William Shakespeare wrote a huge number of plays in his life, most of which are categorized as a comedy, history, tragedy, or romance. While most are not strictly any single one of these, the designation of a play as belonging to one of these categories can change how one reads the work. Troilus and Cressida, one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known works, is one usually deemed a comedy. In it, the two lusty young characters for whom the play is titled find themselves coming together and then being torn apart by circumstances connected with the ever-continuing Trojan War.
One of Shakespeare’s more famous tragedies is Othello, the Moor of Venice, in which jealousy, manipulation, and an insatiable hunger for power culminate in the death of nearly all of the main characters by the fall of the curtain. While these two plays are seemingly unrelated, they have similar components that are subtly used to expose the true natures of their characters. In relation to the monumental events that come to pass between characters in each of these plays, the love tokens they give one another may initially seem to be of only minor importance, crucial only to the plot as they change hands and intents.
However, the underlying meanings of the tokens are an integral component to an understanding of each individual character as well as how he or she regards the person to whom the token is given. The events that transpire surrounding these items shed a telling light on the characters in each play and the relations that develop among them. In Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare plays with two lovers who, once they are finally able to act on their feelings for one another, are separated by a trade-off of prisoners of war between the Greeks and the Trojans.
Cressida, who lives in Troy but whose father is a Greek, has been deemed an even trade for the Trojan prince Antenor who was captured by the Greeks in battle. This bartering of people between the sides is a bit ironic, as Troilus and Hector earlier in the play refer to Helen as goods (2. 2. 68-96) passing between kings turned merchants (2. 2. 83). In their discussion of her, they allude to her as spoiled silks being returned to the merchant (2. 2. 69-70), a blatant reference to Helen’s soiled honor.
The decision to trade Cressida for Antenor and, consequently, the trade itself, transpire the morning after Troilus and Cressida spend the night together. She is, like Helen, tarnished goods being returned. As Troilus evaluates the tragedy of their affair: We two, that with so many thousand sighs Did buy each other, must poorly sell ourselves With the rude brevity and discharge of one. (4. 4. 39-41) In these lines, Troilus manages to imply the dearness with which their encounter was awaited and the cheap and quick way it has ended by using the words “buy” and “sell,” thus assigning their affair a finite monetary value.
Directly before the trade is to be made and Cressida handed over to the Greeks, she and Troilus exchange vows of their loyalty and undying love for one another and then tokens as tangible representations of these sentiments. Because they do this only when it is evident that they will separated forever, it is particularly fascinating to note exactly what objects they choose to give to one another: Troilus gives Cressida a sleeve and she gives him a glove. Each of these tokens, while common enough as an object to exchange as a remembrance (footnote, 4. 4. ), carries with it certain images and connotations of only superficial and temporary loyalty.
First and foremost, each of these is only useful as part of a pair. There is no purpose in having only one glove or having only one sleeve. Therefore, if nothing else, they are both symbols of an incomplete and pointless promise. They are only the shells, the mere suggestions of hands and arms, where hands are for giving in marriage and swearing oaths and arms are for embracing and fighting in honorable battles (it should be noted that, as he fights defends the cause of the thieving Paris, Troilus does not).
The token of the sleeve given by Troilus to his beloved Cressida is therefore a mere shadow of the arms with which he should be embracing her and defending her honor. Similarly, the glove which Cressida bestows upon Troilus is a superficial promise to be truean empty, unsubstantiated vow which she arguably never intends to fulfill. When Pandarus greets Troilus the first time he arrives at Cressida’s, he partially quotes a legal formula commonly used in establishing a contract between parties (3. 57-8).
However, he breaks off in mid-sentence to bid Troilus enter while he orders a fire for the bedroom. The phrase which Pandarus omits is the part of the verbal contract which refers to the exchange of “hand and seal” (footnote, 3. 2. 57-8). This serves as a suggestion of the marriage which will never occur as well as affirms the fact that the one event of importance to these three characters is merely a sexual encounter between Troilus and Cressida.
