(Originally read this work and wrote this post September 20th 2008)
Written in the same period as the Antigone, Sophocles’s Ajax picks up on many of the same themes of divine law versus secular laws, the love and honor family members owe each other in contrast to what they owe their rulers, the tyranny of kings, and how easily our fortunes can change due to the whims of the gods.
Ajax enraged by his failure to win the armor of Achilles, and feeling snubbed by Agamemnon’s decision to award it to Odysseus, goes on a murderous rampage in the night where he tries to kill the leaders of the Greek army. The play opens with the crafty Odysseus talking with the goddess Athena who has put Ajax under a spell of madness that tricks him into thinking that a bunch of cows that he slaughtered were his sleeping enemies. The second half of the play deals with Teucer, Ajax’s brother, attempting to bury Ajax who has committed suicide. Teucer defies the orders of Agamemnon and Menelaus who want the body to remain unburied for the crows and dogs to desecrate.
Unlike Antigone where Polyneices is already dead at the beginning of the play, the first half features Ajax in a speaking role. Besides it similarities to Sophocles’s other tragedies, this play also captures the feel and themes of the epic tradition. Ajax’s sudden stroke of madness over the perceived slight at losing the armor of Achilles to Odysseus recalls Achilles’s rage at Agamemnon when he takes Briseis from him during the opening of the Iliad. This is a world where honor and shame is a zero-sum game. Ajax’s reaction to his deeds after he snaps out of his madness is one of embarrassment; the mighty Ajax, hero of the Trojan war, has been reduced to killing a bunch of cows.
Some of the best lines Sophocles ever wrote come in the form of Ajax’s dialogue about life and death, his truimphs and failures, and the embarrassment he feels over his current situation. It is important to understand how this attitude differs from our own modern sensibilities.
It’s not that Ajax feels sudden moral qualms over trying to murder his comrades, but rather the problem is that he failed in the act and all he managed to do was kill a bunch of cows, which calls his fighting prowess and manliness into question, not to mention everyone now knows he broke his oath to the king in a world where loyalty and guest-rights are extremely important.
With that said, another implicit theme seems to be the importance of controlling one’s temper so as not to offend the gods; this can be seen demonstrated by the words and actions not only of Ajax, but Agamemnon and Menelaus as well in the play. Recalling Oedipus’s quarrel of words with Teresias it is apparent that this theme can be found in many of Sophocles’s other plays, but it is by far the most pronounced in this play.