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BY 4.0 license Open Access Published by De Gruyter June 13, 2022

Kiss me (not!), Cressida – Or: The social touch of lips and tongue

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From the journal arcadia


The article is dedicated to the problem of social bonds that is negotiated in Troilus and Cressida. Troilus and Ulysses embody an old, traditional order of the world that is out of joint, while Cressida’s behaviour and her way of interacting indicate a different and new regime of social regulation that is about to take over. With its complex superposition of (touches of) love and war, Troilus and Cressida brings together rituals of touch, anarchic speech acts, and a gendered perspective on the world that associates touch and temporality with ‘frail’ femininity and temptation. With unrivalled intensity, the play puts to the spectator that the basic condition of touch, i. e. exposing oneself to another, entails an incalculable risk. Hector tragically falls for the vulnerability inherent in touch and the audience suffers with him because they share this existential precondition on which modern society is ‘founded.’ The gloomy, inescapable atmosphere of societal crisis that Troilus and Cressida creates emphasises the fact that the fragility of touch is not to be overcome. The fractions – no matter whether Greek, Trojan, or those of loving couples – cannot simply be reunited to form a new, authentic entity. Generating at least some form of social cohesion therefore remains a challenge.

“After all this thou wilt say to thyself, ‘How insecure is the ground upon which all our alliances and friendships rest, how liable to cold downpours and bad weather, how lonely is every creature!’” (Nietzsche, Human, All-Too-Human 293)[1]

Friedrich Nietzsche’s gloomy words have nothing to do with Shakespeare. However, they might quite accurately fit the uneasy feelings that William Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida evoke in its viewers or readers: a play that is, according to Gayle Greene, “informed [...] with a loathing of humanity, an aversion to sex and the physical” (“Shakespeare’s Cressida” 133) and “thus marked by a fatalism uncustomary to Shakespeare” (146).

Troilus and Cressida stages the failing of (at least) two social bonds: the loving relationship between Troilus and Cressida and the crumbling of social cohesion among the parties of the Trojan War. “[T]he ground upon which all our alliances [...] rest” is thus indeed a problem that Troilus and Cressida explores in great detail – it is perhaps the problem that earns it its categorisation as a so-called ‘problem play’ – being neither comedy nor tragedy.

Troilus and Cressida projects a world that is out of joint – or, more precisely, a world in which “the ground upon which all our alliances [...] rest” has changed. It not only nostalgically bemoans the bygone stability of the past, however, but also ruthlessly analyses the ‘soil characteristics’ of this new ground. The fact that it is ‘insecure’ does not necessarily mean that all social cohesion has become impossible – it might just bear the burdens of life in a different way to that which the grounding of old alliances had done in the past.

1 “Stop my mouth.” (III.2, 129) – Truth’s authenticity and the falseness of touch

When the play begins, Troilus and Cressida are not yet a couple. Pandarus, Cressida’s uncle who has accepted the task of facilitating the relationship on behalf of Troilus, arranges a meeting and counts on the power of words to establish the conjunction: “Swear the oaths now to her that you have sworn to me” (III.2, 39–40), he tells Troilus. When Troilus does not follow Pandarus’ repeated attempts to make him talk, the broker decides to resort to a more patient strategy: he unveils Cressida. However, the plan does not work out the way it was intended – Pandarus’ words to Troilus: “So, so, rub on, and kiss the mistress” (III.2, 48), imply that the two lovers do not talk, but start to caress each other instead. Was it Cressida, who responded to Pandarus’ request, this time not withdrawing from (cf. III.2, 43) but approaching Troilus and thereby preventing him from speaking to her? “You have bereft me of all words, lady” (III.2, 53), he tells Cressida. When the lovers exchange another kiss, Pandarus reads their non-verbal, ‘haptic’ behaviour as the utterance of mutual consent he has been waiting for: “What, billing again? Here’s ‘In witness whereof the parties interchangeably’” (III.2, 56–57).

While, as Shanon Harris notes, Troilus, intrinsically, turns out to be a man of words and “values language” (77),[2] “Shakespeare uses Cressida to mock such rhetorical conventions” (78): she does not believe in the traditional, verbal way to forge a relationship and bring about social cohesion. This is best expressed by one of the most controversial speech acts of the play: when Troilus swears his faithfulness to her (“truth can speak truest not truer than Troilus,” III.2, 94), she does not answer this vow with a vow of her own, but instead asks him to have sex with her (“Will you walk in, my lord?”), a baffling turn of events which Philip Edwards considers to be Cressida’s “finest moment” (48). As the scene exhibits, it is touch, the encounter of bodies, that she seeks and in which she trusts. It is therefore only logical that she prefers not to speak at all: “Sweet, bid me hold my tongue” (III.2, 125), she requests of Troilus, “Stop my mouth.” (III.2, 129)

When Cressida eventually breaks her silence, the audience gets an idea of her ‘problem’ with language: she confesses her love to Troilus, only to qualify the confession as soon as it has left her lips.

Cressida: Prince Troilus, I have loved you night and day

For many weary months.


I love you now, but till now not so much

But I might master it. In faith, I lie [...]. (III.2, 110–117)

Cressida’s problem with speaking ‘truly’ is best exhibited by the paradoxical speech act she produces: “In faith, I lie” – language, in its constative and performative dimension, is hollowed out. What, though, is Cressida’s constitutive problem with language all about? It is, as Cressida puts it, “mine own company” (III.2, 140) that gets in the way. She is not the “thing inseparate” (V.2, 155) that Troilus takes her to be until the end of the play:

Cressida: I have a kind of self resides with you,

But an unkind self that itself will leave

To be another’s fool. Where is my wit?

