David Bruce: William Shakespeare’s TROILUS AND CRESSIDA: A Retelling in Prose — Act 3, Scene 3

— 3.3 —

Agamemnon, Ulysses, Diomedes, Nestor, Ajax, Menelaus, and Calchas met in the Greek camp near Achilles’ tent. Calchas was a Trojan — Cressida’s father. He was a prophet who knew that Troy would be defeated in the war and who had joined the Greeks.

Calchas said, “Now, Princes, for the service I have done you, the opportunity provided to me at this time prompts me to call aloud for recompense. May you remember that, through the prophetic foresight I have, I know that Troy will lose the war. Therefore, I have abandoned Troy, left my possessions, incurred a traitor’s name for myself, left certain and possessed advantages, and exposed myself to doubtful fortunes, separating myself from all that time, acquaintance, custom, and social rank made habitual and most familiar to my nature, and here, to do you service, I am become like a new person entering into the world, a foreigner, unacquainted with anyone. I ask you, as a foretaste of what will be in the future, to give me now a little benefit, out of those many benefits that you have promised to me, which, you say, will come to me in the future.”

“What would you ask of us, Trojan?” Agamemnon asked. “Make your demand.”

“You have a Trojan prisoner, named Antenor, who was captured yesterday,” Calchas said. “Troy regards him as very valuable. Often have you — and often have you received my thanks because of it — desired my Cressida in exchange for an important Trojan held prisoner by you, but Troy has always refused to make the exchange. However, this Antenor, I know, is such a tuning peg in the Trojans’ affairs that their negotiations all must go out of tune when the Trojans lack his managerial skills. Antenor is the key to the harmonious management of Trojan affairs, and therefore the Trojans will almost give us a Prince of blood, a son of Priam, in exchange for him. Let Antenor be sent, great Princes, in exchange for my daughter, and her presence shall quite pay for all the service I have done in most willingly endured pain.”

“Let Diomedes bear Antenor to Troy, and bring Cressida to us here,” Agamemnon said. “Calchas shall have what he requests of us. Good Diomedes, get everything you need for this exchange. Also take word to Troy that Hector will tomorrow be answered in his challenge: Ajax is ready.”

“This shall I undertake,” Diomedes said, “and it is a burden that I am proud to bear.”

Diomedes and Calchas exited.

Achilles and Patroclus came out of their tent and stood there. They could see the other Greeks, but they could not hear them.

Ulysses said, “Achilles is standing in the entrance of his tent. May it please our general, Agamemnon, to pass like a stranger by him, as if Achilles were forgotten, and for all the Princes to lay negligent and casual regard upon him. We ought not to pay any special attention to Achilles, although we did in the past when he fought well for us. I will bring up the rear. It is likely that Achilles will ask me why such disapproving eyes are bent on him. If he does ask me, I will use your derision as medicine for him. Your disapproval will injure his pride, he will ask me why you disapprove, and I will give him medicine that, because he asked for it, he desires to drink. This may turn out well. Pride has no other mirror to show itself but pride because supple knees feed arrogance and are the proud man’s fees. If Achilles sees us acting proud, he may realize how proudly he has been acting. If we show courtesy to him, he will become even more arrogant and will think that we are only paying him the respect that is due him.”

“We’ll execute your plan, and put on an appearance of coldness and disapproval as we pass by Achilles,” Agamemnon said. “Each lord here, do this. Either don’t speak to and greet Achilles, or if you do, do it disdainfully, which shall shake him more than if we don’t even look at him. I will lead the way.”

The Greeks walked toward Achilles’ tent, intending — all but Ulysses — to pass by it.

Achilles said, “Is the general, Agamemnon, coming here to speak with me? You know my mind, I’ll fight no more against Troy.”

Agamemnon asked Nestor, “What did Achilles say? Does he want anything?”

Nestor asked Achilles, “Do you, my lord, have anything to say to Agamemnon?”

“No,” Achilles replied.

Nestor said to Agamemnon, “He wants nothing, my lord.”

“Very good,” Agamemnon said.

