Ajax’s Monstrosity

Ajax’s Monstrosity

  [Alex.]  This man, lady, hath robb’d many beasts of their particular additions; he is as valiant as the lion, churlish as the bear, slow as the elephant; a man into whom nature hath so crowded humors that his valor is crush’d into folly, his folly sauc’d with discretion. There is no man hath a virtue that he hath not a glimpse of, nor any man an attaint but he carries some stain of it. He is melancholy without cause, and merry against the hair; he hath the joints of every thing, but everything so out of joint that he is a gouty Briareus, many hands and no use, or purblind Argus, all eyes and no sight.

Troilus and Cressida, 1.2.19-30

Ajax receives two vignettes in Troilus and Cressida – one from Alexandrius and one from Thersites – each drawing upon the vocabulary of monstrosity, because Ajax is inhuman, lacking “wit,” which means Ajax cannot synthesize the variety of his character into a consistent, rational, and artful expression. First, in Alexandrius’s portrait, Ajax is a chimera and a monster whose potential contradicts his performance (this discrepancy between ability and action is how Troilus and Cressida define “monstruosity” later in the play). To Alexandrius, Ajax is a lion, a bear, and an elephant all at once because he is valiant, foolish, melancholy, and merry, neither moral nor immoral, neither virtuous nor vicious, but perfect excess. His virtues and vices do not cancel each other out as much as Ajax has no faculty to manage them. He is overstuffed with traits he cannot distribute. All noun and no verb, he is but he cannot do. He is a hundred-handed Briareus, but with gout, “many hands and no use.” He is a hundred-eyed Argus, but blind, “all eyes and no sight.” All hands and eyes, Ajax has no hand-eye coordination. He knows not what to do with himself. He has no self: he cannot coordinate his characteristics into a character, his personalities into a persona, his humors into a human. 

In the second portrait, Thersites relates how Ajax, ill with envy of Achilles, walks up and down the field asking for himself, unaware of who he is, speaking but saying nothing, calling Thersites “Agamemnon,” Thersites calling Ajax a “monster” specifically because of this loss of language. Against the barks and brays of animals, language is the evidence of human reason, but Ajax lacks “wit,” so he loses his language, which Shakespeare associates with monstrosity, because Ajax exhibits the body of a human but the behavior of an animal. In Troilus and Cressida, deep regard for his reputation instills an intense sense of honor in Ajax, who, shamed by the higher regard for Achilles, develops an anger that leads to melancholy, melancholy to madness, and Shakespeare's wager is to call this madness “monstrosity”. With melancholy, madness, mental illness represented as monstrosity, the example of Ajax allows and requires us to consider Shakespeare as a stigmatizer, not the skeptical critic of stigma, but the unthinking exponent of this repugnant aesthetic. Shakespeare gave Ajax a physical for a mental stigma. The world of Troilus and Cressida is so corrupt and so corrupting that it weighs greatness down with mud, even as Achilles savagely slaughters Hector.


Ajax in Greek Literature
Ajax in Latin Literature
Ajax in Elizabethan Literature
Ajax in Stuart Literature
Monstrosity in Shakespeare 


Nass, Barry. “ ‘Yet in the trial much opinion dwells’: The Combat Between Hector and Ajax in Troilus and Cressida.” English Studies 65.1 (1984): 1-11.

Bednarz, James P. “Shakespeare’s Purge of Jonson: The Theatrical Context of Troilus and Cressida.” Shakespeare and the Poet’s War. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001. 19-52.