Robert H. Bell
“But after all, what is the whole subject matter of that revered poem the Iliad but ‘the broils of foolish kings and the foolish populace’?”—Desiderius Erasmus (The Praise of Folly)
Human folly at Troy is rampant, starting with the Greek king and commander Agamemnon, who recklessly insults Achilles, refuses to apologize, and suddenly, inexplicably, decides to test the resolve of his army. Declaring the end of the siege, the king is flummoxed when his troops flock eagerly to their ships. The Greek cause appears lost. Suddenly steps forth a remarkable, puzzling figure: “Thersites of the endless speech,” who “knew within his head many words, but disorderly;/vain, and without decency, to quarrel with the princes/with any word he thought might be amusing to the Argives.”
Who is Thersites? Not even Homer seems to know. The single orator in the Iliad unidentified by rank, patronymic, or place of origin, his name suggests “loud-mouth” and “courage,” in the sense of boldness, impudence. Reputedly the ugliest man at Troy, he surpasses his glowing, glowering peers for sheer repulsiveness. Since only one other Iliadic character is individuated by appearance and few ever described physically, the elaborate delineation of an apparently minor, fleeting figure is striking. The bard oddly highlights and seemingly undermines Thersites. Deformed and despised, Thersites seems utterly grotesque.
Despite conspicuous disqualifications, reviled Thersites seizes the stage and delivers a sixteen-line speech to the entire assembly. Astonishingly, this scorned freak publicly upbraids Agamemnon for greed and lust: you’ve already claimed valuable bronze and the choicest women, “whom we Achaians/give to you first of all whenever we capture some stronghold/Or is it still more gold you will be wanting, that some son/of the Trojans, breakers of horses, brings as ransom out of Ilion.” All this ransom and booty are the spoils “that I, or some other Achaian, capture and bring in? / Is it some young woman to lie with in love and keep her/all to yourself apart from the others? It is not right for/you, their leader, to lead in sorrow the sons of the Achaians.”
After excoriating Agamemnon, and flaunting the principles of rhetoric, Thersites assails his audience (“Achaian girls . . . women, not men”), repudiates their mission, and urges abandonment. Although Thersites’ rabble-rousing is unavailing, it provokes an immediate, decisive reaction from Odysseus, who abuses and scourges Thersites. Everyone laughs over him happily. Entertained and amused, the soldiers forget their incipient mutiny and return to ranks. So much, it seems, for Thersites, basest wretch at Troy. Humiliated, a pathetic, obnoxious creature, he disappears into oblivion. As is right and proper, according to Odysseus, and to most right-thinking people. Reading Homer in the nineteenth century, Prime Minister Gladstone found the speech “not a good one.”
Because Thersites is so flamboyantly over the top, he is not always credited for being on the mark. Critics tend to agree with the soldiers and Odysseus. They have marked Thersites’ tendentious description, his physical ugliness and moral turpitude. Is Thersites a monstrosity by heroic standards? Martin argues that the speech of Thersites, “quite literally, ‘without meter,’” is “over-determined to look bad by a number of criteria,” including slurring his words. Evidently “just an entertainer,” he “deserves no respect.”
Much like the Hephaestos sequence, another intervention by a disabled figure prompting mocking laughter, this episode is disconcerting, and fruitfully so. But ought we to dismiss Thersites so precipitately? Notwithstanding the soldiers’ contempt, the narrator’s malice, and the PM’s condescension, Thersites’ “words of revilement” are words of power provoking instant reaction from Odysseus. Thersites is no blithering madman or prating malcontent, and Agamemnon’s reckless conduct he himself eventually acknowledges as folly or madness, até. Impertinent yet pertinent, speaking truth to power, Thersites is seriously threatening. He says that Agamemnon “dishonoured Achilles, a man much better/than he is.” Thersites sarcastically echoes and ironically lauds Achilles: “there is no gall in Achilles’ heart, and he is forgiving.” Ha! “Otherwise,” he says to Agamemnon, “this were your last outrage.” Thersites locates (one might say) the Achilles heel of the antagonistic chiefs. Shrewdly, he recognizes the gravity of the king’s transgression, and intuits how close Agamemnon was to being killed by the infuriated Achilles.
