Troilus and Cressida is one of Shakespeare’s weirder efforts.
Thersites does not do much in the Iliad itself, although Homer lavishes attention on the fact that he is repulsive, ugly, disrespectful and disruptive. Given that he is interfering with a bunch of individuals being outright shitheads– the Trojan War was not exactly the most practical event in mythology– this indicates he really comes off as quite sensible in his contempt, for which Odysseus smashes him over the head with a personnel, which was good of him.
Anyway, that’s Thersites’s function in Homer’s informing of the Trojan War, but if you’re Shakespeare doing a retelling, it ‘d be ridiculous to let a character of this possible go to waste. He raises him from a one-scene heap of insults to recurring load of insults, turning the entire play into Thersites’s insult sandbox.
We fulfill our hero in Act 2, Scene one. He is speaking with Ajax the Great, who is trying to get him to go find out what King Agamemnon has actually announced. This goes … badly:
Thersites: The plague of Greece upon thee, thou mongel beef-witted lord!
Ultimately Achilles and Patroclus appear attempting to defuse the situation– Ajax, not being of the amusing line, resorts to beating Thersites in an effort to shut him up– and Thersites consists of the pair in his insults, recommending that when Hector fractures open their skulls he’ll be dissatisfied to find them “a fusty nut without any kernel.” The threats resume.
Ajax: I will cut out your tongue.
Thersites: ‘T is no matter; I will speak as much wit as thou afterwards.
Odysseus, like the rest of his friends, is a substantial, terrible asshole These characters should not be taken seriously, and Thersites does an extraordinary job piercing their aura of importance, both in the play and in the general contemporary agreement.
Here he is giving the Greek war leaders precisely the rhetorical treatment they should have, 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: Obtain 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 favorable.
Patroclus: Why am I a fool?
Thersites: Make that need of thy Developer.
Ultimately even the kindly Patroclus loses his cool at the abuse (an aside: the abuse leading up to these quotes is concentrated 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 provides one of the most memorable lines in all of Shakespeare:
Patroclus: Why, thou damnable box of envy, thou; what suggest’ st to curse therefore?
Thersites: Do I curse thee?
Patroclus: Why, no, you ruinous butt; you whoreson indistinguisable cur, no.
Thersites gets latest thing. Numerous, in truth:
Thersites: No? Why art thou then exasperate, thou idle immaterial skein of sleave-silk, thou green sarconet flap for an aching eye, thou tassel of a prodigal’s bag, thou?
What I most delight in about Thersites’s function in Troilus and Cressida is how accessible it makes Shakespeare to a contemporary viewer.
But here is Shakespeare at his dynamic finest, giving an even older toy of the canon a critical appearance and declaring it wanting. Instead of utilizing polemic or remarkable speech, we get Thersites deconstructing the Trojan War like an angry online forum poster ripping into outrageous play-calling. The tirades are identifiable in a way that even his best monologues aren’t.
Troilus and Cressida isn’t Shakespeare’s finest play. It’s not especially close (although it’s definitely not his worst, either). If I wanted to reveal someone that Shakespeare isn’t all Hamlet flamboyantly whining and archaisms … well, I ‘d think about beginning here. Or with Romeo and Juliet But that a person already gets discussed, a bit.