Clever Deceptions Just outside Achilles’ capacious tent in the Greeks’ sprawling encampment, a seedy civilian paces, complaining to himself, his vexation in sobriety aggravated by a headache and queasy stomach. How now, Thersites! What?—lost in the labyrinth of thy fury!
Shall the elephant Ajax carry it thus? He beats me, and I rail at him—oh, worthy satisfaction! Would it were otherwise: that I could beat him whilst he railed at me! ’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 enginer! If Troy be not taken till those two undermine it, —tunnel beneath the city— 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 ye take not that little, little, less-than-little wit from them that they have!—which short-armed Ignorance itself knows is so abundantly scarce in circumvention it will not deliver a fly from a spider without their drawing massive irons and cutting the web!
After that, a vengeance on the whole camp! Or rather, the bone-ache! —syphilis. For that, methinks, is the curse descendent on those that war over a placket!—a crude term for part of a woman.
I have said my prayers—and, devil Envy, say ‘Amen!’
He turns to the tent with determination. “What ho! My Lord Achilles!”
“Who’s there?” The canvas entrance-flap opens, and Patroclus emerges. “Thersites. Good Thersites, come in and rail!” he says—blocking the way.
Says Thersites, “If I could have remembered a gilded counterfeit, thou wouldst not have slipped out of my contemplation. But it is no matter. Thyself upon thyself: may the common curse of mankind, folly in ignorance, be thine in great revenue! May heaven bless thee from a tutor, and discipline come not near thee!
“Let thy blood”—lust—“be thy direction till thy death! Then, if she that lays thee outsays thou art a fair corpse, I’ll be sworn—swear upon’t!—she never shrouded any but lazars!”—had buried only lepers. He glances up. “Amen!” He glares at the dim knight. “Where’s Achilles?”
Patroclus blinks, not understanding. “What, art thou devout? Wast thou in prayer?”
“Aye—the heavens hear me!” mutters downtrodden Thersites. He can see Achilles in the tent.
“Who’s there?” calls the famous warrior.
“Thersites, my lord,” says Patroclus.
Thersites’ eyes roll as Achilles steps outside, ready to be amused.
“Art thou come?” asks the champion. “Why hast thou not served thyself unto my table for so many meals? Why, my cheese, my digestion!”—pleasant dessert. He thus welcomes Thersites, newly employed to be his jester. He asks, in a merry mood, expecting a droll description, “Come, what’s Agamemnon?”
“Agamemnon is a fool for attempting to command Achilles; Achilles is a fool to be commanded by Agamemnon. Thersites is a fool to serve such a fool—and Patroclus is a fool positive!”—absolute.
Achilles frowns. “Why am I a fool?”
“Make that demand of the prover!”— yourself. “It suffices me thou art.”
Thersites sees that Achilles has not enjoyed the quiddities; he points to a party of tall warriors. “Look you: who comes here?”
Achilles is still dodging duty. “Patroclus, I’ll speak with nobody.” He grins. “Come in with me, Thersites.”
Smarting as he follows him into the tent, Thersites glances back at the arriving commanders. He shares in the lords’ material accommodations, but not in their vainglorious notions of gallantry. Here is such patchery, such juggling, and such knavery! All the argument is a cuckold and a whore!—a fine quarrel to draw envious factions, and bleed to death upon! He pictures Helen. Now the dry ringworm upon the subject! And war and lechery confound all!
King Agamemnon has come through the camp, bringing Nestor, Ulysses and his friend Diomedes, a handsome nobleman whose curly black hair is touched at the temples with silver—and a very piqued Ajax. “Where is Achilles?” demands the Greeks’ general.
Patroclus bows. “Within his tent—but ill-disposèd, my lord.”
Agamemnon is annoyed. “Let it be known to him that we are here. He sent back our messengers!—and we lay by our appertainments,”—forgo due respect, “in visiting him!
“Let him be told so,” he says imperiously, “lest perchance he think we dare not move the question of our place,”—exercise authority, “or know not what we are!”
Patroclus bows again. “I shall say so to him.” He hastens inside.
“We saw him at the opening of this tent,” notes Ulysses. “He is not sick.”
“Yes, lion-sick—sick of proud heart!” cries Ajax angrily. “You may call it melancholy, if you will favour the man; but by my head ’tis pride! But why, why?Let him show us cause!”—justification. “A word, my lord.” He draws Agamemnon aside to complain privately.
Nestor watches the irate man’s protesting gesticulation. “What moves Ajax thus to bay at him?”
“Achilles hath inveigled his fool from him.”
Nestor laughs. “Then will Ajax lack argument, if he have lost his matter!” The jest also plays on pia mater.
Ulysses grins, watching Ajax point at the tent. “No… you see—he is his argument who has his argument: Achilles.”
“All the better,” says the ancient. “Their fraction is more our wish than their faction. But it was no strong composure that could disunite a fool.”
Ulysses nods. “The amity that wisdom knits not, folly may easily untie. Here comes Patroclus.”
