire ends, something is salvaged from the ruins, and the cycle repeats.

Feminism

Helen (Ann Pennington) says nothing at Trojan Court. But perhaps she has a plan, as later interactions with Paris reveal.

It’s worth me noting at the start of this section that I am aware that, as a man, it is perhaps not my place to make statements about what feminism is or isn’t, nor is that my intention. However, it is impossible when viewing Troilus & Cressida not to see a pretty overt commentary on the nature of gender roles, and this commentary forms a core part of the play’s meaning and power. I’m sure that many other female scholars can take (or may have already taken) an even deeper look into what is really going on in this play. I’d invite any female writers to critique or counter my work, but I hope this will form a useful starting point in terms of broad strokes.

Throughout Troilus & Cressida there is a narrative of ownership. During the scene in Act II, Scene 2, Helen is spoken about as though she is property. Though she is present in the room, she utters not one word. The men do the talking for her, deciding what to do with her. Return her, or keep her. Throughout the play, the idea of women as property is returned to. It is returned to so often that it almost seems to be like the men have a kind of obsession or deeper anxiety about the issue. In fact, were Shakespeare an out and out misogynist, which some scholars have claimed he is, I’m not sure he would have mentioned the idea of women as property as often as he does – it would instead be implicit. Clearly, then, it is intentional and thematic. He is drawing our attention to something important.

Cressida “belongs” to Troilus, but no sooner does he “possess” her, than she is returned to the Greek camp. When Troilus witnesses her infidelity, he says: “This she? no, this is Diomed’s Cressida” (5.2.3211). In other words, this isn’t her, this is the version of her that belongs to Diomedes. The reality is, however, that Cressida doesn’t belong to anyone. When Cressida wishes to give Diomedes her scarf, she then decides to take it back. He then insists and takes it from her by force (she says he “snatches” it from her). She then says: “Well, well, ’tis done, ’tis past: and yet it is not; / I will not keep my word.” (5.2.3163-3164). In other words, he can have the scarf, but he doesn’t have her. Diomedes is obsessed with the origin of the scarf. He wants to know “whose it was” (5.2.3153). Like a man purchasing a car, he wants to know its sales history. Her sales history. Who owned you before?

When the men realise that they don’t own the women in this play, they quite literally go insane. Troilus suffers a complete psychological break with reality. First, he denies that he ever saw Cressida. This is psychosis 101. “Was Cressid here?” (5.2.3197). Even though Ulysses assures him she was, Troilus won’t believe him: “She was not, sure” (5.2.3199). Next, he enters a state of complete doubt and paralysis. Like Schroedinger, he proposes that: “this is, and is not, Cressid” (5.2.3220). He cannot resolve the dichotomy in his head. He believed her to be one person, to belong to him, so when she acts counter to that, it shatters his worldview. Finally, Troilus transfers blame to Diomedes: “as much as I do Cressid love, / So much by weight hate I her Diomed” (5.2.3241-3242). This is preposterous, but all-too-believable. He cannot deal with the fact that Cressida has chosen another over him, cannot give her agency in the matter, so he blames the man / rival lover. In short, Shakespeare shows the fragility of male ego. Four hundreds years before #maleegosofragile, Shakespeare portrayed the instability of male psyche.

We see a deeper exploration of gender roles in the character of Pandarus. Pandarus describes Cressida as “such a woman!” (1.2.407). Yet, this is deeply ironic, as he embodies far more of the stereotypical negative traits of women that Cressida. I should say, for the record, that I do not believe women innately possess these traits nor wish to encourage negative stereotypes. I merely mean to observe that negative stereotypes about women exist, and Shakespeare, in a stroke of irony, transfers these traits to Pandarus, a man, in order to deconstruct our traditional views of gender roles. Pandarus likes to sleep with young men, for a start. He is a gossip. In the scene where Cressida and himself watch the Trojan procession, he defames the character of virtually every member of the royal household, including Paris (he describes him as “dirt”) and even Hector himself. The only two he spares are Aeneas (again, spared the satire) and Troilus, which is for the specific reason that he is trying to set up a match between the two. Pandarus is a gossip, and a match-maker, two traits often associated with women.

He is also two-faced. We derive the verb to pander from Pandarus’ name. He is synonymous with the art of telling people what they want to hear. Men are always accusing women of being two-faced, yet Pandarus is worst for this. In Act III, Scene 1, he calls Helen “Sweet Queen” when he has spent the majority of the play dissing her in front of anyone who will listen, including her own servants. It is interesting that we learn later that Cressida already “loves” Troilus, or at least is attracted to him, though she affects disinterest in front of Pandarus. Yet, Pandarus seems to have her sussed, as he sings Troilus’ praises to the heavens: again, exactly what she wants to hear. Later, however, in a private aside to the audience when observing the infatuation of Paris and Helen, Pandarus vituperously remarks: “Is this the generation of love? hot blood, hot / thoughts, and hot deeds? Why, they are vipers” (3.1.1617-1618). He compares the lovers to vipers, quite in contrast to his unctuous praises of a few moments ago. We can also read more deeply in this. When he says “generation”, the term seems to refer to a broader selection of people than just Paris and Helen. He is also referring to Troilus and Cressida, then. Despite all his affections, he regards them as snakes. Ironically, it is Pandarus who is the snake, whispering in Cressida’s ear about Troilus’ glory in order to set the two up.

