Cressida, Isabella & Helena: Three Problematic Heroines

Shakespeare, Machiavellian Prudence and Integrity


David Hurley

A Presentation for the Shakespeare & Modern Authors Society


September 2015


My paper will look at how prudential considerations place pressure upon the apparent integrity of various characters and the responsive strategies which those characters – and Shakespeare in his representation of them – adopt in adapting to, or resisting, or yielding to the circumstances which confront them.

For the purposes of this paper I will focus mainly on the three so-called “problem plays,” Troilus and Cressida (1602),  Measure For Measure (1603-4), and Alls Well That Ends Well (1604-6), and in particular on the three female characters, Cressida, Isabella and Helena. The “problem plays” appear in the middle of Shakespeare’s career as a playwright, emerging from the dark aftermath of the Essex rebellion in 1601, the death of Queen Elizabeth and the peaceful accession of James Stuart to the English throne in 1603.

Shakespeare’s evolving engagement with problems of integrity and prudence is quite distinct from traditional Aristotelian conceptions of virtue on the one hand, and from the emerging religious puritanism of the age in which he lived, on the other; Shakespeare’s engagement with integrity and prudence, or practical wisdom, is closer in its pragmatic and rhetorical flexibility to Machiavelli’s engagement with virtù and fortuna in The Prince and Mandragola. Shakespeare adopts rhetorical methods of presentation such that, as John Roe notes in the opening chapter of Shakespeare and Machiavelli,

positive heroes too might make use of Machiavelli to obtain their ends.

(p. 1)

Prudence… or Practical Wisdom?

Adaptability to changing circumstances in human affairs is the concern of prudence, or practical wisdom. The Greek term for prudence, or practical wisdom, is phronesis. Eugene Garver notes in Machiavelli and the History of Prudence that the two possible translations suggest two different meanings of phronesis, in which,

“prudence” contains connotations of virtue – that is, of praiseworthy ability connected to character – while “practical wisdom” or “practical reason” suggests a more detached skill whose operation can be identified apart from the characters who use it and the purposes they use it for.

(Garver, p. xi)

Aristotelian Prudence

Aristotle offers a definition of phronesis in Nichomachean Ethics in which prudence,

… cannot be scientific knowledge or art; not science because that which can be done is capable of being otherwise, not art because action and making are different kinds of thing. The remaining alternative, then, is that it is a true and reasoned state of capacity to act with regard to the things that are good or bad for man. For while making has an end other than itself, action cannot; for good action itself is its end.

For Aristotle, prudence is an intellectual virtue which itself provides the means for achieving virtuous goals:

The work of man is accomplished in accordance with phronesis and moral virtue; virtue ensures that the aim is right, and phronesis the means to the aim.

(quoted by Guthrie, p. 347)

Aristotelian prudence, then, might be defined as that virtue which enables a virtuous man to maintain integrity while dealing with the contingent in pursuit of the good.

Machiavellian Animo

Machiavelli, as Harvey Mansfield notes in Machiavelli’s Virtue, “expands the realm of prudence” far beyond Aristotle’s definition. For Machiavelli, a prudent course of action is that in which the actor responds to the contingent necessities of a given situation with animo, a kind of vital energy which “is the raw material of virtù,” (Mansfield, p. 40) such as is displayed in Shakespeare’s comedies by a Petruchio or indeed a Helena, as we shall see. Animo is,

the spirit of self-defense that paradoxically can lead to the risking of one’s life for the sake of saving one’s life. Cool reason will not suffice to carry out a prudent action on its own but needs the – rationally dubious – assistance of a fiery temperament. That temperament exacts a price of unreason, which Machiavelli is willing to pay.

(Mansfield, p. 40)

Mansfield emphasizes that Machiavellian animo manifests itself as,

spiritedness in defense of one’s body, as what most belongs to oneself. It is not soul (anima)…

(p. 40)

“Spiritedness in defense of one’s body,” and its impact upon one’s integrity, is a necessary concern for each heroine under consideration in this paper.

“Moderate” versus “Moral” Integrity

In the eighteenth chapter of The Prince, Machiavelli sums up the problem faced by those who seek to follow a policy of good faith and integrity in a world in which men “are bad and would not observe their faith with you.” He writes,

How laudible it is for a prince to keep good faith and live with integrity (mantenere la fede e vivere con integrità), and not with astuteness, everyone knows. Still the experience of our times shows those princes to have done great things who have had little regard for good faith, and have been able by astuteness to confuse men’s brains, and who have ultimately overcome those who have made loyalty their foundation.

