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MonkeyNotes-Troilus and Cressida by William Shakespeare
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Achilles

This leader of the Myrmidons is the arm of the Greeks, but has no voice in the management of the War. His arrogance, brashness, cruelty and cowardice make him one of the most unattractive characters in the play. Proud, envious and brutal, he is the only Greek who behaves badly when Hector visits the Grecian camp and it is here that the contrast between the two men is most obvious. His behavior is so out of place that even the normally stupid Ajax steps in with a word to restrain Hector. ‘Do not chafe thee, cousin’ before chastising Achilles. Clearly he is merely a bully, a nonentity without his physical strength. What he reveals of his nature is enough to prepare the audience for his final horrific act.

Despite his formidable reputation as a fighting machine, there are no descriptions of Achilles’ performance on the battlefield, in contrast with the colorful accounts of Hector’s prowess and magnanimity. Only twice is he seen fighting. First, when he retires from the fight with Hector even though he is a fresh man fighting a tired one. Second, when he, like a gang leader, leads the Myrmidons to slay an unarmed Hector in a brutal and cowardly manner. He then trails Hector’s corpse around the battlefield - a savage act that epitomizes the man. Shakespeare found so many unpleasant features in Achilles that he could not create a heroic character. Ultimately, he is exposed as a brutal coward.


Ajax

A half-Greek and half-Trojan warrior, Ajax is second only to Achilles in heroic stature in the Greek camp. All brawn and no brain, he and Achilles are considered ‘draught-oxen’ useful only to ‘plough up the wars.’ ‘A lord of Trojan blood, nephew to Hector.’ Ajax is made up of a multiplicity of good and bad attributes. His bloodline and his position in the Greek camp, make him a virtual symbol of division. He is emulous of Achilles and having been built up by the Greek leadership and acclaimed as their foremost warrior, he becomes as proud and inactive as his rival. He symbolizes the division in the Greek army which Ulysses refers to in his famous ‘degree speech.’

Ajax’s divided nature is pressed even harder in Hector’s magnanimous speech which brings their duel to a premature close. Hector states the impossibility of dividing Ajax, of separating him into two components.

In keeping with his divided nature, Ajax can appear as a buffoon in one scene and as a generous and courteous knight in another. At one point he is so puffed up with pride at being considered the supreme warrior in the Greek camp that the scabrous Thersites comments, ‘He’s grown a very land-fish, languageless, a monster, a plague of opinion.’

A character with no self-awareness, he is completely ignorant of his own lack of intellect. He denounces the pride of Achilles and genuinely believes that he is very different. He believes pride is completely alien to him but those who hear him understand that he can’t even recognize his own pride. He calls Achilles ‘A paltry insolent fellow!’ and Nestor comments in an aside: ‘How he describes himself!’

The whole scene rises to a crescendo of ridicule as Ajax is exposed as possessing the very qualities that he professes to despise in Achilles, and Ulysses’ irony exposes him to the full blast of ridicule. The truth is, Ajax is as foolish as Achilles and like him, the Greek leadership of Agamemnon, Nestor and Ulysses values him only for his prowess in the physical arena. Both the warriors have over evaluated themselves and so dislocated themselves from society - all their actions are intended to gain positions of prominence rather than commit them to a common cause. For them War is a matter of personal glory not a question of sacrifice.

But the same Ajax is transformed into a courteous knight in the presence of Hector, even stepping in to deflect Achilles’ uncouth sallies against the Trojan. So really, he is a man of diverse parts, capable of both complete stupidity and great courtesy.

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