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an analysis of the play by Sophocles

The following essay on Ajax was originally published in The Tragic Drama of the Greeks. A.E. Haigh. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1896. pp. 186-8.

The moral of this play is the necessity of moderation in the midst of success. Ajax is a man of heroic strength and valour, but his character is disfigured by arrogance and impiety. He disdains the assistance of heaven, exclaims that "any coward could win victories with the help of the gods," and when Athene comes to encourage him in battle, bids her go elsewhere, since he has no need of her presence. Hence he falls victim to the powers he despised, and is crushed in the very moment of his supposed triumph. The lesson is further enforced by the character of Odysseus, who exhibits in perfection those identical qualities of sobriety and wariness in which Ajax was deficient. He shrinks from witnessing the fall even of his enemy, and remembering that he will one day need burial himself, is unwilling to refuse it to others. At the same time his cold selfishness is somewhat repellent, and attracts our sympathy towards the more generous-minded hero of the play.

The plot must have been taken mainly from the two lost epics of the Trojan Cycle, the Aethiopis and the Little Iliad. But in one respect Sophocles has deviated from his authorities, and ascribes the defeat of Ajax, in the contest for the arms, not to the testimony of the Trojans, but to the intrigues of the Atreidae, his object being plainly to provide some better excuse for the furious resentment and violence of Ajax.

The same subject was also treated by Aeschylus in his Thracian Captives; but in this play the suicide was merely reported to the spectators, and not exhibited upon the stage. Sophocles has made a bold departure from the usual Greek custom, in presenting to the eyes of the audience the spectacle of a violent death. The only other example of such realism in Greek tragedy is to be found in the Supplices of Euripides, where Evadne throws herself down from a rock on to her husband's funeral pile. It is possible, as the scholiast suggests, that Sophocles, in this case, was partially influenced by the desire not to follow too closely on the lines laid down by his predecessor. But whatever his motive may have been, the result is a scene of the greatest pathos. The dying speech of Ajax, with its pensive sadness of tone, goes direct to the heart. There is no strained and unnatural bravado in his words, and at the same time no weakness. Though he parts from the light of day with sorrow, yet ne hever flinches in his purpose; all traces of that frenzy which had been his ruin have disappeared; he is restored at length, in the last scene of all, to his right mind, and his final utterances are strong, calm, and majestic.

The play, in addition to its other qualities, had a local interest for the Athenians. Ajax was one of their national heroes, whose name was borne by an Attic tribe, and from whom many distinguished Athenian families traced their origin. This local connection is gracefully emphasized in several places; and the dying apostrophe of Ajax to the "holy plains of Salamis," and to "famous Athens, and the people that dwell therein," would have a peculiarly touching effect when spoken in the open theatre, from which the buildings of Athens, and the sea-girt isle of Salamis, were easily visible.

The construction of the Ajax varies in point of merit. In the first part of the play the preparation for the crisis is admirably contrived; and the deception of Tecmessa and the chorus, and their extravagant joy at the hero's supposed recovery, intensify the effect of the catastrophe which immediately follows. But after the death of Ajax, as the scholiast pointed out, there is an end of the tragic interest; and the final scenes, with their protracted wrangling over the disposal of the body, are frigid by comparison. No doubt the subject of burial was one of supreme importance to the ancients; but this fact hardly justifies the excessive length of the concluding dialogues. Nor can it be contended that their object was to rehabilitate the character of the national hero, which had been exhibited in a dishonourable light at the beginning of the play, by giving Teucer an opportunity of extolling his achievements. The reputation of Ajax had already been sufficiently redeemed by the impressive dignity of his final appearance.

It is simpler to suppose, with the scholiast, that as the subject of the tragedy was deficient in incident, Sophocles chose to fill it out to the necessary length with one of those rhetorical contests in which the ancients delighted. At the same time the debate was one which would gratify the national pride of the Athenians. Teucer, who might be regarded as the representative of Athens, was seen maintaining a successful contest with the two great heroes of the Peloponnesus; and his invectives against Spartan arrogance would be certain to rouse the enthusiasm of an Athenian audience. But it must be admitted that scenes of this kind, though effective upon the stage, fall below the usual level of Sophoclean tragedy.

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