Act Two introduces us to Thersites, an acid-tongued coward of low rank in the Greek army who delights in insulting his superiors. He even trades the foolhardy warrior Ajax colorful insults for brutal blows. The Trojan camp seriously discusses the latest offer from Nestor: the Greeks, it seems, will call off the whole war if the Trojans return Helen. Hector argues that Helen is not worth the amount of blood that has already been shed - and certainly does not merit even more casualties - but Troilus berates him for this opinion, saying that the primary threat is not to Helen's value, but to their city's honor. He reminds his brothers that the conflict began not when Paris took Helen, but when the Greeks took Hersione, a Trojan woman, who was wed to the Greek Telemon. Troilus suggests that if they do not defend their right to avenge Hersione's capture, then the institution upon which their society is based - marriage - will crumble, bringing humanity down with it.
Cassandra, the Trojan princess who is doomed to foretell the future but never to be believed, interrupts Troilus and Hector's debate with baleful moaning about the future of Troy if the Trojans fail to return Helen. Seeing that her please are in vain she exits, and the debate continues. Paris jumps into the argument, declaring that he wishes to wipe off the blot of Helen's abduction by "the honorable keeping of her." Hector, although completely unconvinced by his younger brother's attempts at logic, nevertheless agrees that they cannot simply give Helen up, as Troy's honor is now tied to the outcome of the war.
In the Greek camp, Achilles continues to refuse to fight. Thersites, apparently having impressed Achilles with his foolish railing against Ajax, has defected to Achilles' side. He meets Achilles' good friend and lover, Patroclus, and rails against him as well. Meanwhile, Nestor, Agamemnon, and Ulysses arrive at Achilles' tent to convince the sullen, proud champion to participate in the next day's fighting, but Patroclus curtly dismisses them. Ulysses begins applying his plan to spur Achilles into battle by praising Ajax to the skies. He gets his fellow Greeks to play along, and Ajax is conned into believing that he, not Achilles, is Greece's most valued resource in the war.
Two Acts have passed and still, one cannot help but notice, the audience has not borne witness to a single moment of battle between the Greeks and Trojans: the focus has been on debate and domestic issues. The play, in general, seems to spend a great deal of time trying to determine what it is about. The process of argumentation through which this matter is intended to be addressed, however, fails to arrive at clear answers. We saw this failing in the Greek camp scene in Act One, when each of the Greek leaders took a turn at defining the reason for Greece's lack of success; this act features a similarly ambiguous debate between various Trojan leaders.
Both of the two main supporters of the continuation of the war, Troilus and Paris, appear to prioritize honor over reason. They both agree that it is not rational to keep Helen, who has already cost them so many lives, but see the matter as a question of principle. Paris (who can hardly be considered objective, since it is he who wishes to keep Helen most of all) states that Helen is an unrivalled beauty, much prized by all the world, and that it would be damaging to Troy as a whole to lose her. As Priam suggests, however, that is easy for him to say. His tendency to couch his lust in the language of honor makes Paris one of the most unequivocally dishonest characters in Troilus and Cressida.
Troilus' position is more complicated than Paris'. Whereas his brother's alleged arguments for keeping Helen are clearly mendacious, Troilus seems motivated by true principles. He believes that the Greeks upset the foundations of marriage when they abducted Hersione, and that in keeping Helen the Trojans are merely restoring balance. Troilus speaks of honor with a far less forked tongue than Paris. Thus far, he is the purest defender of honor, contending that though Helen may not be worth the lives she has cost, she has given Trojans the opportunity to court honor and glory on the field of battle. The naivetÃ© of this position, however, will come under intense scrutiny in the acts to come.
On the Greek side, the key player in Act Two is Thersites. He is the anti-Troilus: a bilious, fiercely articulate misanthrope. His obsession with whoredom, lust and war pervades his every word. He is an unprincipled, lowborn, scathing opportunist - and believes that the entire world operates as he does, although others use the language of honor and dignity to dress up their depravity. And to tell the truth, Troilus and Cressida offers many examples to support Thersites' claim; from Paris to Pandar to Ulysses to Ajax to Achilles, everyone indeed seems motivated by the same base power games that fascinate Thersites. In short, if Troilus and Cressida is truly as nihilistic a play as it seems, then Thersites is the hollow heart of the play, railing cynically against anything and everything. Ironically, it is his very willingness to say what he thinks that keep him from advancing himself; Thersites is, in his fashion, one of the most honest characters in the play. In this world of secret power struggles and backroom machinations, however, Thersites' outspoken disgust proves to be his undoing.