Dissention Ajax, in his tent at the Grecian camp, has been waiting to learn the news. “Thersites!” he calls, even as his unsavory servant arrives. Both are drunk.
The threadbare gentleman poses a facetious question: “Agamemnon—what if he had boils?—full, all over—generally”—a play on the king’s military role.
Ajax is impatient. “Thersites—”
“And those boils did run. Say it were so; would not the general run, then?—were not that a botchy score!” He laughs, delighted with the jest.
“Dog!” growls Ajax, blearily.
“Then would come some matter from him! I see none now!”
“Thou bitch-wolf’s son, canst thou not hear?” Ajax knocks off the other’s hat. “Feel, then!”
“The plague of grease upon thee, thou mongrel, beef-witted lord!” cries Thersites, recovering the spotted black felt.
“Speak now, you sinewless heathen, speak! Or I will beat thee into handsomeness!”—a considerable transformation.
Says Thersites, “I shall as easily rail thee into wit and holiness! But I think thy horse will sooner memorize an oration than thou learn a prayer without book!” Thersites rubs his sore head. “Thou canst strike, canst thou? A red murrain o’ thy jade’s tricks!”
“Toadstool, learn me the proclamation!” He wants to know what Agamemnon has just announced.
Thersites pouts. “Dost thou think I have no sense, thou strikest me thus?”
“Thou art proclaimed a fool, I think!”
Ajax raises a warning hand. “Do not, porpentine!—do not! My fingers itch…!”
“I would thou didst itch—from head to foot!—and I had the scratching of thee! I would make thee the loathsomest scab in Greece! When thou art forth in the incursions, then thou strikest as slow as any other!”—a petulant dig; when the sluggish warrior’s sword does move, it is deadly.
“Ay!—say the proclamation!”
“Thou grumblest and railest every hour about Achilles, and thou art as full of envy for his greatness as Cerberus is for Proserpine’s beauty!” The hideous, canine beast guards the entrance to Hades, where she is a goddess. “Aye, so much that thou barkest at him!”
Ajax is livid. “Mistress Thersites…!”
“Shouldest thou strike him—”
“Cobloaf!”—pile of shit.
“—he would pound thee into shivers with his fist!—as a sailor breaks a biscuit!”
“Do, do!” the thin gentleman urges—while ducking away.
“Thou stool of a witch!”
“Aye, do, do, thou sodden-witted lord! Thou hast no more brain than I have in mine elbow—an echo may tutor thee! Thou scurrilously valiant ass!—thou art here but to thrash Trojans, and thou art bought and sold among those of any wit like a barbarian slave!”
Thersites dodges the warrior’s heavy fist. “If thou would beat me,” he warns, circling around a big table, “I will begin at thy heel, and tell what thou art by inches,”—at length, “thou thing of no bowels, thou!”
“You scurvy lord!”
Ajax swings at him again. “You cur!”
Cries Thersites, from several feet away, “Mars’s idiot! Do, rudeness! Do, camel!—do, do!”
Noise of the squabble has drawn their massive neighbor and his younger companion, Patroclus. “Why, how now, Ajax?—wherefore do you thus?” demands Achilles, stepping between the tottering belligerents. “How now, Thersites? What’s the matter, man?”
Thersites points. “You see him there, do you?”
“Aye; what’s the matter?”
“Nay, look upon him!”
Achilles looks. “So I do: what’s the matter?”
“Nay, but regard him well!”
“Why, I do so….”
“And yet you look upon him not well!—for whosoever you take him to be, he is Ajax!”
Ajax blunders toward him again. “For that I’ll beat thee!”
Thersites backs away unsteadily. “Lo, lo, lo, lo, what modicums of wit he utters! His effusions have ears thus long!”—are brayings, he gibes, motioning about his own ears. “I have tapped on his brain more than he has beat my bones! I can buy nine sparrows for a penny, but his pia mater”—mind—“is not worth the ninth part of one sparrow!
“This lord, Achilles—Ajax, who wears his wit in his belly and his guts in his head—I’ll tell you what I say of him!”
“What?” asks the huge visitor, grinning.
“I say: this Ajax—”
His target moves again to pound him, but Achilles bars the way: “Nay, good Ajax!”
“—has not so much wit—”
Achilles restrains Ajax. “Nay, I must hold you!”
“—as will fill the eye of Helen’s needle,”—a rude analogy, “for which he comes to fight!”
“Peace, fool!” laughs Achilles; he is bigger than Ajax, but controlling him, even when the man is sodden, is difficult.
“I would have peace and quietness, but the fool will not!” shouts Thersites. “He there! That he! Look you there!” he insists, mocking the man who always wants attention.
Ajax is furious. “Oh, thou damnèd cur! I shall—”
Achilles interrupts with a proverbial question: “Will you set your wit to a fool’s?”—and thus both demean his own and dignify the other’s.
Thersites interjects: “No, I warrant you!—for a fool’s will shame it!”
Patroclus is amused. “Good words, Thersites!”
Achilles asks Ajax, “What’s the quarrel?”
“I bade the vile owl go learn for me the tenor of the proclamation—and he rails upon me!”
“I serve thee not!” says Thersites, resigning his post with tipsy dignity.
“Well, go to, go to,” says Ajax, calming a little; he does very little himself—and wants to do no more.
“I served here voluntarily.”
Achilles laughs. “Your last service was sufferance, ’twas not voluntary!—no man is beaten voluntarily! Ajax was here the volunteer, and you one under an impress!”—conscripted into service.
“E’en so,” admits the drunken Thersites. But he looks up churlishly: “A great deal of your wit, too, lies in your sinews, or else there be liars. Hector will have a great catch if he knock out either of your brains!—it were as good as cracking a fusty nut with no kernel!”
Achilles is amazed at the small man’s temerity: “What?—with me too, Thersites?”
The sometime sycophant persists: “There’s Ulysses and old Nestor, whose wit was mouldyere your grandsires had nails on their toes, who yoke you like draught-oxen, and make you plough up their wars!”
Now Achilles frowns. “What, what?”
“Yes, good sooth!—you too, Achilles! To, Ajax!—go to!”
Ajax glowers. “I shall cut out your tongue!”
“’Tis no matter,” Thersites replies, “I shall speak as much as thou afterwards!”
“No more words,” says Patroclus soothingly. “Thersites, peace!”
Thersites sneers. “I will hold my peace when Achilles’ brach”—bitch—“bids me, shall I?”
Achilles laughs, noting the reward given his friend’s kindly effort. “There’s for you, Patroclus!”
Thersites rages on. “I will see you hanged like clotpolls”—blockheaded string puppets—“ere I come any more to your tents! I will keep where there is wit stirring, and leave the faction of fools!”
Achilles informs the glumly silent Ajax: “Marry, sir, this is proclaimèd through all our host: that by the fifth hour of the sun tomorrow morning, Hector will, with a trumpet ’twixt our tents and Troy, call to arms some knight who hath a stomach,”—guts, “and is such a one that dare maintain….” He blinks and winces, trying to recall the full challenge. “I know not what—’tis trash.
“Farewell,” says Ajax. But then he asks, “Who shall answer him?”
“I know not; ’tis put to lottery—otherwise he knew his man!” says Achilles proudly, as he leaves.