In her book, Hypocrisy and Integrity: Machiavelli, Rousseau, and the Ethics of Politics, Ruth W. Grant notes that “Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure treats the necessity of hypocrisy in politics in this way,” and observes,

In a world where men are not good, those who attempt to adhere strictly to moral standards in their political actions may find that the consequences are far worse in ethical terms than they would have been had they allowed themselves the use of immoral political means.

(Grant, p. 25)

Grant argues that,

There are two genuine possibilities for integrity, grounded in different moral and psychological premises. 

(p. 16)

One is a thoroughgoing “moral” integrity, which tends towards either withdrawal from the world of affairs, or a fanatical, puritanical attempt to impose a rigid moral code upon society at large, as Angelo does in the Vienna of Measure for Measure. The other is a “moderate” integrity, which accepts that hypocrisy is a necessary part of human affairs, and that at times, it may be necessary to lie, or feign, in order to bring about a good end, or to achieve or preserve stability. As Inga-Stina Ewbank argues in her essay, Shakespeare’s Liars, liars in Shakespeare’s plays, such as Edgar, Paulina and Prospero, perform by their well-intentioned and ultimately successful deceptions a salutary and redemptive purpose.

On the other hand, Shakespeare’s puritan characters, such as Angelo, Shylock, and Malvolio, are exposed either as hypocrites or as characters whose radical anti-hypocrisy is ill-suited to the contingencies of the world in which they have their being. Harold Fisch notes that puritanism is a religion of power, but one,

which cannot coexist with the exercise of that power in the world.

(Shakespeare and the Puritan Dynamic, Shakespeare Survey 27)

Prudence, Algorithms & Heuristics

“Moral” integrity works from an ethics of principles and therefore narrows the ground on which prudence can play a part in decision making, irrespective of specific circumstances: “Claudio must die tomorrow” because he sinned yesterday. On the other hand, “moderate” integrity is attentive to specific circumstances and allows prudence to step in to assist in achieving a desired goal.

In his book Machiavelli and the History Of Prudence, Eugine Garver offers three ways of dealing with circumstances, namely:

  1. Prudence (Aristotelian or Machiavellian)
  2. Algorithms (an ethics of principles)
  3. Heuristics (an ethics of consequences)

Each of our three heroines, Cressida, Isabella and Helena, begins by responding to her crisis in a way which corresponds to one of Garver’s three different responsive strategies:

  1. Cressida adopts a defensive Machiavellian prudence in an attempt to achieve stability in love in an uncertain world where “men will never tarry”.
  2. Isabella seeks to apply an ethics of principles, but when occasion permits, she adopts the Duke’s Machiavellian policy in defence of her integrity.
  3. Helena works with an ethics of consequences and uses various strategems to capture Bertram with Machiavellian animo informed by a “moderate” integrity.

Cressida: “Achievement is command, ungained beseech”

In Act One, Scene One of Troilus and Cressida, Troilus is discovered “in armour,” but distracted by the “cruel battle” of his unfulfilled passion for Cressida:

Why should I war without the walls of Troy
That find such cruel battle here within?

(Troilus & Cressida, 1: 1: 2-3)

Troilus’ complaint is that he is frustrated of access,

I cannot come to Cressid but by Pandar
And he’s as tetchy to be wooed to woo
As she is stubborn, chaste against all suit.

(Troilus & Cressida, 1: 1: 99-101)

Pandarus finds Cressida’s astuteness as frustrating as Troilus finds her stubborn chastity:

PANDARUS: You are such a woman – a man knows not at what ward you lie.

CRESSIDA: Upon my back to defend my belly, upon my wit to defend my wiles, upon my secrecy to defend mine honesty, my mask to defend my beauty, and you to defend all these: and at all these wards I lie, at a thousand watches.

(Troilus & Cressida, 1: 2: 268-274)

As Helen Cooper argues, in the double plot of Troilus and Cressida,

Troilus has laid seige to Cressida as the Greek army has laid seige to Troy… Where wars and lechery hold fashion, cities and women are on the defensive.
(Arms and the Woman, p. 35)

In both The Prince and The Discourses, Machiavelli cites female “princes” who demonstrate their virtù in a spirited contest with Fortune, such as the Countess of Forli, who made prudent use of a fortress to buy time and defeat a conspiracy:

[She] promised the conspirators that if they let her enter [the fortress], she would deliver it to them and they might keep her children with them as hostages. Under this faith they let her enter it. As soon as she was inside, she reproved them from the walls for the death of her husband and threatened them with every kind of revenge. And to show that she did not care for her children, she showed them her genital parts, saying that she still had the mode for making more of them. So, short of counsel and late to perceive their error, they suffered the penalty of their lack of prudence with a perpetual exile.

