Troilus and Cressida | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Troilus and Cressida | Act 2, Scene 3 | Summary

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Summary

Thersites, enraged at his treatment by Ajax, insults his master as he walks through the camp. Patroclus and Achilles come out of their tent and speak with him. Thersites insults them, but they take the fool's words in stride. When they see Agamemnon, Ulysses, Nestor, Ajax, and Diomedes coming, Achilles and Thersites return to Achilles's tent. Patroclus tells the other Greeks Achilles is not feeling well.

Ajax is furious at this show of pride from Achilles. Ulysses meets with Achilles in his tent only to return and tell the others Achilles refuses to fight Hector the next day. Ajax launches into a diatribe about Achilles's pride while Agamemnon, Ulysses, Nestor, and Diomedes all make comments on Ajax's own pride in asides to the audience. To his face they flatter him and tell him he will be the one to fight Hector the next day.

Analysis

Ulysses's plan to use Achilles's pride against him is set in motion. Ulysses's cunning is used to full effect in this scene; he and the other Greek generals begin to build up Ajax in the hopes of motivating him to fight. Shakespeare uses Ajax's rant to show the hypocrisy of both supposed heroes, with Ajax being guilty of the same behavior of which he accuses Achilles. When Achilles still refuses to fight, even after meeting with Ulysses, he appears ludicrous. Ajax is likewise made to look the fool, both by Thersites's keen insults about his intelligence at the beginning of the scene and by his belief in the flattery the Greek generals feed him, proving Thersites right in his assessment.

Again, in the source material, Homer explains Achilles refused to fight in protest over Agamemnon taking a slave girl from him as a spoil of war. Shakespeare may have counted on his audience knowing this detail, but without explicitly stating Achilles's reasons for sitting out the battle, he makes Achilles look even more petulant and childish. Shakespeare undercuts the myth of the epic hero, making Achilles—and Ajax, to a lesser extent—laughable. He will later turn Achilles into something even worse: an honorless villain. If Hector is indeed the most heroic of the bunch in Troilus and Cressida, then Achilles is the worst.

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