Act 5, scene 1
At the Greek camp, Achilles and Patroclus enter, followed by Thersites, who brings a letter for Achilles from Queen Hecuba. Achilles and Thersites exchange insults, and then Thersites and Patroclus do the same. Achilles reads the letter and says that he has to obey a vow he apparently made to Hecuba about her daughter Polyxena, with whom he is in love, that he would not fight. (Although Shakespeare does not mention it, Achilles made a vow to Hecuba that if she would give him Polyxena, he would ensure that the Greeks lifted the siege of Troy.)
Achilles and Patroclus exit, leaving Thersites alone. Thersites speaks for about twenty lines and manages to insult Achilles, Patroclus, Agamemnon “he has not so much brain as ear-wax”), and especially Menelaus. He says he would sooner be a lizard or a toad than Menelaus.
Hector and the Greek leaders arrive at Achilles’ tent. Achilles greets Hector courteously. Agamemnon and Menelaus exit, and then Ulysses and Troilus head for Calchas’s tent (where Cressida is), following Diomedes.
Achilles invites Hector into his tent, and once again Thersites is left alone. This time the target of his insult is Diomedes, whom he does not trust. He knows Diomedes is after Cressida, and dismisses him as a lecher, including all the Greeks in that category too, just for good measure.
Thersites may be an uncouth, vulgar character whose language is always peppered with imagery of disease (see his insults of Patroclus in lines 16–23 in this scene), but he has a strong influence on how the audience perceives these legendary Greek warriors. In this scene almost no one (except for Ulysses) escapes Thersites’ scorn and contempt. His final comment, “Nothing but lechery: all incontinent varlets!” not only insults Diomedes and the other Greeks, it also gets at the cause of the Trojan war, which is being fought over possession of a woman. Thus Thersitesincludes Paris and the Trojans in his biting critique.
Act 5, scene 2
As Ulysses, Troilus, and Thersites stand on as unobserved witnesses outside Calchas’s tent, they see Diomedes and Cressida whispering together in tones of close familiarity. Diomedes is trying to win her over, and Cressida is making only half-hearted resistance. Troilus overhears their conversation with increasing anger and dismay. Diomedes pretends to go, but Cressida calls him back and strokes his cheek. Then she gives him as a token the sleeve that Troilus had given her.
Troilus, watching, is beside himself with distress, but he promises Ulysses, who has advised him that it would be better to go, that he will keep quiet.
Cressida then snatches the sleeve back, ashamed of her own behavior. She tells Diomedes not to visit her again. Diomedes snatches the sleeve, but Cressida wants it back, saying she will give him something else. Diomedes wants to know who gave her the sleeve, but she refuses to tell. He says he will wear it on his helmet tomorrow and expect to be challenged about it. After more back and forth between them, Diomedes asks if he should come back, and Cressida says yes, she much desires it.
After Diomedes exits, Cressida, thinking she is alone and unheard, bids farewell to Troilus, since her heart is now engaged elsewhere, even though she knows she is in the wrong.
Troilus speaks with Ulysses, trying to come to terms with what he has seen and heart. He does not want to believe it, and says “This is, and is not, Cressid” (line 145). He had thought Cressida was his but now has to acknowledge she has been unfaithful to him. He insists to Ulysses that he loves Cressida still, and that he also hates Diomedes. He swears that he will kill Diomedes in battle.
Aeneas enters; it is time for Troilus to return to Troy. Ulysses says he will accompany him to the gates.
Left alone, Thersites comments, as he did in the previous scene, about lechery and war, nothing else is going on but that. He curses all of them.
If in the play war is presented as not worth the suffering it causes, romantic love is portrayed in a similarly negative light. Many hints earlier in the play have suggested that Cressida will betray Troilus, and in this scene it happens—and Troilus sees and hears it as it is going on. The impression conveyed throughout by Cressida is that her feelings are superficial and likely to be swayed by whoever is around at the time. She may have believed at the time in her love for Troilus, but that love does not stand even the first test that she faces. And once more it is the unsavory Thersites who seems to speak the truth at the end of the scene. He clearly has contempt not only for the seemingly endless war but also for the part played by lust in motivating people.