When we last left the Troilus and Cressida plot synopsis in Act One, the commanders of the Greek forces were displaying some great strategy… against themselves, with Nestor and Ulysses plotting to use Hector’s courtly-love challenge of single combat to make either Ajax or Achilles (or both) look foolish. As Act Two begins, we meet one of their possible targets: Ajax.
Ajax is calling after and beating another Greek (“scurrilous” according to the “Names of the Actors”), Thersites. Ajax–who appears to be illiterate on top of being, at least according to Cressida in the previous scene, “dull (and) brainless” (I.iii.380)–needs Thersites to “learn (him) the proclamation” (II.i.20). As Ajax is quick to strike Thersites, we don’t get a clear idea of what the proclamation is (at this point), but it would make sense for it to be Hector’s challenge.
In the midst of the quasi-comic slapstick (think The Taming of the Shrew’s Petruchio and his servant Grumio), Achilles and Patroclus enter, with verbal play commenting upon the physical play (think of Hortensio questioning the beating Petruchio was giving Grumio). When Thersites continues to insult Ajax, Achilles uses the class system to reprimand the smart-aleck Greek,
Then when Patroclus tells Thersites to be quiet, we get a very interesting retort from him: “I will hold my peace when Achilles’ brach bids me, shall I?” (II.i.113-4). In Shakespeare’s day, “brach” was “a term of abuse (meaning) bitch” (“brach, n.; b.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, March 2015. Web. 3 June 2015.), which in turn not only meant “dog” when “applied to a man” (“bitch, n.; 2.b.” OED Online.), but also “a lewd or sensual woman” (“bitch, n.; 2.a.” OED Online.); in various “Names of the Actors,” Patroclus is referred to as “Achilles’ companion” or “Achilles’ favorite.” With that insult, Thersites leaves the scene, which ends with Achilles filling in the blanks from earlier in the scene: Hector’s challenge is indeed the proclamation.
In Act Two, Scene Two, we’re back inside the walls of Troy with Priam meeting with his sons to discuss an offer by Nestor: if the Trojans just give back Helen, then the war will end. Hector, after some qualifying statements, says, “Let Helen go” (II.ii.17), supporting his opinion discussing all that they’ve lost for just one woman. Troilus, accusing Hector of comparing the honor of their king to the “common ounces” (II.ii.28) of the general soldier but giving no reason else, argues for keeping her. Helenus the priest notes Troilus’ lack of reasons, and Troilus tries to respond, but his argument is muddied though passionate. Hector tries to reason with him, but Troilus counters with the story of their “aunt” (II.ii.80), who had been married off to the Greeks by Hercules who … well, it’s a long story, and I’ll get around to it later, but suffice to say, the argument could be made (maybe… by a good speaker) and is made by Troilus (just not that well).
Before anyone can respond, however, their “mad sister” (II.ii.98), Cassandra enters “with prophetic tears” (II.ii.102) and a warning that Paris “burns us all… Troy burns, or else let Helen go” (II.ii.110, 112). Hector tries to use Cassandra to support his claim to Troilus, but the younger brother discounts her “brainsick raptures” (II.ii.122). Paris finally speaks, declaring that he (in third person, no less) will not “retract what he hath done” (II.ii.141). Priam rebukes him, saying that while Paris may still have the “honey” (II.ii.144) of the act, his brothers have “the gall” (II.ii.144) of it.
Hector then makes the most cogent argument of all, discussing how “Nature craves // All dues be rendered to their owners” (II.ii.173-4)… and gee, since I know that Troilus and Cressida–after they are brought together–are torn asunder (spoiler alert!), this would seem to be a little foreshadowing. And while “wrong extenuates not wrong” (II.ii.187), Hector says he will allow his brother to keep Helen.
The third and final scene of Act Two takes us back to the Greek camp where we find Thersites soliloquizing on being beaten by Ajax, but quickly turns his attention to Achilles, whom he derides as well. Patroclus enters, and calls for the surly Greek to “come in and rail” (II.iii.23). When Achilles arrives a few lines later, there some biting banter as Thersites explains how all are fools in the Greek camp:
When the Greek commanders come into view, Achilles takes Thersites into his tent, wanting to “speak with nobody” (II.iii.68). Agamemnon sends Patroclus to get Achilles, but he returns quickly with a refusal. Agamemnon doesn’t take it well, saying Achilles is “over-proud // And under-honest” (II.iii.122-3), and sends Patroclus back again, and has Ulysses go as well. Within a couple dozen lines, Ulysses is back with another refusal. And when Agamemnon calls for the brute Ajax go in and get Achilles, Ulysses argues against it. As Ajax talks of how he’ll convince Achilles with his “armed fist” (II.iii.200), the others (save for Agamemnon) deride Ajax in asides. When Ajax is done talking, the others speak to Agamemnon, convincing him to go into battle without Achilles.
And with the battle looming “tomorrow” (II.iii.258), Act Two ends.