(In Classic English Drama, at least)
“The story of Cressida, for example, is connected to something important in my own life. Cressida’s story is the same as Juliet’s: each was able to spend only one night, her first night, with the man she loved before they were separated, before the world intervened to part them. To understand Cressida’s behavior, to relate it to probable behavior in “real life”, it is necessary to look at it from her viewpoint: if the world is made in so devilish a way that a girl can sleep with the man she loves only one night in her life before they are separated, then there are only two solutions: one, tragic, is suicide—that is Juliet’s solution; the second one is to become a whore. That is Cressida’s. There is no other, if you really understand what it is to be a young girl who loses her lover after her first night of lovemaking.
I once taught a course to a group of young guerillas in Warsaw; they were from the Communist party, from the People’s Army. They performed very dangerous tasks, terrorist attacks against the Gestapo; they were very heroic. Among my students was a young couple: she was a poet, he was a clever, beautiful boy. In this time that I knew them, they made love for the first time. He was killed the same week. A few weeks later, this beautiful young girl, who had been so innocent, began sleeping around. Later, when I read Troilus and Cressida, I understood it because of that girl.”
—Jan Kott, Famous Dramaturg
Feminists will commonly deplore the fact that any woman in a classic play who has sex outside of marriage becomes a whore. Not literally, of course, and not “actually”: instead, all of the other characters, and generally the play itself, know she is a whore. We, in our more enlightened time, say that sex itself is not whoredom; we talk about misogyny and the double standard. We say that this particular girl was sleeping around because of pain, like Jan Kott implies; and although neither we nor Jan Kott say this is really whoredom, the plays take a more severe view.
Really, though, sex itself does not confer whoredom in classic plays. What confers this whoredom is sex outside of a context of love
. Is Juliet a whore? Not by any means. Would she be a whore if Romeo and Juliet
were exactly the same, except for the lovers' marriage? Probably not. Is Cressida a whore? Not when she sleeps with Troilus; not until she goes into the Greek camp; not until Troilus stops loving her.
Is Annabella a whore? All the other characters in ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore know so, but to her brother Giovanni, she is not. He has slept with her, but he loves her. How could he love a whore? Because he loves her, she is not a whore. Soranzo, on the other hand, knows Hippolita is a whore, because he either no longer loves her or never loved her in the first place.
One could say Hippolita is a whore because she committed adultery. But look at other examples of “great lovers”. Helen and Paris? Adulterous, yes, and Helen was be-whored very early in the literature of the Trojan war, but early on they were considered to be great lovers. Helen was not a whore. Lancelot and Guenivere? Tristam and Isolde? All adulterous. None of them whores.
In fact being a whore has nothing to do with sex, or sex outside of marriage. Being a whore is contingent upon not being loved. We cannot say that the woman’s intentions have anything to do with her whoredom or lack thereof; after all, Hippolita did love Soranzo. But she is still a whore, of course. Being a whore means that a man who does not love you says you are one. Being a whore is entirely contingent on the man who looks at you, and whether he loves you (or believes that you acted from true love) or not.
Women can, to an extent, control whether they have sex or not (or if not, they can easily commit a face-saving suicide). They cannot control the love of the men around them. There is no way to escape whoredom.