"when men’s lives are swollen with hubris they are toppled down by some disaster sent from heaven" -from Sophocles' Ajax

09 February 2014

Ajax, by Sophocles

*I have decided to stop doing detailed plot summaries, since I think I'm putting more into them than I will ultimately get out of them, but I will focus more on analysis, commentary, and thematic examination*

Odysseus: yet I pity him, against me though he is.
            For he is shackled to a dreadful end.
            His fate makes me think of my own.
            I see that our lives are nothing but illusion: fugitive shadows.
Athena: Seeing this is so,
let no haughty word against the gods escape your lips
            nor be puffed up if you excel another
            in prowess or material gain (9).

Soldier: when men’s lives are swollen with hubris
            they are toppled down by some disaster sent from heaven (29).

Aristotle argued in the Poetics that SophoclesOedipus Rex was the most exemplary tragedy, but Ajax seems equally preoccupied with the tragic aspect of fate and the role of the gods in laying low those overcharged with hubris. Ajax is a character marked—perhaps more than any other character in Greek tragedy—by hubris, an inflated sense of self-worth and a dangerous self-confidence. Generally, as in Ajax’s case, this hubris takes the forms of dishonoring or disrespecting the gods. Ajax insulted the gods in general before leaving for Troy by claiming he would not need their help, and then insulted Athena specifically by telling her to go help other Hellenes fight because he had no need of her assistance. Sophocles’ play focuses on the fall of Ajax, from being the second most courageous Greek ever (after Achilles, now dead) through to his disgrace and suicide, and then a debate over whether his body should be allowed to be buried.

The debate that essentially occupies the last third of the play—whether to bury Ajax’s body or not—is reminiscent of the plot of Antigone, in which Polyneices lies unburied and that sacrilege brings disaster to Thebes. In Ajax, Agamemnon and Menelaus want Ajax’s corpse left unburied because he had wanted to kill them, but Teucer—Ajax’s half-brother—says he will honor the body with burial whether the two Atreidae are willing or not. This theme of burial, and thereby honoring both the dead and the gods, is an important one for Sophocles, both in this play and in Antigone. Of course, ritual and rites were central to Greek culture and were seen as a crucial component of maintaining one’s favor in the eyes of the gods, which is why the characters who refuse burial—Agamemnon and Menelaus in Ajax and Creon in Antigone—are seen as hubristically setting themselves against the gods and inviting disaster.

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