Homer described him in detail in the Iliad, book II, even though he plays only a minor role in the story. He is said to be bow-legged, lame and had shoulders that caved inward. His head was covered in tufts of hair and came to a point. He was vulgar, obscene, somewhat dull-witted, and Homer has much fun at his expense. He called Agamemnon greedy and Achilles a coward, causing Odysseus to hit him with Agamemnon's sceptre.
In his Introduction to The Anger of Achilles, Robert Graves speculates that Homer might have made Thersites a ridiculous figure as a way of dissociating himself from Thersites, whose remarks seem entirely justified, while letting these remarks, along with Odysseus' brutal act of suppression, remain in the record. In fact, Thersites was venerated by marxist literature in Soviet times.
According to later stories, Achilles eventually killed him for making fun of Achilles' grief over the death of Penthesilea.
In Part Two of Goethe's Faust, Act One, during the Masquerade, Thersites appears briefly and criticizes the goings-on. He says, "When some lofty thing is done / I gird at once my harness on. / Up with what's low, what's high eschew, / Call crooked straight, and straight askew," Trans. Wayne, Philip, copyright 1959 (Penguin Books). The Herald, who acts as Master of Revels or Lord of Misrule, strikes Thersites with his mace, at which point he metamorphoses into an egg, from which a bat and an adder are hatched.
Along with many of the major figures of the Trojan War, Thersites was also a character in Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida. He begins as Ajax' slave, telling Ajax, "I would thou didst itch from head to foot and I had the scratching of thee; I would make thee the loathsomest scab in Greece." Thersites soon leaves Ajax and puts himself into the service of Achilles (portrayed by Shakespeare as kind of bohemian figure), who appreciates his bitter, caustic humor. In British fiction of the 1950's, such as Ngaio Marsh's Singing in the Shrouds, Thersites is used to describe quarrelsome characters.
The role of Thersites as a social critic has been advanced by several philosophers and literary critics, including Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Friedrich Nietzsche, Edward Said and Kenneth Burke. In the passage below from pages 110-111 of Language as Symbolic Action, Kenneth Burke cites Hegel's coinage of the term "Thersitism," and he proceeds to describe a version of it as a process by which an author both privileges protest in a literary work but also disguises or disowns it, so as not to distract from the literary form of the work, which must push on toward other effects than the protest per se:
If an audience is likely to feel that it is being crowded into a position, if there is any likelihood that the requirements of dramatic "efficiency" would lead to the blunt ignoring of a possible protest from at least some significant portion of the onlookers, the author must get this objection stated in the work itself. But the objection should be voiced in a way that the same breath disposes of it.
A perfect example of this stratagem is the role of Thersites in The Iliad. For any Greeks who were likely to resent the stupidity of the Trojan War, the text itself provided a spokesman who voiced their resistance. And he was none other than the abominable Thersites, for whom no "right-minded" member of the Greek audience was likely to feel sympathy. As early as Hegel, however, his standard role was beginning to be questioned. Consider, for instance, these remarks in the introduction to Hegel's Philosophy of History:The Thersites of Homer who abuses the kings is a standing figure for all times. He does not get in every age . . . the blows that he gets in Homer. But his envy, his egotism, is the thorn which he has to carry in his flesh. And the undying worm that gnaws him is the tormenting consideration that his excellent views and vituperations remain absolutely without result in the world. But our satisfaction at the fate of Thersitism may also have its sinister side.