Agamemnon and Nestor exited.

Seeing Menelaus, Achilles said, “Good day. Good day.”

Menelaus replied, “How are you? How are you?”

Menelaus exited.

Achilles to Patroclus, “Does the cuckold scorn me?”

Ajax said, “How are you now, Patroclus?”

“Good morning, Ajax,” Achilles said.

“What?” Ajax said.

“Good morning.”

“Yes, and it will be a good next day, too.”

Ajax exited.

“Why are these fellows acting like this?” Achilles said. “Don’t they know that I am Achilles?”

Patroclus said, “They pass by you as if you were a stranger. They used to bend their knee to you and to send their smiles before themselves to you, Achilles. They used to come to you as humbly as they used to approach holy altars.”

“Have I become poor recently?” Achilles said. “It is certain that a great man, once fallen out with fortune, and therefore out of luck, must fall out with men, too. What the man whose fortunes have declined is, he shall as soon read in the eyes of other people as feel in his own fall, for men, like butterflies, don’t show their powdered wings except to the summer. No man receives any honor for simply being a man; he receives honor for those honors that are outside him, such as social rank, riches, and favor. These are prizes of accident as often as they are prizes of merit. When these prizes fall, as is likely they will since they are slippery supports, the respect that leaned on them will be as slippery, too. One will fall and pull down another, and both of them will die in the fall. But it is not so with me: Fortune and I are friends. I still enjoy at the highest point all that I ever did possess, with the exception of these men’s looks, which once were respectful but now are not. These men, I think, have discovered something in me that is not worth such rich beholding as they have often previously given to me. Here is Ulysses; I’ll interrupt his reading.”

“How are you, Ulysses?” Achilles said.

Closing the book he had been looking at, Ulysses said, “Hello, great Thetis’ son!”

“What are you reading?”

Ulysses replied, “A strange fellow here writes, ‘That man, however dearly gifted by nature, however much he possesses in material objects, however blessed he is either outwardly or inwardly, cannot boast about having that which he has, and does not feel what he owns, except by reflection, as when his virtues shining upon others heat them and they return that heat again to the first giver.’”

A person cannot boast about great wealth unless there are other people to whom that person can boast; a person cannot know that he possesses a virtue such as courage unless that person exhibits courage to witnesses who then acknowledge that that person is courageous.

“This is not strange, Ulysses,” Achilles said. “A beautiful person does not know the beauty that is borne here in the face; the beauty presents itself to the eyes of other people. Also, the eye itself, sight being the purest of senses, does not behold itself; an eye cannot leave itself and turn around and look at itself. However, one eye opposed to another can salute each other with each other’s form; I can look at your eye, and you can look at my eye. Sight cannot look at itself until it has traveled and is mirrored in a place where it may see itself; we can see our eyes in a mirror or on the surface of calm water. This is not strange at all.”

“I do not have difficulty accepting the hypothesis — it is well known — but I have difficulty accepting the author’s conclusion,” Ulysses said. “The author, in his detailed argument, expressly proves that no man is the lord of anything, though in and of himself he possesses many good qualities, until he communicates his good qualities to other people. Nor does the man himself know that he possesses the good qualities until he beholds them formed in the applause of those people to whom they’re extended. These people, like an arch, echo the voice again, or, like a gate of steel facing the Sun, receive and render back his figure and his heat. In other words, the man displays the good qualities in front of and for the benefit of other people, they acknowledge the good qualities with applause, and the man knows for sure that he has the good qualities.”

Ulysses had said that he had difficulty accepting the author’s conclusion. His difficulty concerned reputation because a man could get an undeserved reputation for possessing qualities he did not actually possess; however, it is possible for a man to prove by his actions that he definitely possesses certain qualities. Ulysses wanted Achilles to show his good qualities; one way for Achilles to display his fighting ability was to battle the Trojans.

Ulysses continued, “I was much interested by what the author said, and I immediately thought of the unknown Ajax here. Heavens, what a man is there! A veritable horse, who has he knows not what. Nature, what things there are that are most despicable in reputation and yet are precious in use!