“No Achilles with him,” Nestor notes.
Ulysses is not surprised. “The elephant hath joints, but none for courtesy: his legs are legs for necessity, not for flexure!”—kneeling.
Patroclus bows again as he returns to Agamemnon. “Achilles bids me say he is much sorry if anything more than your sport and pleasure did move Your Greatness and this noble state to call upon him. He hopes it is no other but for your health and your digestion’s sake—an after-dinner breath.”
Agamemnon fumes. “Hear you, Patroclus! We are too well acquainted with these answers!
“But his evasion, wingèd thus swiftly with scorn, cannot outfly our apprehending! Much in attribute he hath, and much is the reason that we ascribe it to him; yet all his virtues, not virtuously upheld on his own part, do in our eyes begin to lose their gloss!—yea, like fair fruit in an unwholesome dish, are likely to rot, untasted!
“Go and tell him wecome to speak with him! And you shall not sin if you do say we think him over-proud and under-honest—greater in assumptionthan in the note of judgment!
“And worthier persons than himself here note the savage strangeness he puts on!—despises the holy strengths of their command, and underwrites in an observing kind his own mercurial predominance!—yea, watch his pettish lunes, his ebbs, his flows, as if the passage and whole carriage of this action rode on his tide!
“Go tell him this—and add that if he overhold his price so much, we’ll none of him!—and let him, like an engine not portable, lie under this report: ‘Bring action hither; this cannot go to war!’
“A stirring dwarf we do give allowance before a sleeping giant! Tell him so!”
“I shall,” says Patroclus, his face pale, “and bring his answer immediately.”
“In second voice we’ll not be satisfied! We come to speak with him!” calls Agamemnon as the knight goes. After a moment, he motions, “Ulysses, enter you!” The Ithican king nods and goes into the tall tent.
Frustration is still growing in envious Ajax. He asks the general, “What is he more than another?”
“No more than what he thinks he is!” says Agamemnon, disgusted.
Ajax blinks. “Is he that much?” He ponders. “Do you not think he thinks himself a better man than I am?”
“Will you subscribe his thought, and say he is?”
“No, noble Ajax; you are as strong, as valiant, as wise—no less noble, much more gentle—and altogether more tractable.”
Ajax, thinking himself flattered, shrugs. “Why should a man be proud? How doth pride grow? I know not what pride is,” he brags, with unintended irony.
“Your mind is the clearer, Ajax, and your virtues the fairer,” says Agamemnon—suppressing a smile, given the low scale of comparison. “He that is proud eats up himself! Pride is his own looking glass, his own trumpet, his own chronicle; but whatever praises itself beyond the deed, devours the deed in the praise.”
Says Ajax, “I do hate a proud man as I hate the engendering of toads!”
Thinks Nestor, Yet he loves himself!—is’t not strange?
Ulysses comes from the tent. “Achilles will not go to the field tomorrow.”
“What’s his excuse?” demands Agamemnon.
“He doth rely on none, but carries on in the stream of his repose—in peculiar will, and in self-permission, without observance or respect for any!”
The king stares. “Why, will he not upon our fair request untent his person, and share the air with us?”
“For respect’s sake he makes important only things small as nothing,” Ulysses reports. “He is possessed with greatness, and speaks not of himself but with a pride that quarrels as it’s breathèd! Imagined worth holds in his blood such swollen and hot discourse that, ’twixt his mental and his active parts’ kingdoms, Achilles in commotion rages—and batters down himself!
“What should I say? He is so plaguy proud that the death-tokens”—warning symptoms—“of it cry ‘No recovery!’”
“Let Ajax go to him,” says Agamemnon. He turns to the huge man. “Dear lord, go you and greet him in his tent. ’Tis said he holds you well, and will be led, at your request, a little from himself.”
Ulysses objects—theatrically: “Oh, Agamemnon, let it not be so! We’ll consecrate the steps that Ajax makes—when they go from Achilles!
“Shall the proud lord that bastes his arrogance in his own steam, and never suffers matters of the world to enter his thoughts—save such as do revolve and ruminate about himself!—shall he be worshipped by one that we hold more an idol than he?
“No!” cries Ulysses. “This thrice-worthy and right valiant lord must not so stale his palm,”—tarnish his military honors, “nobly acquired! Nor, by my will, subjugate his merit—as amply titled as Achilles’ is—by going to Achilles! That were to enlarge his fat-already pride, and add more coals to Cancer when it burns with entertaining great Hyperion!” The northern constellation’s stars dance before the blazing sun at the start of summer.
“This lord go to him? Jupiter forbid!—and say in thunder, ‘Achilles, go to him!’”
- At the side, Nestor quietly tells Diomedes, “Oh, this is well!—he rubs what’s vain in him!”
- Diomedes is watching Ajax. “And how his silence drinks up this applause!”
Says Ajax, “If I go to him, with my armèd fist I’ll pash him across the face!”