Laughed at, willing to “say any word he thought might be amusing,” Thersites is an unusual yet recognizable comic figure. Aristotle conceives comic types as “worse” than men are, meaning less admirable in appearance, character, and conduct. While “high mimetic” characters like Achilles live for an ideal (glory, say, or arête), “low mimetic” figures like Thersites are more fully embodied. Thersites’ physical freakishness exposes the sexual and appetitive motives of Agamemnon and Achilles, and for his pains is pummeled and harried. Aristotle’s brief remarks On Rhetoric, identifying three types of comic characters, bear upon Thersites. He is a buffoon, jesting to amuse others; he is an eiron, feigning ideals to mock Agamemnon; he is also an alazon or imposter, strutting and blustering to aggrandize himself.
It’s possible to regard Thersites as comic relief or as a foil to set off the solemnity of the heroes and their epic mission. In this view, Thersites is a lightning rod, like those Shakespearean commentators who exist, observes William Empson pungently, “not at all to parody the heroes but to stop you from doing so: ‘If you want to laugh at this sort of thing laugh now and get it over.” Arguably, Thersites absorbs the destructive capability of purely derisive cynicism. To sustain a potent, viable heroic spirit, one might conclude, Homer inoculates his characters to resist more devastating, potentially fatal, strains of irony.
Though tempting, this model fails to account for the extent of Thersites’ disruptive force. Like Shakespeare who develops Thersites into a major character in Troilus and Cressida, Homer conjures not a stock buffoon but a truth-teller, a wise fool. Certainly Thersites is foolish and reckless: “disorderly;/vain, and without decency,” he thwarts order, propriety, and decorum. Thersites presumes the fool’s remarkable license to speak harsh truths. However abusive and merciless, his invective is inventive and amusing. Thersites is a self-conscious performer, mocking the heroic enterprise and eviscerating his superiors. For which of course he pays the price. The fool is a scapegoat or pariah; questioning the legitimacy of authority, he risks banishment (or worse) for what is always called impiety or treason. Odysseus castigates Thersites for “playing the fool,” threatens to cast him out “bare and howling,” and scourges the fool with Agamemnon’s royal scepter; thus the divine symbol of authority is literally the tool of enforcement.
If we are inclined to preserve authority or decorum, we can enjoy the spectacle and stress the anomaly of Thersites, so weirdly different from our heroes! Yet Thersites, “worst of Greeks,” echoes and recapitulates Achilles, pride of the Greeks; Thersites satirizes what Achilles epitomizes. The parallels are inescapable: at precisely the same moment in Books 1 and 2, a character bursts out to attack the authorities. Vituperative, insulting, intemperate, they are reckless figures, kamikaze pilots, outraged and outrageous. Both assault Agamemnon and deprecate the soldiers. Each is isolated for his transgressions, Achilles in splendor, Thersites in ignominy. Thersites is a disgraceful, ridiculous caricature of the hero’s tragic grandeur, greater stature and complexity. To regard Thersites as a conventional foil makes sense but begs the question: why does Homer make Thersites so eerily like Achilles in several minute particulars?
A more subversive possibility is that Thersites is Achilles’ second self. In satirizing and parodying the hero, Thersites demonstrates intimate familiarity and implicit affinity with Achilles. Agamemnon tells Achilles that he speaks “abusively,” that “forever quarrelling is dear to your heart,” while Thersites is known for the “shrill noise of his abuse,” and his propensity to “quarrel with princes.” Achilles “dashed to the ground the sceptre,” that emblem of authority used by Odysseus to thrash Thersites. Even more telling is the similarity of their articulation. Both say that Agamemnon hogs the booty and demands the prettiest concubines. Both claim to fight nobly, to deliver captives. Each urges the troops to return home, and both remark that it will teach Agamemnon a sorely-need lesson. Both Thersites and Achilles “quarrel with the princes”—in Greek (though not in Lattimore’s translation) the same phrase is used for both. Thersites repeats Achilles verbatim at certain points.
Such multiple correspondences between Thersites and Achilles are far more elaborate than necessary to contrast epic hero and satiric slanderer. Alarmingly, the basest wretch too exactly parallels the exalted hero, as if Thersites intuits Achilles’ feelings and speaks on his behalf, closely echoing several sentiments. Not even the exigencies of oral poetry explain why or how Thersites concludes his speech, “Otherwise, son of Atreus, this were your last outrage”—a daring, rash threat reiterating Achilles word for word. That last utterance is quite uncanny, since Thersites was not present to hear Achilles.
While Thersites parodies or satirizes Achilles, once can see that he functions as a double or doppelganger, a version of Achilles seen through a glass darkly. With such evocative affinities hero and outcast are a little more than kin. We’ve seen that Thersites’ abuse is hyperbolic, over-the-top, yet apposite, spot on. Both in what he says (he “knew within his head many words,”) and what he is, Thersites doubles meanings. Thersites’ parody humorously degrades the sublime. Homer’s heroic and mock-heroic elements are imbricated. Thersites is a dark shadow of Achilles, sacrificed instead of the untouchable hero: Perhaps Achilles is a tragic, as Thersites is a comic, scapegoat.
