David Bruce: William Shakespeare’s TROILUS AND CRESSIDA: A Retelling in Prose — Act 2, Scene 1

— 2.1 —

Ajax and Thersites met in the Greek camp.

“Thersites!” Ajax called.

Ignoring Ajax, Thersites said to himself, “Agamemnon, what if he had boils? Fully all over his body, generally, since he is a general?”


“And suppose those boils did run and ooze pus. Let us say they did. Wouldn’t the general run then? The general would run with ooze, and the general body of soldiers would run away in fright. Wouldn’t that be a botchy core? Wouldn’t that be the infected center of a boil? Wouldn’t that be a corps of soldiers who were unwilling to fight?”

“Dog!” Ajax called.

“Then would come some matter from him; I see none coming from him now,” Thersites said.

He was punning. “Matter” referred to the pus that would ooze from the boil. “Matter” also meant “intelligence.” Thersites saw no pus oozing from Agamemnon; he also saw nothing intelligent coming from him.

“You bitch-wolf’s son, can’t you hear me?” Ajax said. He hit Thersites while saying, “Since you can’t hear me, feel me.”

“May the plague of Greece fall upon you, you mongrel beef-witted lord!” Thersites said.

The plague sometimes fell upon the crowded Greek camp. Being ill spirited as always, Thersites wanted Ajax — whom he called a mongrel because Ajax’ father was Greek and his mother was Trojan — to get the plague. Thersites also called Ajax “beef-witted” because eating beef was reputed to lower the eater’s intelligence.

“Speak then, you moldiest leaven, speak,” Ajax said. “I will beat you until you cease being ugly and instead become handsome.”

“It’s much more likely that my criticisms of you will make you intelligent and holy,” Thersites said, “but, I think, your horse will sooner memorize an oration than you learn a prayer by heart. You can strike me, can’t you? I call down a red plague on your sorry-ass tricks!”

“Toadstool, tell me about the proclamation,” Ajax said.

Ajax called Thersites “toadstool” because Thersites’ words tended to be poisonous like a toadstool. The insult also included the sense of “toad’s excrement.”

“Do you think I have no sense, and therefore you can strike me thus?”

“Tell me about the proclamation!”

“You are proclaimed a fool, I think.”

“Do not insult me, porcupine, do not; my fingers itch for a fight.”

Ajax’ intelligence was lacking; sometimes his insults backfired on him. If Ajax’ fingers were itching, the pain caused by the porcupine’s quills would stop the itching.

“I wish you itched from head to foot and I had the task of scratching you; I would make you the loathsomest scab in Greece.”

Thersites was punning on “scab,” one meaning of which was “loathsome fellow.”

He continued, “When you go forth in the battle incursions, you strike as slowly as the other soldiers.”

“I say, tell me about the proclamation!”

“You grumble and rail every hour about Achilles, and you are as full of envy of his greatness as Cerberus is of Proserpine’s beauty, yes, and your envy makes you bark at Achilles.”

Cerberus was the three-headed dog that guarded Hades, Land of the Dead. Proserpine was the beautiful goddess who was Queen of Hades. Cerberus, the ugliest thing in Hades, envied Proserpine, the most beautiful being in Hades.

“Mistress Thersites!” Ajax said, attempting to insult Thersites by calling him a woman.

“You should strike Achilles!” Thersites continued.

“Cob loaf!”

A cob loaf was a bun — a round loaf or lump of bread.

Thersites said, “Achilles would pound you into pieces with his fist, just as a sailor breaks a hard biscuit.”

Ajax hit Thersites while shouting, “You cur! You son of a whore!”

“Do carry on,” Thersites said sarcastically.

“You stool for a witch!” Ajax shouted.

Thersites was a jester. Sometimes, a jester carried a monkey on his back. Ajax was saying that a witch could replace the monkey and sit on Thersites’ back. In addition, Ajax was calling Thersites a witch’s excrement. A stool was also a seat on which one sat while using a chamberpot, and so a stool was a privy. Sometimes, Ajax’ insults backfired on him. He had just called Thersites a privy, but “Ajax” is similar to “a jakes,” and a jakes is a privy.

“Keep it up,” Thersites, who realized that Ajax’ joke had backfired, said. “You sodden-witted lord! You alcohol-crazed lord! You have no more brain than I have in my elbows! An assinego— Spanish for ‘little ass’ — may tutor you, you scurvy-valiant, heartily contemptible ass! You are here only to thrash Trojans; and you are bought and sold among those of any wit, like a barbarian slave. If you continue to beat me, I will begin at your heel, and tell you what you are by inches, you thing of no feelings and sensitivity, you!”

“You dog!”

“You scurvy lord!”

Ajax beat him while shouting, “You cur!”

“You are Mars’ idiot,” Thersites said. “Keep it up, rude man. You camel, keep it up, you beast of burden.”

Achilles and Patroclus walked over to them.

“Why, how are you now, Ajax?” Achilles said. “Why are you acting like this? Hello, Thersites! What’s the matter, man?”

“Do you see this man there?” Thersites asked, pointing to Ajax.

