The issue of women’s fidelity has been raised by authors of many times. The mystery of women has always remained unsolved by men, and their enigma has constantly inspired many poets and writers. There is no wonder that when the reason of some event remains unknown, people refer to it as “cherchez la femme” which means that the reason is always connected with some lady. In different times, outstanding writers have been praising different ladies, but the most important virtue of them has always remained the virtue of fidelity. However, no matter how successful many authors were in depicting the issues of women’s fidelity in their created work, there is hardly anyone who can object that Shakespeare’s heroines have ever been overcome. The heroines of some of his plays are considered the patterns of virtue which the world never stops being amazed at. At the same time, Shakespeare has managed to depict a completely opposite image of an unfaithful lady who breaks the man’s heart. Perhaps, the most outstanding character which Shakespeare praised in his works is Desdemona, whose fidelity and love for their husband will serve as ideals of virtue for people of all times. With the image of Cressida, Shakespeare emphasizes that there are not only ideal and romantic ladies in the world, as he introduces an antagonistic central image of a women in his play.
The impressive scope and sophistication of “Othello” and “Troilus and Cressida” attract the reader’s attention from the first words. In an engaging and accessible style they show the main events which happened in the life of the main characters. However, the main issue raised by the plays is the praise for love which is the greatest blessing for every person. In “Troilus and Cressida” the ideals of love get totally rejected by Cressida. “Othello” is the scene of complete fidelity which Desdemona shows. They are completely different characters, and they represent opposite features. The whole world appreciates Desdemona’s virtue of fidelity, while everyone objects to Cressida’s treachery.
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It’s very important to mention that both heroines help Shakespeare to depict the main themes of his plays. Every character in the plays bears some portion of the main theme but since female characters have always been important in Shakespeare’s created work, Desdemona and Cressida both carry a very important load in the plays. By introducing the heroines in his plays, Shakespeare leaves a message for the readers about the human behavior in the world. In some cases, people serve the ideals of honor until the last days while other people give those ideals up at the first hard moment.
“Othello” and “Troilus and Cressida” both deal with the themes of honor, value, and worth. However, both heroines play different roles in the development of these themes. If in “Othello” Desdemona appears to be the symbol of honor and moral values, in “Troilus and Cressida” Cressida is an antagonist whose actions have no honor and who prefers her life to be designed for the body pleasures rather than for sacrifices for her beloved. For Desdemona, honor is the most important virtue in life, and she spends every second of her life struggling for it until she dies. For Cressida, there is no such a thing as honor or value because she was never introduced to them. If in “Othello” Desdemona serves as one of the characters who cherish honor, together with Othello, Brabantio and other characters, in “Troilus and Cressida” Cressida appears an opposite to the noble men who are depicted in the novel. The warriors depicted in the novel are full of honor and they treasure it the most. For example, Hector asserts the primacy of honor over life and prefers to die in the name of honor while failing to recognize the dependence of others on his life. Other warriors also put honor as the main reason for their lives, and make sure they never give up those ideals. Cressida neglects all the ideals which other characters in the play share, and thus Shakespeare manages to say that the realities of the world sometimes do not answer the expectations of people.
In contrast to Cressida, Desdemona’s values totally answer Shakespeare’s theme of honor and value. She is depicted by Shakespeare as a pure and innocent young woman who is very faithful to her husband, and who has got all her morals and values from her family. The image of Cressida represents a paradox in Shakespeare’s plays: while most of the female characters in his other plays are protagonists, Cressida’s evil features make her an antagonist, and her actions in the play all have a negative color. Cressida plays one of the main roles in the play, but she doesn’t become the pattern of virtue like women in other Shakespeare’s plays. On the contrary, Cressida represents the evil which lives in the world. With the help of her image Shakespeare ruins the belief that all the women are similar to his Juliet and Desdemona because the reality of the world it very far from being perfect.
Another important theme which is raised in “Troilus and Cressida” is the theme of conflict between appearance and reality. Cressida appears to be a beautiful young lady who I supposed to have equally beautiful moral values and be faithful to her beloved. However, appearance only deceives Troilus because Cressida turns out very unfaithful and cheats on him as soon as she has a chance. This leads us to the conclusion that reality is very different from what it appears to people, and one has to be careful about judging from the first impression of people. Beautiful appearance might not answer the evil essence of the person. In “Othello”, Desdemona’s character appears to be as virtuous as her appearance, and all her actions show that the external qualities are just as good in her as the external ones. The character who shows the conflict of appearance and reality appears to be Othello himself because in this hero Shakespeare shows how a noble and brave heart can beat in the body of an older black man against whom lots of people of that time could have prejudice.