Disabled like Hephaestos, Thersites is enabled too. Thersites is an avatar of comic energy that disrupts events, complicates issues, eludes closure, and generates inquiry. One particularly slippery Homeric crux suggests a calculated ambiguity of identity. The Greeks, we are told, “were furiously angry with him, their minds resentful. (Latimore translation).” Or, “furious with him, deeply offended”(Fagles translation). Angry or furious with whom? Alexander Pope makes clear that the Greeks were “Vext” at/with Thersites. But in Greek, the pronoun reference is ambiguous; the soldiers could be angry with either Thersites or Agamemnon. Leaf’s massive commentary says “clearly Agamemnon,” that Thersites is “at the moment the accepted spokesman of the mob, who are indignant with Agamemnon.” Surely that meaning is available. “Homer is here conveying the idea of general Achaian support for Achilleus’ stance,” articulated by Thersites and supported by ordinary soldiers, says Norman Postlethwaite. If so, the fickle mob experiences fluctuating sympathies, more various and complex attitudes than simple derision.
Typically fools are marginal characters, heedless of social imperatives, challenging hierarchy, flouting norms, turning things topsy-turvy. A mocker and a jester, Thersites is Homer’s wise fool and crucial chorus. Repulsive and pathetic, outrageous and ridiculous, his trenchant critique is potent. This isn’t merely detrimental to morale; it is seditious and subversive. That Thersites strikes a nerve, and threatens the whole enterprise, is evident in Odysseus’ heavy-handed over-kill. It’s not just that Odysseus lacks humor or cannot suffer fools gladly. Thersites raises substantive issues that are tellingly ignored by Odysseus and essentially unanswerable. Without really responding to Thersites’ argument, Odysseus orates, not very persuasively. After Thersites’ sinewy and insinuating language, Odysseus sounds bombastic and flaccid. In Homer’s Greek, he crudely threatens to expose Thersites’ genitals.
In the inauspicious person of Thersites, Homer endows the disloyal opposition. Many-minded Homer is—I have argued—far more receptive to humor and sympathetic to Thersites than his critics, as Pope recognized: “there is nothing in this Speech but what might have become the mouth of Nestor himself, if you except a word or two. And had Nestor spoken it, the Army had certainly set sail for Greece; but because it was utter’d by a ridiculous Fellow whom they are ashamed to follow, they are not reduc’d, and satisfy’d to continue the Seige.” Pope’s translation conveys the blazing force of Thersites—the fearless, foolish satirist whose “witty malice” Pope cherishes and emulates in his “own” satires.
Thersites only clamour’d in the throng,
Loquacious, loud, and turbulent of Tongue:
Aw’d by no shame, by no respect controul’d,
In scandal busy, in reproaches bold;
With witty malice studious to defame,
Scorn all his joy, and laughter all his aim.
But chief he glory’d with licentious style
To lash the great, and monarchs to revile.
At first he seems to endorse the heroic code; gradually Thersites reveals the iron fist beneath the velvet glove. “Whate’er our master craves, submit we must,/Plagu’d with his pride, or punished for his lust.” The damning truth condemns Agamemnon, locked into that couplet rhyming “submit we must” and “punished for his lust.”
Thersites is bright and brassy, insufferable and indispensable. He defies constraints and turns things topsy-turvy. Adroit at impersonation, an acute parodist, he marches to his own rhythms. There is a nice comic reversal with a satiric twist: introduced as one who loves to provoke laughter, Thersites leaves to jeering laughter. But this humor ricochets and boomerangs: if the mocker is mocked, so is the audience. Thersitic energies are both centrifugal and centripetal. No wonder Thersites provokes such intense and disparate reactions from commentators: he has multiple purposes and contradictory consequences. Values clash like contending warriors. Homer’s technique is dialogic and dialectical. Thersites and Odysseus debate fundamental principles of heroic conduct.
Homer suggests that the sublime and the ridiculous are much closer than single-minded Odysseus can afford to believe. The Thersites sequence is a midnight foray from the heroic fields of glory to the shifting terrain of startling satiric humour, not a comfortable place to stand but a vantage point Homer insists we visit.
Robert H. Bell is Frederick Latimer Wells Professor of English, Williams College, Massachusetts.