Twice Sophocles



Commentary on the Tragedies “Philoctetes” and “Aias”

A Greek warrior, the bravest of all, defrauded of the weapons to which he was entitled, seeks revenge on his companions, but, in their place, sacrifices the animals of the herd. Upon becoming aware of his insane act, he commits suicide. Another warrior, who has been seriously bitten by a serpent, is abandoned on an island. Their cries of pain and the nauseating smell of the wound prevent contact with men and the relationship with the gods. Years later, in the midst of attempts at deceit and violence, he struggles between the decision to return, dishonored, to the house or leave for the battlefield and give victory to those who relegated him.

Bravery, betrayal and loyalty, revenge and punishment are the military themes of Philoctetes e Aias. Among the few tragedies of Sophocles that we know integrally, these are the only ones that deal with the events of the Trojan War. In both cases, the conquest of arms among the Greek commanders and the ability to bring death to enemies is at stake. Sophocles, who became an Athenian general, speaks of experiences common to his contemporaries and the heroes of the past. It offers a concrete answer to the question that Plato will later raise: can a singer of the Homeric poems assume military command thanks to his poetic knowledge of the art of war?

The first of these works – according to narrative time and order of composition – was Aias ( Ajax, if we follow the Latin tradition), but we do not know precisely when it was represented: apparently several years before Sophocles was elected strategos for the first time. With the second, Philoctetes, he won the tragic contest, at the end of his life, after having occupied important political positions in an Athens shaken by war and with its democratic institutions weakened.

Alongside the Theban cycle, to which works such as Oedipus Rex ou Antigone, the accounts of the Trojan War constituted one of the sources of Greek tragedy. Sophocles – in dramas of which we know little more than the titles – frequently draws on this common, poetic material from Greek memory. Tragic works select a few events taken from a larger narration. It matters little, Aristotle would say, that the facts that are not represented are illogical, but remain implicit in the plot, since unity and coherence are given to the selected story.

Aias had been passed over to Odysseus in the attribution of Achilles' weapons. On stage, the character shows himself in the final moment of his daydream. Thanks to Athena's deceit, he sacrificed the flock and was prevented from taking revenge. She is the one who reveals to Ulisses, and to the public, what happened: guided by the precept that “it is sweet to laugh at enemies”, she interrogates Aias, still out of her mind. The hero regains consciousness of himself and his actions and this knowledge will inevitably lead him to death. Military commanders must decide whether to honor the corpse of those who stood against them or leave the best warrior after Achilles unburied.

Philoctetes was already abandoned on the island of Lemnos by Odysseus, according to the order of the main commanders of the Greek expedition, before reaching Troy. There he remained for several years, suffering the pain of a wound that isolated him from men, and surviving thanks to the use of a bow that had belonged to Heracles. The Greeks, however, needed his help to defeat the Trojans. Achilles had died, and so had Aias, without being able to conquer the enemy citadel.

Once again the dispute over weapons between allied combatants is at the origin of the drama. A Trojan soothsayer reveals to the Greeks that Philoctetes, with his bow, would lead them to victory. It is said that he will later be responsible for the death of the Trojan prince Paris. In Sophocles, the tragic scene unfolds on the deserted island, between the wounded hero's attempted deception and the unveiling of the ruse. The “recognition” of this situation is associated, in the character, with the awareness of his double condition, source of desire and revulsion – required by the others, to obtain victory, and removed from everyone, object of aversion.

The warrior's honor manifests itself with the possession of weapons and the death of enemies. Through the inheritance of divine weapons, the hierarchy among combatants and the distribution of power in the community are justified. Aias e Philoctetes participate in the same narrative sequence and respond to the same dramatic conditions. It is not by chance that the son of Achilles, natural heir to his father's weapons, intended by Aias and taken over by Odysseus, dialogues with Philoctetes, trying to recover, for the Greeks, his divine bow.

Along with the imposition of force, cunning also counts, on the battlefield and within the camp itself. In these two tragedies we find Odysseus as a character. In both cases he participates in the events that are at the origin of the tragedy and shows himself, at the same time, superior to it: the greatest of heroes, protected by Athena, astute and victorious. A condition of the dramatic action, he knows what the tragic hero still has to “recognize”. But if the knowledge of Aias or Philoctetes leads them to despair or death – Philoctetes also tries in vain to commit suicide –, the knowledge of Odysseus, with the goddess as an accomplice, shows the sure and superior path of human luck, which unfolds. performs in deceit and arrogance.

In both tragedies, groups of fifteen sailors cross the scene, sing, dialogue and dance. Other characters also participate in the action, some of which, in the face of the well-measured and cruel game of lies and revelation, seek to introduce piety into the relationships between men. In Aias, we have Tecmessa, an enslaved barbarian princess, who tries in vain to prevent the hero's death, and Teucer, half brother of Aias, who wins, with the word, the right to bury him. In Philoctetes, we meet Neoptolemus, the young son of Achilles, whom Odysseus intends, for just one day, to practice lying and disloyalty. This one, however, despite his devotion to the fallen hero and his sincerity, cannot prevent the design of the gods.

* Paulo Butti de Lima is a professor at the University of Bari, Italy. Author, among other books, of Plato: A Poetics for Philosophy (Perspective).

Originally published on Journal of Reviews no. 3, July 2009.



Sophocles. Filoctets. Translation: Trajano Vieira. São Paulo, Editora 34, 216 pages.

Sophocles. Aias. Translation: Flávio Ribeiro de Oliveira. São Paulo, Illuminations, 160 pages.


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