When I read a book (or in this case a play), I usually find myself drawn to one or two characters in particular – and not always ones I see myself in or would want to know in real life. Sometimes that’s the case, but more often, my “favorite” characters are ones who make me ask questions or see the story in a different light. In Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, that character is Cressida.
It would be easy to hate Cressida. While other Shakespearean heroines become martyrs for love, she vows to be faithful to Troilus only to run into Diomedes’ arms once they are separated. She’s like the antithesis of Desdemona from Othello, who was wrongly suspected of infidelity but never strayed from her husband, or Juliet, who kills herself rather than live without Romeo. I don’t think Cressida was ever as much in love with Troilus as she claimed to be. And yet, I don’t hate her. I pity her.
To be caught in the crossfire of the Trojan War is bad enough. To be a Trojan woman whose father betrays Troy to the Greeks would be much worse. It’s hard to imagine that Cressida could really be sure of her safety, no matter which side she was with. I doubt she was in love with Diomedes, but he was willing to protect her and showed her more respect than the other Greeks, so it’s not hard to see why she gave in. Did she love Troilus? I’m not sure. Even with him, there were early signs that she might not be telling the whole truth (“Perchance, my lord, I show more craft than love”). If she did love him, it wasn’t the blind passion of Juliet or the devotion shown by Desdemona. But it’s hard to blame her for that, especially given how short a time they’ve been together and the improbability of being reunited. Her love is more pragmatic than the typical tragic heroine’s, but Troilus and Cressida is not a typical tragedy. In the end, the real tragedy is that people are flawed, heroes are rare, and sometimes love just isn’t enough.
I see Cressida as a flawed heroine. Just as others of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes may be reckless, selfish, or susceptible to manipulation, Cressida’s flaws cannot be denied, but they can be understood. She’s not just a devious girl who strings men along. She’s trying to survive and making the best of the circumstances she finds herself in.