“And what things again are most dear in esteem and yet are poor in worth!

“Now we shall see tomorrow — an act that true chance throws upon him — Ajax renowned.”

Ulysses was referring to the duel that Ajax would fight with Hector the next day. Supposedly, chance — a lottery — had chosen Hector’s opponent, but Ulysses had rigged the lottery so that Ajax would be chosen.

He continued, “Oh, Heavens, what some men do, while some men leave undone! How some men creep into fickle Fortune’s hall, while others act like idiots in her eyes! Some people pursue Fortune’s gifts, while others neglect Fortune’s gifts. Some people move slowly and carefully to get Fortune’s gifts, while others showily act like idiots as they ignore Fortune’s gifts. How one man eats into another’s pride, while pride is fasting in his wantonness!”

Achilles was the man who was leaving things undone. He was not fighting on the battlefield. Ajax and Hector, however, were dueling the next day. Achilles was the man who was neglecting the gifts that Lady Fortune had given to him, while Ajax was the man approaching Lady Fortune and asking her for gifts. Achilles was the proud man who was fasting; he was not doing the things that would add to his reputation. Ajax was doing those things — dueling with Hector and fighting on the battlefield — and therefore he was eating and acquiring the pride that should have been Achilles’.

Part of Ulysses’ strategy to get Achilles to obey Agamemnon and return to fighting was to make him feel that Ajax was receiving the honor that Achilles should earn, and that Ajax did not deserve that honor.

Ulysses continued, “To see these Greek lords! Why, even already they clap the blundering Ajax on the shoulder, as if his foot were on brave Hector’s breast and the citizens of great Troy were shrieking at Hector’s death.”

“I believe it,” Achilles said, “for the Greek lords passed by me the way that misers pass by beggars; they gave to me neither respectful words or looks. Have my deeds been forgotten?”

Ulysses replied, “Time has, my lord, a bag on his back in which he puts good deeds that are destined for oblivion, which is a huge monster of ingratitude. Things that ought to be remembered are instead forgotten. Those good deeds are past good deeds; they are devoured as fast as they are made, and they are forgotten as soon as they are done. Perseverance, my dear lord, keeps honor bright. To continue to be honored and respected, you must continue to do deeds that bring you honor and respect. If you stop doing those deeds, you become quite out of fashion; you are like a rusty coat of armor hanging on the wall — a monument that mocks past deeds.

“Take the quickest way, for honor travels in a cramped passage so narrow that only one can walk abreast at a time. Keep then to the path, for emulation and ambitious rivalry have a thousand sons that in single file pursue you. If you give way, or deviate from the direct and straight path, then they will all rush by you like a tide flooding in and leave you behind. Or if you give way, or deviate from the direct and straight path, then like a gallant horse fallen in the front line, you will lie there and serve as pavement for the abject and despicable soldiers in the rear; you will be run over and trampled on.

“Then what deeds people do in the present, although those deeds are less than your past deeds, must overtop and surpass your deeds because time is like a fashionable host who slightly shakes hands with his parting guest, and with his arms outstretched, as if he would fly, embraces the newcomer. Welcome always smiles, and farewell goes out sighing.

“Oh, let not virtue seek remuneration for the thing it was because beauty, wit and intelligence, high birth, vigor of body, desert in service, love, friendship, and charity are all subject to envious and slanderous time.

“One trait of human nature makes everyone in the whole world kin — all with one consent praise new and gaudy toys, although they are made and molded of old things, and they give more praise to dust that is sprinkled with a little gold than they give to gold that is sprinkled with a little dust. The present eye praises the present object; what gets praised is what is in front of people’s eyes.

“Then marvel not, you great and complete man, that all the Greeks begin to worship Ajax since things in motion sooner catch the eye than what does not stir or move. The cry of approval went once to you, and still it might, and yet it may again, if you would not entomb yourself alive and encase your reputation in your tent. Your glorious deeds, which you displayed in the fields of battle recently, made the envious gods go to war themselves and even drove great Mars to take sides in the war.”

