Act 1 scene 3
The Greek leaders meet in council to discuss the fact that the war is not going well. Agamemnon, their leader, is the first to speak. He says that, as they all know, they have fallen short of their purpose. The siege of Troy has gone on for seven years, but the city still stands. Everything they have tried has failed. Agamemnon then tries to speak encouragingly, saying that these setbacks have been sent by the gods to test them. Next, Nestor speaks. He agrees with Agamemnon, saying that when there are setbacks due to misfortune, men of courage have a chance to prove themselves.
Then Ulysses makes his contribution. He says that the Trojans would have been defeated by now had the Greeks been more orderly in their organization. He makes a long speech about how everything in the cosmos is orderly; everything has its appointed place. The sun rules the planets, for example, and corrects any bad influences a planet may have; but if the planets are not checked in this way, storms and other disturbances appear. Calamities only happen when an orderly pattern is disrupted. This applies also, Ulysses says, to human society, which follows an orderly, hierarchical pattern. If this harmony is broken, the result is chaos. Everything is then about the exertion of power and self-will; there is no order or justice. Eventually, society destroys itself. He likens it to a sickness leading to a fever. Ulysses ends by saying that it is the Greeks’ weakness, not Troy’s strength, that is prolonging the war.
Agamemnon acknowledges that Ulysses is right and asks what they can do about it. Ulysses gets straight to the point. The disorder in the Greek camp is connected to their greatest warrior, Achilles. Achilles, Ulysses says, has grown conceited, and he and his friend Patroclus sit around in their tent all day and mock the other Greeks. Patroclus mocks Agamemnon by imitating his words and manner. Achilles thinks this is hilarious and laughs heartily. He tells Patroclus to imitate old Nestor, which Patroclus does, to Achilles’ great amusement. Ulysses then says that Achilles and Patroclus mock everything about the Greeks: their abilities, their speeches, their successes, their losses—everything they can think of.
Next to speak is Nestor. He says that the antics of Achilles and Patroclus have had a bad effect on the other warriors, such as Ajax, who has become self-willed and proud. Ajax eggs on Thersites to make disparaging comments about the Greek forces.
Ulysses continues the complaint. Ajax and Thersites denigrate the Greeks’ war policies, saying they are cowardly. They criticize the intelligence work (reconnaissance missions, for example) done by the Greeks on the Trojan enemy, valuing only brute force, rather than the brain work that must be done before it.
Aeneas enters with a message for Agamemnon. He says that Hector the great Trojan has challenged any Greek to meet him in single combat. The challenge is couched in the language of medieval chivalry regarding the virtue and beauty of women: Hector claims to have the most beautiful woman of them all and challenges the Greeks to send out a warrior who will be the champion of the virtue of his own woman. Agamemnon says if no other Greek accepts the challenge, he will accept it himself. Nestor says the same.
Everyone exits except Ulysses and Nestor. Ulysses says he has a plan to use Hector’s challenge to solve the problem with Achilles. He and Nestor agree that Hector’s challenge is aimed solely at Achilles. Nestor says the outcome will affect the morale of the Greeks, for good or ill. Ulysses says that is why the Greeks should not send out Achilles to meet Hector. Instead, he has a plan that will, he hopes, lure Achilles back into the general fray. He suggests that the Greeks pick their man by lottery, but the lottery should be fixed so that Ajax is selected to meet Hector. This will, Ulysses hopes, offend Achilles, and make him put aside the pride that is keeping him from the fighting. If Ajax loses, the Greeks can always say they have better men than he and so avoid any adverse effects on morale. Nestor approves of the plan.
Traditionally, Ulysses, the hero of Homer’s The Odyssey, was the wisest of the Greek warriors. In this scene, Agamemnon defers to his judgment. Ulysses’ speech about the importance of “degree,” that is, the harmonious order which everything in the universe observes, and which human society should also embody, is often quoted as an example of the Elizabethan concept of the “great chain of being”: everything has its place in an orderly hierarchy. Ulysses points to the incoherence within the Greek army. Not only are Achilles and Patroclus undermining morale but also many in the army do not values the behind-the-scenes strategy that is necessary to successfully prosecute the war. The Greeks are therefore divided amongst themselves. Ulysses’ solution, after the challenge presented by Hector, is a wily, cunning one. He does not balk at fixing the lottery if it means that he can use such a device to indirectly coax Achilles into reentering the war. A small piece of corruption, he might argue, is nothing compared to the good it will do the Greek cause. Ulysses shows himself to be a skilful politician; he will make a nice speech about the need for order and integrity, but behind the scenes he will do whatever is necessary to achieve his goals.
Shakespeare gives no concrete reason in this play for why Achilles has chosen to sit out the war. In Homer’s Iliad, it is because Achilles is angry at Agamemnon for having taken a slave girl away from him. The absence of any reference to that in this play makes Achilles appear less than admirable. He is refusing to join the war simply out of pride—but that does not seem to be a very clear or convincing motive.