Man’s desire for Helen has fueled a 7-year battle between Sparta and Troy in Shakespeare’s play Troilus and Cressida, but it is the objectification of Cressida and the roles men have in her life that Shakespeare uses to comment on the patriarchal values of society. The act of marriage and the exchange of women maintained the patriarchal structures of both the play’s setting in Ancient Greece and Jacobean England in which Shakespeare was writing.
In his first soliloquy, we hear Troilus describe how he, “cannot come to Cressid but by Pandar” (1, 1, 94), and even though Pandarous has grown irritable, Troilus must tactfully use Pandarous to get to his niece, Cressida. Troilus then refers to Pandarous as, “the merchant” (1,1,102). In this analogy, Cressida is the merchandise that the two men will ultimately exchange.
Pandarous, acting as Cressida’s father, takes on the role of securing a relationship for her. Just as Pandarous and Troilus had arranged, Pandarous promotes Troilus to Cressida. As Troilus passes by Pandarous and Cressida, Pandarous asks Cressida to “Look/ well upon him, niece. Look you how his sword is bloodied, and his helm more hacked than Hector’s; and how he looks, and how he goes” (1, 2, 226-229). Pandarous describes Troilus admirably as if he were advertising a product: touting his qualities over those of the other men passing by. “Oh admirable youth!” Pandarous then exclaims to his niece, “Had I a sister were a grace, or a daughter a goddess/ he should take his choice” (1, 2, 229-232). To Pandarous, the emotional connection between Troilus and Cressida is irrelevant—he would offer up any woman over whom he had power. The woman becomes a commodity and the act of marriage a transaction, which both men must diplomatically arrange just as they would any other business matter.
When Cressida and Troilus are united in Act III, Pandarous declares, “How now, a kiss in fee/ farm!” (3, 2, 48-49). The “fee farm” makes reference to a grant exchanged to ensure perpetual land tenure at a fixed rent that Shakespeare’s audience would have been familiar with. Again, what could be an act of love (the kiss) is instead a business formality to exchange a commodity (in this case a woman, instead of land) from one owner to another. Pandarous later encourages Troilus and Cressida to consummate their relationship and calls out, “Go to, a bargain made; seal it, seal it; I’ll be/ the witness” (3, 3, 192-193). This could easily be the cry of a businessman delighting in a good deal rather than an uncle celebrating his niece’s marriage. Pandarous’s relentless pandering belittles the possibility of true love; under patriarchal rule, women are marketable commodities meant for economic exchanges rather than loving relationships.
Touilus and Cressida also offers a glimpse of the exchange of a woman from her father to a husband in reverse. In the Greek Camp, Cressida’s father, Calchas, asks the Greek General, Agamemnon, to exchange Antenor for Cressida so that he may be reunited with his daughter. Calchas explains that the Greeks “shall buy my daughter; and her presence/Shall quite strike of all service I have done/ In most accepted pain” (3, 3, 28-30). The Trojans take Cressida from her husband to return her to her father, but still, this exchange is about the business and desires of men.
Once Cressida is with the Greeks and we hear Trouilus sincerely protest his love for Cressida, he is unable to win her back. Earlier in the play we heard how marriage between a husband and wife is a matter of ownership and there is no place for affection. “Nature craves/ All dues be rendered to their owners. Now,/ What nearer debt in all humanity/ Than wife is to the husband?” (2, 2, 173-176) Hector asks. Not only is there no place for desire, but Hector goes on to say that affection actually corrupts the law of marriage, “this law/ Of nature be corrupted through affection” (2, 2, 176-177). Love is too weak to stand up against the business of men which is the law of nature.
Shakespeare insinuates the power of the patriarchal control of women over love and the larger societal tragedy that would ensue if this order were threatened–in Ancient Greece and Jacobean England.