Philoctetes by Sophocles (trans. David Greene)

I found the character of Philoctetes from the play of the self-same name to be Sophocles most tragic figure. Unfortunately, a horrible deus ex machina ruins an otherwise compelling play.

The story deals with the tragic figure of Philoctetes stranded on the island of Lemnos by Odysseus and the Atridae because his moaning caused by a sickness from a snake bite continually interupts their prayers and sacrifices to the gods. Years later, Odysseus returns to the island with Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles, to recuit Philoctetes for the Greek war against the Trojans after a prophecy predicts that only with the help of Philoctetes and Heracles’s legendary arrows will the Greeks finally be able to conquer Troy. Knowing the grievances Philoctetes has been nursing all these years, Odysseus conspires with a reluctant Neoptolemus to recruit Philoctetes through trickery.

In his introduction David Greene writes, “that in many of its aspects the story is the same as that of the Oedipus at Colonus.” Indeed, it isn’t difficult to see the parallels between an Oedipus betrayed by his sons and Philoctetes betrayed by his leaders. The next parallel is even more glaring. Both men are innocent in their own afflictions.

After careful consideration, I think the reason I find Philoctetes to be more sympathetic than the usual Sophoclean character is that he is truly a victim of his circumstances. Oedipus might not be responsible for the events of his childhood that leads to his reckoning, but its still his own hubris and belief that he can best the gods that causes his descent. Meanwhile, Ajax succumbs to a sudden madness of passions, too vain and proud to tolerate dishonor, an act that forces him to commit suicide. These figures do in fact play a part in their own destruction. Unlike these haughty figures deflated by their own arrogant actions, Philoctetes truly is a pathetic figure. The modern reader cannot help but feel sorry for his sickness and all he suffered at the hands of his leaders. Philoctetes is a true victim, not really responsible for where he is now. Though, perhaps I exaggerate his dissimilarity to these other characters. As the play continues he too reveals a pride that almost leads to his downfall by choosing his own personal enmities over the good of the polis (the individual over the state).

This man’s hatred for his betrayers has grown so potent over the years that he would sacrifice the chance at redemption and renewed health for the sake of their downfall. Neoptolemus, the moral paragon in the story who condemns the lying and deceit encouraged by Odysseus, absolutely abhors the anti-Greek values that Philoctetes represents by putting his own petty concerns over the good of the polis:

the fortunes that the gods give to us men we must bear under necessity. But men that cling willfully to their sufferings as you do, no one may forgive nor pity.

Philoctetes would sacrifice his entire future for the sake of revenge. Sophocles identifies this as a path to folly. I’m tempted as a modern reader to see Sophocles mocking the kind of self-pity that permeates so much modern political discourse. According to Sophocles, there is a pathetic and abominable quality to those who cling to past sins and greivances, especially if it comes at the price of the future. You can’t change the past, you can only choose how you will proceed into the future.

Luckily, Philoctetes chooses the path of the future with a little help from the deus ex machina apparition of Heracles. Presumably he is healed and wins glory by destroying Troy in the events that occur after the play comes to a close. For this reason I view this as a story of redemption and rebirth, a tragedy that ends with a note of hope, especially compared to the other plays that end on a mostly miserable note. It reminds us like most of Sophocles’s plays that what the gods give they can take away and what they take away they can give back again.


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