Act 2, scene 1
Ajax and Thersites enter, and Thersites makes disparaging remarks about Agamemnon. Ajax hits him, and Thersites insults him in return and then they both insult each other. Ajax hits him again, but this does not stop the stream of insults coming from Thersites’ mouth. Ajax hits him some more.
Achilles and Patroclus enter. Achilles inquires what the quarrel is about, but Thersites keeps on insulting Ajax as stupid (he is all brawn and no brains), and Ajax threatens to beat him again. Thersites also manages to insult Achilles, as well as Ulysses and Nestor. Patroclus tries to keep the peace. Thersitesexits, and Achilles speaks about the challenge made by Hector, and the lottery to select the Greek warrior who will face him.
This is the audience’s first sight of Thersites, although he has been mentioned in derogatory terms before. He does not disappoint in that respect. He insults everyone in sight. It also transpires that he is not a volunteer; he was conscripted into military service. He obviously cares nothing for the Greek cause and holds all the Greek leaders in contempt. Ajax says little, coming across as a man who is quick to deal a blow as an answer to an argument. He rather confirms Thersites’ view that he is not all that bright. This adds to the picture presented in the previous scene of the Greek army being in disarray in terms of morale and cohesion. They are certainly not a happy band of warriors.
Act 2, scene 2
The Trojans meet in council. King Priam announces that Nestor has told them that if they give Helen back, the Greeks will call off the war. Priam asks Hector what he thinks of this proposition. Hector says they should let Helen go. It is not worth keeping her, given the loss of life on the Trojan side as a result of the war. Troilus sharply disagrees. He rejects Hector’s argument, which is based on reason. For Troilus, the war is a matter of honor and manhood. Hector replies, insisting again that keeping Helen is not worth the cost. Troilus says that having been committed to the war, they must stick to their decision. He points out that the other Trojans vigorously supported bringing Helen to Troy in the first place and applauded the deed when it was done. What reason do they now have for changing their minds, purely out of fear?
The meeting is interrupted by the prophetess Cassandra, who warns that Troy will fall unless they let Helen go. Hector asks Troilus whether her words make him reconsider his hot-bloodied remarks. Troilus responds that Cassandra is mad; the war is an honorable one and they are and must continue to be fully engaged in it.
Paris speaks next, and he agrees with Troilus, also pointing out that the Trojans supported his mission to bring back Helen. He wants to continue the war.
Priam says Paris is speaking merely from a selfish point of view, since he is the one who has Helen. Paris denies selfish motives, saying that keeping Helen is the honorable thing to do, rather than give her up simply because the Greeks are demanding it.
Hector tells Paris and Troilus that their arguments stem more from passion than reason. He points out that Helen is the wife of Menelaus, king of Sparta, and that the moral laws of nature would demand that she be returned to him. To continue to hold her makes the transgression even worse. However, Hector then reverses himself. He says that since honor is at stake, they should keep Helen. Troilus welcomes Hector’s change of mind, saying that the war brings opportunities for honor, fame, and great deeds.
This scene parallels act 1, scene 3, the council in the Greek camp. The big surprise here is that Hector, who speaks at first so firmly in favor of returning Helen, eventually bows to the force of the arguments put forward by Paris and Troilus. Hector says, in effect, that in absolute terms, it is wrong to keep Helen. But that absolute position has to be balanced against the situation as it actually exists right now, and the need to maintain honor, now it has been engaged, transcends the absolute distinction between right and wrong that might otherwise be made. The reader or audience may well conclude that Hector, a great warrior, has allowed himself to be seduced by the concept of honor and military glory. He believes in his heart that continuing the war is wrong but he allows himself to be persuaded otherwise.