Thersites the Anti-Hero
Although set firmly within it, I see Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida as no extension of the Epic Cycle, but rather a tactically positioned critique of its classical hero culture. This does not by any means suggest an assault on Homer, the epic poets, or epic poetry itself, yet a tone of resounding polemic serves to subdue heroic egos, question the Greeks’ concrete moral code and disparage war’s effect on love. Using the backdrop of the most iconic scene in Greek literature – the Trojan War – a mockery is made of the Champions at Troy.
How does Shakespeare go about this? An undeniable aspect of the play, especially in contrast to Homer’s Iliad, is the sharp inversion of who is to be deemed superior to whom. Is the strongest warrior to be lauded most highly? The wittiest? The most temperate? The wisest? Take for example Nestor, who’s form was considered best to assume by the Zeus-sent dream in order to inveigle Agamemnon, on account of his ἡδυπής, and that he was μάλιστα γερόντων τῖ ‘ Ἀγαμέμνων (Iliad I.248; II.21). Equally pertinent is Homer’s description of Ajax as ἀνδρῶν αὖ μέγ’ ἄριστος (Iliad II.768). When the string of other glowing epithets attached to the rest of Homer’s heroes are considered, it becomes apparent that on the surface at least, these men are to be seen as paragons of human excellence. Shakespeare par contra cynically undermines each of these characters’ qualities with jibes from the play’s more cutting characters. Ajax turns from Homeric bulwark to Shakespearean buffoon, and Odysseus addresses Nestor: ‘thou, most reverend for thy stretched-out life’, and ‘hatched in silver’ (T&C I.3.61-62), clear appropriation of the Homeric style and perverted to present a man well-past his prime, listened to only because of his age. In doing so, does Odysseus become more worthy owing to his wit? His intelligence? Given the eloquence and depth of his speech on social hierarchy (T&C I.3.74-137), is he now to be lauded as an example of brains over brawn? Alas, the negative connotations of his conniving machinations later on are to further complicate the matter of which hero is to be respected. With repeated examples of this deflation of Homer’s heroes, their actual worth begins to be called into question.
This confusion as to which character the audience should throw in their sympathies with is a vortex propelled by the surprising stage-time of the caustic and ‘porpentine’ Thersites. Through this physically and verbally abhorrent man, Shakespeare hurls invective at most of the Achaean characters, and whichever Trojans Thersites happens to come across. So strong is the abuse of Thersites against the Homeric heroes that it is difficult to dismiss him as anything but a major character, and his wit is such that one cannot help but feel the sting that his targets must suffer. But what is his purpose? It seems to me that his demeanour, acerbic tongue and general ugliness are but a personalised representation of the Trojan war at large – itself an ugly affair, full of petty squabbles, empty bragging and gratuitous violence. To say that Shakespeare intends for Thersites to be his mouthpiece in voicing displeasure at and concerning the Homeric heroes is not a difficult task. In the Iliad, Thersites is most famously found railing against Agamemnon, calling the latter out on his greed and lust for power, described by Homer as wont ‘to lock horns with his leaders’ (Iliad II.213: ἐριζέμεναι βασιλεῦσιν). And yet despite the crudity and ludicrousness of his words and appearance, his complaints are not without kernels of truth, as though Homer is catering to an audience who will respond to the grandeur of heroism, while disguising pacifistic sympathies in the unloved Thersites. Unfortunately for poor Thersites, his ramblings are met with violence from Odysseus, who soon beats him into silence. Shakespeare’s Thersites does not receive the same treatment, but behaves in the same way, saying similar things, acting as an undisguised assailant of the Trojan war and its fighters. Shakespeare was not the only one to pick up on Homer’s subtle use of Thersites speech, for Goethe too has the querulous little man attack common conceptions of lofty deeds and lowly people (Faust II.2.5457-5470). Taking these impression of the character into consideration, his use in Troilus and Cressida seems clear; as a disparaging tool to voice dissatisfaction with the excessive violence in not just the Trojan war, but war in general – a phenomenon which does no good for anyone, least of all Troilus in pursuit of Cressida, Achilles of glory and Agamemnon of victory.