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In this important scene which corresponds to Act IV, Calchas successfully pleads for the exchange of Antenor and Cressida, and Ulysses mocks Achilles. Constructed of several separate ‘actions’, the scene proceeds to a climax in a debate between Achilles and Ulysses and it contains within itself lesser mimetic actions like the scorning of Achilles by the Greek generals near the beginning and the pageant of Ajax at the conclusion.
In the first 37 lines, leave is granted for the exchange of Cressida and Antenor: an ironic touch that undercuts the preceding wooing scene, and looks forward to the disastrous collapse of Troilus’ faith.
Yet, the significance of this passage lies in what Calchas says about himself. In his opening speech, Calchas strips himself categorically naked in a way no other Shakespearean character has done - he has lost everything, made himself no more than a traitor has.
He has deprived himself, and become a man without name, nature, attributes or relationships - a homeless man. The scorning of Achilles is brief. Its function is to offer pride a reflection of itself - to allow the eye to see itself as Ulysses later implies. There is a connection with that former visit of the Greeks to Achilles in Act II, Scene 3, but here the processes are reversed.
In Act II, Scene 3, Achilles proudly withdrew, Patroclus was his spokesman, Agamemnon was laid by his appertainments to make the visit, and the result was the mock praise of Ajax. In Act III, Scene 3, Achilles finds his appertainments withdrawn, the Greek generals go off haughtily, Agamemnon speaks with Achilles through Nestor, and the result is a prolonged analysis of the ways in which man and his attributes may be related. The analysis represents the Greek view of reputation and value. Achilles has ceased to act, he has become static in a world in which value according to Ulysses, is constantly changing. He is isolated from men by his own choice and needs messengers to communicate. As Ulysses reminds him:
‘Perseverance, dear my lord, /Keeps honor bright: to have done is to hang/ Quite out of fashion, like a rusty mail/In monumental mockery. Take the instant way;’
Ulysses is wise and ironical throughout the play: his judgments are sensible and if he sometimes lapses from wisdom to mere policy and shrewd plotting, it is because no other Greek has the wit to be as adaptable to circumstance as he is. His pronouncements which are often derived from sixteenth-century commonplaces - Time’s wallet, for instance, was an emblem of forgetfulness - often have the force of a tradition behind them, but his purpose is to use his eloquent commonplaces. His business is always to use such arguments as come readily to hand in order to persuade men as he wishes.
Almost like one of the sonnets, he unites Time and oblivion as destroyers and disputes shrewdly with Achilles on the effects of Time upon reputation. He argues as Agamemnon did in Act II, Scene 3 although the tropes he uses, are different: the ‘fair fruit in an unwholesome dish’ has become ‘alms for oblivion’, but the purpose and the argument are the same. It is useless from Ulysses’ point of view to have Achilles sulking in his tent because Achilles must fight if the Greeks are to profit by him. The ‘engine not portable’ is no threat. Ulysses must, in his turn, act effectively - he must use all his tactical skills even though in the end it means threatening Achilles with what is known to the Greek intelligence service. Ulysses shows himself as a master of mimetic speech in this dispute with Achilles.
Such half-mime briefly introduced in the debate of these two, develops rapidly into full-scale mime as soon as Ulysses has left and Thersites enters. The scene closes with a piece of professional mime by Thersites and Patroclus. It begins with Thersites’ paradox -
‘Ajax goes up and down the field, asking for himself.’
Ajax’s two selves are a consequence of his pride - he now knows neither himself nor anybody else. For a man who cannot distinguish Thersites from Agamemnon, the world outside himself is as isolated and distant as it is for Achilles. The alienated Ajax has become a perfect figure of Pride who can think of nothing but playing his part perfectly.