Act 3, scene 3
In the Greek camp, Agamemnon, Ulysses, Diomedes, Nestor, Menelaus, and Ajax are assembled. They are with Calchas, a Trojan priest and father of Cressida who has deserted the Trojans and been declared a traitor by them. Having offered his services to the Greeks, he now asks them for some reward. He wants them to exchange Antenor, a valuable Trojan warrior who has just been captured by the Greeks, for his daughter, Cressida. Agamemnon agrees to his request and sends off Diomedes to execute it.
Ulysses observes Achilles and Patroclus standing at the entrance to their tent. He asks that the Greeks ignore Achilles as they pass by. Ulysses will then follow last and speak derisively to Achilles, hoping that Achilles will think them all proud and as a result realize that in fact, he is the one who is showing too much pride. Agamemnon approves of Ulysses’ plan, and he, Nestor, Menelaus, and Ajax pass by with barely a word for Achilles. Achilles is surprised and puzzled by this action. When Ulysses passes, Achilles hails him and asks him what he is reading. Ulysses says that what he reads tells him that no man can be said to have great virtues or other qualities unless he gives expression to them. He must act, and then others will see his worth and reflect it back to him. (This is very pointedly aimed at Achilles’ situation.) Ulysses then praises Ajax, who is about to perform an action, in taking on Hector, that will lead to great renown. Ulysses makes another pointed remark aimed at Achilles: “O heavens, what some men do, / While some men leave to do!” (lines 132-33). He tells Achilles that the Greek leaders are already congratulating Ajax.
Disturbed by this, Achilles asks if his own great deeds have been forgotten. Ulysses tells him that in order to preserve honor, a man must keep doing acts that ensure it. To have done something in the past does not mean much; others will leap ahead in reputation by what they are doing in the present. He tells Achilles that this is what is happening now. The great deeds now being performed by the Greek warriors, though less than what Achilles has performed in the past, are now better remembered and ranked higher, simply because they happened recently and are fresh in the mind. “The present eye praises the present object,” Ulysses says (line 180), so it is no surprise that the Greeks are praising Ajax. He is the one who is performing actions, while Achilles does nothing. Achilles says he has good reason to sit the war out, but Ulysses tells him there are more powerful reasons for taking part. He then tells Achilles that it is well known that he is in love with Hector’s sister,Polyxena, and implies this is one reason for Achilles’ inaction. Ulysses plays on Achilles’ emotions further when he says how Achilles’ son Pyrrhus, who has not yet joined them at Troy, will be upset to hear the Greek girls talking about how Achilles was won over by Hector’s sister while it was Ajax who defeated Hector.
After Ulysses exits, Patroclus urges Achilles to drop his love for Polyxena. Achilles begins to get the point; he realizes that his honor and reputation is at stake. He gets Patroclus to call in Thersites, saying he wants to arrange a meeting between himself and the Trojan lords, including Hector, after the fight between Ajax and Hector.
Thersites enters and tells how Ajax is all puffed up with pride about his imminent encounter with Achilles. Achilles gets Patroclus to ask Thersites to arrange the meeting between himself and Hector.
This scene reveals the cunning of Ulysses, the most resourceful of the Greeks. On the Greek side, all the political strategies in this play come from him. He does everything he can think of to play upon Achilles’ weaknesses in order to get him to overcome his pride and take part in the battle. Even though Ulysses does not actually succeed (since it is something else entirely that will eventually draw Achilles back in), he does get Achilles to consider his position more carefully.
At the end of the scene, Thersites manages to remind the audience of Ajax’s stupidity. Also, in the last lines, he makes a derisive remark about Achilles. Thersites has no time at all for Achilles’ “valiant ignorance” (i.e., his boastful foolishness), which leaves the audience once more contemplating that in this play, none of the great warriors’ reputations survive intact.