Mars supported the Trojans and even occasionally fought in battles on their side.

“I have strong reasons for my isolation,” Achilles said.

“But the reasons against your isolation are more potent and heroic,” Ulysses said, adding, “It is known, Achilles, that you are in love with one of Priam’s daughters.”

“Really!” Achilles said. “It is known!”

“Is that a surprise?” Ulysses asked. “The providential foresight that’s in a watchful government knows almost every grain of gold belonging to the god of the underworld, Pluto. It finds the bottom in the incomprehensible deeps of the sea, it keeps pace with thought and it almost, like the gods, unveils thoughts as soon as they are born and placed in their dumb cradles.”

In other words, the leaders of the Greek army had a very good spy network.

Ulysses continued, “The heart of the government is a mystery, a secret — which open discussion dares never meddle with. It has an operation more divine than breath and speech or pen and writing can give expression to.

“All the commerce and interaction that you have had with Troy we know about as well as you do, my lord, and it would be more fitting for Achilles to throw down Hector in the dust than Hector’s sister Polyxena on a bed.

“But it must grieve your son, the young Pyrrhus Neoptolemus, who is now at home in Greece, when rumor shall in our islands sound her trumpet, and all the Greek girls shall dance and sing, ‘Great Hector’s sister did Achilles win, but our great Ajax bravely beat down him.’”

The word “him” was ambiguous and referred to both Hector and Achilles. Ajax beat down Hector by defeating him in battle or a duel, and Ajax beat down Achilles by acquiring a greater reputation in war than Achilles did.

Ulysses concluded, “Farewell, my lord. I speak as your friend when I say that the fool slides over the ice that you should break.”

The fool is Ajax, who skates over ice and does not break it. Achilles, in contrast, would break the ice. He is the one who would make a good beginning in a difficult enterprise. He would be like a big ship that goes first and breaks the ice so that other, smaller ships can follow in his wake. He is the warrior who would break the line of the opposing warriors.

Ulysses exited, leaving Achilles with things to think about.

Patroclus said, “To this effect, Achilles, have I appealed to you. A woman who is impudent and mannish is not more loathed than an effeminate man during a time in which action is required. The woman here is Polyxena, who is impudent and like a man because she loves a warrior who is an enemy to her city and family. The man is me, who stands condemned because the other Greek warriors think my little stomach for the war and your great friendship for me restrains you and keeps you away from the war. Sweet Achilles, rouse yourself; and the weak, wanton Cupid shall from your neck unloose his amorous fold, and, like a dew-drop from the lion’s mane, Cupid shall be shook into the air. Give up Polyxena, and go to war.”

“Shall Ajax fight with Hector?” Achilles asked.

“Yes, and perhaps he will receive much honor by dueling him,” Patroclus said.

“I see that my reputation is at stake,” Achilles said. “My fame is seriously and deeply wounded.”

“Oh, then, beware,” Patroclus said. “Wounds that men give themselves heal badly. Neglecting to do what is necessary gives a blank check to danger, and danger, like a fever, deceitfully infects us even when we sit idly in the Sun.”

In this culture, people believed that sitting in the sunshine in March could give one a fever.

“Go call the Fool Thersites here, sweet Patroclus,” Achilles said. “I’ll send the Fool to Ajax and ask him to invite the Trojan lords here to see us unarmed after the combat. I have a woman’s longing, an appetite that I am sick with, to see great Hector in his clothing of peace rather than in his armor, to talk with him and to wholly see his face rather than to see only the little that is visible when he wears a helmet.”

Thersites came walking over to them.

Seeing Thersites, Achilles said, “A labor saved!”

“A wonder!” Thersites said.

“What?” Achilles asked.

“Ajax goes up and down the field, asking for himself,” Thersites said.

If Ajax were asking for himself, he was asking for a jakes — a toilet.

“How so?” Achilles asked.

“He must fight a duel tomorrow with Hector, and he is so prophetically proud of an heroic cudgeling that he raves in saying nothing,” Thersites said.

