Troilus and Cressida: Commentators, part two (Thersites)

Yesterday, I began my discussions regarding commentary within Troilus and Cressida with a look at the Prologue. Next up, Thersites.

When we first meet Thersites, we already know something about him. Beyond being described in the Names of the Actors as “a scurrilous Greek,” we also have heard what the Greek command thinks of him:

A slave whose gall coins slanders like a mint—
To match us in comparisons with dirt,
To weaken and discredit our exposure,
How rank soever rounded in with danger.
  • I.iii.193-6

Sounds pretty scurrilous to me (“characterized by coarseness or indecency of language, esp. in jesting and invective” [“scurrilous; adj.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, June 2015. Web. 28 June 2015.]).

He lives up to his billing.

In his second scene on stage (the first is with Ajax and then Achilles and Patroclus), we get his first soliloquized commentary on the events, actions and actors of the play:

‘Sfoot, I’ll learn to conjure and raise devils but I’ll see some issue of my spiteful execrations. Then there’s Achilles, a rare engineer! If Troy be not taken till these two undermine it, the walls will stand till they fall of themselves. O thou great thunder-darter of Olympus, forget that thou art Jove, the king of gods; and, Mercury, lose all the serpentine craft of thy caduceus, if you take not that little, little, less than little wit from them that they have, which short-armed ignorance itself knows is so abundant scarce it will not in circumvention deliver a fly from a spider without drawing their massy irons and cutting the web. After this, the vengeance on the whole camp! Or rather, the Neapolitan bone-ache! For that, methinks, is the curse depending on those that war for a placket.
  • II.iii.5-19

Here, he describes Ajax and Achilles as fools who stand no chance bringing down the walls of Troy. Since the fictional accounts of the war put the idea of the victorious horse stratagem in Ulysses’ mind, this is a statement of truth, and we as an audience know it. Thersites then calls upon the gods of Olympus to bring down punishments first on the two Greek leaders, then the whole camp. He names the Neapolitan bone-ache, or syphilis, as a fitting curse on “those who war for” (II.iii.19) for sex (remember the discussion of placket in our bawdy blog late last month).

Thersites later talks to one of the targets of his invective, Achilles, but now his targeting is focused only on Ajax, whom he calls “a peacock…an hostess that hath no arithmetic…a very land-fish, languageless, a monster” (III.iii.251, 252-3, 262-3). Thersites is a hypocrite, yes, and one that is relentless in his “slanders.”

Those slanders–shared with us–continue when Thersites decides not to spare the leadership in his jests, calling Agamemnon “an honest fellow…but he has not so much brain as ear wax” (V.i.51, 52-3). That insult is followed by a litany more directed at the leader’s brother Menelaus, whom he sarcastically compares to “Jupiter” (V.i.53), the mythological god who–in order to seduce (some would say rape) Europa–had transformed himself into a bull, “the primitive statue and oblique memorial of cuckolds” (V.i.54-5). Thersites then jokes,

Ask me not what I would be, if I were not Thersites, for I care not to be the louse of a lazar so I were not Menelaus
  • V.i.63-5

Thersites would rather be a bug on a leper (“lazar”) than this cuckold Menelaus (and don’t think the pun of “louse” to the last of syllable of the man’s name isn’t meant to further denigrate him).

Later in the same scene, Thersites turns his verbal assassin’s eye on Diomedes, “a false-hearted rogue, a most unjust knave… a serpent” (V.i.90-1, 92), his kidnapped whore (“drab” [V.i.98]) Cressida, and her “traitor” (V.i.98) father as well. Rogues and whores, all low “menial” attendants (“varlet; n. 1.a.” OED Online) “wanting in self-restraint: chiefly with reference to sexual appetite” (“incontinent; adj. A.1.” OED Online).

It’s this view of the war and its warriors–”Lechery, lechery, still wars and lechery” (V.ii.197-8)–that becomes the tonal touchstone for the play. But we still haven’t seen any battles up to this point. We’ve heard his invective on the warriors, and only near the end of the play does he turn his journalistic eye to the battle itself:

Now they are clapper-clawing one another. I’ll go look on. That dissembling abominable varlet, Diomed, has got that same scurvy doting foolish young knave’s sleeve of Troy there in his helm. I would fain see them meet, that that same young Trojan ass that loves the whore there might send that Greekish whoremasterly villain with the sleeve back to the dissembling luxurious drab, of a sleeveless errand. O’ th’ t’other side, the policy of those crafty swearing rascals—that stale old mouse-eaten dry cheese, Nestor, and that same dog-fox, Ulysses—is not worth a blackberry. They set me up, in policy, that mongrel cur, Ajax, against that dog of as bad a kind, Achilles. And now is the cur Ajax prouder than the cur Achilles, and will not arm today, whereupon the Grecians begin to proclaim barbarism, and policy grows into an ill opinion…What’s become of the wenching rogues? I think they have swallowed one another. I would laugh at that miracle—yet, in a sort, lechery eats itself. I’ll seek them.
  • V.iv.1-16, 31-4

He begins with one of the most anti-heroic depictions of battle ever written: two (tame) rabbits scratching at each other in a “a place constructed for keeping tame rabbits” (“clapper; n.2.” OED Online). If Diomed’s description is negative (“dissembling abominable varlet… whoremasterly villain”), it’s no worse than that of Troilus (“scurvy doting foolish…knave,” “Trojan ass”). Diomed wears Troilus’ sleeve (the token given to Cressida then taken by the Greek), and Thersites sarcastically states that he wishes Diomed to return to Cressida (“the dissembling luxurious drab”) with the sleeve in the result of an errand “ending in, or leading to, nothing” (“sleeveless; adj.2.b.” OED Online). Thersites then turns his attention to the scheme of the “rascals” Nestor and Ulysses to set Achilles against Ajax. The Greeks have become stupid muscle-heads (“proclaim[ing] barbarism”), and both sides are lust-obsessed.

Later, we hear his reportage of the meeting of Paris and Menelaus:

The cuckold and the cuckold-maker are at it. Now, bull! Now, dog! Loo, Paris, loo! Now, my double-horned Spartan! Loo, Paris, loo! The bull has the game. Ware horns, ho!
  • V.vii.9-12

This play-by-play commentary is still amusing. His speeches are becoming shorter, though, as if the play no longer needs his commentary. In fact, within a dozen lines, we’ll hear from him for the last time. He responds to Margarelon, the bastard son of Priam, comically professing his “love for bastards” (V.vii.16). His final words are “Farewell, bastard” (V.vii.21).

Makes me wonder if he’s talking to Margarelon, or talking to us. Have we descended from “fair beholder” (Prologue, 26) to “bastard”? The play’s not over. How much further can we fall?

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