Would be gone. I speak I know not what. (III.2, 142–146)

Cressida differs significantly from Troilus: He is individuated as a “thing inseparate,” as “so eternal and so fixed a soul” (V.2, 172). “I am as true as truth’s simplicity” (III.2, 164), Troilus claims of himself. It is the “absence of compositeness” (OED, “simplicity,” n. 1. a.) that accounts for his words’ constative ‘truth,’ as well as for their perlocutionary, binding effect.

In contrast to the fixity and timelessness, to the ‘eternity’ of soul, Cressida is herself plural, a collective of conflicted selves. Her mode of ‘individuation’ (rather ‘dividuation’)[3] is one of intrinsic motion, of metastable forces – of difference and time:[4] “I love you now, but till now not so much” (italics J. U.). The truth that guarantees the social power of binding words relies, by contrast, on stable and unchanging identity, on a concept that is highly allergic to the complex processes of time and becoming.

Cressida’s answer to Troilus’ vow of truth and simplicity thus can only be ambiguous: her “In that I’ll war with you” (III.2, 166) will turn out to come true in its dark, cruel deeper meaning later in the play. Her composite (in)dividuation does not emulate, but it will “war with,” will attack and defeat, Troilus’ eponymous true simplicity.

A comparable ambiguity haunts the quasi-ceremony that Pandarus officiates to celebrate the relationship between the two lovers:

Pandarus: 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, [...] [l]et all constant men be Troiluses, all false women Cressids, and all brokers-between panders! Say ‘Amen.’

Troilus: Amen.

Cressida: Amen. (III.2, 192–199)

The “bargain” is not sealed by words, but with two gestures of touch: a handshake and a kiss. As Emily Ross has shown in her detailed analysis of this scene before the background of early modern customs and legal practice, “a canon court would have difficulty judging them to be legally (although clandestinely) married.” (412)

On the other hand, there does seem to be sufficient evidence to rule that the ceremony espoused the couple. Although the vows they swore do not conform to the anecdotal models and are not phrased as sponsalia per verba de future, they are formally solemnized by a patriarch of Cressida’s family, who might legitimately take that role in the absence of Cressida’s father. (412)

It is, however, not the words that serve as evidence for this reading. Emily Ross’ reference to a marriage which Shakespeare himself contracted and which was disputed in a court case years later sheds light on a significant parallel between the two rituals officiated by Pandarus and Shakespeare: “They weare made suer by Mr Shakespeare by geuing there consent, and agreed to marrye, (geuing eache others hand to the hande [deleted] and did marrye” (Bentley 76–80). What the legally binding ceremonies have in common is the haptic gesture that confirms and perhaps even expresses their consent and agreement to marry – Troilus and Cressida’s relationship is founded not on true statements: it is founded on touch, which makes a crucial difference.[5]

Unfortunately, Troilus and Cressida’s love proves to be ill-fated. The morning after their first night together, Cressida has to leave Troy: she has been exchanged for a captive the Greeks have taken – the warrior Antenor – and is brought to the Grecian camp. In the moments of their sudden separation, Troilus gives his word to come and see her. When he delivers on his promise, he witnesses Cressida starting an affair with the Greek Diomedes. Troilus’ reaction when his mistress dates his rival indicates that he has misinterpreted Pandarus’ “bargain”:

Troilus: The bonds of heaven are slipped, dissolved and loosed

And with another knot, five-finger-tied,

The fractions of her faith, orts of her love,

The fragments, scraps, the bits and greasy relics

Of her o’ereaten faith, are bound to Diomed. (V.2, 163–167)

Troilus understood Pandarus’ “bargain” to be an establishing of a relationship sanctified by “the bonds of heaven.” He misread the gesture of touch to be the symbol of a holy, eternal bond guaranteed by a powerful system of transcendent values. However, in the world of Troilus and Cressida, the touch of hands, or more generally, a whole dispositive of human haptic encounters, has itself become the foundation of social relations. It is the human ‘five fingers’ that tie this new knot, and that account for the cohesion of the new collective in a more complex way. “[T]he ground upon which all our alliances [...] rest” has become more insecure, “the traditional bonds that once defined human relations are replaced,” writes Greene (“Shakespeare’s Cressida” 136).

Cressida’s liaison with Diomedes exposes what has already latently characterised her relationship with Troilus. Their “five-finger-tied” knot is not based on truth, but on falsity: “I will not keep my word” (V.2, 105), Cressida says to Diomedes, of whom Thersites claims that “[t]he sun borrows of the moon when [he] keeps his word” (V.2, 91–92). Their ‘bond’ does not suffer from this. On the contrary, as she had already confessed to Troilus, Cressida’s self is divided, and it is this division that makes her flirtation with Diomedes possible. Troilus is right to recognise two Cressidas when watching them flirting: “This she? No, this is Diomed’s Cressida.” (V.2, 144) “This is and is not Cressid” (V.2, 153). Both relationships are negotiated not by ‘true’ words but avouched by touch: ‘Diomed’s’ Cressida “strokes [Diomed’s] cheek” and ‘Troilus’ Cressida attempts to kiss the sleeve Troilus has given her as a token of their love. The knot between Cressida and Troilus is loosened when Diomed snatches the sleeve from her and thus prevents ‘their’ touching by kiss.