“Yes,” Achilles replied. “What’s the matter?”

“No, look at him,” Thersites said.

“I am. What’s the matter?”

“No, look at him well and closely.”

“‘Well’!” Achilles said. “Why, I do.”

“But yet you are not looking well upon him; for whosoever you take him to be, he is Ajax,” Thersites said.

Thersites was punning on “Ajax” and “a jakes,” and he was saying that Achilles was not looking well upon Ajax because he did not realize Ajax was a privy.

“I know that, fool,” Achilles replied.

Pretending that Achilles had said, “I know that fool,” Thersites replied, “Yes, but that fool does not know himself.”

“Therefore I beat you,” Ajax said, unwittingly agreeing that he was a fool.

“Lo, lo, lo, lo, what tiny amounts of wit he utters!” Thersites said. Putting his hands to his head and mimicking an ass’ ears, he added, “His verbal sallies have ears thus long. I have beat his brain more than he has beat my bones. I can buy nine sparrows for a penny, and his pia mater— his brain — is not worth the ninth part of a sparrow. Achilles, I’ll tell you what I say of this lord — Ajax — who wears his wit in his belly and his guts in his head.”

“What?” Achilles asked.

“I say, this Ajax —” Thersites began.

Ajax raised his hand as if he were going to hit Thersites.

“Don’t, good Ajax,” Achilles said.

“— has not as much wit —”

Achilles grabbed Ajax and kept him from hitting Thersites, saying, “No, Ajax. I must hold you and prevent you from hitting Thersites.”

“— as will stop the eye of Helen’s needle, for whom he comes to fight.”

One meaning of the eye of Helen’s needle was her vagina.

“Peace, fool!” Achilles said. “Shut up!”

“I would have peace and quietness, but the fool will not,” Thersites said. He pointed at Ajax and said, “The fool is he there — that he. Look at him there.”

Ajax began, “Oh, you damned cur! I shall —”

Achilles interrupted him: “Will you set your wit against a fool’s?”

“No, I assure you,” Thersites said, “for a Fool’s wit will shame Ajax’ wit.”

Many Fools — professional jesters — in fact were wise, or at least clever.

“Speak good words, Thersites,” Patroclus said. “Be nice.”

“What’s the quarrel between you two?” Achilles asked Ajax.

“I bade the vile owl — this vile bird of omen — to tell me the content of the proclamation, and he rails upon and insults me.”

“I am not your servant,” Thersites said.

“Whatever,” Ajax said.

“I serve here voluntarily.”

“Your last service was sufferance and involved suffering; it was not voluntary,” Achilles said. “No man is beaten voluntarily. Ajax was just now the volunteer, and you were under an impress — he drafted you to be beaten without your permission.”

“That is true,” Thersites replied. “A great deal of your intelligence, too, lies in your muscles, or else I have been listening to liars.”

He added sarcastically, “Hector shall have a great catch, if he knocks out either of your brains. It would be as good as cracking a moldy nutshell that contained no nut.”

“Are you saying that about me as well as about Ajax, Thersites?” Achilles asked.

“Ulysses and old Nestor, whose wit was moldy before your grandsires had nails on their toes, yoke you as if you were draft-oxen and make you plow up the wars. They order you about and make you do heavy fighting in the war.”

“What!” Achilles said.

“Yes, indeed,” Thersites said. “Pull that load, Achilles! Pull it, Ajax! Pull!”

“I shall cut out your tongue,” Ajax said.

“It doesn’t matter,” Thersites replied. “I shall speak as much as you afterwards.”

Ajax was a warrior, not a diplomat; he also was not an intelligent man. Thersites would speak as much sense as Ajax even if Thersites’ tongue were cut out. And if a person makes sounds that are nonsense, is that person speaking?

“No more words, Thersites,” Patroclus said. “Peace!”

“I will hold my peace when Achilles’ brooch, or should I say ‘brach,’ bids me, shall I?” Thersites said.

Both “brooch” and “brach” were insults. A brooch is worn on clothing — it hangs on clothing. Thersites was calling Patroclus Achilles’ hanger-on. A “brach” is a female dog, a bitch. Thersites was calling Patroclus Achilles’ bitch — his male prostitute.

“There’s an insult for you, Patroclus,” Achilles said.

“I will see you hanged, like clodpoles, like blockheads, before I come any more to your tents,” Thersites said. “I will keep myself among people of wit and intelligence and leave the faction and the company of fools.”

He exited.

“A good riddance,” Patroclus said.

Achilles said to Ajax, “Sir, it is proclaimed through all our host of soldiers that Hector, by the fifth hour after sunrise, will with a trumpet between our tents and Troy tomorrow morning call some knight to arms who has a stomach to fight and such a knight who dares to maintain — I know not what. It is trash and doesn’t matter. Farewell.”

“Farewell,” Ajax said, then added, “Who shall answer his challenge and fight him?”

“I don’t know,” Achilles replied. “A lottery will be held, otherwise Hector knows which man would fight him.”

“Oh, meaning you,” Ajax said. “I will go and learn more about this.”

They exited.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved




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