Study Guide

Cressida in Troilus and Cressida

By William Shakespeare


We have absolutely no idea why Toyota named one of its cars after Cressida, since she's one of the most unreliable characters in literary history.

She's Troilus' girlfriend and the daughter of Calchas, a.k.a. the slime-ball who betrays Troy and joins the Greeks. (Hmm. Looks like the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.) She's also one of the most famous she-cheaters of all time. In the play, she falls in love with Troilus and promises to be faithful to him forever.

Until she's traded to the Greek army for a Trojan soldier and agrees to become Diomedes' lover. Oops!

Cressida's Promiscuity

Like Helen (whose steaminess supposedly caused the Trojan War), Cressida is associated with promiscuity throughout the play. Actually, Shakespeare sort of beats us over the head with this idea. When Cressida invites Troilus into her house, she utters a phrase associated with Elizabethan prostitutes, twice: "Will you walk in, my lord?" (3.2.60; 3.2.99). A few of the male characters call her a "whore" outright and, before she even hooks up with Troilus, she's portrayed as a serious flirt who is really good at mind games.

Check out what she says about leading Troilus on:

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 ungain'd more than it is:

Okay. Fine. So Cressida plays hard to get. Does this mean we should blow her off as a "sluttish" (4.5.62) girl? We don't think so. Here, Cressida tells us that she's been playing hard to get with Troilus because she's afraid he won't "prize" her as much once he sleeps with her. (Hmm. Didn't original girl band The Shirelles worry about the same thing in that little tune Rolling Stone ranks as the 126th best song of all time?)

Cressida as a Commodity

A what-now? Bear with us. A commodity is something you can buy or sell—anything that has economic value. And that's exactly what Cressida is in Troilus and Cressida.

Actually, that's really all any women are here. In this play, women are treated like objects whose "worth" depends on whether or not men think they have any "value." (Go to "Themes: Philosophical Viewpoints" for more on this.) When Cressida's dad arranges for her to be "exchanged" for a Trojan prisoner, it's pretty obvious that Cressida is seen as an object that can simply be traded among men (3.3.19-28).

We hear you: but isn't the prisoner being traded, too? Yeah. But he's being traded because he's a prisoner in the wrong camp. Even after the exchange is official, she's treated like a piece of meat. As she arrives at the Greek camp, the leaders greet her by pawing at her, talking dirty, and taking turns kissing her (4.5.17-51). Pretty depressing, don't you think?

What does Cressida do? She plays it off and flirts with each of the men. Ulysses sees this as evidence that Cressida is corrupt and calls her a "daughter of the game" (a.k.a. a prostitute): "Fie, fie upon her! / There's language in her eye, her cheek, her lip"(4.5.54-55).

We can't deny that Cressida uses her beauty and sexuality to try to get the upper hand with men. But does she do all of this because she enjoys the attention? Or, is it because she feels like she no other choice but to play along? Shakespeare doesn't give Cressida a boatload of soliloquies (speeches that reveal a character's innermost thoughts) like he does Hamlet so, we don't have access to Cressida's thought process in this particular scene. But, we can't help but wonder what's going through her mind.

Think about it: Cressida is basically being sold off to the enemy army as though she has no will of her own. And, in this play, she really doesn't. So, can we really blame her for cheating? If she's not treated as though she has any desires or will of her own, then how can she even really be said to be cheating? And if sex is her only asset, then how can we blame her for using it to protect herself in the enemy camp?

(Heads up, Shmoopers: this is why misogyny hurts women and men.)

Cressida as a Stereotype

Here's the other thing you need to know about Cressida: because Shakespeare's play basically rewrites an legendary story that had been around for three hundred years, Cressida is already a stereotypical promiscuous woman before she even meets Troilus in this play. In fact, Shakespeare goes out of his way to remind us that no matter how hard Cressida tries not to cheat, she's pretty much doomed to live out her literary reputation.

Want to hear that again, all fancy-like? As Emma Smith points out, Cressida is "trapped by the history that has already been written" (source).

So, when Cressida runs around declaring her undying love for Troilus and promising to be his forever, we feel a little sorry for her: "O you gods divine, / Make Cressid's name the very crown of falsehood, / If she ever leave Troilus"(4.4.99-101). Poor Cressida. Even though she really wants to be faithful to Troilus in this play, she doesn't have chance. Pretty brutal, don't you think? Go to "Symbols: Dramatic Irony" for more about this.