From the perspective of the ‘constant man’ Troilus, Cressida must appear a false woman because she does not keep her word and is unfaithful. As Paul Gaudet emphasises, literary criticism has long followed Troilus’ “masculinist ideology [...] that persistently stabilizes textual meaning by reifying, fixing Cressida” (126). Shakespeare’s play itself complicates the apparently clear-cut moral opposition of constant vs. false, however: the two are coded as two different modes of individuation, two different structures constituting the human as a social being. Stephen X. Mead is right to emphasise that “the verb to be [...] speaks [...] eloquently of Troilus’s world view” (254–255), the view of a world defined by fixed speech-acts maintaining the foundations of society, by stasis, by the complete absence of the dynamics of change and becoming.

Cressida, the woman of touch, is of a much more complicated (in)dividuation, “a desperately elusive character,” as Holly A. Crocker notes (308): she is, in herself, false – i. e. not constant and simple, but a composite of competing forces. Cressida is sensitive to the shifts and developments in her (social) surrounding. The sets of warring forces of which she is composed closely interact with the field of forces that she is embedded in as a social being. She is individuated by coming into touch with her changing environment. As a result, the concrete actualisation of her own composition of selves is subject to change, is constituted as time-sensitive.

“The bonds of heaven are slipped, dissolved and loosed”: Troilus’ statement does not so much describe a failed love as provide a striking analysis of the world of Troilus and Cressida. Cressida’s “fractions,” “orts,” her “fragments,” “scraps” and “bits” represent a world that has lost its wholeness; “The unit and married calm of states” has long been “divert[ed] and crack[ed], ren[t] and deracinate[d],” as Ulysses bemoans (I.3, 100; I.3, 99). The Greek and the Trojan war parties are split into conflicting fractions. Instead of planetary “fixure,” this world is characterised by “[c]ommotion” (I.3, 98). It is therefore Cressida’s talent for establishing social cohesion under these new circumstances that might soothe the diehards, the old reactionary “frights” and “horrors” facing the dynamics of a world that is about to become modern.[6]

2 “’Twere better she were kissed in general” – Closing the ranks and the openness of contingent touch

Shakespeare’s play also uses Cressida’s ‘displacement,’ her sudden transfer into the Grecian camp, to transfer her touching mode of social cohesion from the level of the individual to that of community. In the Greek camp, Cressida, all on her own, encounters the enemy – and immediately bonds with the Greek heroes – through the touch of lips.

“Our general doth salute you with a kiss” (IV.5, 20), Nestor comments on Agamemnon’s ‘welcoming’ Cressida with a gesture of touch – a gesture that Ulysses’ suggestion “’Twere better she were kissed in general” (IV.5, 22) extends to a sort of welcome ritual that involves the whole group of Greek heroes.[7] Feminist readers are certainly right to recognise in this procedure of welcoming the violent integration by appropriation of a female body into patriarchal society. Cressida is, like Helen, “a commodity within the circuit of exchange,” writes Carol Cook (38). However, Ulysses’ plan fails. Cressida herself explains and performs why touch as touch is not to be misunderstood as appropriation. Having ‘welcomed’ several heroes, she refuses to kiss Menelaus. By insisting on ‘his’ kiss, Menelaus gives Cressida the opportunity to take the floor and show her verbal prowess. Instead of ‘touching’ him with her lips, Cressida touches him with her tongue – in a linguistic way – by responding to his advances with rhyming replies that take control of the situation and outwit him in a spectacular fashion. Cressida is not as feeble and “defenceless” (Langis 23) as many, even feminist, readings take her to be: she is not, “like Helen,” an “innocent victim” (Okerlund 4), she can not and does not “only act the part of war trophy” (Crocker 325), she is not merely “the object by which men among other men judge their own value” (Vaughan 217), “her sexual allure” is not “the only power she has” (218) and, as the scene shows, she does not have to “accept concubinage to avoid rape” (Helms 38). Cressida does “turn[] to her only assets – her wit and personality and sex – to survive among the enemy commanders” (Okerlund 9): “By denying a kiss to Menelaus, Cressida counters the group act of appropriation and intimidation by reasserting control of her own body.” (Gaudet 138)

The main argument with which she confronts her rhetorical opponent exposes an important trait of the gesture of touch through kissing that is performed in the scene: Menelaus’ impatient request, “Lady, by your leave” (IV.5, 36), is countered by Cressida with, “In kissing, do you render or receive?” (IV.5, 36); Menelaus’ answer, “Both take and give” (IV.5, 38), at the same time disqualifies him from kissing (because he has, as a cuckold, proven not to give enough) and strengthens Cressida’s role in the whole scene: by declaring touch an ineluctably reciprocal gesture, she emphasises her own contribution to all the kissing done before.

Cressida’s verbal interventions performatively confirm the reciprocity of touch that she demands. Cressida even matches the smartest and wittiest of the Greeks, Ulysses, who joins the rhetorical battle of rhymes when Menelaus has arrived at his wits’ ends. “A woman of quick sense” (IV.5, 55), Nestor concludes. Ulysses comes to a similar but less positive or admiring judgment:

Ulysses: Fie, fie, upon her!

There’s language in her eye, her cheek, her lip,

Nay, her foot speaks; her wanton spirits look out

At every joint and motive of her body.

O, these encounterers, so glib of tongue,

That give accosting welcome ere it comes,

And wide unclasp the tables of their thought

To every tickling reader! Set them down

For sluttish spoils of opportunity

And daughters of the game. (IV.5, 55–64)

Ulysses, who initiated the “general” kissing, in the end has to fight hard to evade Cressida’s kiss. The scene of touch has got out of hand. His long tirade identifies Cressida as a threat to the very system of community which Ulysses wanted her to become a subject (or rather, an object!) of. Paradoxically enough, it is exactly the gesture of touch, the gesture he attempted to use as a means of subjugation, that turns out to be a dangerous alternative to the conventional, traditional – and patriarchal – way of organising social cohesion.

