Cressida (Troilus and Cressida)
You are neither going to like nor believe what I have to say about Cressida. I remind you that you don't have to believe me. For all you know, I'm writing this from the rehabilitation section of a mental institution (nusshaus, as one of Nabokov's characters calls it). Or I've broken into one of the doctor's offices, and hacked his or her computer.
Shakespeare's characters are mostly very moral. If they fall in love, they get married. Antony and Cleopatra's relationahip is adulterous, but Cleopatra doesn't have abortions (which are recorded in Egypt as early as 1550BC), they have their children, whom they publicly acknowledge.
The one exception that I know of to this moral attitude appears in Troilus and Cressida. At the center of the society are Paris and Helen, living in blissful and notorious (if tawdry) sin, and their example corrupts all of Trojan society, and indeed, the whole play. Without their example, I doubt that Cressida would ever allow herself to be pimped out by her Uncle Pandarus to Troilus. She'd want a ring. Even Romeo and Juliet, rushed as they are by violent circumstances and their own strong desires, find time to get married before they get into bed.
Yet Cressid, though she is violently attracted to Troilus, hesitates. She has an entire soliloquy about why she's not going to give in to Troilus:
Words, vows, gifts, tears, and love's full sacrifice,
I will sloppily paraphrase the above as follows: "The man who desires you will woo you, worship you, covet you; the man who has possessed you will regard you as a convenience or even a slave."
He offers in another's enterprise;
But more in Troilus thousand-fold I see
Than in the glass of Pandar's praise may be,
Yet hold I off. Women are angels, wooing:
Things won are done; joy's soul lies in the doing.
That she beloved knows nought that knows not this:
Men prize the thing ungained more than it is.
That she was never yet that ever knew
Love got so sweet as when desire did sue;
Therefore this maxim out of love I teach:
Achievement is command; ungained, beseech.
Then though my heart's content firm love doth bear,
Nothing of that shall from mine eyes appear. (Troil. I.3.287-300)
This is a reasonable excuse for Cressida not to go to bed with Troilus. However, it's a lie. It's a made-up excuse, which is why it rhymes so formally. It doesn't express her thoughts; it conceals them.
Cressida is not wanton, but she is passionately interested in men and sex. She fears her own desires and their strength. She fears that if she once gives in to one man, she will be unable to resist any other man, and she will become uncontrollably promiscuous. She sees her own sexual desires as a monster which, once released, will not be controllable. When Pandarus brings her to her rendezvous with Troilus, the first thing she does is turn around and run away, and he has to fetch her back. In her conversation with Troilus she says:
Cressida still has her fears, but since Troilus swears eternal fidelity, and even mentions and discounts the very thing she herself fears, she proceeds with the assignation.
Blind fear, that seeing reason leads, finds safer footing than blind reason stumbling without fear. To fear the worst oft cures the worse.
O, let my lady apprehend no fear! In all Cupid's pageant there is presented no monster.
Nor nothing monstrous neither?
We can also say this about Cressida: like most of the Trojans, she's incredibly strong. When the Greek army molests her in IV.5 by forcing her to kiss several of them, she maintains complete composure and imperviousness. And when an opportunity arises, she exchanges snippy words with Menelaus, and sends him away humiliated (and unkissed). When Ulysses tries to get the better of her, she holds her own. (Ulysses launches into a tirade about her promiscuity--which is never in evidence in the scene--after Cressida has left the stage and cannot defend herself.) Imprecise editors have changed Cressida's line at IV.3.49 from the contemptuous "Why, beg then," to the compliant, "Why, beg two" on the grounds that the latter line rhymes. Shakespeare meant for Cressida to go right out of verse, such is her contempt for Ulysses.
Some scholars believe that Homer favored the side of the Trojans (see, for example, The Journal of the Robert Graves Society at http://www.robertgraves.org/issues/47/3481_article_191.pdf (retrieved January 29, 2020) and maybe Shakespeare favored the Trojans, too. Or maybe he just favored women. His most admirable Greek character is Ajax. Cressida is not humiliated by the Greeks in their forced game of Spin-the-Bottle--but all the Greeks who kissed Cressida do poorly in the next day's battle. For Example, Patroclus, out of jealousy that Achilles has kissed Cressida, kisses the helpless girl three times. Patroclus is killed in the next day's battle.
The Middle Age sentiment held Cressida unfaithful because, after being parted from Troilus, she falls for Diomedes. Well--why wouldn't she? She is passionately interested in love and sex, but she had guarded her virginity from men until she met Troilus--and Troilus betrayed her. He let her be taken from Troy (and you will notice that the Trojans are fighting a big war to keep the faithless Helen inside Troy), and he fails in his promise to give her "nightly visitation," though Shakespeare and Ulysses arrange a perfect opportunity for him.
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