“Oh, no, you shall not go,” says Agamemnon, seeming concerned.
Ajax continues dimly: “If he be proud with me, I’ll freeze his pride! Let me go to him!”
Ulysses is adamant. “Not for all the worth that hangs upon our quarrel!” He sees Nestor smile at that irony.
Ajax grumbles, staring at the closed canvas flap of Achilles’ tent, “A paltry, insolent fellow!”
- Nestor tsk-tsks: “How he describes himself!”
Always-truculent Ajax frowns, resenting the champion’s absence. “Can he not be sociable?”
Ajax scowls. “I’ll let his humour’s blood!”—cure the sickness by bleeding, a common remedy.
- Says Agamemnon, “He would be the physician who should be the patient!”
Ajax’s temper is rising. “If all men were o’ my mind—”
- “Wit would be out of fashion,” says Ulysses.
“—he should not bear it so! He should eat ’s words first! Shall pride carry it?”
- “If it did,you’dcarry half,” chuckles Nestor.
- Ulysses amends: “He’d have ten shares!”—all of them.
Ajax cogitates, in his fashion: “I will knead him! I’ll make him supple!”
- Nestor whispers to Agamemnon: “He’s not yet thoroughly warmed; fill him with praises! Pour in, pour in! His ambition is dry!”
Ulysses speaks up, telling Ajax, solicitously, “My lord, you feed too much on this dislike.”
Nestor nods, “Our noble general, do not do so!”
Diomedes tells Agamemnon, mournfully, “You must prepare to fight without Achilles.”
“Why, ’tis this naming of him does him harm!” says Ulysses. He turns and looks admiringly upon Ajax. “Here is a man!—” He pauses. “But ’tis before his face; I will be silent….”
“Wherefore should you do so?” asks Nestor. “He is not emulous, as Achilles is.”
Ulysses nods. “The whole world knows he is as valiant!”
Nearly lost in indignation, Ajax is muttering to himself. “A whoreson dog, that shall palter thus with us! Would he were a Trojan!”
The others comment: “What a vice were it in Ajax now,” says Nestor. “…If he were proud—” says Ulysses. “Or covetous of praise—” says Diomedes. “Aye, or surly borne—” says Ulysses. “Or strange, or self-affected!” adds Diomedes.
Their sarcasm is lost on Ajax, and Ulysses claps him on the back. “Thank the heavens, lord, thou art of sweet composure; praise him that begot thee, she that gave thee suckle! Famèd be thy tutor, and thy parts in nature thrice famed—beyond all erudition!
“And as for thy vigour, bull-bearing Milo yields his renown to sinewy Ajax!” As Ajax bears this bull, Ulysses continues: “I will not thy wisdom give praise—which, like a bourn, a pale, a shore, confines thy spacious and dilated parts!
“Here’s Nestor, instructed by the antiquary times; he must—he is—he cannot but be wise!
“But, pardon, father Nestor: were your days as green as Ajax’ and your brain so tempered, you should not have the eminence of him, but only be as Achilles!”
Ajax can only blink again in pleased amazement; he looks at Nestor. “Shall I call you Father?”
That nobleman—who, oddly enough, is touched—smiles kindly. “Aye, my good son.”
“Be ruled by him, Lord Ajax,” Diomedes advises.
“There’s no good tarrying here,” Ulysses now tells them, “the hart Achilles keeps to the thicket.
“Please it our great general to call together all his state of war. Fresh kings are come to Troy.” The Trojans’ allies from the south, in Asia Minor, are coming to help fight the Greeks. “Tomorrow we must with all of our main power stand fast!”
He beams at Ajax. “And here’s a lord! Come knights now from east to west, then cull their flowers—Ajax shall cope the best!”
“Go we to council!” says Agamemnon. “Let Achilles sleep! Light boats sail swift, though greater hulls draw deep.”
Ajax, something of a barge, is drawn along.
Pandarus calls, “Friend—you! Pray you, a word; do not you follow the young Lord Paris?”
“Aye, sir—when he goes before me,” replies the stuffy steward, coming into a courtyard of King Priam’s palace. Musicians seated on stone benches by the walls are opening their instrument cases.
“You depend upon him, I mean.”
“Sir, I do depend upon the Lord.”
“You depend upon a noble gentleman; I must needs praise him!”
“The Lord be praised.”
Pandarus smiles. “You know me, do you not?”
“’Faith, sir, superficially.” His tone implies as superficial.
Pandarus smiles warmly. “Friend, know me better; I am the Lord Pandarus!”
The steward is aware of his questionable reputation. “I hope I’ll know your honour better.”
Pandarus has heard know Your Honor better. “I do desire it!”
“Then you are in the state of grace,” says the man sanctimoniously.
“Grace?” Pandarus is puzzled. “Not so, friend—Honour and Lordship”—Your Honor, Your Lordship—“are my titles!” He hears the flutes and stringed instruments beginning to play. “What music is this?”