Cressida is dangerous, because she is an “encounterer”: she offers her whole body as a site for social con-tact, maximising the contact surface. Language, as a means of social interaction, is thus suspended or hypertrophically subverted, because it no longer follows the conventions of truth, of binding speech acts regulated by (patriarchal) traditions (cf. the right to speak first that Cressida mentions) – Cressida’s (body) language is dangerous, because it defies (male) control.

It would be imprecise to call the social relations that Cressida establishes social ‘bonds.’ They are not brought about by encapsulating, by imposing an outer boundary in a gesture of closure (binding, tying), they are not an effect of in- or exclusion. The social cohesion that Cressida impersonates is created through an opposing gesture. “Ulysses is repelled by what he sees as the bodily openness, the speaking flesh” (Cook 49). Instead of closure, it is opening up, exposing oneself, that causes a social connection: “encounterers” like her “wide unclasp the tables of their thought / To every tickling reader!” (Italics J. U.) Not bond but con-tact.

The significance of Cressida’s gesture is heightened by the circumstances of the scene: Cressida arrives as a stranger and representative of the enemy; it is striking that she so quickly comes into rather intense touch with the Greek heroes. The con-tact she establishes undermines or opens up a system of community that the play shows as outlived and corrupted, but that Ulysses attempts to restore: the unity of Greeks that is constituted by their fighting against the Trojan enemy. Whereas Ulysses’ idea of community follows the simple Schmittian logics of friend and enemy, Cressida is open to bond with “every tickling reader” (italics J. U.). It is touch and “opportunity” – that is to say con-tingency, not a pre-stabilised order of friend and enemy, that her modern notion of community is based upon. The mode of touch introduced to the audience by Cressida proves exemplary not only for the domain of love, but also for the field of war and the political or societal domain to which the play is also – and perhaps mainly – dedicated.

3 Call to arms – War and love

In Shakespeare’s play, Thersites, the “leering chorus” (Bevington 135), repeatedly impersonates the dramaturgical function of the ancient choir: he summarises and comments on the events of the fictional world, addressing his words directly to the audience. The second scene of act V may serve as an example of this. It ends with Thersites, alone on stage, summing up the gist of Troilus and Cressida: “Lechery, lechery, still wars and lechery; nothing else holds fashion.” (V.2, 201–202) “[W]ars and lechery” – these two words obviously refer to the two main storylines, the “interlocking plots of love and war” (Langis 4) that Shakespeare’s play combines: the Trojan war with the ensuing inner conflicts on the one hand, the love affair of Troilus and Cressida on the other. However, the opening of Thersites’ phrase, the pair of “lechery, lechery” that corresponds to the ensuing pair of “wars and lechery,” somehow undermines the clear-cut distinction: “war” is apparently embedded in lechery; the logic of correspondence between the two pairs rhythmically following each other, “Lechery, lechery, still wars and lechery,” implicitly associates “war” with lechery. Is the play about war and lechery – or does “war” turn out to be merely another variety of lechery?

Although the morally pejorative denotation dominates its meaning, the noun lechery carries interesting connotations: it is etymologically derived from the French lêcher, ‘to lick’ and thus signifies the habit of social encounters that are performed by touches of the tongue. In other words, the practice of lechery forms part of the social dispositive of touch. War, however, does not obviously involve the practice of kissing and licking. Nevertheless, “[t]he sexual and martial are inextricably linked,” not only in a metaphorical way, as Virginia Mason Vaughan suggests (215), or indirectly, as in Lorraine Helms’ argument, which puts forward that “[c]ombat is a form of intimacy, for it demands empathy to foresee and forestall the enemies’ maneuvers.” (34, italics L. H.) In the ancient or early modern version that Shakespeare’s play brings to the stage, war is still performed as an exchange of violent touches: of hits and blows, of strikes. By referring to Jean-Pierre Vernant, Unhae Langis points us to the fact that “the ancient Greek word meignumi for sexual union also meant to join and meet in battle” (3). Things are not too dissimilar with regard to the English language: as their semantic potential indicates, many martial, violent touches quite easily shift to signifying touches of love or erotic touches. Striking becomes stroking (cf. OED, “strike,” v. II.3) and hits and blows are common vocabulary for describing the sexual act, as Cressida herself demonstrates: “If I cannot ward what I would not have hit, I can watch you for telling how I took the blow – unless it swell past hiding [...]” (I.2, 258–260).

When Hector announces the challenge to a duel, he intends to fight with one of the Greek heroes, and the transition from love to war becomes explicit:

Hector: [...] Kind, princes, lords,

If there be one among the fair’st of Greece

That holds his honour higher than his ease,

That seeks his praise more than he fears his peril,


That loves his mistress more than in confession

With truant vows to her own lips he loves,

And dare avow her beauty and her worth

In other arms than hers; to him this challenge [...]. (I.3, 264–272)

At first, the theme of love merely appears to form part of Hector’s attempt to challenge the Grecians’ honour. Avowing and defending the beauty of one’s mistress belongs to the chivalric ideal[8] that Hector contests and therefore appears to be suitable as a rhetorical gauntlet. However, the explicit analogy of making love and making war to which Hector gives voice somehow surpasses the theme of honour for which it was supposed to serve as an argument: loving “more than in confession / With truant vows to her own lips” is not a statement of the ideal, the sacralised “bonds of heaven” (V.2, 161) – it signifies intimate body contact (which, as contact, is intrinsically “truant,” i. e. fleeting, time-sensitive): the touch of lips. This bodily contact is transferred to an apparently higher, nobler level: it is to be performed “[i]n other arms than hers.” On the one hand, this transference wittily replaces the human arms with the homonymous instruments of war; on the other, it substitutes the mistress’ caressing touch with another – the combatant’s violent strikes. This uncanny continuity of the bodily gesture of touch upstages the theme of “honour” and “praise” with which Hector’s challenge had begun. Cook calls this “the eroticization of combat: the ‘other arms’ are not only weapons but also the combatants’ own arms as they grapple in violent embrace.” (43) “[H]onour” and “praise” form the centre of a social dispositive, of a discursive system regulating social bonds and community that appears to be incompatible with the bodily notion of touch that continuously haunts Hector’s challenge. Touch, the embrace between lovers and enemies, emerges as a rivalling foundation of social bonds.

