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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Cressida (also Criseida, Cresseid or Criseyde) is a character who appears in many Medieval and Renaissance retellings of the story of the Trojan War. She is a Trojan woman, the daughter of Calchas a priestly defector to the Greeks. She falls in love with Troilus the youngest son of King Priam, and pledges everlasting love, but when she is sent to the Greeks as part of a hostage exchange, she forms a liaison with the Greek warrior Diomedes.

The character's name is derived from that of Chryseis who appears in the Iliad. However, the story of Troilus and Cressida does not appear in any Greek legends. It is first known in the Roman de Troie in which the romance was attached to Briseida. This version in turn influenced the poem of Azalais d'Altier and the history of Guido delle Colonne. Boccaccio's version of the story in his Il Filostrato makes the "decisive" shift in name, and English language versions appear in Geoffrey Chaucer's middle English Troilus and Criseyde, Robert Henryson's middle Scots The Testament of Cresseid and William Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida (c. 1603).

Cressida has most often been depicted by writers as "false Cressida", a paragon of female inconstancy. Chaucer's poem, however, portrayed a far more sympathetic Criseyde showing a self-conscious awareness of her literary status: "Alas, of me until the world's end shall be wrote no good song". Some authors have attempted to exonerate the character, for example John Dryden in his rewriting of Shakespeare in an attempt at "remov[ing] that heap of Rubbish, under which many excellent thoughts lay bury'd."<ref>Dryden, John Preface to Troilus and Cressida in: Novak, M. E (ed.) (1984) The Works of John Dryden: Volume XIII Plays: All for Love; Oedipus; Troilus and Cressida, Berkeley, University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-05124-6. (p.226)</ref> and William Walton and Christopher Hassall in their opera on the theme.

The character of Cressida has also appeared in more modern drama. In the 1965 Doctor Who storyline "The Myth Makers" (with William Hartnell as the Doctor), wildly inaccurate from a literary point of view, the TARDIS is captured by the Trojans with Vicki (Maureen O'Brien) still inside. Forced to emerge from the TARDIS, Vicki meets Priam, King of Troy. Considering the name 'Vicki' to be 'outlandish', Priam gives her the name of 'Cressida'. Later, Vicki/Cressida meets and becomes enamored with Priam's youngest son Troilus. After Troy falls (with the unwilling, but necessary help of the Doctor), Vicki stays behind to rebuild Troy with Troilus. The story deliberately inverts the traditional fates of Troilus and Cressida.


In Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, we first hear of Cressida in Act 1 Scene 1. Pandarus and Troilus are discussing how the latter's unspoken love for the former's niece, Cressida, is preventing him from performing on the battlefield. She first appears in person in the following scene, speaking to her manservant before Pandarus enters. They commence into witty banter while a parade of Trojan soldiers heads past. When Troilus walks by Pandarus tries to convince Cressida of his merit, but she teases him, saying she has heard Achilles, a Grecian warrior, is far more impressive. Once Pandarus exits Cressida admits in a soliloquy that she does in fact love Troilus, but is worried about publicising it. In her own words:

Yet I hold 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.'
That though my heart's contents firm love doth bear,
Nothing of that shall from mine eyes appear. (lines 225-234)

She next appears in Act 3 Scene 2, when Pandarus leads her on stage wearing a veil to meet with Troilus. Pandarus then heads back 'inside' and the two are left alone. Cressida struggles to practise her maxim as planned while Troilus professes his love for her. When Pandarus re-enters she eventually admits her own reciprocal love of Troilus. In a confused speech she battles with her own fate as a woman, even speaking in a collective woman's voice, revealing a greater intelligence than the male characters give her credit for:

I love you now, but not, till now, so much
But I might master it; in faith, I lie:
My thoughts were like unbridled children grown
Too headstrong for their mother. See, we fools!
Why have I blabbed? Who shall be true to us,
When we are so unsecret to ourselves?
But, though I loved you well, I wooed you not,
And yet, good faith, I wished myself a man,
Or that we women had men's privilege
Of speaking first. (lines 92-101)