For what purpose does he set them up? This is a classic example of Shakespeare’s missing motives. Or rather, not missing, but not emphatically stated. Perhaps the most famous example of this would be Iago’s motivations in Othello, which remain mysterious even after he is subjected to torture. Pandarus, similarly, seems to have very little personal motivation for securing a liaison between the lovers. I would argue it is possibly his own vicarious sexual gratification. He earlier remarks that: “I could live and die i’ the / eyes of Troilus” (1.2.392). The eyes are repeatedly used in Troilus & Cressida as a signifier of sexual desire. After Cressida betrays Troilus, she says: “Minds sway’d by eyes are full of turpitude” (5.2.3181). Turpitude is a synonym for transgression, suggesting sexual perversion. There is strong evidence of Pandarus’ homosexual leanings toward Troilus, then. But also, possibly, toward his own niece. Earlier, he watches their foreplay and observes Troilus’ kissing technique (with disdain). Following Troilus and Cressida’ first sexual hook-up, he enters their bedroom asking: “hast not slept to-night? would he not, a naughty / man, let it sleep?” (4.2.2324-2325). He wants to know the juicy details of their liaison. In fact, his dialogue seems more fitting for a pimp than an uncle.

Pandarus asks Cressida: “Do you know a man if you see him?” (1.2.217). He is questioning her judgement of a “real man”, and trying to infer she is expressing the wrong preference. However, this is also Shakespeare making us question gender. Do we truly “know a man” from sight alone? Pandarus seems a man, but in fact he is more typically feminine than any other character in the play (again, I do not believe that these stereotypes are true, merely than Shakespeare chooses to transfer what were believed as feminine traits onto a man). Cressida seems a woman, but in fact not only is she being played by a male actor on stage (at least in Shakespeare’s day), but she is also typically masculine in her sexual aggression, her conquest of multiple sexual partners, and her lack of remorse for betraying her lover. Cressida really is more of a “man”, in the ugly stereotypical sense, than Troilus. We see this in the fact of her original unwillingness to show her affection to Troilus or Pandarus. Men are notorious for feigning a lack of interest in women in order to appear more attractive by virtue of inaccessibility; playing hard to get, as it were. Cressida does the same: “Then though my heart’s content firm love doth bear, / Nothing of that shall from mine eyes appear.” (1.2.446-447).

In fact, Cressida “wish’d myself a man, Or that we women had men’s privilege” (3.2.1777-1778). Cressida recognises the gender inequality and wishes it were rectified. But it also hints that she herself identifies in some way as male. The example of such “privilege” she gives is the fact that men have the right of “speaking first” (3.2.1779). It is interesting, then, that up until this point in the play, the women have all spoken second. Except one: Cassandra. Cassandra is, in the classical sources Shakespeare draws from, a prophet. However, due to her relationship with Apollo, she is cursed to never be believed. Cassandra is the only woman to speak first in a scene before the reversal takes place. Where Helen remains silent throughout the Trojan debate in Act II Scene 2, Cassandra speaks and declares that if Helen is not returned, disaster will befall Troy. We, as an audience, know she is right, because we know the story of Troy. However, Cassandra is dismissed by the men and described as “mad” by Troilus. I do not think that these are a series of coincidences. Shakespeare is highlighting the problem of men refusing to let women take control, and refusing to listen to them when they speak.

An even more powerful example of this is in the fate of Hector. In Act 5 Scene 3, Hector is warned by two women that if he goes out to fight, he will certainly die. Andromache, his wife, is the first to warn him. Interestingly, she does speak first in this scene – with the first line of dialogue. The tables of gender priority have turned by the end of the play. She says: “Unarm, unarm, and do not fight to-day” (5.3.3279). The next to warn Hector is Cassandra. Cassandra is Hector’s sister, so there is even a blood-tie here. At one moment, it seems he might be swayed, but then Troilus enters, hot for battle because of his humiliation at the hands of Diomedes and Cressida. Hector listens to Troilus, even though it’s clear Troilus is not in his right mind. Troilus even threatens to kill Hector if he should stand in his way of going to battle. But Hector prioritises the male judgement over the female.

This taps into another stereotype that I believe Shakespeare is challenging: that women are irrational. Troilus, here, is the irrational one, acting purely on emotion without logic. It is Cassandra and Andromache who argue from a perspective of logic: Hector is a rallying point for Trojans, a tactical genius, as well as an inspirational leader and figurehead (Cassandra calls him the “crutch” of Troy). If he dies, too much is lost. They shouldn’t risk him, even if honour is at stake. Hector doesn’t care. He goes out anyway. He dies and Troy is doomed.

Troilus & Cressida is in many ways a study in the consequences of what happens when men do not listen to women, and when men try to objectify and “possess” women. The answer is: total collapse and calamity, both physical and psychological.

Conclusion

Troilus & Cressida is perhaps Shakespeare’s least admired play, after Titus Andronicus. It is rarely performed. However, I would argue that if it is not his best play, it is certainly his most modern. He deconstructs heroism, romantic love, gender roles, and notions of empire. He gives voice to women, and then shows us the harrowing consequences of ignoring them. He puts lies in the mouths of oligarchs, and then shows their empires crashing down around them. He shows us that regardless of human capacity for self-deceit, time will be the great arbiter of all our sins. Troilus claims that his name will become synonymous with truth. Cressida, with falsity. The play should not then be called Troilus & Cressida, but rather, Truth & Deception. It is tragic – and perhaps a little Shakespearean – that the import and power of these themes has, as Ulysses predicted, been forgotten within the oblivion of time.

With special thanks to Jonathan Bates.