How “hollow” (I.3, 80) the dispositive of “honour” has become, not only so far as the Greek army is concerned but even with regard to Hector’s Trojan community, is shown an act later: the Trojan heroes discuss whether they should simply return Helena to the Greeks or continue the fighting and bloodshed. Troilus is the most outspoken of the pro-war faction – and his (only!) argument for re-establishing cohesion amongst the Trojan war party is “honour”: his eponymous constancy comes to the fore in his appeal “to stand firm by honour” (II.2, 68); Helena “is a theme of honour and renown” (II.2, 199) that brings with it the “advantage of a promised glory” (II.2, 204). Troilus directly dismisses objections that the peace faction (led by nobody less than Hector) lodge: according to Troilus, the new, humanist values of “reason and respect” (II.2, 49–50) that Hector invokes cannot match the old, absolute values of “[m]anhood and honour” (II.2, 47). However, Troilus’ ‘argument’ not only leans on the chivalric notion of individual honour and glory but entails an important implication for social cohesion and community. This implication emerges when Troilus praises “the goodness of a quarrel / Which hath our several honours all engaged” (II.2, 123–124). The “quarrel” has a positive effect that renders it ‘righteous’: it engages, it binds (cf. OED, “engage,” v. 4. a.) the several to form one – the end of the conflict threatens to dissolve the cohesion of the collective. Carl Schmitt famously declared this type of formation of unity, based on the conflicts of friends and enemies, to be the foundation of all political community: “The distinction of friend and enemy denotes the utmost degree of intensity of a union or separation, of an association or dissociation.” (Schmitt, The Concept of the Political 26)[9]

According to Schmitt, it is the confrontation of friend and enemy, of two collectivities of human beings that, at least potentially, fight and are willing to kill that constitutes the most intense degree of association.[10] Hector encounters the power and allure of this social mechanism. Even though he does not believe Troilus’ argument of honour and discovers other, personal motifs at play, he will finally agree to continue fighting. Hector’s voice was likely to have been met with approval among the early modern audience of London; he is the “proponent of rational prudence in the debate” (Langis 13); his rational, stoic argument countering Troilus’ is certainly the best in the rhetorical contest among the Trojan heroes:

Hector: The reasons you allege do more conduce

To the hot passion of distempered blood

Than to make up a free determination

’Twixt right and wrong; for pleasure and revenge

Have ears more deaf than adders to the voice

Of any true decision. [...] (II.2, 168–173)

However, in the end, it is he himself who announces the decision to continue the war. The question of fighting the enemy is obviously not one of rational argument. It follows different motives, as Schmitt writes: “There exists no rational purpose, no norm no matter how true, no program no matter how exemplary, no social ideal no matter how beautiful, no legitimacy nor legality which could justify men in killing each other for this reason.” (The Concept of the Political 49)[11]

The idea of war constitutes and defends an association of human beings. As Helms shows, Niccolò Machiavelli provided the early moderns with a precursor to Schmitt’s idea: “In the Proheme to The Arte of Warre, translated into English in 1560, Machiavelli argues that war is the foundation of public life and military structure society’s best model.” (31) Helms, however, also points us to another passage from Machiavelli’s work that indicates why Machiavelli is not a good reference for the ‘old’ model of society and social cohesion for which Ulysses and Troilus stand: “If one could change one’s nature with time and circumstance, fortune would never change” (Machiavelli 25). Helms rightly associates this maxim with Cressida; it is an antidote, a strategy to cope with the “infidelity of time” (Langis 26) that characterises the ‘modern’ world of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. It might be Hector’s tragic fault to remain constant and not “change [his] nature with time and circumstance” on this occasion – as we will see, he is in some respects close to Cressida’s (in)dividuation – that seals his own and the Trojans’ downfall.

Hector’s decision does not seem to be so much based on care for his personal honour but on concern about the cohesion of the collective: “For ’tis a cause that hath no mean dependence / Upon our joint and several dignities.” (II.2, 192–193) The social bond that the fight against the enemy ties is one of closure: it is about defining a collective identity against the enemy, against the foreign ‘other.’ The Schmittian mechanism of cohesion works by drawing borders and, in this way, instantiating a logic of in- vs. exclusion.

In Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, the foundation of this mechanism is shown to be collapsing, at the latest when Hector eventually fights his duel against Ajax. Their encounter stages a miniature of the war: two of the greatest heroes face each other, representing the hostile parties and fighting for their causes. However, the duel is somewhat displaced from the start: “The combatants being kin / Half stints their strife before their strokes begin.” (IV.5, 93–94), as Agamemnon puts it. In other words, the “real possibility of physical killing” (Schmitt, The Concept of the Political 33)[12] that Schmitt regards as the conditio sine qua non for the friend-enemy relation – and thus for the formation of a political community – is suspended.

