“Live aye with thy name!” Thoughts on Pimps and Posterity

Sex! Sex sells: we hear this all the time. Sex is sold, we hear this all the time whether it is in conversations about advertising or prostitution; Cressida in Troilus and Cressida; or the relative value of women and men at Dartmouth as they progress through their time here on the “Dartmouth X”: in all of these instances sex is a commodity to be purchased by the highest bidder.

If you have sex with someone for money, you are called a prostitute, but if you arrange for someone else to have sex for money you are called a pimp. However, words change. Pimp was not only word used to describe sex-procurers when Shakespeare wrote Troilus and Cressida. In fact, the first documented use of “pimp” in the OED is in 1600, in Ben Johnson’s play Every Man out of his Humour: Troilus and Cressida was written around 1601 or 1602. Shakespeare doesn’t use the word “pimp” in Troilus and Cressida, even though the character of Pandarus from Troilus and Cressida (and its precursor, Chaucer’s 14th century Troilus and Criseyde) is what give rise to the term “pander”, which is a synonym of “pimp”.

Shakespeare never uses the term “pander” directly as a synonym for pimp. Instead, he jokes around with the meaning of the word as when Pandarus says to Troilus and Cressida who have just pledged their eternal love:


Go to, a bargain made: seal it, seal it; I’ll be the witness. Here I hold your hand, here my cousin’s. If ever you prove false one to another, since I have taken such pains to bring you together, let all pitiful goers-between be called to the world’s end after my name; call them all panders; let all constant men be Troiluses, all false women Cressids, and all brokers-between panders! Say, ‘Amen’. (3.2.191-9)


Here Pandarus mocks Troilus and Cressida’s vows of eternal love to each other, by parroting the protestations of love they had made earlier and inserting himself into the dynamic, and pressing them to go have sex (which is what they really want to do). Pandarus as a character occupying the world of Troy is unaware of the fact that his name has in fact taken on the definition of “broker-between” that he mockingly gives it. However, Shakespeare as an author would be well aware of this definition, as would the audience watching the play. Shakespeare’s play on the word “pander” here reminds us of the fate of Pandarus, but also of Troilus and Cressida. We know that Troilus and Cressida will not be constant to each other: their love is doomed.

Because the audience already knows this, Pandarus’ lines are funny. It’s the sort of thing you can’t help but laugh at. Haha! This ends badly and everyone dies! Many of Pandarus’ lines function in this way, as darkly humorous jokes that appeal to mankind’s darker side, as with the last two lines of the play, which are about venereal disease. Of course, another word for this is to “pander”: ministering to the gratifications of another. Though this definition makes “pandering” seem as though it could be kind, it is almost always meant as an insult: the “gratifications” are normally immoral and distasteful; lustful.

I was, perhaps pandering when I began this post by talking about sex to get your attention, and ended up talking about grammar, but then Shakespeare, arguably does a similar thing when he calls his play “Troilus and Cressida”, begins by talking about the Trojan war and the ravishing of Helen—both arguably things that gratify mankind’s baser nature in their bloody, lustful details—and then devotes approximately half of the play to a discussion of statecraft.

Troilus and Cressida is then a play full of panders. Pandarus is then the quintessential pander in both sense of the word: he is a pimp, and also one who generally contributes to a lowering of moral character. Meanwhile Shakespeare in many ways takes on the role of “pander” in the second sense: he gives the people what they want to see. In Pandarus’ self-aware acknowledgment of the artificiality of the proceedings, he could even be said to stand-in for the playwright. Shakespeare takes an extremely famous story, and puts his own take on it. Interestingly, the play was not resoundingly successful, and even in the Introduction appended in 1609 it was not marketed as such. In fact, it was specifically stated to have “never clapper-clawed with the palms of the vulgar”.

Why was this? Romeo and Juliet is, after all a similar story that is much less self-aware, and much more popular. Perhaps it is because the play is too difficult: it does not pander enough to what the audience wants. Or perhaps the play is too “meta”—in its self-aware depiction of characters like Pandarus who know what they will become they remind the audience of the superficiality of the entire endeavor of play-making and “writing”. One thing is definite. Though the play deals blatantly with sex, it is not “easy”.