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an analysis of the play by Sophocles

The following essay on Philoctetes was originally published in The Tragic Drama of the Greeks. A.E. Haigh. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1896. pp. 194-8.

The legend of Philoctetes was related at length in the Trojan Cycle. It was also dramatized by each of the three great tragic poets; and although the tragedies of Aeschylus and Euripides have perished, their general character is fairly well known from the criticisms of Dion. It may be interesting, therefore, to describe the various shapes assumed by the story, in the Cycle and in the subsequent dramas, as an illustration of the skill and originality with which the ancient myths were handled.

In the Cycle the fable was a very simple one. The Greeks had abandoned Philoctetes on the island of Lemnos, because of his incurable wound. But after ten years of fighting they learn from an oracle that they cannot capture Troy, unless he should come to their assistance, and bring with him the deadly bow of Hercules. Diomed is accordingly sent to fetch him, and he consents without hesitation to return to the Greek camp and share in the victory.

This simple story was first converted into a dramatic plot by Aeschylus, who represented Philoctetes as embittered by his sufferings, and irreconcilably hostile to the Greeks. Odysseus, therefore, who was sent to recall him, had a dangerous task to perform, since it was certain that, if once recognized, he would be slain by means of the arrows of Hercules. However, he managed to conceal his identity, and won the confidence of Philoctetes by a fictitious story about the disastrous condition of the Greek army. He then, apparently, succeeded in obtaining possession of the bow, and having thus at one stroke secured himself from peril, and deprived Philoctetes of his means of livelihood, he at length made himself known, and persuaded the helpless hero to accompany him to Troy. By these modifications the plot, as we can see, was much improved, and its dramatic effectiveness heightened; but it still lacked the elements which are necessary to the greatest kind of tragedy, and the beauty of the Aeschylean drama must have consisted mainly in the splendid narratives with which it was embellished.

Euripides followed in the main the example set by Aeschylus. But he added a fresh interest to the story by the device of a Trojan embassy, which came to Lemnos to counteract the intrigues of Odysseus. This innovation gave him an opportunity for one of those rhetorical displays in which he excelled. While Philoctetes was in doubt as to his course, the Trojans arrived, and endeavoured to persuade him to reject the overtures of the Greeks. Odysseus replied on the opposite side; and it is easy to imagine the way in which such a situation would be utilized by Euripides, the eloquence with which each view of the question would be argued, and the appeals which would be made to the patriotism of Philoctetes, or to his sense of wrong. Eventually, however, patriotism won the day, and he consented to rejoin the Greek army.

Hitherto, in both these plays, the sympathy of the audience had been centered in Odysseus, and in the success of his stratagem. Sophocles, who came last, gave a new aspect to the tragedy, by transferring the interest from Odysseus to Philoctetes, and made the character of the latter the basis of the whole plot, thus converting the drama into a deep and interesting psychological study. To accomplish this purpose he introduced a new personage, in the shape of Neoptolemus, a young and ingenuous hero, whom Philoctetes had never seen, and who had therefore no need to conceal his identity. Neoptolemus now becomes the active agent in the intrigue, and is prompted by Odysseus from the background. He wins the sympathy and affection of Philoctetes by a false story of wrong suffered from the Greeks, and so obtains possession of the bow. Odysseus then appears, and the truth is made known. Philoctetes, though frantic with despair, refuses to yield. Neoptolemus, becoming ashamed of his fraud, restores the bow. Philoctetes is still obdurate, and affairs appear to have reached a dead-lock, when suddenly Hercules descends from heaven, and commands obedience to the will of the gods.

By introducing the artless Neoptolemus along with the unscrupulous Odysseus, and by his skilful arrangement of the incidents, Sophocles has contrived to present Philoctetes to our view under a far more varied aspect than would have been possible in the preceding dramas. We no longer see merely the violent side of his character, his bitter indignation, his fury against Odysseus and the Greeks, and his passion for revenge. Neoptolemus, the youth who "appears to know no evil," draws out all his better qualities, his warmth and large-heartedness, his pining for love and sympathy, and his scorn for deceit and meanness. The picture of varied passion is as fine as anything in Sophocles. The play is essentially a character-play, like the Electra; and although towards the end, when the bow is restored, the plot takes one of those unexpected turns which are more in the style of the modern drama, as a rule the progress of events is simple, and their general course is clearly explained to the spectator in the opening scene.

The plausibility and naturalness with which Sophocles was accustomed to invest his plots is well exemplified by a comparison of his Philoctetes with those of his two predecessors. In Aeschylus and Euripides it was essential that Odysseus should not be recognized. Aeschylus, in his simple fashion, merely assumed that there was no recognition, without deigning to account for the fact, while Euripides caused Odysseus to be metamorphosed by Athene. Still, in both cases there was a certain clumsiness which must have interfered with the illusion. Sophocles, as we have shown, avoided all awkwardness, by making Neoptolemus the chief agent in the plot. Again, in Aeschylus and Euripides Lemnos was an inhabited island, and the chorus, in both plays, consisted of Lemnians; yet they had left Philoctetes in solitude for ten years, and only visited him for the first time at the commencement of the action. Aeschylus, as before, left the anomaly unexplained, while Euripides hardly mended matters by causing his chorus to apologize for their long neglect. Sophocles, in representing Lemnos as a desert island, and in forming his chorus out of followers of Odysseus, successfully evaded every difficulty.

The Philoctetes is often supposed to have had a political significance. It was produced in 409 [B.C.]. Now in 411 Alcibiades, after a long estrangement from Athens, had been elected general; in 410 he was largely instrumental in winning the victory of Cyzicus; in 407 he was finally restored to the rights of citizenship. Here then was the case of a man, whose genius was necessary to the country from which he had been driven, and whose restoration was already being considered. The analogy between his situation and that of Philoctetes is obvious and striking, and could hardly fail to present itself to the mind of Sophocles. But whether he wrote the play with a political purpose is far more doubtful. The tone of the Philoctetes is pure ideal, and there is not a single phrase, from beginning to end, which can be regarded as a deliberate allusion to the events of the period.

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