A very important theme of the plays deals with love and sex, and Desdemona and Cressida play the main role in developing this theme in the plot. Love and lechery feature powerfully in both the strands of “Troilus and Cressida”. Even though there are some other equally important trends in the novel, at the center of the Trojan War there appear to be two women who are fought over, enjoyed, and abused. One of them is Helen, another one is Cressida. Both of these heroines don’t answer the ideals of virtue of their times because they were looking for more love even after they made a commitment. The purpose of Shakespeare’s introduction of such characters into the play is depicting the reality of that time and morals which were common for women. The situation in which they found themselves could only lead them to being unfaithful because they were too weak and unwilling to give all of themselves to just one man. On the contrary, in “Othello” Shakespeare develops a completely different image of a woman who is totally faithful to her husband.
Desdemona and Cressida have very different fates, and they start their relationships from different starting points. To some extent, it determines their attitude to the men to whom they are committed. Cressida meets Troilus, and realizes that he is deeply in love with her at once after he got acquainted with her. In the beginning of the relationship, she doesn’t know how to behave, and prefers to show indifference. She argues that this is the best policy for a woman because in a while the man might get bored by her if she shows her love for him:
Words, vows, gifts, tears, and love’s full sacrifice,
He offers in another’s enterprise…
Men prize the thing ungain’d more than it is:
That she was never yet that ever knew
Love got so sweet as when desire did sue.
Therefore this maxim out of love I teach:
Achievement is command; ungain’d, beseech:
Then though my heart’s content firm love doth bear,
Nothing of that shall from mine eyes appear.
(“Troilus and Cressida”, Act 1, Scene 2).
However, Cressida cannot play that role for a long time because she has feelings, too. In some time, Cressida gets a chance to talk to Troilus, and after hearing about his deep love for her, she finally agrees to admit she loves him:
Prince Troilus, I have loved you night and day
For many weary months. (“Troilus and Cressida”, Act 3, Scene 2)
There is no doubt about the sincerity of Cressida’s words after the night she spent with Troilus because she is totally happy with him, and does not ever want to leave him. However, fate decides in a different way, because while Cressida is lying in bed with Troilus, her father already has agreed to exchange her for a warrior. Cressida’s tragedy is that her feelings didn’t have time to become ripe. She gets parted with her beloved man very soon, and she doesn’t get a chance to learn how to be faithful to Troilus. The irony of the play is that in different circumstances, Cressida could become an ideal of virtue like Desdemona or any other heroine Shakespeare praises in his works. However, the circumstances made Cressida weak, and showed her negative side. Shakespeare gave just one night to the lovers to check their feelings. Troilus had a strong and deep love for Cressida, while she was not ready for a serious relationship yet. Cressida appears a foil for Shakespeare’s protagonist in another play Desdemona, but is it possible to know how any other character would act in Cressida’s circumstances?
However, there is no way to excuse Cressida’s treachery. As soon as she gets into the camp of Greek warriors, she starts flirting with them, and those words which she was saying to Troilus just a short time ago are now being said to Diomedes and other Greek warriors. Troilus gets heart-broken when he hears Cressida whisper into Diomedes’ ear: “Now, my sweet guardian! Hark, a word with you” (“Troilus and Cressida, Act 5, Scene 2). The culmination of the Cressida’s treachery occurs when she gives Troilus’ present to Diomedes with the words: “’Twas one’s that loved me better than you will. But, now you have it, take it.” (“Troilus and Cressida”, Act 5, Scene 2). Cressida’s character doesn’t allow her to show all the faithfulness which Troilus was expecting from her.
Desdemona’s story is very different. Unlike Cressida, she comes from a very wealthy and respected family. Desdemona has already had many suitors, and it wasn’t very easy to impress her. She is very beautiful and has a rich father who is a senator, that is why many men were trying to conquer her heart. However, among such a large number of men Desdemona didn’t see anybody who was good enough to win her heart. No matter how many white noble people were trying to win Desdemona’s affections, she chose a Moor Othello who impressed her by his outstanding character and values.
Desdemona’s feeling for Othello was very mature. If Cressida was playing around with Troilus and did not know what a commitment was about, Desdemona was weighting everything very carefully. Cressida was looking for a hero whom she could be attracted to, she didn’t care about the mind of her lover. For Cressida, it was only important for the man to have had many deeds, she did not care about his soul. On the contrary, Desdemona was looking for someone who would satisfy her mentally and emotionally. Her love for Othello didn’t appear during the first moment when she saw him because he was far from being handsome. Desdemona’s feeling had to get ripe, and it took her a while. She had to listen to many stories which Othello had to tell her about how he was traveling. Desdemona loved to hear him tell her the story of his adventures which he would run through from the earliest recollection- the battles, the sieges, the encounters which he had to pass through. She was amazed to hear how Othello was sold to slavery, how he demeaned himself in that state, and how he escaped. All those stories made Desdemona realize that Othello was the husband she has always dreamt of.
