Study Guide

Ajax

by Sophocles

Ajax Essay - Critical Essays

Critical Evaluation

The problem of individual versus group prerogative is masterfully presented in this play. One finds it tempting to sympathize with Ajax for his devotion to his consort and his son, the love and admiration he commands from his followers, and the courage he displays before the walls of Troy. It is inevitable, however, that his ungovernable pride should bring about his ruin. His downfall is one of the most touching and disturbing in literature.

Ajax is considered the earliest of Sophocles’ plays that have survived, first produced about 442 b.c.e. The playwright was in his middle fifties at that time and had already had a successful dramatic career of about twenty-five years. Thus Ajax was the work of a fully mature writer, and one who had considered life deeply. Whatever problem the play may present structurally, its strengths are remarkable.

Sophocles is the most accomplished poet among the three great Athenian dramatists. His style is marked by smoothness, simplicity, and clarity. It is at once beautiful and lofty, and it has an august dignity that Aeschylus and Euripides could not equal. With Sophocles, even the most intense passions are revealed in a stately, logical, well-polished manner that can be surprisingly moving. For all the formality of his poetry, it never impresses one as being artificial. He created the classical style of writing, and he remains unsurpassed in it.

An accomplished athlete, an honored public dignitary, and the most successful tragedian of the Periclean Age, Sophocles lived to be ninety with his full creative and intellectual vigor intact. His good luck did not blind him to the suffering of others. His extant plays explore the problem of human misery with a rare honesty and thoroughness. He saw Athens reach its finest moment in the Persian Wars and then devolve into a ruthless imperial power embarking on a suicidal war. He knew very well the instability of life, and how greatness can be the source of calamity.

Ajax is a case in point. Next to Achilles, Ajax is the most formidable fighter in the Greek army at Troy. A huge, headstrong bull of a man, his pride is bitterly offended when the Greeks vote to give Achilles’ armor to Odysseus. To avenge himself he tries to massacre the Greeks but instead madly butchers their livestock in a god-induced frenzy. Thus, in one night he turns from a hero into an outcast and a laughingstock. The humiliation is too much for him, and he commits suicide. This is the heart of the story, but what is interesting is the way Sophocles develops it.

The key to Sophocles’ treatment of the legend is balance. The...

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