The reason for this suspension is as interesting as it is significant: Ajax is related to Hector via an aunt that had been abducted by the Greeks – the Trojan abduction of Helena, the cause of the present strife and model, merely responds to this seizure as an act of revenge. The two parties prove not as strange, as ‘other’ to one another, as Schmitt would have enemies to be. It is more than questionable whether a closure capable of constituting a community can work with the groups being not as homogenous and exclusive as a clear-cut distinction of friend and enemy asks for. Moreover, Hector’s refusal to fight “to the edge of all extremity” (IV.5, 69) turns out not to be restricted to Ajax: Hector, “This blended knight, half Trojan and half Greek” (IV.5, 87), is known for sparing his enemies, as his “courtesy” with regard to his arch-enemy Achilles – who will only moments later contract his killing – spectacularly emphasises (cf. V.6, 14–22).

The duel with Ajax therefore stands as a model for the conflict as such, a quarrel that is an important catalyst for social cohesion. However, community is here not constituted by closure, that is, by closing ranks but, on the contrary, by opening up arms to the enemy. Instead of defending boundaries and defeating the threatening foe by a fatal, final touch of arm, the duel ends with a friendly, almost explicitly homoerotic gesture:

Hector: [...]

Let me embrace thee, Ajax.

By him that thunders, thou hast lusty arms!

Hector would have them fall upon him thus.

Cousin, all honour to thee! [They embrace.] (IV.5, 136–139)

“These homosocial relationships” are not simply “all analogues to the military hierarchy” as Helms suggests (32). What Cook has called “Hom(m)o-sexuality” (42) is, indeed, “repeated at the level of the war” (43), but it does not necessarily need “the mediation of a woman to ‘come by’ on another” (43). As Hector had prefigured in his challenge to the duel, it is indeed “[i]n other arms” than those of the mistress that social bonds will be ‘fought out’: the fact that the duel literally ends in Ajax’s “lusty arms” emphasises that the bond the two warriors tie does not essentially differ from the lovers’ knot. It is not about the individual or collective honour that is gained in competition by defeating or annihilating the other, it is not about closing ranks against the enemy. It is about opening up to the other. Admitting, allowing, suffering touch. War’s use of arms obviously offers an ambiguous, bistable figure: it instantiates an “extreme case” (Schmitt, The Concept of the Political 39), where the conflict between friend and enemy may find a lethal solution and, at the same time, a situation with the license, the necessity to touch, to approach the other’s body and thus ‘bond’ with him.

Hector’s gesture of touch multiplies after it has ended the duel; it spreads among the Greek camp as if by contagion. It obviously has nothing to do with the Trojan blood that circulates in Ajax’s veins and transgresses the boundary of friend and enemy. Hector embraces Ajax twice, and they shake hands before embracing both Menelaus and Nestor. Over the course of the scene, he also shakes Achilles’ and Diomedes’ hands (five-fingered-tied knots, so to speak) – only Ulysses somehow evades Hector’s friendly touch.

Agamemnon is certainly right in claiming that “The issue is embracement” (IV.5, 149) – touch as a catalyst for social relations, social con-tact, is the whole scene’s topic. The duel is not embedded by chance into two scenes of intense touching – not only by Hector’s tour of embraces and shaking hands through the Greek camp which follows – but also in the scene of Cressida’s arrival in the Greek camp, which “preludes the ritual exchange of embraces among the men themselves” (Cook 44).

The two scenes framing the duel clearly mirror each other. They are scenes of arrival and welcome, where representatives of the Greek and the Trojan war parties encounter each other on ‘Greek ground,’ so to speak, and have to establish a social relation that suspends or even transgresses the enmity they fight out on the battlefield. This is achieved in a similar way in the two episodes: by touch.

Shakespeare’s play presents its audience with two characters who defy this mode, two characters who are portrayed as phobic to touch: Troilus and Ulysses. It is no coincidence that the Trojan and the Greek watch the spectacle of Cressida’s adulterous flirting with Diomedes side-by-side. Although officially enemies in arms, they prove to be brothers in spirit, at least as far as their (reactionary) conception of social cohesion and organisation is concerned. In a prominent and much-discussed speech in the first act – I do not quite agree with Greene, who regards it as “the quintessential expression of the Elizabethan idea of order” (Language and Value 271) – at length, Ulysses explains his (outdated) vision of the ‘sane,’ the well-ordered state of the world: it is a world governed by “degree, priority and place” (I.3, 86) in which, analogous to the perfect and stable organisation of planets, each singular element finds its constant, authentic place. Compared to this model, the world of Troilus and Cressida is, from the beginning, ‘out-of-joint’:

Ulysses: What raging of the sea, shaking of earth,

Commotion in the winds, frights, changes, horrors,

Divert and crack, rend and deracinate

The unit and married calm of states

Quite from their fixure! (I.3, 97–101)

“[R]aging,” “shaking,” “changes” – it is “[c]ommotion,” the dynamics of (violent) movement that differentiates the present state of affairs from the planetary model characterised by eternal “fixure.” The “bonds of heaven” that Troilus notes to be slipped when Cressida binds her “five-finger-tied knot” with Diomedes clearly belong to the (old) social dispositive sketched out by Ulysses. Troilus, “truth’s authentic author to be cited,” must certainly be understood as the paradigmatic subject of this system. Given Troilus’ emphasis on manhood, Cressida accepted her place relative to his authentic male position when bonding with him. In this patriarchal system, her affair with Diomedes is a typical instance of what Ulysses classes as a “neglection of degree” (I.3, 127) which, in his opinion, characterises the corrupt, feverish state of the world.

