COMPETITION: first prize
CHARACTERS: Odysseus, Neoptolemos, Philoctetes, Merchant, Herakles
CHORUS: sailors from the ship of Neoptolemos
SETTING: the deserted island of Lemnos
The Greeks have been besieging Troy for ten years and discover that they cannot take the city without the presence of Philoctetes and the bow of Herakles. They (especially Odysseus and the sons of Atreus) had left him ten years ago on the deserted island of Lemnos, with an agonizing wound that would not heal. Neoptolemos, the young son of Achilles, and Odysseus are sent to fetch him. The youth would prefer to use force or to persuade Philoctetes, but Odysseus insists that only deception will succeed. Neoptolemos meets Philoctetes and hears how he has heroically prevailed for ten years over loneliness and pain, but still tells his false tale that he is fleeing Troy. A merchant enters with a lying story that Odysseus is on his way to Lemnos to fetch Philoctetes. Before they can leave, Philoctetes has a paralyzing attack of pain, and before he passes out, gives the bow to the youth, who promises to keep it until the hero wakes. Neoptolemos keeps his promise, and when Philoctetes revives, tells him the entire truth. Odysseus enters and escorts the youth (with the bow) away, but Neoptolemos returns, hands the bow back, and asks Philoctetes formally to come to Troy. Philoctetes refuses (“it is not the past I fear but the future”), and it seems that Neoptolemos will take him back to Greece; at this point Herakles appears, promising healing for Philoctetes and success for the Greeks.
In no other Greek play does character count for so much. We see two types of heroism: the traditional nobility of the man of action and the modern attitude that words are mightier than the sword. Neoptolemos is the young hero coming of age, who must decide where his priorities lie, but the central character is Philoctetes who shows how a true hero will triumph over adversity. To be sure, Sophocles does not make the case clear cut, since many will feel that his final refusal goes too far, that he is as extreme as those whom he detests. The ending promises a less than ideal future, since Neoptolemos is warned to avoid offending the gods when Troy falls – he will kill Priam at the altar of Zeus. The first and second actors play only one role each, and the third three very similar parts (Odysseus, Merchant, Herakles), and it is with difficulty that we accept Herakles as a true deus ex machina, as opposed to being Odysseus’ last and final scheme. Dion of Prusa (ca. AD 100) acquaints us with earlier treatments of the story by Aeschylus and Euripides (431) and here we again encounter the issue of “version,” for Sophocles makes considerable changes to the myth, including the presence of Neoptolemos on the mission and the fact that Lemnos is a deserted island.
Content Credits: Ian C. Storey, Arlene Allan, A Guide to Ancient Greek Drama, Blackwell Publishing, 2005