Other important themes mentioned in the plays are the themes of authority, hierarchy, decision making and the consequence of these decisions for particular individuals which are most vividly depicted in “Troilus and Cressida” but are also developed in “Othello”. The reason of Cressida’s unfaithfulness can easily be seen in the decision of her father to exchange her for a warrior. This deed leads her to the future unfaithfulness to Troilus as she appears far away from him. For Desdemona, the mentioned issues also play a very important role because she has to deal with the world’s opinion of her husband and fight against the prejudices which existed in the world at that time.
The issue of Desdemona’s fidelity to her beloved man is tested by obstacles which appear in her way. In this respect it’s possible to see how different she is from Cressida. Cressida stops caring about Troilus as soon as she gets into the Greek camp, and realizes they will not be together. She doesn’t want to fight for her love because she has an evil and weak character. It’s much easier for her to betray the man whom she said vows to than to wait for him. Desdemona’s situation appears even more threatening because she marries a man who has a completely different color of skin from her, and who is older. However, she doesn’t give up in front of obstacles. Even though for Desdemona, Othello is the most wonderful man in the world, the objection of the world influences her fate very much. Neither Othello’s color nor fortune were such that it could be hoped that Brabantio would accept him for a son-in-law. The senator left his daughter free, however, he was expecting that Desdemona would make a choice good enough for the lady of her rank and title. He was heart-broken to find out that Desdemona chose Othello, even though he was black, and devoted her heart and fortunes to his valiant parts and qualities. Desdemona doesn’t consider it an obstacle for her that Othello is very far from the image of the ideal which her Father and the society were doing their best to put into her consciousness. She made her choice of loving Othello, and remained completely faithful and loyal to him for the rest of her life.
The fidelity of Desdemona is shown in all her actions. Desdemona has to go through situations when her total love and faithfulness to Othello have to fight against people’s prejudices. Everybody thinks that Othello has applied some magic to get her affections, and at the court trial Desdemona has to protect her love. Even though everybody is against her and just one word of her is enough to make Othello guilty, Desdemona totally believes in her love, and is going to defend it in any way she can.
I did love the Moor to live with him,
My downright violence and storm of fortunes
May trumpet to the world: my heart’s subdu’d
Even to the very quality of my lord:
I saw Othello’s visage in his mind;
And to his honors and his valiant parts
Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate. (“Othello, Act 1, Scene 3).
Desdemona makes a point that nothing will ever make her betray her love because she knows that she loves Othello, and he loves her. Othello doesn’t appear as Desdemona’s foil in the play, on the contrary he is depicted as a noble man who can love with lots of passion. He cannot be regarded as an antagonist in the play because he has many good qualities for which Desdemona loves him, and is going to be faithful to him. In order to give a full picture of her devotion to Othello, Desdemona adds that she wants to go to any place with Othello. It’s not because he was using some magic on her, but because she truly loves him. If he has to go to Cyprus, then she will just follow him everywhere. Desdemona says:
So that, dear lords, if I be left behind,
A moth of peace, and he go to the war,
The rites for which I love him are bereft me,
And I a heavy interim shall support
By his dear absence. Let me go with him. (“Othello”, Act 1, Scene 3)
Desdemona’s love finishes with a tragedy because she was guided by fate in their life. The reason of the tragedy is awful misunderstanding, owing to which the heroine dies. Her husband, who was totally in love with her, was deceived by wicked Iago. Desdemona remains completely pure during the whole play, and never does any single action which could give her husband a reason to get jealous. When Othello tells her he is going to kill her, Desdemona cries in agony:
And have you mercy too!–I never did
Offend you in my life; never lov’d Cassio
But with such general warranty of heaven
As I might love: I never gave him token. (“Othello”, Act 5, Scene 2).
After she is right about to pass away, Desdemona says that it was she who killed herself. Desdemona dies as a totally innocent wife. She is so completely in love with her husband that she doesn’t even want anybody to consider him a murderer after she dies:
Nobody; I myself. Farewell:
Commend me to my kind lord: O, farewell! (“Othello”, Act 5, Scene 2).
The issues of women’s fidelity raised by William Shakespeare offer us an outstanding opportunity for analysis. Desdemona’s faithfulness and loyalty to their husband can be considered the greatest examples of women’s fidelity in world literature. She represents the strength of the women’s character which stands for unconditional love for her husband. Cressida represents women’s weaknesses because she is unable to fight with her desires, and shows her evil self. She betrays her beloved man, and thus ruins any possibilities of a happy future for them. Desdemona had the ideals which were high enough for her to stand in the highest pedestal so that everybody can admire her. She dies at the end of the play, but the ideal which she represents will never die. She will be able to remain symbol of virtue of all times for mankind. Just like in “Romeo and Juliet” a statue was raised for pure and faithful Juliet, such a statue could be raised for Desdemona as well. No statue will ever be raised for Cressida, and her image will vanish into thin air. At the same time, Desdemona will always reflect the mankind’s ideal of fidelity which has to be implemented in the present world for the sake of its future prosperity.