“How could communities [...] / But by degree stand in authentic place?” (I.3, 103–108), Ulysses asks, and intends his apparently rhetorical question to campaign for the restoration of a bygone world. However, Cressida takes this question literally, and gives an unexpected answer: the community she founds might not be authentic, but the social dispositive of touch she embodies is nevertheless capable of initiating social relations and a certain social cohesion. Certainly, this cohesion works differently: touch does not tie eternal bonds – it carries the notion of time in its very concept, as touch. Touch is not to be understood as a desperate ‘grasping’; it knows of a beginning and an end. It is, as Ulysses reproaches the “encounterer” Cressida, dependent on “opportunity,” on con-tingency. The same holds true for the community of warriors that forms by embraces and handshakes when Hector is welcomed in the Trojan camp:

Agamemnon: What’s past and what’s to come is strewed with husks

And formless ruin of oblivion;‘

But in this extant moment, faith and troth,


From heart of very heart, great Hector, welcome. (IV.5, 167–172)

Furthermore, the community of touch is all but authentic. On the contrary – as Cressida’s knot five-finger-tied with Diomedes exhibits, it is based on falseness, on being and not being Cressida. Again, Hector’s performance of community confirms this model: when meeting the Greek heroes, Hector is at the same time deadly enemy and friend – both hospes and hostis – a paradoxical relation that subverts Schmitt’s clear-cut distinction.

The social dispositive of touch that Troilus and Cressida explores is based on a paradigm different from the one on which Schmitt grounded his theory of community. Whereas Schmitt posits the constellation of war, with its defining difference of friend and enemy in order to build a system of ex-/inclusion on this primary difference, Shakespeare decides for a primal scene of love:

Pandarus: [...] Love, love, nothing but love, still love, still more!

For, O, love’s bow

Shoots buck and doe.

The shaft confounds

Not that it wounds,

But tickles still the sore. (III.1, 109–114)

Although Pandarus’ song speaks of “love, love, nothing but love,” it nevertheless embeds war into the lechery it sings about: love’s “bow” and “shaft” introduce the war material, the “other arms,” whose touch carries the potential for lethal harm. However, the punchline of the song shifts this apparently violent touch to a pleasingly erotic one: “Yet that which seems the wound to kill” (III.1, 116) in fact receives sexual pleasure – the deaths that love’s bows and shafts cause turn out to be only little, orgasmic deaths. In order to fabricate this shift with rhetorical means, the song resorts to the phallic concept of penetration: the shaft metaphorically transforms into the male member that tickles sexually. This male connotation is, however, suspended by the framing logic of the song as such. Love’s arrows are shot from the middle, so to speak; they “[s]hoot[] buck and doe” (italics J. U.). Moreover, the shaft does not “wound[],” i. e. penetrate the flesh, but “confounds.” Tickling creates social cohesion between the two lovers by way of “confound[ing],” by ‘pouring together’ and creating a mix. The verb confound carries strong negative connotations, denoting destruction and failure. However, Pandarus’ song clearly contrasts the ‘male’ penetrative practice of wounding – unequivocally destructive and negative – with the ambiguous ‘female’ practice of tickling, a surface-phenomenon that confounds, “neglects degree,” that is certainly dangerous, but also proves to be a source of sexual pleasure and social cohesion.

Tickling and stroking, explicitly erotic touches, are a theme in the play, which guarantees that war is indeed embedded in ‘lechery’: Cressida’s caressing of Troilus and stroking of Diomedes mirrors the ‘touchy’ nature of Helena. Shakespeare draws her as a coquette, a “femme fatale” (Helms 36; Langis 2) an “encounterer.” Pandarus might tell a lie when he boasts that she has “tickled” Troilus’ chin (I.2, 131); the audience, however, experiences her on stage, flirting with Pandarus and presumably even touching his “fine forehead” (III.1, 102). Cressida and Helena are thus twin-figures; the male, armed and violent conflict is just interplay – war continues love, and only partially by other means. As Pandarus’ theorisation and Hector’s practice of war show, it need not only be about wounding and annihilating the other: violent encounters can shift to become tickling encounters, germs for social relations initiated by contingent touch, for con-tacts.

The violent, defensive move of closing the ranks, of excluding the stranger, the other – the enemy – and killing him is based on the constitution of an absolute difference (friend vs. enemy). This difference will eventually become an absolute, a final hierarchy, since in the essential “extreme case,” only one of the two parties will survive. By contrast, “tickling,” caressing and kissing are characterised by an inherent mutuality: in kissing (the same holds true for embracing) you “take and give,” Cressida explains; “love’s bow / Shoots buck and doe” (italics J. U.), Pandarus sings. However, as a paradigm for social cohesion, love generates much less stability than war, for several reasons: 1) There are no simple distinctions that structure the world of love (like enemy and friend), the conditions for successful relationships (“opportunity”) are much more complex and thus unforeseeable (cf. contingency) – they cannot as easily be discursively produced as the friend-enemy distinction. 2) Touch is time-sensitive and does not generate a stable, irreversible result, like the death of the enemy in war. The social relation it creates thus remains inherently uncertain. 3) Loving touch is always in danger of shifting back to violence. As caressing requires opening up, exposing oneself as its vital/essential condition, it makes one vulnerable to becoming the victim of malicious violence. This is why Schmitt confronts opponents of his theory, pacifists that attempt to develop a theory of community that dreams of a non-violent principle of social cohesion, with a simple argument: “It would be ludicrous to believe that a defenseless people has nothing but friends, and it would be a deranged calculation to suppose that the enemy could perhaps be touched [gerührt] by the absence of resistance.” (The Concept of the Political 53)[13]

