Sophocles: Ajax, Philoctetes, The Trachiniae

This last week I’ve finally finished reading the last three plays of Sophocles out of the seven which survive today in complete form: Ajax, Philoctetes, and The Trachiniae. These plays are disconnected in terms of setting and characterization, unlike the Oedipus cycle plays we reviewed earlier. Two of them are plays which explicitly focus on a titular character. Ajax deals with the tragic end of the great warrior Ajax the Great that is ultimately the result of his own greed and Philoctetes deals with the efforts of Neoptolemus and Odysseus to persuade the wounded master archer Philoctetes to fight with them at Troy. The Trachiniae centers around the relationship between Deianeira and her famous husband Heracles, ending with the latter’s tragic death due to the result of an attempted seduction gone horribly wrong. The notable thees which crop up in the plays, as we will see, are also distinct, although we can see a similarity in that both Ajax and Philoctetes feature interactions with a wounded warrior as the centerpiece.


In the aftermath of the victory at Troy, which ended with the deaths of several important characters, including the Greek champion Achilles, Ajax is enraged that the armor of the dead Achilles was not given to him. He believes that he is entitled to them due to his valorous deeds in the war. His rage leads to his plans to kill Odysseus (who was given the armor) and others who were judged to be responsible. To prevent this, the goddess Athena makes him go mad, mistaking a flock of sheep for the people he wanted to kill. This leads to all the other Greeks laughing at him. His shame leads to him committing suicide. The final part of the play deals with a debate between Agamemnon and Odysseus on what to do with the body.

There are two themes which stuck out to me when reading this play: the mechanics of Ajax’s downfall and suicide, and the portrayal and role of Odysseus. Ajax’s suicidal tendencies begin in a dialogue with the leader of the chorus, after he is discovered to have finally come into his senses in his tent, sitting among the animals he has slaughtered. He feels hated and mocked by everyone: the Greeks, the Trojans, and even the gods, due to the complicity of Athena in tricking him. He thinks that his father Telamon would be embarrassed at him, and wants to find a way to redeem himself: “Some scheme let me devise//Which may prove to my aged sire that I//His son, at least by nature am no coward.” In his opinion, a “noble death” would be such a scheme. Tecmessa, his concubine, pleads with him not to do the deed, because she and their child would be left unprotected. On its face, this seems like a rather selfish reason. But she also ends her plea with an astute observation on the futility of suicide:

O take thought for me too. Do we not owe
Remembrance, where we have met with any joy?
For kindness begets kindness evermore
But he who from whose mind fades the memory
Of benefits, noble is he no more.

In these despairing moments, Ajax also calls upon his brother Teucer in the hopes that he will protect Tecmessa and their son Eurysaces. But Teucer doesn’t show up until it is too late. Because of his late appearance, Teucer becomes sort of like an offstage character, with many people speaking about him without him actually appearing on stage. These mentions are used by Sophocles to great dramatic effect. Listening to Tecmessa’s pleas, Ajax has a seeming change of heart, saying that he was loath to leave his wife and child alone if he were to commit suicide. But he then declares rather ambiguously that “Then will I find some lonely place, where I//May hide this sword, beyond all others cursed,//Buried where none may see it, deep in earth” and leaves the stage. The chorus is at first fooled, singing a joyful hymn about how “Ares hath lifted horror and anguish from our eyes” and “Now, O Zeus, can the bright and blithe
//Glory of happier days return.”

Suddenly, however, a messenger enters and describes the arrival of Teucer in the camp, mocked by the other Greek warriors due to his brother’s antics. When the messenger learns that Ajax has gone to bury the sword, he is shocked, revealing that Teucer heard a prophecy from Calchas that his brother was never to be left alone that day – but it is too late. Teucer, being too far away to get there in time, is powerless to stop Ajax. This prophecy is then revealed to the horrified Tecmessa, reinforcing its futility. I am reminded of the scenes in The Suppliant Maidens and Oedipus at Colonus, where the chorus and other secondary characters are powerless to affect action on the stage without the presence of the main hero (the king of Argos in the former, and Theseus in the latter case). The difference is that in those plays, the hero finally enters at the critical moment and saves the day, but here, Teucer fails to affect any change. More shockingly, we are then shown Ajax’s final soliloquy followed by him falling on his sword, on stage – the first instance, if I remember correctly, of bloodshed occurring on stage in the dramas of Aeschylus and Sophocles that I’ve read so far.

The second issue which I wanted to talk about is the character of Odysseus, which crops up in the beginning and end of the play. Ajax portrays him as a noble and chivalric warrior, respectful and magnanimous towards his foes. In the beginning of the play, Athena explains Ajax’s madness to Odysseus, and calls him up. Odysseus asks her not to do so, seemingly out of a concern that he does not want to revel in the madness and degraded state of his enemies:

Hearken, thou who art pinioning with cords
The wrists of captives; hither, I bid thee, come.
Thou, Ajax, hear me: come to thy tent’s door.

What dost thou, Athena? Do not summon him forth.

Abide in silence. Earn not the name of coward.

Nay, by the Gods, let him remain within.

What dost thou dread? Was he not once a man?

