Ther. The plague of Greece upon thee, thou mongrel beef-witted lord!
Ajax. Speak then, thou vinewedst leaven, speak: I will beat thee into handsomeness.
Ther. I am a bastard too, I love bastards. I am bastard begot, bastard instructed, bastard in mind, bastard in valor, in everything illegitimate. One bear will not bite another, and wherefore should one bastard?
Troilus and Cressida, 2.1.12-15 and 5.7.16-20
Thersites both is and is not one of Shakespeare’s stigmatics. He clearly is, based on his place and function in the play: he is a member of the set of stigmatized characters running from Richard III and Aaron the Moor to Falstaff and Caliban. Like them, Thersites is an outsider in the drama yet an insider with the audience, and he is ridiculed, beaten, and excluded from the stable community created at the end of the play. That is, Shakespeare structured the dramatic life of Thersites according to the figure of stigma: abnormality, villainy, irony, tragicomedy. First, abnormality: although Shakespeare hardly mentions Thersites’s body (more on that below), Homer detailed six distinct deformities – bulging eye, lame leg, collapsed chest, hunched back, elongated head, and splotchy hair. Second, villainy: Thersites is a low-born slave who rails ceaselessly against his betters. Third, irony: he is a satirist who serves as a cynical chorus for the audience. Fourth, tragicomedy: virtue is rewarded and vice punished when Thersites is run off stage by Hector and left alone at the end of Troilus and Cressida. In fact, this ending certifies Thersites as one of Shakespeare’s stigmatics by developing an important detail from the Iliad, where Theresites had neither patronym nor toponym. Meeting Margarelon, the “bastard son of Priam’s,” Thersites proposes a fellowship based on their shared identity. “I am a bastard too,” he says. Mergarelon refuses the invitation to establish a fellowship of the slighted, but Thersites does find some fellows in Shakespeare’s other bastards – Don John, Philip Faulconbridge, and Edmund – stigmatics who are not physically deformed but are marked out by their illegitimate births, stigmatics who subsequently display the elements of the figure of stigma. Because Shakespeare defines his stigmatics not by what they are but by what they are not – which is, in a word, normal – he uses the same representational system, the figure of stigma, to shape the dramatic lives of characters with quite discrete forms of difference, whether based in deformity (Richard, Falstaff, Caliban), minority (Aaron, Shylock), or bastardy (Don John, Faulconbridge, Thersites, Edmund).
Yet Thersites is not one of Shakespeare’s stigmatics insofar as the playwright deliberately shrank Thersites’s physical deformity and possibly deleted it altogether. In contrast to the six distinct deformities of Homer’s Thersites, Shakespeare mentions Thersites’s body in only two sprinting scenes that must be wrung rather tightly to turn Thersites into a vaguely deformed man. When a production of Troilus and Cressida deforms Thersites, it invites – possibly against Shakespeare’s will – the debate about deformity written into Richard III, specifically the debate about the connection between deformity and villainy: Is deformity the sign or the cause of villainy? But if you deform Thersites, you deform Shakespeare. That is, when a reading or a production of Troilus and Cressida makes deformity a key component of Thersites’ character, as visually compelling as it might be, it saps attention away from the intricate study of satire Shakespeare conducts with this character. If he does not omit it altogether, Shakespeare ignores Thersites’s deformity (just as he ignored the Jew’s nose in his source for Shylock) in order to isolate and satirize the railer’s rhetoric without having to endorse a naïve figure of stigma that fixes the physically deformed in an absolute psycho-social structure. Shakespeare wanted to present Thersites’ immorality as a conscious moral decision, not an inevitability based on his predetermined place in a sacrosanct cosmic scheme. Removing the deformity of Thersites allowed Shakespeare to beat the character offstage at the end of Troilus and Cressida, not because he occupies some lower existential class, but because he makes some poor moral choices. In all likelihood, the opportunity to analyze the satire of the poetomachia by referring to Western literature’s first satirist encouraged Shakespeare to introduce Thersites to the tale of Troilus and Cressida, where he never before appeared. This “poet’s war” broke out because some of Elizabethan England’s best writers disagreed in a theoretical debate about how to write satire – that is, how to hold vice up to ridicule. The sides of the debate were clear: personal satire is aimed through specific details at a particular man, while moral satire aims not at men but at their manners. Scholars of the poetomachia have treated Shakespeare’s Thersites as a personal satire, attaching him to either John Marston or Thomas Dekker, but the character actually represents the behavior they both share, namely the production of personal satire. By satirizing Thersites’ satire – that is, holding the practice of personal satire up to ridicule – Shakespeare affirmed the propriety of moral satire, which critiques a behavior rather than anybody in particular. Thus Shakespeare’s Thersites comes with the caution that an overly enthusiastic satire can exacerbate the vicious society it seeks to salvage, transferring moral difference to a rhetorical battlefield, where substantive critique decreases as vitriol and volume increase, creating personal enmity that too easily realizes its rhetoric of violence. Where it need not, moral difference becomes physical violence, so Thersites and Ajax brawl, not because their morals are irreconcilable, nor because Thersites incorrectly interprets Ajax, but because Thersites intones too much slander in his articulation of his interlocutor’s errors. From this perspective it is a mistake to view Thersites as Shakespeare's surrogate, not because the author and the character differ in their attitude toward the crumbling Greek camp, but because Shakespeare's play Troilus and Cressida is such a profoundly different satirical rhetoric than the railing of Thersites.
Thersites in Greek Literature
Thersites in Latin Literature
Thersites in Renaissance Literature
Thersites in Elizabethan Literature
Physical Deformity on the Elizabethan Stage
Physical Deformity in Shakespeare
Bastardy in the Elizabethan Age
Bastards in Shakespeare
Neill, Michael. “ ‘In Everything Illegitimate’: Imagining the Bastard in Renaissance Drama.” The Yearbook of English Studies 23 (1993): 270-92.
Hyland, Peter. “Legitimacy in Interpretation: The Bastard Voice in Troilus and Cressida.” Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature 26.1 (1993): 1-13.
Findlay, Alison. “Bastardy and Evil.” Illegitimate Power: Bastards in Renaissance Drama. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994. 45-84.
Beale, Simon Russell. “Thersites in Troilus and Cressida.” Players of Shakespeare 3. Ed. Russell Jackson and Robert Smallwood. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. 160-73.
Wilson, Robert Rawdon and Edward Milowicki. “A Measure for Menippean Discourse: The Example of Shakespeare.” Poetics Today 23.2 (Summer 2002): 291-326.