Ajax was confident that he would defeat Hector the following day. Thersites was equally confident that Hector would defeat Ajax.

“How can that be?” Achilles asked.

“Why, Ajax stalks up and down like a peacock, a symbol of pride — a stride and a stop. He ruminates like a hostess who has no arithmetic but her brain to add up and set down the customers’ bill. He bites his lip with a shrewd regard, attempting to look intelligent, as who should say, ‘There is intelligence in this head, as all would know if it would get out,’ and so there is, but the intelligence in his head lies as coldly in him as fire in a piece of flint, which will not show itself without knocking the flint against metal. To get to Ajax’ intelligence, you will have to break his head.

“Ajax is undone — ruined — forever because if Hector does not break Ajax’ neck in the duel, Ajax will break his own neck in vainglory, aka excessive vanity.

“Ajax doesn’t know me. I said, ‘Good morning, Ajax,’ and he replied, ‘Thanks, Agamemnon.’ What do you think of this man who mistakes me for the general? He’s grown and become a very land-fish — a fish on land — without knowledge of language and unable to speak, aka a monster.

“A plague on opinion and reputation! A man may wear it on both sides, like a reversible leather jacket.”

Opinion and reputation are two sides of the same coin, or of the two sides — inside and outside — of a reversible leather jacket. Opinion is inside a man; it is what he thinks about himself. Reputation is outside a man; it is what other people say about him. Both opinion and reputation can ruin a man. Ulysses had wanted to build up Ajax’ pride in order to bring Achilles’ pride down, but Ajax was well on his way to becoming as proud as Achilles.

“You must be my ambassador to Ajax, Thersites,” Achilles said.

“Who, I?” Thersites replied. “Why, he’ll answer nobody; he practices not answering. Speaking is for beggars; he wears his tongue in his arms — he lets his fighting do his speaking for him. I will pretend to be him: Let Patroclus ask me questions as if I were Ajax, and you shall see a play starring Ajax.”

“Do it, Patroclus,” Achilles said. “Tell him that I humbly desire the valiant Ajax to invite the most valorous Hector to come unarmed to my tent, and to procure safe-conduct for his person from the magnanimous and most illustrious six-or-seven-times-honored captain-general of the Greek army, Agamemnon, et cetera. Do this.”

“Jove bless great Ajax!” Patroclus said.

“Hmm!” Thersites replied in the character of Ajax.

“I come from the worthy Achilles —” Patroclus began.


“— who most humbly desires you to invite Hector to his tent —”


“— and to procure safe-conduct from Agamemnon.”


“Yes, my lord.”


“What do you say to this request?”

“God be with you, with all my heart, and goodbye,” Thersites replied in the character of Ajax.

“What is your answer, sir?” Patroclus asked.

“If tomorrow is a fair day, by eleven o’clock it will go one way or the other, and we will know who has won the duel; howsoever it turns out, Hector shall receive a beating before he beats me.”

“What is your answer, sir?” Patroclus asked again.

“Fare you well, with all my heart, and goodbye,” Thersites replied in the character of Ajax.

Achilles asked, “Why, but Ajax is not in this tune, is he? He isn’t really in this state of mind, is he?”

“No, he is not in this tune, but he’s out of tune just the way I have portrayed him,” Thersites replied. “What music will be in him when Hector has knocked out his brains, I don’t know; but, I am sure, none, unless the fiddler-god Apollo get Ajax’ sinews to make musical strings from.”

“Come, you shall carry a letter to Ajax immediately,” Achilles said.

“Let me carry another letter to Ajax’ horse; for that’s the more capable creature,” Thersites said.

“My mind is troubled, like a stirred fountain that is clouded with sediment,” Achilles said, “and I myself cannot see its bottom.”

Achilles and Patroclus exited.

Alone, Thersites said to himself, “I wish the fountain of your mind were clear again, so that I might bring to drink an ass — Ajax — at it! I had rather be a tick on a sheep than such a valiant ignorant fool as Ajax.”


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved




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