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Page of Swords - Thersites

Dramatis Personae: Thersites.

Text & Context: Homer called Thersites "the ugliest man who came to Troy - who says what everyone else is thinking." Lame and obscene, Thersites is beaten with Agamemnon's scepter by Ulysses for calumniating the Greeks for the vain idiocy of their war with Troy. Ulysses himself, it will be remembered, refused to fight, hiding in the clothes of a woman and feigning insanity. Thersites, then, is a whipping-boy and scape-goat for the truth Homer and his hero Ulysses cannot say themselves. This understanding of Thersites as social critic, devised by the author to both air his dissent and disguise it, was advanced by such later philosophers as Hegel, Nietzsche, Burke, and Marx, and is known as Thersitism.

 Shakespeare's Thersites plays the same role in Troilus & Cressida, mixed with the author's stock fool character. He may most resemble Lear's Fool, but in this play of radically black satire and malignant covetousness his role as unequivocal outsider is stretched beyond the limits of psychic endurance. Like Priam's daughter Cassandra, his protestations, sound or otherwise, go ignored.


 Of unknown parentage, when Thersites encounters Priam's illegitimate son Margarelon, he stands up for bastards in a way Edmund's gods never did -

I am a bastard too; I love bastards: I am a bastard 
begot, bastard instructed, bastard in mind, bastard 
in valour, in every thing illegitimate. One bear will 
not bite another, and wherefore should one bastard?
Take heed, the quarrel's most ominous to us: if the 
son of a whore fight for a whore, he tempts judgment: 
farewell, bastard.


Unlike Ulysses and Agamemnon who disappear before the fighting starts, Thersites is Achilles' slave, forced to fight against his will, disappearing during the play's final battle scene. One story has Achilles killing the Amazon Queen Penthesilea and committing necrophilia with her corpse; Thersites mocks his master and in turn is slain by him. Plato gives Thersites as an example of a soul that can be redeemed in the afterlife, choosing to be reborn as an ape [cf. Apemantis, Poet-Ape]. 

Intertext: Cups 3 Troilus, Pandarus, & Cressida

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