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MonkeyNotes-Troilus and Cressida by William Shakespeare
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Ulysses

He is the brain of the Greek camp. If the Greeks have a leader, it is Ulysses. But he does not possess the stature of Hector who is described as both the head and the arm of the Trojans. His disgust at the egotistical indolence of the two best warriors in the Grecian camp leads to his famous ‘degree’ speech. Ulysses then conspires with Nestor, the aged commander who has seen three generations of warriors, and the general Agamemnon to play Ajax and Achilles against each other for the larger benefit of the Greeks.

One of the powers behind the scenes, the manipulator, the ace strategist, Ulysses, is very clear sighted. He admires positive qualities like Hector’s bravery and generosity of spirit but recognizes that the ruthlessness of a Troilus in battle is what is really important. His shrewdness is especially evident in Act III, Scene 3, when a perplexed Achilles who wants to know why the other Greek commanders are not treating him with customary ceremony approaches him. Ulysses pretends to explain to Achilles the text that he just happens to be reading, while actually presenting to him the consequences of his recalcitrant behavior.


Thersites

He is one of the rare characters in the play, who is possessed of self knowledge and understanding of others. Thersites precludes sentimentality by constantly reminding the audience of stark realities. He is not clown or fool but a denigrator, and exposes the boils on the body politic with his savage insights. A source of much verbal brilliance, he lets his tongue run away with him and is tolerated with amusement or contempt by his associates. Most memorably, he escapes death at the hands of Margarelon, a bastard son of Priam by claiming kinship through their very lack of kinship.

He is so willing to pursue truth to its ugliest conclusion that he denounces both his own mother and Margarelon’s as whores. His vision is unflinching - in his eyes, mankind is as incapable of worthy judgment as of worthy conduct, and there is no stability of character, ideals, institutions, judgment or imagination in his world. His clear sightedness extends even to himself and when Hector confronts him. He says: ‘I am a rascal, a scurvy railing knave-a very filthy rogue.’

He strips everything and everybody down to bare essentials: Cressida is a whore, in response to being labeled a fragment by Achilles, he retorts ‘thou full dish of fool.’ The war is: ‘All the argument is a whore and a cuckold: a good quarrel to draw emulous factions, and bleed to death upon.’

The most hardheaded and unromantic character in the play, Thersites cannot be dismissed as a degenerate railer since he is so accurate in his pronouncements. Though he plays a major role in the action, he remains an outsider. His presence makes the audience continually aware of the bleakest interpretation of the action and his views of the Trojan War and the main players guides them in their reactions.

Helen

She is wife to Menelaus and the face that ‘launch’d above a thousand ships.’ Her abduction is the ostensible cause of the Trojan War. But she is no more than a pawn. It is the masculine values of the warring sides, which see her as a commodity, causes and continues the War. The audience hears much about her beauty and her peerlessness but when it finally encounters ‘Nell’ as Paris refers her to, it is a moment of profound anticlimax. Helen is revealed as a beauty but one devoid of any other admirable qualities. She is a mere argument for continuing the War. The savage indictment of Diomedes in Act IV, Scene1 and Thersites’ frequent references to her as a ‘whore’ expose her as a prize not worth fighting for. She is a symbol of the nihilism that is at the heart of the devastating War.

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