DATE: probably the early 440s
CHARACTERS: Athene, Odysseus, Ajax, Tekmessa, Soldier, Teukros, Menelaos, Agamemnon; Ajax’ son (silent)
CHORUS: sailors from the ships of Ajax
SETTING: the tent of Ajax, in the Greek camp before Troy
Ajax, a hero of the traditional sort, a man of action and honor, was second only to Achilles among the Greeks at Troy. When Achilles died, Ajax and Odysseus contended for his armor, which was won by Odysseus. In a fit of mad anger Ajax attacks the leaders of the Greeks, but Athene tricks him by substituting cattle and sheep, which he slaughters thinking they are his enemies. The chorus and Tekmessa (his wife) bring him to his senses. When he realizes the truth, he is greatly ashamed and debates his future. He appears to accept his wife’s pleas to live with his grief and shame, to submit himself to the gods and the leaders of the Greeks, but after a moving soliloquy falls on his sword. His body is found by Tekmessa and the chorus, who communicate the bad news to Ajax’ brother (Teukros). The second half of the play deals with the burial of the hero, since Menelaos and Agamemnon, the leaders of the Greeks and Ajax’ great foes, forbid the burial of one who took arms against his own side. In a pair of debates Teukros reminds the Greeks of Ajax’ great exploits, and finally Odysseus takes his enemy’s side and insists that Ajax be buried with proper honors.
Some see the structure of the play as a pair of disjointed halves, with title character dead by the mid-point. But the theme is also the death and burial of a hero, and the first actor will play the brothers Ajax and Teukros, thus providing a unity in production. As in Philoktetes, two sorts of heroism are seen: the traditional hero of strength and honor and a more modern sort, given to thought and expression, but in Ajax the old is found wanting and the new more enlightened. Ajax (as well as Teukros and the sons of Atreus) operates on the traditional ethical distinction of helping friends (philoi) and harming enemies (echthroi) – even at the end Teukros will not allow Odysseus, Ajax’ great rival, to participate in the burial – while Odysseus expresses both respect and pity for Ajax (“though he is my enemy, I pity him”) and sees that he could just as easily be in the position of Ajax. There is also an Athenian connection, since Ajax’ home, Salamis, was now part of Attica and Ajax himself one of the ten tribal heroes of Athens. Sophokles had to give Athens a hero whose greatness they could recall with pride, but as so often in Sophokles, greatness attracts disaster. Ajax is a hero out of touch with modern reality, and therein lies his tragedy.
Content Credits: Ian C. Storey, Arlene Allan, A Guide to Ancient Greek Drama, Blackwell Publishing, 2005