Yes, and to me a foeman, and still is.

To mock foes, is not that the sweetest mockery?

I am content he should remain indoors.

To look upon a madman art thou afeard?

Had he been sane, no fear had made me shrink.

Of course, Athena goes ahead with calling Ajax anyway. Thus the purpose of the above dialogue seems to be to show Odysseus’ noble virtues. At the end of the play, after Ajax’s suicide, Agamemnon arrives and makes a big point about not wanting to grant him a proper burial because of his embarrassing behavior. But Odysseus adamantly tries to change his mind, invoking the valor of Ajax and the fundamental injustice in outraging a brave dead man:

Once for me too this man was my worst foe,
From that hour when I won Achilles’ arms;
Yet, though he was such towards me, I would not so
Repay him with dishonour as to deny
That of all Greeks who came to Troy, no hero
So valiant save Achilles have I seen.
So it is not just thou shouldst dishonour him.
Not him wouldst thou be wronging, but the laws
Of heaven. It is not righteousness to outrage
A brave man dead, not even though thou hate him.

The two then go into an intense stichomythic debate, where Agamemnon tries to accuse him of being a traitor, standing up for his enemies, and disobeying the command of a superior. But Odysseus is remarkably firm and persistent, emphasizing that “His worth with me far outweighs enmity” and that his advice to Agamemnon is given as that of a friend, something that he should feel no shame to follow. Amazingly, Agamemnon relents and lets him do as he pleases, showing that perhaps Odysseus is the true leader here. True to his great exploits in The Odyssey, Odysseus is a master with words, but here his words are used to clearly higher purposes.


In Philoctetes, the main theme is that of the moral high ground. In stark contrast to Ajax, the character of Odysseus here is portrayed as a scheming, pragmatic manipulator who doesn’t hesitate to create elaborate deceptions to accomplish a goal. He sets up a plan where Neoptolemus, a young, rather impressionable soldier is to convince Philoctetes to come with them to fight in Troy while Odysseus hides (presumably because Philoctetes doesn’t like him). The rest of the play puts Neoptolemus’ evolving moral conscience at the center – he shifts from refusing to go along with the plan to going along with it to feeling guilt at his actions, before the god Heracles comes down and calls on Philoctetes to go along with the invitation – a literal instance of deus ex machina. It’s therefore interesting to take a brief look at the things which caused Neoptolemus to change his mind several times.

After they have found Philoctetes’ cave on the island, Odysseus at first explains the plan: Neoptolemus is to honestly reveal that he is the son of Achilles, but not that he is traveling with Odysseus. He is then to heap invective on him, claiming that Neoptolemus got fed with the Greek army after his father’s armor was given to Odysseus and decided to attack Troy on his own. As Philoctetes has also had bad past experiences with the Greek army, the hope is that he would be willing to follow Neoptolemus. Odysseus is aware of the blatant dishonesty that he is asking his younger colleague to engage in. Unsurprisingly, Neoptolemus at first puts up a ferocious resistance, even when Odysseus tries to argue that enlisting Philoctetes’ help was critical to success of the Greek war effort, and that it was not base to lie if their safety depended on it. But he instantly turns around when Odysseus points out the possible personal gains he could get:

But where’s the interest that should bias me?
Come he or not to Troy, imports it aught
To Neoptolemus?

Troy cannot fall
Without his arrows.

Saidst thou not that I
Was destined to destroy her?

Without them
Naught canst thou do, and they without thee nothing.

Then I must have them.

When thou hast, remember
A double prize awaits thee.

What, Ulysses?

The glorious names of valiant and of wise.

Away! I’ll do it. Thoughts of guilt or shame
No more appal me

This exchange betrays Neoptolemus’ vanity and dreams of success that are sufficient to completely destroy his moral compass. He goes on to carry out the act convincingly, even producing an elaborate tale of how Odysseus and the Greeks cheated him of his father’s armor. The wounded, limping Philoctetes is momentarily convinced. The next twist in the tale occurs a pain suddenly breaks out in Philoctetes, inducing him to cry out. He asks Neoptolemus to guard his famous arrows as he takes a rest. Neoptolemus promises that nobody but him would touch the arrows. Philoctetes then falls asleep, and Neoptolemus converses with the chorus of spies, who attempt to convince him to go off with his weapons and leave him on the island. But Neoptolemus refuses, saying that “easy as it is//To gain the prize, it would avail us nothing//Were he not with us.”  When he wakes up, Neoptolemus finally cannot conceal his guilt anymore, revealing all to Philoctetes, who is understandably angry.

Why did Neoptolemus change his mind again? It seems that seeing the physical pain experienced by Philoctetes may have swayed him – after all, in the beginning, when they are looking for his cave, Neoptolemus remarks “Unhappy man!//Some linen for his wounds,” showing that he is vulnerable to manifestations of physical pain. As he himself remarks after the reveal, “His distress//Doth move me much. Trust me, I long have felt//
Compassion for him.” This is not a full repentance yet, however – after Odysseus shows up on the scene, also revealing himself, Neoptolemus still goes out with Philoctetes’ arrows, only asking the chorus to remain with him out of pity. Then follows a long dialogue between the chorus and Philoctetes, where the latter bemoans his painful, abandoned plight. Finally, Neoptolemus experiences his final change of heart, returning back on stage with the arrows and a bewildered Odysseus chasing after him, declaring that “I come//To purge me of my crimes.”

