Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Greek camp. Encampment of the Greek army outside the walled city of Troy where the play opens in front of the Greek hero Ajax’s hut. His position is dangerously exposed; the location reflects both his reputation for reliability as a warrior and his political marginality. To appreciate this setting, one must understand the disposition of troops in ancient Greek war camps. Inferior in strength only to the dead Greek hero Achilles, Ajax guarded the second most vulnerable area, providing protection for the Greek ships. Since Achilles is dead when the play opens, the location of Ajax’s hut suggests that Ajax now is the preeminent warrior.
However, there are more ways than geography to judge merit. Athena, goddess of wisdom, as well as the Greek commanders Agamemnon and Menelaus, believe that clever Odysseus is more deserving than Ajax of being awarded the fallen Achilles’ armor. Feeling affronted, Ajax sets out to kill those who have slighted him, and his hut becomes both the location of his mad acts and a visual reminder of his disastrous intent. Colored by what can be learned through dialogue about Ajax’s actions there, the site becomes an encapsulation of the plot: Ajax’s physical preeminence, the affront to him, and his madness in mistaking cattle for humans and dragging them into the hut to torture and kill them.
Wooded area. The second setting is the area to which Ajax,...
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In the fifth century B.C., life in Greece was characterized by warfare and epic battles. For many years Greece struggled to expand its empire, and it was inevitable that conflict would result. Athens enjoyed her first great military triumph at the Battle of Marathon in 491 B.C., when legend has it, some 20,000 Greeks defeated the 100,000 man Persian army. The numbers were probably much lower, but the odds were definitely against the Greeks, who proved that superior discipline and courage were stronger than sheer numbers.
This was the first major defeat for the Persian army, whose strength and reputation actually scared and intimidated many Greek soldiers. This victory would inspire the story of a courier who ran to Athens with news of the victory but then fell dead of exhaustion upon his arrival, thus inspiring the idea of 26-mile marathon races, which endures to modern times.
Within ten years, the tables would turn. The Persian army—then more than two million men— would score a huge victory, pushing the Greek army into retreat. The Persians sacked Athens, but within a month, the Greeks once again got the upper hand, and in a decisive naval victory, more than 1000 Persian ships were sunk. Within a year, the Persian invasions stopped completely, and Greece once again entered a peaceful period known as the Golden Age of Greece.
These are the battles that form a backdrop to Sophocles’s childhood. These historical events are...
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Ajax (Magill's Literary Annual 2009)
Modern medicine would classify Ajax’s problem as battle fatigue or as post-traumatic stress. In Sophocles’ play, Athena is to blame, or be praised, since by sending a fit of madness to Ajax she saves her champion Odysseus. The immediate result is the mass slaughter of the Greek army’s herd animals. The ultimate outcome is the suicide of the disgraced Ajax.
Ajax has reason for his anger. Agamemnon and Menelaus have denied him the armor of the dead Achilles and awarded it instead to Odysseus, the great strategist of the Trojan horse. Odysseus is the hero most beloved by Athena, the goddess who masterminds the Olympian strategies that keep Zeus in power. Usually, Athena is protrayed as a benign and comforting deity who reassures everyone that order in the cosmos is possible. Sophocles’ Athena, however, has a sadistic streak. She encourages Ajax in the delusion that he is killing the Greeks who slighted and ridiculed him, even to the point of admiring the ram he plans to kill last and believes to be Odysseus. His suicide at the play’s climax places him literally and figuratively among the animals that he has slaughtered.
John Tipton’s textual realization of Sophocles’ play is not so much a translation as it is a modern rendering. In verse, it employs what Tipton calls the “counted line.” By this he means that each line of dialogue...
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In ancient Greek drama, a chorus consists of a group of actors who interpret and comment on the play’s action and themes, most often singing or chanting their lines. Initially the chorus had an important role in drama, as it does in Ajax, but eventually its role diminished. As a result, the chorus became little more than commentary between acts. Modern theater rarely uses a chorus.
A drama is often defined as any work designed to be presented on the stage. It consists of a story, action, and actors portraying characters. Historically, drama can also consist of tragedy, comedy, religious pageant, and spectacle. In modern times, drama explores serious topics and themes but does not achieve the same level as tragedy. Ajax is traditional Greek drama, and as such, provides important lessons for men about their relationship with the gods.
Genres are a way of categorizing literature. Genre is a French term that means ‘‘kind’’ or ‘‘type.’’ Genre can refer to both the category of literature such as tragedy, comedy, epic, poetry, or pastoral. It can also include modern forms of literature such as drama, novels, or short stories. This term can also refer to types of literature such as mystery, science fiction, comedy, or romance. Ajax is a Greek tragedy.
Plot refers to the pattern of events. Generally plots should have a...
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Compare and Contrast
c. 445 B.C.: Architecture and art make Athens preeminent in the world and lead to the designation of the Golden Age of Greece.