Cressida becomes increasingly affected by her own qualities, saying 'I show more craft than love' (line 124). She begs to be allowed to leave, but Troilus and Pandarus want her to stay, so that they can marry to immediate effect. She seems to prophesise her own failings, repeating the word 'false' seven times before Pandarus 'seals' the match. In Act 4 Scene 2 we see the couple on the morning after their first night together. They are euphoric, but Cressida does not want Troilus to leave her, showing an awareness of her own vulnerability in that moment. On line 20, she says 'you men will never tarry' as he begins to contemplate leaving. Pandarus enters and cracks some jokes about how she had now lost her innocence, and Cressida is flustered. Once Troilus and Cressida are dressed, Aeneas visits in a panic to say that for the return of one of Troy's men from the Greeks, Antenor, they must trade Cressida over to Diomedes, a Greek general. Cressida becomes an object to trade, and Troilus does nothing to prevent the sad event, though he is miserable for it. In Act 4 Scene 4 Cressida is informed of the plans to trade her to the Greeks. Troilus gives her his sleeve as a love token and she gives him a glove. Their relationship becomes an inversion of Paris and Helen's. Diomedes enters and Cressida is handed over.

In the following scene we again see Cressida in a less vulnerable state. Although she is now being led through the Greek encampment by Diomedes, surrounded by men, she engages with the men, Ulysses in particular, with defensive banter. Ulysses predicts her behaviour using coarse phrases such as 'sluttish spoils'. Act 5 Scene 2 is the most poignant scene containing Cressida, and the most memorable. Troilus has crept into the camp and is accompanied by Ulysses, and they are watch the scene unfolding between Diomedes and Cressida unnoticed. Thersites is also present and unseen, the clown of dark humour making distasteful comments exaggerating the sexual inference of what he sees. Cressida flirts with Diomedes, yet is occasionally struck by guilt. She appears to lust after him, even giving him Troilus's sleeve as a love token, though quickly tries to retrieve it from him in a struggle, offering her own body in trade. Diomedes insists he will have both. He exits, having planned a return visit. Troilus is mad with jealousy and anger throughout the scene, but she never realises he is close by. Her final lines of the play are:

Troilus, farewell! One eye yet looks on thee,
But with my heart the other eye doth see.
Ah, poor our sex! This fault in us I find,
The error of our eye doth direct our mind:
What error leads must err. O, then conclude
Minds swayed by eyes are full of turpitude. (122-127)

Later, we are told of things that concern her: for example, the letter Troilus receives which he tears up, and Troilus' horse which Diomedes sends to her as a prize after knocking him out of the saddle in battle.

Contemporary Criticism

Troilus and Cressida has little performance history prior to the 20th Century. This is perhaps because its tells a story based on Homer's Iliad without its beginning or its end. The reason for this may be that it appeals to us now, in our fast changing world, where there is little forseable stability in our technologically advancing culture. Cressida's character is as isolated from framing as the rest of the story - we never know how her life ends, there is no 'ever after' for her, and even her beginning is mysterious to us. She appears a witty young girl, only to become a serious, thoughtful, and thought-provoking woman in moments of reflection. Carol Rutter explores the reasons why Cressida is so fascinating. She writes:

[...] the challenge Shakespeare constructs for this play is to put before us a Cressida, who, like the fair (but dark) lady of the sonnets is, in Eve Sedgwick’s memorable term, ‘oxymoron militant’, a genuine contradiction.<ref>Chillington Rutter, Carol. Enter the Body. Routledge. Great Britain, 2001. (p. 116)</ref>

Rutter has much to say on Cressida's self-awareness. Firstly, that Cressida is unique, that she is something entirely, radically new, the woman who behaves like a man, who betrays the man, secondly, that:

Two voices seem to be speaking [...] Where has Cressida learnt this ‘instruction’? [...] the speech is neurotic, pragmatic, anti-romantic – yet it’s form is a sonnet [...] it discloses strategic schizophrenia [...] by this agenda, to win at love, a woman must play false, act double. She must separate instinct from sexual performance [...]<ref>Chillington Rutter, Carol. Enter the Body. Routledge. Great Britain, 2001. (p. 124-5)</ref>

Juliet Stevenson commented in Rutter's book Clamorous Voices that such roles inspire an actor to:

[...] react against the way tradition and prejudice have stigmatised them – Cressida the whore [...] every time they’re judged you feel protective. Perhaps too protective. So you might end up playing a Cressida who is above reproach.<ref>Rutter, Carol. Clamorous Voices Shakespeare’s Women Today. The Women’s Press Limited. London, 1988. (p. xviii)</ref>

The main question as regards Shakespeare's Cressida is centralised around whether she is simply a 'whore', or if she is more complex, and worth further attention due to her obvious intelligence and duality.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Cressida" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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