Study Guide


by Sophocles

Philoctetes Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Odysseus abandons Philoctetes on the barren island of Lemnos after the warrior is bitten on the foot by a snake while preparing to make a sacrifice at the shrine on the island of Chrysa. The wound never heals, and the smell that comes from it and the groans of suffering of Philoctetes are the reasons Odysseus gives for making him an outcast. Philoctetes, however, with his invincible bow, once the property of Herakles, becomes indispensable to the Greeks in their war against Troy. Landing for the second time on Lemnos, Odysseus describes the cave in which Philoctetes lives. Neoptolemus identifies it by the stained bandages drying in the sun, the leaf-stuffed mattress, and the crude wooden cup he finds.

Instructed by Odysseus, Neoptolemus is to lure Philoctetes on board with his bow by declaring that he, too, hates Odysseus because the king deprived him of the weapons of his father, Achilles. Neoptolemus is disgusted by this deception, but wily Odysseus pleads necessity and promises him honor and glory. When Neoptolemus agrees to obey, Odysseus leaves him.

The chorus of sailors reports that they hear the painful approach of Philoctetes. He asks who they are and whether they, too, are Greeks. Imploring their pity, he tells them not to fear him, although he became a savage through solitude and great suffering. Neoptolemus answers Philoctetes, who asks Neoptolemus who he is and why he comes. The young warrior says that he is the son of Achilles and that he does not know Philoctetes, who replies that he must indeed be vile if no word of him reached the Greeks. His wound grew worse and because he is alone on the island he has to use all his energy to remain alive. He shoots birds with his great bow, and, in order that he might drink in winter, he is forced to build a fire to melt the ice. He curses the Atreidae and Odysseus, who abandoned him, and wishes that they might suffer his agony. Neoptolemus, answering as he was instructed, says that he, too, curses Odysseus, who deprived him of his rights and robbed him of his father’s arms. He asserts that he intends to sail for home.

Philoctetes, declaring that their grief is equal, wonders also why Ajax allows these injustices. He is told that Ajax is also dead. Philoctetes is certain that Odysseus is alive, and this fact Neoptolemus confirms. After hearing of the death of other friends, Philoctetes agrees with Neoptolemus that war inevitably kills the good men but only occasionally and by chance...

(The entire section is 1010 words.)