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

09 February 2014

Philoctetes, by Sophocles



Chorus: It is you yourself, you poor fate-entangled man,
            Who has chosen this; from nobody else has come
            The power to enslave yourself, for when
            You could have been wise enough to choose the better
            You chose the worse (147).

Drawing on a story from the Trojan War, SophoclesPhiloctetes tells a story of opposites—Philoctetes and Neoptolemus are honest and brave, while Odysseus is dishonest and cowardly. Philoctetes was an archer who set sail with the original Hellenistic armada going to Troy, but when he (accidentally) violated a temple of Athena a snake bit him in the heel. The wound became infected and produced such a stink that the Hellenes determined to maroon Philoctetes on the island of Lemnos. He survived nine year despite his rotting foot wound, mostly because he was armed with the bow of Heracles, which the deified hero had given Philoctetes. Heracles’ bow never misses, so even though Philoctetes was grievously injured, he was able to hunt for food. But Philoctetes blamed Agamemnon, Menelaus, and especially Odysseus for abandoning him and hates them with the kind of burning passion one probably builds up by being stranded alone for nine years.

Slightly before Sophocles’ play begins, a seer named Helenus prophesied to the Greeks that they would take Troy when Philoctetes and his bow were brought to Troy, and then Philoctetes and Neoptolemus would conquer Illium. The play begins with Odysseus and Neoptolemus on the beach of Lemnos, ready to go get Philoctetes. Here is where we find out that this is not a flattering portrayal of the hero of The Odyssey. Odysseus wears down Neoptolemus’ honesty through rhetorical trickery, finally convincing the young man to get Philoctetes’ bow through an elaborate ruse. Odysseus goes back to the boat, knowing that the castaway would shoot him on sight, and sends Neoptolemus up to the cave to pretend to be leaving the Hellene army because his father Achilles’ armor was awarded to Odysseus. Thus, Odysseus’ plan is to use Philoctetes’ own hatred of himself and the Atreidae against him to convince the man to come onto the boats, then take him back to Troy unwillingly. Neoptolemus was unwilling to go along with this plan because he felt it would be dishonorable to engage in such trickery, but Odysseus talked him into the plan by arguing that victory was more important, and that any lost honor would more than be made up for by the glory of taking Troy.

The real problem comes when Neoptolemus actually meets Philoctetes, a man who is essentially good (though modern readers might find his desire for revenge somewhat ignoble) and long-suffering. Philoctetes only wants to go home, and apparently there have been a number of ships that have stopped at Lemnos over the nine years, but none has ever agreed to take him aboard because of the stink of his foot. Finally Neoptolemus agrees to take Philoctetes home, and what makes the lengthy discussion between the two of them so interesting is that it is really difficult to tell how much Neoptolemus feels genuine compassion and how much he is engaging in Odysseus’ deception—Neoptolemus is a character conflicted in a very modern way, which makes his character so interesting. We do not actually know when the deceitful friendship turns to genuine affection and comradeship, though we do know that Neoptolemus gives Heracles’ bow to Odysseus, but then changes his mind and returns it to Philoctetes.

The other interesting thing about Philoctetes is the resolution of the play. Philoctetes declares that he will never go to Troy, and Neoptolemus agrees to take him home, when Heracles comes down from Olympus and tells them that it is Zeus’ will they go back to Troy and conquer the city, but be careful not to desecrate the gods’ temples. Upon seeing his great friend, Philoctetes agrees to go to Troy, problem solved. Although in the Greek worldview this deus ex machina kind of ending wasn’t much of a problem (after all, the gods were always up in people’s business), but for a modern reader/viewer it may seem a bit cheap and even anticlimactic.

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