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Act V, Scene 4 Summary
Thersites enters. He comments that the warriors are now giving each other a drubbing. He says he will look on, and notes that Diomedes is wearing Troilus’ sleeve in his helm. He is eager to see them meet so that ‘the same young Trojan ass, that loves the whore there’ might send Diomedes back to the ‘dissembling luxurious drab of a sleeveless errand.’ He then goes on to the scheming of the ‘stale old mouse-eaten dry cheese Nestor and that same dog-fox Ulysses’ which has proved quite useless. They set up Ajax ‘that mongrel cur’ against the equally bad Achilles, and now Ajax who has grown prouder than Achilles will not arm for battle that day. And so the rest of the Greeks too set up the authority of ignorance to declare that formal government would not govern them any longer.
Diomedes enters with Troilus following.
‘Soft: here comes sleeve, and t’other.’ says Thersites. Troilus tells Diomedes not to fly ahead, as even if he entered the Styx, the river of death, he, Troilus would swim after him.
Diomedes replies that Troilus has mistaken tactical withdrawal for flight. Thersites who is beside himself with excitement shouts, ‘Hold thy whore, Grecian! Now for thy whore, Trojan! Now the sleeve, now the sleeve’ as Diomedes and Troilus exit fighting. Hector enters and chances upon Thersites. He asks him if he is a match for Hector: ‘Art thou of blood and honor?’
‘No, no: I am a rascal, a scurvy railing knave: a very filthy rogue.’ says Thersites who is then spared by Hector. Thersites thanks Hector who has exited for believing him, but wishes a plague on him for frightening him.. He then wonders what has become of Diomedes and Troilus. He thinks they have ‘swallowed one another’ and says that he would laugh at that ‘yet in sort lechery eats itself.’ He decides to go looking for them and exits.
Thersites goes on with his observing function and comments bitingly on everyone from Nestor and Ulysses to Ajax and Achilles. We see him grow excited at the prospect of the duel between Troilus and Diomedes, and from him we learn about the failure of Ulysses’ plans to put Achilles in his place. Instead of spurring Achilles into action, Ajax himself has grown so proud that he, like Achilles, refuses to go into battle.
The scene then presents Troilus and Diomedes fighting each other while Thersites looks on and then there is a comic twist. Just as the action between the two warriors shifts outside the stage, Hector enters and attempts to fight Thersites. Thersites who is the ultimate realist, who has repeatedly condemned the worthlessness of the Trojan conflict manages to wriggle out of a fight and certain death.
Heroics are damned, Thersites knows how to save his skin. This scene which belongs to the fool, or rather the denigrator, prepares us for the greater hilarity of the later scene with Margarelon. But that’s not all, as a link to the next scene, Thersites goes looking for Diomedes and Troilus commenting that they have probably eaten each other up just like lechery consumes the lecher - Thersites’ elaboration of the common Renaissance notion that sexual intercourse shortened life.