Having left off in the midst of talking about a permanent situation between them in favor of inviting Troilus in and kindling a fire in the bedrooma reference to the flames of passionPandarus has, in effect, foregone any obligation that the ensuing encounter would, under “typical” circumstances have been a result of. When a woman’s hand was given in marriage, she became the possession of the man to whom it was symbolically given. A lady’s hand, in being given to a man, is a symbol of both her status as his property and a legal and binding contract between them for her to remain so.
Upon the trade of Cressida for Antenor being decided, Aeneas explains to Troilus that “We must give up to Diomedes’ hand/ The Lady Cressida” (4. 2. 67-8). A hand is not only a possession, if it is a woman’s, but it is also that which possesses, if it is a man’sin this case Diomedes’. When Cressida, assumed by Troilus to be his in sexual conquest, is given over to the Greeks he remarks, “At the port, lord, I’ll give her to thy hand,/ And by the way possess thee what she is” (4. 4. 111-112).
Again, Troilus alludes to Cressida as a commodity, calling into question just how adamantly opposed to the trade he is. While he merely means to tell Diomedes to keep his eye on her, Troilus is very blatant in his use of the word “possess” which serves to strengthen the attitude he has towards her as an object to be owned. A glove however, without a hand by which one swears one’s honor and word, carries with it several suggestions that add depth to Cressida’s decision to give it as a love token to Troilus.
One image that is seen throughout time in countless portraits of aristocrats and monarchs, is that of the powerful land-owning, ruling man holding his gloves in one hand. This has always been a symbol of a man’s dominion over his property. Thus, the fact that Cressida is giving her glove to Troilus may seem to be a submission to him as dominating her. However, this idea can be immediately contradicted by the similarly familiar expression of throwing one’s glove to someone.
This expression, referred to in the exchange scene by Troilus, is the declaration of a direct challenge (4. 4. 63). Cressida, by giving him the glove could be making a bet with him, challenging him, to remain true. She does not believe that he will keep his promise because, as she remarks earlier, “They say all lovers [vow] more than the perfection of ten and [discharge] less than the tenth part of one” (3. 2. 83-6). Here she has implied that, at the very least, he will make a half-hearted attempt, perhaps only a superficial attempt, at keeping his word to her.
Perhaps she does not intend to keep hers, as she has only given him the shell, or superficial implication of her hand, thus, in a way telling him that he can possess the glove but not herthat her heart is not in her words, just as her hand is not in the glove; both are insubstantial. One may wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve, one may hold it out in one’s hand. Does it ever make its way into one’s hand in the form of a handkerchief? Indeed, Shakespeare manages to place it there in Othello. Previous to the time frame encompassed by play, Othello, while courting his now-wife Desdemona, gave her a handkerchief.
On the handkerchief are strawberries embroidered on a white background (3. 3. 450). Not only do strawberries resemble a heart in both color and shape, and not only are strawberries a commonly known aphrodisiac (an appropriate stencil for a love charm), but these particular strawberries were woven of silk from sacred worms which was then colored with dye derived from the hearts of mummified maidens (3. 4. 75-6). In other words, every aspect of the handkerchief is entirely pure and holy in its components yet sensuous in its subject matter.
In this way, the hankerchief can represent Desdemona and her honest and pure sensuality (1. 3. 257-62). However, the visual image the description of the token createsthat of a white ground spotted with redalso suggests tainted purity, thus reminding the reader of the unused wedding sheets of Othello and Desdemona. Blood is a constant image in the speech of all characters in the play and with each reference, it takes on a slightly different meaning. Primarily, one is aware that blood connotes a tainted, stained, or dishonest nature in someone.
For instance, when Desdemona tries to defend her honesty (i. : chastity) against Othello’s accusations toward the end of the play, she says “I hope my noble lord esteems me honest,” to which Othello replies “O, ay, as summer flies are in the shambles,/ That quicken even with blowing” (4. 2. 67-9). In his reply to how honest and chaste he deems her, Othello compares Desdemona to an image of flies living in a slaughterhouse in the summer heatliving on bloody, rotting (read: corrupt) flesh, which is bloated with maggots. The description of blood-covered flesh full of maggots is how Othello sees the filth of disloyaltybloody and impregnated.
