This article argues that Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida continues an important late medieval poetic tradition that highlights the troubling consequences of virtue’s performativity for idealized women. If Chaucer is pessimistic about the potential for Criseyde’s ethical agency in an unstable universe, Lydgate locates the source of women’s mutability in the cultural contingency that accompanies masculine violence, especially war. Henryson’s bracing meditation on Cresseid’s physical demise exposes the heroic exploitation of women’s virtue, but it also constructs a tangible form of excellence, an ethics of embodied endurance strong enough to withstand repeated acts of injustice. Like medieval poets, Shakespeare returns to the scene of Cressida’s destruction in order to dramatize the cultural conditions that script her moral evacuation. Taking a long view of Cressida’s downfall reveals the “virtue trouble” inherent to performative gender ideals, as well as the ethical importance of poetic responses to scripted femininities in premodern England.

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