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Philoctetes


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A: Sophocles Pf: 409 bc, Athens Tr: 1725 G: Greek drama in verse S: Before a cave on the Island of Lemnos, during the Trojan War C: 5m, chorus (m)On the way to Troy, the heroic Greek archer Philoctetes is bitten in the foot by a snake. The festering wound stinks so strongly that the Greeks abandon him on the Isle of Lemnos and continue to the war without him. Having now received a prophecy that Troy will never be defeated without Philoctetes' bow and arrows, Odysseus and Neoptolemus, son of Achilles, return to the island, hoping to induce Philoctetes to come to Troy with them. Knowing that Philoctetes will refuse to lend support to those who so mercilessly abandoned him nine years previously, Odysseus resorts to cunning. He uses Neoptolemus to win over Philoctetes with promises of bringing him to his homeland, and the suffering Philoctetes trustingly hands over his weapons. Before Odysseus can, however, celebrate the success of the expedition, Neoptolemus regrets this deception and gives back the bow and arrows. Indeed, he is so willing to help the desperate Philoctetes that he now promises to accompany him home to Greece, thus endangering the whole Greek army at Troy. With no apparent possibility of a satisfactory resolution, Heracles appears, ordering all three Greeks to Troy, where Philoctetes will be healed and become a great hero.

A: Sophocles Pf: 409 bc, Athens Tr: 1725 G: Greek drama in verse S: Before a cave on the Island of Lemnos, during the Trojan War C: 5m, chorus (m)

This version of the Philoctetes myth is the only one to have survived of those known to have been written by all three Greek tragedians. Sophocles' version explores themes of trust and deception, of expediency and humanity. For all his despicable behaviour (quite unlike the noble depiction of him in Ajax), Odysseus is acting in the best interests of the Greeks as a whole. Though praiseworthy, Neoptolemus' humanity would cost many noble lives, and he is vindicated only by the intervention of an immortal. One of Sophocles' last plays, written when he was in his eighties, it appears to reveal, especially in this use of the deus ex machina, the influence of Euripides, who was by now regularly outdoing Sophocles in the competitive drama festivals of Athens. The theme was used in one of the earliest pieces of Heiner Müller in 1968 and by Seamus Heaney in The Cure at Troy (1990).

Subjects: Literary Studies (Plays and Playwrights).


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