“[T]he unmoored vulnerability of Cressida’s femininity” (Crocker 324) should not be misunderstood as merely a personal or structural weakness that is to be overcome. Feminists like Okerlund are certainly not wrong in emphasising “her vulnerable position” (13) among the Greek warriors – Shakespeare’s play, however, shows that Cressida is capable of exercising a certain power from this very vulnerability; she creates “an intensity of vulnerability that forcefully counters the empowering virtues of the warrior community” (Crocker 309). Vulnerability is thus not a personal weakness, or the weakness of her sex, but a key characteristic of the haptic mode of bonding, of establishing the social cohesion that Cressida advocates and embodies.[14]

Touch does not follow a calculable, mechanical logic: exposing oneself, offering the conditions for social, caressing touch does not guarantee a loving, touching answer. Touch cannot be enforced; it remains dependent on opportunity, on improbable mutual goodwill, on con-tingency. Exposing oneself to touch, trusting in touch, is therefore always dangerous.

Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida exhibits the frailty of the dispositive of touch with a tragic example: Hector’s death. He is killed by Achilles’ Myrmidons, in what has to be seen as a contract killing:

Achilles: Come here about me, you my Myrmidons;


And when I have the bloody Hector found,

Empale him with your weapons round about:

In fellest manner execute your arms.


It is decreed Hector the great must die. (V.7, 1–8)

Although Hector defeats Achilles on the battlefield (and spares him), Achilles does not back away from his cruel project of revenge for his intimate friend Patroclus. When he discovers Hector, who has already ceased fighting for the day and is unarmed, he calls on the Myrmidons to execute the plan: “Strike, fellows, strike!” (V.9, 10) At this very moment, Hector encounters Achilles, as he had encountered him the day before: Achilles had invited “the most valorous Hector to come unarmed to [his] tent” (III.3, 293). With this second encounter, Hector is again unarmed; “he is caught off guard in a state of gumnos” (16) as Langis writes, again resorting to a Greek concept which he takes from Jean-Pierre Vernant: “gumnos – a term which in this military context means ‘unarmed’,” but can also carry the meaning ‘exactly like a woman’ (Langis 15). In other words, it is Hector, who falls victim to “[t]he dangers of being in a feminine, unarmed state” (15), to the “unmoored vulnerability of [...] femininity” (15).

Hector’s defencelessness – “I am unarmed. Forgo this vantage, Greek.” (V.9, 9) – does not obviously “touch” Achilles. It is not “lusty arms” that Hector meets, but the violent, lethal material of war: arms not make him blush or encourage circulation – as loving touches do (“rub on!”) – but are intended to “empale” him, forever. It is not love’s life but war’s death that is Hector’s fate.

Although Pandar’s legendary formula (“[l]et all constant men be Troiluses, all false women Cressids, and all brokers-between panders!”) significantly divides up the two models of constancy and falseness along the lines of sex, the play undermines any reading that tries to extract a simple misogynistic message from it. Hamlet’s, “Frailty, thy name is woman” (Ham I.2, 146) does not reverberate in Troilus and Cressida without a decisive complication:[15] The ‘problem’ associated with femininity, frailty, is, as Hector’s fate shows, not a specifically female problem. On the contrary, frailty indicates a problem of the world that Shakespeare’s plays explore and analyse. Frailty derives from fragile, and is closely related to fragment, fraction, and therefore to the world of Troilus and Cressida, which consists of broken “scraps,” “bits” and “orts.” The opposite of ‘male’ simplicity and timeless fixity, Cressida’s female falseness, frailty and her individuation’s sensibility to time thus resonate with the ‘modern’ world: the early prototype of modern subjectivity that Shakespeare explores in Troilus and Cressida is decidedly ‘female.’ Its male, constant counterpart is an alien element, a remnant of an old order that has ceased to exist. The mourning for the loss of this simple male order may find expression as misogynistic aggression – it is nevertheless Cressida, Hector and their ‘female’ dispositive of touching fractions that the play is concerned with, and which brings the play into contact with early modern life.

Was Ulysses then right to shun touch? The gloomy end of Troilus and Cressida seems to support this standpoint. However, he is portrayed as a person ‘out of touch.’ Except for the cuckold Troilus, with whom he watches Cressida’s falling for Diomedes, Ulysses is isolated. Unlike Ulysses, Troilus at least looks toward some sort of future: he is spurred on by the motif of revenge. Ulysses’ focus is exclusively on the past. Shakespeare makes him the representative of a bygone world, whose restoration is but a vain fantasy. Troilus and Cressida stages a world “divert[ed], “crack[ed]” and “deracinate[d],” a world of dynamic “fractions,” of “raging” “commotion.”[16] Nostalgically conjuring up the bygone “unit and married calm of states,” or the “fixure” guaranteed by the “bonds of heaven,” does not help to establish social cohesion in this ‘new world.’ Although a dangerous and always imperfect solution, “another knot,” probably “five-finger-tied,” will have to create a new kind of social cohesion – social cohesion that does not know of eternal fixture or of transcendent stabilisation, that is not pre-figured by a simple system of regulating principles (“degree, priority and place,” family etc.). A radically improbable foundation of social relations, that is not based on a closed system but on the openness of con-tingent and ambiguous encounters – on con-tacts. A social dispositive of touch.

“Friends, there are no friends!” thus cried the dying sage;

“Foes, there is no foe!” – thus shout I, the living fool. (Nietzsche, Human, All-Too-Human 294; transl. altered J. U.)[17]

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Published Online: 2022-06-13
Published in Print: 2022-06-30

© 2022 Johannes Ungelenk, published by Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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