The love story between Troilus, the Trojan prince, and the maiden Cressida is only one of the two major plot lines in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. However, the actions of Troilus and Cressida seem more poignant because they deal closely with the concept of human values and virtues. Indeed, it seems that the love story between these two provides an overarching metaphor for the second plot line, that of the Trojan War. While the scenes portraying the war are effective in their own right, I find it much more effective to discuss the more accessible story of the lovers. After all, not many have experienced physical war. However, most have experienced war in the emotional sense–in the sense of love. Much of the apparent turmoil between Troilus and Cressida results from Cressida’s dissention in V.ii. to the Greek commander Diomedes. Thus, it is fitting to explore who Cressida really is and to uncover the motives for her actions throughout the play.
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In common analyses of Troilus and Cressida, Cressida is often portrayed as a whore. In fact, there are several references within the text itself that allude to this interpretation of her personality. It seems to be common knowledge within the Greek army that “any man may sing her, if he can take her cliff” (V.ii.10-11) and that she will, with minimal persuasion, “be secretly open” (V.ii.23). These are obvious sexual references which Thersites uses to reveal the true nature of Diomedes’ flighty prize, Cressida. This portrayal of the maiden may seem unmerited until background is given of the affair between Troilus and Cressida, and afterward, between Diomedes and Cressida. The story of the first pair appears to be an innocent pursuit of love, where boy meets girl, boy gets girl, etc. In the first scene of the play, the storyline immediately discloses Troilus’ affections for Cressida. The prince enlists Pandarus, uncle to Cressida, to aid him in his pursuit of the young girl. Pandarus speaks highly of her to him, and later, of him to her. By playing upon his role of the go-between, Pandarus eventually brings the two lovers together. Upon their meeting, Cressida admits that she has also “loved [Troilus] night and day for many weary months” (III.ii.116-117). Of course, a kink in the lovers’ happiness is soon thrown into the works when they learn that Cressida must be given over to the Greek army in exchange for Antenor, a Trojan nobleman and Greek prisoner. Exchanging tokens of love and promises of faithfulness, the lovers part. What follows in the Greek camp is a quick erosion of Cressida’s promises as she first (sexually) teases the Greeks then eventually succumbs to Diomedes.
The series of knowable events leads the reader of the play to conclude that, perhaps, Cressida should be devalued as a moral human being and merely chalked up as a whore. Indeed, there is much conversation between Troilus, Cressida, and Pandarus about Troilus’ adherence to being true and Cressida’s fault of being false. Cressida herself admits to being false, saying “Yea, let them say, to stick to the heart of falsehood, ‘As false as Cressid'” (III.ii.96-97). The blunt portrayal of Cressida’s untruthfulness leads the reader to further stereotype her as an unfaithful person. So it comes as no surprise that later, she cheats on the man she has proclaimed to love. But readers are further shocked when Cressida gives Troilus’ sleeve, the favor he bestowed upon her, to Diomedes. On first reading, it may seem as if this is meant to mock Troilus and devalue his love for her. However, should Cressida bear the full weight of blame for her unfaithfulness? Or is she really an innocent, taken advantage of by lustful men?
Cressida may be more than she seems on the surface. Throughout the whole of the play, her beauty is often referenced, as if it were her only positive quality. Indeed, she is even compared to Helen, for whom the entire war began. It is this possession of beauty that makes Cressida so desirable to men. They listen not to her self proclaimed disclaimer of falsehood. Instead, they go ahead insisting that she give herself to them. Why then does Cressida even brand herself with the label of falsehood? Cressida is a young woman surrounded my men who pressure her for “love” only because of her body. It may be hypothesized that she propagates this false personality in order to force men to see the Cressida within, rather than the glittering exterior. She may also be giving men fair warning to her young and immature nature. She may find no problems in pursuing different men as she proceeds through her sexual awakening. However, men fear to lose her because they want only one thing–her beauty, her sexual innocence. Was Cressida pressured into meeting with and consequentially having relations with Troilus? It seems that both Troilus and Pandarus forced themselves upon her in an assault labeled “love.” If indeed she was hurried into a relationship against her better judgment, this only reveals her truly nave nature. And when Troilus continually urges “yet, be true” (IV.iv.73), the reader can hardly blame her for being overwhelmed by the sudden commitment.
This commitment has also brought along her sexual awakening. Troilus has proved to her that she can be desired by men with no effort put forth on her part. This information excites Cressida, and she is eager to test her feminine strength in the Grecian camp. I believe she only meant to test the water, so to speak. However, still nave, Cressida didn’t count on the relentless hounding of Diomedes and the rest. Her appeal is obvious as soon as she steps into the camp in V.ii. She is barraged with pleas for kisses and attentions. This situation is much worse than Troilus and Pandarus’ manipulation of her feelings. Here, she is faced with a full blown assault with only one goal, sex. In this light, it is difficult to blame Cressida, in her innocence, for succumbing to Diomedes.
Is Cressida a woman who knows that falsehood is her fatal flaw, accepts it, and relishes in the sexual freedom it provides? Or is she merely a nave child overwhelmed by her newly achieved sexual awakening? Does she know full well what harm she is causing to the men in her life? Or should the blame be placed upon the shoulders of these same men who see her as nothing else but a beautiful decoration for their beds? I will argue the latter. Although the concept of breaking a vow is held morally wrong by society, Cressida cannot be held in full contempt for her actions. If she must shoulder the blame, then so must the men who desire her. These men overwhelm Cressida by plotting against her, in a fashion. Troilus consorts with Pandarus and Diomedes seeks advice with Thersites. The combination of two sexually mature men against one woman is a rather unfair advantage. Cressida never made the first move and therefore, should not be held responsible for the actions of others.
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