Undoing Shakespeare’s Genders

Troilus and Cressida is a breeding ground for polarized gender theory, since Cressida is such an overtly provocative character. Critics often try to pin Shakespeare as either a subtly progressive feminist, or a chauvinistic pig, and Cressida has preoccupied much of this discourse. However, by acknowledging the plights of Achilles concurrently with Cressida’s, I’ve reached a different conclusion: Troilus and Cressida does not expose Shakespeare as a misogynist, nor as a sympathizer for women stuck in a dualistic world that favors men. No, Troilus and Cressida exposes Shakespeare as a dissenter from the patriarchy, and exhibits his understanding that such a system favors no one, as it fragments and limits both male and female identity.

Criticism of Cressida generally falls into three camps: traditionalists, who pursue total vilification using patriarchal logic [Cressida exemplifies how women can be “weak” and “absolutes of perfidy” (Harris, 65)], and feminists, who sympathize with her [if she’s a whore, its because patriarchy made her one]. This latter camp thinks Shakespeare justifies Cressida’s betrayal with a version of Simone de Beauvoir’s theory, “one is not born, but rather becomes a woman…it is civilization as a whole that produces this creature” (Greene, 133). The third camp is geared towards historical criticism; they step outside the text as verisimilitude, and use Cressida as proof of Shakespeare’s genuine misogyny. These analyses argue that Shakespeare shapes the plot to elicit a hateful reader response and defer empathy with Cressida, “portraying her as a harlot whom we can no longer understand and with whom we can no longer have a relationship” (Krims, 93). However, I believe extrapolating simple male chauvinism from Troilus and Cressida is an oversight.

A focus on Achilles reveals that the male characters in the play are not absolutely glorified, as one might expect from a misogynistic author. Instead, just like the women, the men serve as tragic victims of a world obsessed with masculinity. These men are also de Beauvoir’s “creatures” of “civilization’s” making; one is “not born, but rather becomes” a man. As Achilles states, “in the eyes of others,” one is “not a man, for being simply man,” and no man “hath any honour” other than “those honours that are without him…/ prizes of accident as oft as merit” (III.3.85-88) To transpose another feminist theory, “the terms that make up one’s own gender are, from the start, outside oneself” (Butler, 1), or in Achilles’ words, the “honour” of “being” a man is determined “without him.” In this way, Troilus’s line “this is, and is not, Cressid” (V.2.172) applies to all the characters, male and female, in the sense of “I am constituted by a social world I never chose” (Butler, 3). Because of the strict gender definitions set by the patriarchy, men and women alike feel a discrepancy between what they are and what they are supposed to be.

Achilles is the clear example of how “civilization produces” a man, and how that gendered selfhood is then dependent on society’s recognition of it. The gift of masculinity is conditional to meeting the expectations thrust upon man. Just as a woman must act feminine and subservient for patriarchal approval, men’s choices are also limited: “A woman impudent and mannish grown/ Is not more loath’d than an effeminate man/ In time of action” (III.3.229-231). Achilles’s male identity is threatened when he resists fighting: “we ascribe [much attribute] to him. Yet all his virtues/ Not virtuously on his own part beheld/ Do in our eyes begin to lose their gloss” (II.3.117-122). Achilles did not choose to be defined by “all his virtues,” but since civilization “ascribed” them early on, it’s the only identity he knows. Achilles feels what Judith Butler surmises, “I may feel that without some recognizability I cannot live. But I may also feel that the terms by which I am recognized make life unlivable” (Butler, 4). Achilles must “do” his male role of risking his life in war to continue to “be” male, even if these “terms” make his life “unlivable,” in that he could literally die in battle. This is just one example of how the gender themes in Shakespeare’s text are not strictly misogynist or misandrist, but critical of the patriarchal system as a whole, and the paradoxes and limitations it places on both men and women.


Butler, Judith. Undoing Gender. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.

Greene, Gayle, Carolyn Lenz, Ruth Swift, and Carol Thomas Neely. The Woman’s Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare. Urbana: U of Illinois, 1980. Print.

Harris, Sharon M. “Feminism and Shakespeare’s Cressida: ‘If I be false …’.” Women’s Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal (1990).

Krims, Marvin Bennett. The Mind According to Shakespeare: Psychoanalysis in the Bard’s Writing. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2006. Print.

Shakespeare, William, and W.J. Craig. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. London: Oxford University Press: 1914; Bartleby.com, 2000. www.bartleby.com/70. [August 4, 2015].