This image of a body filled with flesh-eating larvae is reminiscent of a description Iago gives of jealousy personified. In that excerpt, he warns Othello “O, beware, my lord, of jealousy. / It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock/ The meat it feeds on” (3. 3. 178-80). This all-consuming double image of sin and jealousy as things festering in and living off of the characters in which they take root implies the corruption not of the bodies inhabited but the lies with which their minds are obsessedeach image imbued with an implication of blood and passion.
What is fascinating is the transformation through which the meaning of blood goes with a completely different reading of the play. In a way, Desdemona’s honor is maintained and her purity and virtue emphasized. The man who manipulates Othello to the point of killing her is Iago. The first word Iago utters in the play is ” Sblood” (1. 1. 4), a contraction of the saying “by His (Christ’s) blood” (footnote, 1. 1. 4).
This helps to set an initially sacred ground for the significance of blood. In addition, this play more than others employs the expression “Zounds” (1. 88, 111, etc. ), a contraction of “by His (Christ’s) wounds” (footnote, 1. 1. 88). The wounds Iago inflicts on the character of Desdemona are not actual physical wounds, but the figurative blood she sheds as a result could be equated with the wounds and blood of Christ, as it is pure and virtuous. In one scene, while Othello repeatedly demands the handkerchief of Desdemona she ignores him, pleading Cassio’s case. Othello becomes enraged and leaves, frustrated and angry, with an exasperated cry of “Zounds! ” (3. 4. 100).
The placement of the expression in this context seems to imply Desdemona’s innocence even as she asks after her supposed lover and is questioned as to the whereabouts of the symbolic little token. Perhaps, subconsciously, Othello knows that she is not at fault and is still honest. Even at the brink of mental and emotional collapse because of the confusion he has as to Desdemona’s honesty, Othello uses this expression again when questioning whether or not Cassio has slept with her: “Lie with her? Lie on her? We say, lie on her’ when they belie [slander] her. Lie with her? Zounds, that’s fulsome [foul]” (4. 35-7).
In this segment, Othello is debating whether or not his wife participated in dishonest deeds with Cassiothe use of “with”or whether it is merely an accusation flung upon herthus, “lie on her”in which case she is not guilty, but passive and helpless. Yet again, his use of “Zounds” brings into question whether or not he is truly convinced of Desdemona’s involvement in a sordid affair with Cassio. He is not sure whether the wounds which result from the first intercourse of a virgin have been incurred, or whether she is still virtuous and pure as Christ, inflicted with wounds of slander.
It is perhaps because of this idealized image of her, which he has maintained in his subconscious, that he chooses to smother her in bed. Chopping her “into messes [bits]” (4. 1. 199), as he had originally thought to kill her, would have shed her blood by way of his penetrating her flesh with a blade, implying that this blood-shed would be the first for her and caused by his hand. This is why he kills her as he does wishing that she “Be thus when thou art dead” (5. 2. 18). He wants her to remain as he sees her thenno blood near her on the sheets nor staining her ivory skin.
Not only this, but he also implies that in death she cannot give into further temptation and will cause him no anxiety or jealousy. Only in her death will he be sure of her honesty to him. Both of these plays display a large degree of tragedy. In Troilus and Cressida, there is tragedy in the separation of the two lovers, in the careless manner with which they spout off their vows, and in the quick change of affections when Cressida betrays Troilus and runs to the arms of Diomedes.
In Othello, the tragedy is pervasive and nearly every turn of events is steeped in it. Yet in both, the tragedy is strangely comical in that the emotions of the main characters are swayed so quickly by the course of events surrounding such seemingly insignificant things as a glove, a sleeve, and a handkerchief. Even in this comedy of trinkets, and in the overwhelming importance of them, one is made aware of the trivial and fickle nature of characters so vulnerable because of these objects.
Each object is weighted with implications of temporality and connotations of disloyalty that seem out of proportion to their physical size yet match their control over the plots and the affections of the characters involved. One can find ulterior motives, discreet subplots, blatant insincerity and lack of trust in each token and the characters who both give and suspiciously receive them. The tokens reveal the inner thoughts of the characters in the cleverest of ways and are truly an achievement in sub-textual motivations.