Achilles has a rep for being the Greek army's toughest and most important warrior. There's just one problem: he doesn't quite live up to his reputation in this play. How can he when he refuses to come out of his tent and fight? Instead of getting his fight on, Achilles spends all his time doing the following:
(1) Lying around in bed with his lover, Patroclus
(2) Bagging on the Greek military leaders
(3) Kicking back and listening to everyone tell him how awesome he is
Hmm. This character is nothing like the "great Achilles" we've been hearing about. Check out what Ulysses has to say about all this:
The great Achilles, whom opinion crowns
The sinew and the forehand of our host,
Having his ear full of his airy fame,
Grows dainty of his worth, and in his tent
Lies mocking our designs: with him Patroclus
Upon a lazy bed the livelong day. (1.3.142-147)
According to Ulysses, Achilles is arrogant, lazy, and disrespectful. Not only that, but his inactivity has made him effeminate or "dainty." (In case you hadn't noticed, the play's military culture associates masculinity with warfare. If a guy doesn't fight, he's considered a girly wimp. More on this in "Themes.")
So, this presents quite a problem for the Greek commanders, because Achilles has set a terrible example for the rest of the army—the soldiers have zero respect for authority and are totally out of control. And, according to Ulysses, Achilles' bad example is the reason why the Greeks aren't winning the war.
Getting Achilles out of his tent and back out on the battlefield is the main focus of the play's "war plot." Here's what you need to know about it: When the Trojan warrior Hector issues a throw down challenge to the Greeks, Ulysses and the other commanders hatch an elaborate scheme to shame Achilles into returning to combat. Instead of sending Achilles to fight Hector, they choose Ajax, which really bums Achilles out.
So, his pride is wounded—but it's still not enough to get him in gear. What's this guy's problem?
There are a couple of possible explanations. One argument is that Achilles is just sulking and doesn't really have a good excuse. At one point, he even pretends to be sick. Another time, he says he's staying in his tent for personal reasons. Make up your mind, dude!
Or maybe he's really committed to Polyxena, the fiancée who made him promise not to fight (3.3.192). If this is really the reason, then we can sympathize. Why should this guy's personal life suffer just so Menelaus can get Helen back? (Go to "Themes: Politics vs. Personal Life" for more on this.) On the other hand, this information about Polyxena sort of comes from nowhere, so some audiences don't buy it.
One thing's for sure. When Patroclus dies in battle, Achilles is back in action in about 2.5 seconds. So, what does our "mighty" warrior do when he returns to the battlefield? Does he perform a bunch of heroic and noble deeds that we can all admire? Not so much. He gathers up his hired goons (the Myrmidons) and proceeds to slaughter an unarmed man. Then he has the guy's corpse dragged around the battlefield (5.8).
Yeah, so much for "great warrior." More like big, whiny bully.