(Discourses, 3, 6: 19)

By entering the fortress, the Countess,

was thus able to escape the popular rising and await help from Milan and recover the state.

(Prince, 20)

In Machiavelli’s anecdote we see how a besieged woman responds to the necessities of the moment with a display of virtù. First, lacking the strength of a lion, she adopts the method of the fox, makes a promise and offers a pledge (her children) to guarantee her integrity, but as soon as circumstances change, she breaks her word and adopts the naked method of the lion.

Cressida, who never attains the strength of the lion, adopts the way of the fox when besieged and offers Troilus her glove as a pledge, but when she is exchanged for Antenor, Troilus, like the conspirators of Forli, discovers that her pledge, like the Countess of Forli’s children, is no guarantee of integrity. Cressida relies on her animo, and Diomedes, for protection when surrounded by merry Greeks, just as the Countess of Forli relies on her astuteness and the assistance of the Milanese when surrounded by hostile conspirators.

Cressida also attempts to follow Machiavelli’s dictum that stinginess (parsimonia) is better than generosity (liberalità) because of the inherent paradox of liberality:

There is nothing which destroys itself so much as liberality, for by using it you lose the power of using it…

(Prince, 16)

Or, as Cressida states the case in the context of love and desire:

Women are angels, wooing:
Things won are done, joy’s soul lies in the doing;
That she belov’d knows nought that knows not this:
Men prize the thing ungained 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, ungained beseech.

(Troilus & Cressida 1: 2: 246-253)

Cressida maintains her defensive parsimonia until a new “boldness” causes her to confess her love for Troilus, but in doing so she senses a loss of virtù:

I love you now, but till now not so much
But I might master it – in faith I lie,
My thoughts were like unbridled children grown
Too headstrong for their mother – see we fools!
Why have I blabbed? Who shall be true to us
When we are so unsecret to ourselves?

(Troilus & Cressida 3: 2: 123-128)

Cressida attempts to handle the wolfish Diomedes with a similar astuteness, but he is merely angered by her “paltering” and snatches Troilus’ sleeve when Cressida kisses it:

CRESSIDA: Nay do not snatch it from me:
He that takes that doth take my heart withal.

(Troilus & Cressida 5: 2: 82-83)

Cressida’s final words are,

Troilus farewell, one eye yet looks on thee,
But with my heart the other doth see.
Ah, poor our sex, this fault in us I find:
The error of our eye directs our mind.
What error leads must err: O then conclude,
Minds swayed by eyes are full of turpitude.

(Troilus & Cressida 5: 2: 107-112)

Cressida has prudently chosen to follow her eye which is led by her heart, and not her eye which, led by “error” (as she now rationalizes), had directed her mind to fix upon Troilus.

Isabella: “More than our brother is our chastity”

Whereas Cressida adopts the prudential flexibility of the fox in a struggle to stabilize the “sweetness” of love, even at the cost of her integrity, Isabella attempts to preserve her integrity by relying on an “ethics of principles” in which integrity is contiguous with chastity. In the play whose title, “Measure for Measure,” points towards algorithmic reasoning, Isabella’s guiding “measure” is,

More than our brother is our chastity.

(Measure for Measure, 2: 4: 185)

Thus, when Claudio pleads,

Sweet sister, let me live…
What sin you do, to save a brother’s life,
Nature dispenses with the deed so far,
That it becomes a virtue…

(Measure for Measure, 3: 1: 133)

Isabella runs her algorithm and finds the answer,

O, you beast,
O faithless coward, O, dishonest wretch,
Wilt thou be made a man out of my vice?

Take my defiance,
Die, perish …

(Measure for Measure, 3: 1: 135-137 & 142-143)

At this impasse the disguised duke intervenes:

…fasten your ear on my advisings. To the love I have in doing good a remedy presents itself. I do make myself believe that you may most uprighteously do a poor wronged lady a merited benefit; redeem your brother from the angry law; do no stain on your gracious person; and much please the absent duke…

(Measure for Measure, 2: 4: 185)

The duke adopts the cloak of religion and adapts his argument to his audience, which has the desired effect of redirecting Isabella’s “animo” away from the dead end of algorithmic ethics to a more promising, moderated Machiavellian virtue. (Note Isabella’s concern with the appearance rather than the essence of things):

I have spirit to do any thing that appears not foul in the truth of my spirit.

