Troilus and Cressida is one of Shakespeare’s weirder efforts. A tragedy set during the late stages of the Trojan War, it ostensibly focuses on the disastrous affair between the two named characters, but spends much of its time with the main Greek and Trojan characters from the Iliad. And this is for the best, because in the Greek camp. we get Thersites, who is
perhaps probably definitely the most interesting minor character in drama.
Thersites doesn’t do much in the Iliad itself, although Homer lavishes attention on the fact that he is vulgar, ugly, rude and disruptive. Since he is disrupting a bunch of people being absolute shitheads — the Trojan War was not exactly the most sensible event in mythology — this means he actually comes off as pretty reasonable in his contempt, for which Odysseus smashes him over the head with a staff, which was nice of him.
Anyway, that’s Thersites’s role in Homer’s telling of the Trojan War, but if you’re Shakespeare doing a retelling, it’d be silly to let a character of this potential go to waste. So he elevates him from a one-scene heap of insults to recurring heap of insults, turning the whole play into Thersites’s insult sandbox.
We meet our hero in Act 2, Scene one. He is talking to Ajax the Great, who is attempting to get him to go find out what King Agamemnon has proclaimed. This goes … badly:
Thersites: The plague of Greece upon thee, thou mongel beef-witted lord!
Eventually Achilles and Patroclus show up trying to defuse the situation — Ajax, not being of the witty line, resorts to beating Thersites in an attempt to shut him up — and Thersites includes the pair in his insults, suggesting that when Hector cracks open their skulls he’ll be disappointed to find them “a fusty nut with no kernel.” Then the threats resume.
Ajax: I shall cut out your tongue.
Thersites: ‘Tis no matter; I shall speak as much with as thou afterwards.
I think the setting is what makes this particularly funny. Anyone with an education which includes Greek mythology is conditioned to see the heroes of the lyric age — even the notably beef-witted Ajax — as Very Serious Demigods. Odysseus in particular is venerated as the arch-trickster, the cunning hero of one of the most well-known works in literature. But Odysseus, like the rest of his pals, is a huge, horrible asshole. These characters should not be taken seriously, and Thersites does an incredible job puncturing their aura of importance, both in the play and in the general modern consensus.
Here he is giving the Greek war leaders exactly the rhetorical treatment they deserve, and also setting up Patroclus for a perfectly timed burn:
Thersites: Agamemnon is a fool; Achilles is a fool; Thersites is a fool, and as aforesaid, Patrolcus is a fool.
Achilles: Derive this; come.
Thersites: Agamemnon is a fool to offer to command Achilles; Achilles is a fool to be commanded of Agamemnon; Thersites is a fool to serve such a fool; and this Patroclus is a fool positive.
Patroclus: Why am I a fool?
Thersites: Make that demand of thy Creator.
Eventually even the kindly Patroclus loses his cool at the abuse (an aside: the abuse leading up to these quotes is focused on Patroclus’s relationship with Achilles, and while it’s not homophobic in a Trojan War context, it’s certainly homophobic in pretty much any other one. Sigh.), and delivers one of the most memorable lines in all of Shakespeare:
Patroclus: Why, thou damnable box of envy, thou; what mean’st to curse thus?
Thersites: Do I curse thee?
Patroclus: Why, no, you ruinous butt; you whoreson indistinguisable cur, no.
Thersites gets the last word. Several, in fact:
Thersites: No? Why art thou then exasperate, thou idle immaterial skein of sleave-silk, thou green sarconet flap for a sore eye, thou tassel of a prodigal’s purse, thou?
What I most enjoy about Thersites’s role in Troilus and Cressida is how accessible it makes Shakespeare to a modern viewer. I mentioned above that we’re trained to read about Greek mythology in a certain way, but education also teaches us that Shakespeare isn’t really for us. He is a fusty old nut most of us never bother cracking open.
But here is Shakespeare at his dynamic best, giving an even older toy of the canon a critical look and declaring it wanting. Instead of using polemic or dramatic speech, we get Thersites deconstructing the Trojan War like an angry forum poster ripping into ridiculous play-calling. The tirades are recognizable in a way that even his best monologues aren’t.
Troilus and Cressida isn’t Shakespeare’s best play. It’s not particularly close (although it’s definitely not his worst, either). But if I wanted to show someone that Shakespeare isn’t all Hamlet flamboyantly whining and archaisms … well, I’d consider starting here. Or with Romeo and Juliet. But that one already gets talked about, a bit.