Someone needs to sit down and wash out Thersites's mouth with soap. Or—on second thought, don't, because we are seriously entertained by all this guy's insults.
Thersites is the Greek slave who runs around bad-mouthing the war and all its participants. Actually, "bad-mouthing" is a major understatement. Here's a little sampling of some of the vile stuff Thersites has to say in this play:
• The Trojan War is being fought over a "cuckold and a whore" (2.3.71)
• He hopes the entire Greek camp comes down with syphilis since they're dumb enough to be fighting over a "placket," which is a crude term for a woman that literally means a "slit" in a petticoat (2.3.17-19).
• And he thinks it would be seriously awesome if one of the Greek commanders had a bunch of nasty "biles" (boils) and open sores oozing with puss (2.1.1-9).
Gross. No wonder Agamemnon can't stand it "when rank Thersites opes his mastic jaws" (1.3.73).
In a lot of ways, Thersites is a classic Shakespearean "fool," or the kind of lower-class character that runs around speaking his mind, insulting everyone in sight, and offering a lot of brutal social commentary. (Kind of like The Fool in King Lear, Touchstone in As You Like It, and Feste in Twelfth Night.)
But Thersites is a lot nastier and uglier than Shakespeare's other fools, and he's not as funny or entertaining. Mostly, he just leaves us wanting to cover our ears as we squirm around in our seats. So what's up with that?
The thing about Thersites is that he knows he's disgusting and is the first to admit that he's a "scurvy railing knave, a very filthy rogue"(5.4.28-29). At one point, he even brags that he's a "bastard." Check it out:
I am a bastard too; I love bastards: I am a bastard
begot, bastard instructed, bastard in mind, bastard
in valour, in everything illegitimate. (5.7.16-19)
Here, Thersites admits that he's a "bastard," in the sense that (1) he was born to parents who aren't married to each other and (2) that he goes around acting like a total jerk. (By the way, in Shakespeare, "bastards" are almost always jerks. Go talk to Edmund in King Lear if you don't believe us.)
Okay. So why does it matter that Thersites was born "illegitimate"?
Surprise, surprise—we have a theory. Here is it: just about everyone in this play is related to each other except Thersites. He's about the only guy who doesn't have any relatives. That makes him an outsider and an outcast—a guy nobody respects or takes seriously.
So, obviously, his opinions don't matter. Right? His thoughts and ideas are just as "illegitimate" as he is, and he's just a "bastard" slave with a bad attitude. But, the funny thing is that his opinions do end up mattering. Shakespeare makes sure of that.
That's because Thersites embodies the ugliness of the entire play. Basically, he's the play's unofficial mascot. He gives voice to the play's pessimistic attitude toward everything from war to sex and love.
At first, we sort of blow him off as a rage-aholic who needs his mouth washed out with grandma's bar of soap. But, as the play goes on, it becomes more and more clear that Thersites is the one who sets the tone and that we're sort of meant to see the world through his eyes. Thersites speaks the truth—and it may be ugly, but it's definitely the truth.
The other thing you should know about Thersites is that he's not much to look at. Ajax calls him "toadstool" and "porpentine" (terms used to describe someone with physical deformities) and threatens to "beat [him] into handsomeness."
Plus, the play's list of characters actually outright describes him as "a deformed and scurrilous Greek," which basically means that his physical appearance is just as ugly as his vulgar language and behavior. In other words, his physical deformity seems like it's supposed to be symbolic of his inner ugliness. Kind of like Shakespeare's evil "hunchback" Richard III.
Yeah, we know, not exactly PC. But still—an ugly character spouting ugly words in an ugly play. Yeah, no wonder this play wasn't a crowd-pleaser.