(Measure for Measure, 3: 1: 208-209)

Isabella agrees to engage in a “plausible” strategem, about which the Duke reassures her,

If you think well to carry this as you may, the doubleness of the benefit defends the deceit from reproof.

(Measure for Measure, 3: 1: 260-262)

The Duke has prompted Isabella to move onto new ground, where it is possible to engage in “deceit” for good ends. The “doubleness” of the benefit which salutary deceit can deliver ties the idea of the two-fold benefit to the “doubleness” of acting deceitfully. Learning “to be able not to be good,” and having the spirit “to use this and not use it according to necessity,” (Prince, 15) moves Isabella from a position of absolute “moral integrity” to one of a more nuanced “moderate integrity” which enables her to respond to her situation with animo and preserve her and her brother’s physical integrity, that is, his head, and her maidenhead (at least from Angelo).

If Cressida’s shift from Troilus to Diomedes represents the dangerous and unstable alliance of the fox and the wolf, the marriage of Isabella to the Duke hints at a compromise between an ethics of principles and Machiavellian prudence. Yet the marriage is forced and Isabella remains silent at the end of the play, overmastered, like the goddess Fortuna, by the Duke’s theatrical demonstration of virtù. Perhaps what is needed is an alliance of prudence with an heuristic ethics of outcomes, rather than an algorithmic ethics of principles: “All’s well that ends well,” rather than “Measure for Measure”

Helena: “’All’s well that ends well,’ still the fine’s the crown”

Helena, in her spirited pursuit of Bertram, is distinct from both Cressida and Isabella, for her operating maxim gives us the title of the play, and it is repeated by Helena twice during the course of the drama, in Act Four and Act Five:

‘All’s well that ends well,’ still the fine’s the crown;
Whate’er the course, the end is the renown.

(All’s Well that Ends Well, 4: 4: 35-36)

‘All’s well that ends well ‘ yet,
Though time seem so adverse and means unfit…

(All’s Well that Ends Well, 5: 1: 26-27)

The first hint Helena gives us that she entertains any ambitions towards Bertram is in her first soliloquy:

my imagination
Carries no favour in’t but Bertram’s….
I am undone, there is no living, none,
If Bertram be away…. ‘Twere all one
That I should love a bright particular star,
And think to wed it, he is so above me;
In his bright radiance and collateral light
Must I be comforted, not in his sphere…
Th’ ambition in my love thus plagues itself:
The hind that would be mated by the lion
Must die for love.

(All’s Well that Ends Well, 1: 1: 82-95)

In her jesting with Parroles, who enters during Helena’s soliloquy, the topic is the familiar one of the battle of the sexes, and how a lady may “barricado” her virginity from it’s enemy, “man,” but then Helena asks a more revealing question, her first heuristic approach to her particular problem:

How might one do, sir, to lose it to her own liking?

(All’s Well that Ends Well, 1: 1: 155)

By the time Parroles exits, Helena has fixed upon a “remedy,” which reminds us of the duke’s “remedy” in Measure for Measure, and Iago’s assertion of free will in Othello:

Our remedies oft in ourself do lie,
Which we ascribe to heaven: the fated sky
Gives us free scope; only doth backward pull
Our slow designs when we ourselves are dull.
What power is it which mounts my love so high?
That makes me see, and cannot feed mine eye?
The mightiest space in fortune nature brings
To join like likes, and kiss like native things.
Impossible be strange attempts to those
That weigh their pains in sense, and do suppose
What hath been cannot be: who ever strove
To show her merit that did miss her love?
The king’s disease – my project may deceive me,
But my intents are fixed, and will not leave me.

(All’s Well that Ends Well, 1: 1: 220-233)

The king’s disease and her father’s remedy offer Helena an occasion to follow Bertram to Paris. In seeking to get closer to Bertram, Helena fixes, like Iago, upon the autonomy of human will in pursuing her “affections” against “sense” and in spite of fortune.

Unlike the heroines of Troilus and Cressida or Measure for Measure, Helena seizes the initiative from the menfolk and wages an unceasing battle to subdue Fortuna to her will, and to a higher, thereapeutic providence which anticipates Shakespeare’s last plays.

Helena, in All’s Well That Ends Well, leads us away from the loss of values and integrity experienced in the unbridled Machiavellian world of Troilus and Cressida, away from the narrow puritanism of Vienna, or the problematic workings of Machiavellian virtù in service of an ethics of principles, to a more “moderate” form of integrity in which Machiavellian animo works for stable and lasting providential and therapeutic ends.


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