We are then given a rare instance in which Odysseus fails to convince the now more mature Neoptolemus, who is convinced that no matter the greater purpose, they have committed an injustice by robbing Philoctetes of his arms. Almost like a parallel to Agamemnon trying to argue with Odysseus in Ajax, Neoptolemus handily rebuffs all attempts by Odysseus to convince him otherwise. The difference is that Neoptolemus doesn’t try to be a master of words; he simply states that he is doing the right thing, boldly rebuking his older colleague. Here are some revealing excerpts:

Unjustly should I keep
Another’s right?

Now, by the gods, thou meanest
To mock me! Dost thou not?

If to speak truth
Be mockery.

Wise as thou art, Ulysses,
Thou talkst most idly.

Wisdom is not thine
Either in word or deed.

Know, to be just
Is better far than to be wise.

I have done a wrong,
And I will try to make atonement for it.

Despite his numerous threats and arguments, Odysseus fails to convince Neoptolemus newfound conviction. Thus Philoctetes can be viewed as a foil to Ajax: in the latter, trickery and manipulation is used for the purpose of accomplishing justice, but in the former, trickery takes center stage but ultimately loses both its moral and dramatic high ground, as symbolized by the defeat of Odysseus’ efforts.

The Trachiniae

The Trachiniae at first seems like a play curiously titled as the Trachinian women that form the chorus are not the main characters in the story. It tells about the death of the famous demigod Heracles (more popularly known by his Roman moniker, Hercules) as a result of a magical love charm gone wrong. Deianeira, Heracles’ wife, is shocked when news comes to her that Heracles is finally coming home, but he has just invaded a city for the sake of winning the love of a young maiden named Iole. She then sends him the gift of a robe, dipped in the blood of the centaur Nessus, who was killed by Heracles when he tried to rape Deianeira while ferrying her across the river. Just before he died, Nessus told her that the robe would make Heracles never fall out of love with her. Unfortunately, this turned out to be a trick – the robe ends up killing Heracles instead, to Deianeira’s horror. She, too, commits suicide after learning this, and Heracles dies a pretty dramatic, extended death in which he extracts promises from his son Hyllus to marry Iole and bring his body to the top of the mountain.

In this play, lies and trickery again takes central focus and drives the drama. Lichas, Heracles’ herald, at first lies to Deianeira, saying that Heracles invaded the city of Eurytus because Eurytus had betrayed and cast him out. But almost instantly after, a messenger reveals the truth, changing the situation immediately. Secondly, Deianeira herself tries to engage in trickery by disguising the poisoned robe as a gift to Hercules, which he gladly accepts. Lastly, the most important lie is that of the dead centaur Nessus, which ends up killing Heracles. This is the greatest con of all: as Heracles puts it himself, it is the slaying of the living by the dead.

There are several other elements in The Trachiniae that are common motifs in Greek mythology. First is that of prophecy. Despite the rage and shock at what has happened to him, Heracles acknowledges that his manner of death had been foretold by a prophet since long – that he “should perish by no creature that had the breath of life, but by one that had passed to dwell with Hades.” It’s incredible to see that seemingly almost no events in the Greek mythological world were out of the range of Fate. The entire philosophy is a profoundly fatalistic one, at least in the macro-scale. At the same time, characters are free to make small events that can somewhat redeem a bit of control in their lives, for example Heracles accepting his fate to die as a result of a dead creature’s curse but then requesting from Hyllus several things to do after his death. Lastly, there is the element of anger against the gods: at the end of the play, Hyllus declares that all of these events were the result of Zeus’ plans:

HYLLUS [chanting]
Lift him, followers! And grant me full forgiveness for this; but mark the great cruelty of the gods in the deeds that are being done. They beget children, they are hailed as fathers, and yet they can look upon such sufferings.

The Greek mythological world is cold and fatalistic. We’ve seen that there are certain concepts of heavenly rules and heavenly justice, decreed by the gods. But the gods seem to lack love and compassion, sometimes actively partaking in a course of events that seem to result in nothing but pointless suffering. Hyllus’ final exclamation can be read as a Greek expression of the problem of evil. You can immediately recall a parallel with the problem of evil expressed in the assumption of a Christian world – but the difference with the Christian version is that here, there is not even a proffered reason for why such suffering exists (in Christianity, one normally explains it due to the existence of free will and the presence of Satan in the fallen world); in fact, the gods seem to actively partake in causing the suffering. With that in view, perhaps the whole point is to show that Heracles, having been immensely successful in numerous heroic feats, can’t have luck run his way forever. In the end he is dead due to blood that he himself shed, and the final trigger was his infidelity to his wife. In short, Heracles has a lot of baggage, both historical and personal, and it finally bits him back. The message the becomes that nobody (except maybe fully divine beings, unlike the half-god Heracles) is immortal and invincible forever.

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