"At all these wards I lie, at a thousand watches"
I’m very excited to say that I’ll be giving a talk next week for the annual ‘Youths That Thunder’ lecture at Shakespeare’s Globe. It’s open to the public and tickets are available, so if you’re in or near London, you should come by! I’m going to be talking about the work I’ve been doing on my new research project (more about that soon), and I thought I’d give all of you here a little preview of what I’ll be discussing—through the lens of a single character, of course.
Everyone’s watching Cressida.
Well, theatrical history hasn’t paid her much attention, as Troilus and Cressida is one of Shakespeare’s least-performed plays today. It becomes more popular when artistic and political trends match its relentlessly cynical tone, but its heavy reliance on familiarity with the Trojan War to make its irony work can make it an intimidating prospect for theatres and audiences. It’s the nihilist’s Romeo and Juliet, a play about a world where love isn’t enough: Trojan prince Troilus and noblewoman Cressida fall in love in the midst of the Trojan War, but after being brought together for a single night by her slightly over-invested uncle Pandarus, they learn that Cressida will be given to the Greeks as part of a prisoner exchange. Suddenly adrift amongst her former enemies, Cressida promises herself to the Greek soldier Diomedes, who offers protection in exchange for becoming his mistress. Troilus oversees this bargain and becomes incensed at the betrayal, vowing to meet and kill Diomedes in battle the next day. That doesn’t happen, and the whole play ends on a sour and inconclusive note, with Troilus rejecting Pandarus for his role in the whole affair, and Pandarus cursing the audience as diseased pimps and whores like himself.
Startling as it is when Pandarus abruptly turns his gaze on the audience at the close of the play, Cressida exists in a state of endless scrutiny: we see her, and see her seeing, but never quite know what it is she sees.
‘Nothing of that shall from mine eyes appear’
We meet Cressida watching other people. She and her servant and Pandarus stand on the walls of Troy to watch the soldiers returning from the day’s fight while Pandarus tries to wingman for Troilus and suss out Cressida’s feelings about them. Cressida is cagey, parrying his efforts with wordplay and constantly redirecting attention to different men passing by below. Pandarus leaves frustrated, and only when she’s alone with the audience—the only such moment she has in the play—does Cressida lay out her feelings for Troilus a little more clearly. Namely, she does have feelings for him, but fears the fun is in the chase and if she admits it, he’ll lose interest.
Cressida’s eye is her tool for redirecting attention, for seeking to evade the evaluative gaze of Pandarus and, by proxy, Troilus. As long as she’s looking elsewhere, forcing Pandarus to discuss the passing Hector, Paris, and Helenus instead of their brother Troilus, nothing of her feelings can be betrayed by the direction of her gaze.
‘More dregs than water, if my fears have eyes’
Cressida and Troilus’s single night together is fraught with anxiety. They pass the time offering reassurances that they’ll be true to each other, that Troilus won’t lose interest now that he’s won her and that Cressida won’t ever betray him. Cressida sees ‘more dregs than water’ in the metaphorical fountain of their happiness, worries that what they’re doing is already polluted simply by having been begun—simply by having been looked at.
Troilus, consumed by his own fears, can’t see what Cressida is seeing. He’s looking at her, already afraid of the infidelity the audience knows is inevitable. She’s looking… somewhere else. Inwardly, at metaphorical fears about Troilus’s future behavior, but also her own. One of the oddities of Troilus and Cressida is the awareness the characters seem to have of who they are, in a literary sense. They know their own historical reputations before they happen. It’s one of the things that makes the play so hard to perform: the dramatic irony sits so heavily, it’s hard to know how to invest the scenes with real suspense. We know Cressida is right to fear that their love won’t last, but how can we have hope when it seems like she doesn’t just fear it, but somehow knows it, too—somehow sees her own future?
‘There’s language in her eye’
All eyes are on Cressida as soon as she arrives in the Greek camp, where she’s greeted by a parade of commanders, each of whom force her to kiss them in turn. They turn judgmental when she plays along, taking this as proof that she’s just another Trojan slut. Her eyes speak for her, even when she says nothing—her eyes say yes.
Ulysses, who provides the most scathing commentary in this moment, then takes Troilus to watch Cressida in action. She’s also watched by another soldier, Thersites, who offers an even more deeply cynical perspective. And of course, she’s watched by the man she’s talking to, Diomedes, who echoes Troilus in his attempts to suss out whether Cressida really means the things she says—whether she still loves Troilus, whether she’ll keep her promises. Under the gaze of this quartet, Cressida’s actual dialogue is fragmentary and contradictory. She keeps changing her mind, whispering to Diomedes so that we can only hear half of her thoughts. We can’t hear enough to know exactly what’s happening, and—despite the frantic attempts to describe and interpret what’s happening by the men—we can’t see enough, either. We can’t know the meaning of her body, both as readers of a 500-year-old play, who have no way to recapture the gestures and staging that might have clarified her position… but also, as Shakespeare suggests throughout his plays, because the ‘language in her eye,’ and in any woman’s eye, can and will always be misread. Ulysses thinks he knows what he’s hearing when Cressida’s eye speaks, when her words are coy but her eye says yes. But does he really?
‘One eye yet looks on thee / But with my heart the other eye doth see.’
Finally, at the end of the scene, Diomedes leaves and Cressida turns to address the audience (though not alone this time: Thersites still overhears and comments, and the other men are still hidden onstage, too). At last, some direct address to provide clarity! It’s what Shakespeare so often uses this device for, to reveal a character’s real motivations after they’ve spent a scene obscuring them. But Cressida, in her last lines, has no clarity to offer.
She’s just—torn. One eye on Troilus, one eye (and her heart? what does it mean to see with the heart and not the eye, or the heart as well as the eye?) on Diomedes. What does she see in either of them, what do they represent to her? Does she still see visions of doom, of the literary future that will write her down as an unfaithful whore? While everyone else is desperately reporting what they see when they look at Cressida, Cressida can’t make any sense of what she sees, either in herself or in the things she looks at. And if she can’t make sense of it and find the language to explain it, then neither can we. After looking through everyone else’s eyes at Cressida, repeatedly giving us grounds to suspect that they’re not seeing her clearly, Shakespeare just tantalizingly dangles and then deprives us of the chance to look through her eyes.