Today: Greece remains a favorite tourist destination, as thousands of people journey each year to visit the Temple of Poseidon, Delphi, and the Parthenon, which was rebuilt after the Persians sacked Athens.
c. 445 B.C.: 25-35% of the population of Greece are slaves, many of whom work in the silver mines.
Today: Slavery has long since ended, but Greece is now dealing with severe poverty and a shrinking economic base.
c. 445 B.C.: The Greeks triumph over the Persians and stave off the invasion of their country.
Today: Greek politics has been preoccupied with military coups and conflict with neighboring Turkey since the end of World War II.
c. 445 B.C.: The Greek historian, Herodotus, provides some of the earliest and most thorough histories of Greece. He will later be known as the ‘‘father of history.’’
Today: History now unfolds on television and in newspapers everyday. The future role of historians will have to accommodate the overwhelming proliferation of material now available.
c. 445 B.C.: Destroyed by the Persians, the rebuilding of the Acropolis begins. It will take fifteen years to finish the job.
Today: The Parthenon, situated on the Acropolis and...
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Topics for Further Study
Discuss the relationship between man and the gods as portrayed in Ajax.
What do the speeches in Ajax suggest about the heroic ideal?
Research fifth century Greek society. What is the role of women in this society? Is Tecmessa correct in being concerned about her future?
Both Ajax and Antigone deal with the issue of the proper burial of dead bodies, but in Ajax, Odysseus is able to modify Agamemnon’s anger and peace is restored. Consider how Creon reacts to similar advice in Antigone and compare the way these two plays deal with a similar problem.
Research the role of early Greek drama in Greek life. What lessons would fifth-century Greek men learn from this play?
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What Do I Read Next?
Oedipus Rex, a drama written by Sophocles (c. 430-426 B.C.), is the story of one man’s attempts to escape his fate. It is the dramatist’s bestknown play.
Antigone, also by Sophocles (c. 441 B.C.), focuses on the problems of excessive pride and stubbornness. Like Ajax, this play emphasizes the importance of the ritualized practice of burial of the dead.
Sophocles’s Electra (c. 425-410 B.C.) examines the family tragedy that surrounds the death of Agamemnon.
Prometheus Bound, by Aeschylus (c. 490 B.C.), is the story of how Prometheus is punished for disobeying Zeus.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Goldhill, Simon. ‘‘The Great Dionysia and Civic Ideology,’’ in Nothing to Do With Dionysos? Athenian Drama in Its Social Context, edited by John J. Winkler and Froma I. Zeitlin, Princeton University Press, 1992, pp. 97-129.
King, W. D. ‘‘Nailed to a Circus of Blood; Ajax at the American National Theatre,’’ Theatre Vol. 18, No. 1, Fall- Winter, 1986, pp. 6-15.
Romilly, Jacqueline de. ‘‘Drama in the Second Half of the Fifth Century: Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes,’’ in A Short History of Greek Literature, translated by Lillian Doherty, University of Chicago Press, 1985, pp. 66-89.
Walton, J. Michael. The Greek Sense of Theatre: Tragedy Reviewed, Methuen, 1984.
Zeitlin, Froma I. ‘‘Playing the Other: Theatre, Theatricality, and the Feminine in Greek Drama,’’ in Nothing to Do With Dionysos? Athenian Drama in Its Social Context, edited by John J. Winkler and Froma I. Zeitlin, Princeton University Press, 1992, pp. 63-96.
Ashby, Clifford. Classical Greek Theatre: New Views of an Old Subject, University of Iowa Press, 1999. An examination of Greek theater based on architectural evidence. The author has traveled extensively and examined many of the remaining sites in Greece, Southern Italy, and the Balkans.
Gressler, Thomas H. Greek Theatres in the 1980s,...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Bryn Mawr Classical Review 44 (August, 2008).
Kirkwood, Gordon MacDonald. A Study of Sophoclean Drama. Vol. 31 in Cornell Studies in Classical Philology. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1958. Analyzes Sophocles’ structures and methods of dramatic composition. Compares the plays of Sophocles. Focuses on the characters, irony, illustrative forms, use of diction, and oracles in each. Excellent coverage of Ajax.
The Nation 287, no. 3 (July 21, 2008): 41-44.
Publishers Weekly 255, no. 20 (May 19, 2008): 37.
Scodel, Ruth. Sophocles. Boston: Twayne, 1984. Focuses on the historical and mythological significance of the character Ajax. Discusses the plot and compares it to Homer’s Iliad. Includes information on Sophocles’ seven plays. Includes a chronology of Sophocles’ life, a bibliography, and an index.
Seale, David. Vision and Stagecraft in Sophocles. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982. An excellent starting point. Distinguishes Sophocles from other playwrights of his time and demonstrates his influence on later ones. Considers the theatrical technicalities in many Sophoclean plays, including Ajax. Includes an extended explanation and notes regarding Ajax.
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