Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 955
Odysseus, chosen by Greek leaders in the Trojan War to replace the dead Achilles as the chief warrior of the Greek forces, paces up and down before the tent of Ajax, who was slighted by the selection of Odysseus. The goddess Athena, appearing above the tent, tells Odysseus that Ajax,...
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Odysseus, chosen by Greek leaders in the Trojan War to replace the dead Achilles as the chief warrior of the Greek forces, paces up and down before the tent of Ajax, who was slighted by the selection of Odysseus. The goddess Athena, appearing above the tent, tells Odysseus that Ajax, covered with blood, is in his tent. Her words confirm Odysseus’s suspicions that it is indeed Ajax who slaughtered all of the Greeks’ livestock and their shepherd dogs. Athena explains that she cast a spell over Ajax, who, in his hurt pride, vowed to murder Menelaus and Agamemnon, the Greek commanders, as well as Odysseus. Under her spell Ajax committed the horrible slaughter in the belief that the animals he slew were the hated leaders who opposed his election to the place of the late Achilles.
When Tecmessa, Ajax’s Phrygian captive, reveals to his followers what the great warrior did, they lament his downfall and question the dark purposes of the gods. Certain that Ajax will be condemned to die for his transgressions, his warriors prepare to retire to their ships and return to Salamis, their homeland.
Ajax, recovered from the spell, emerges from his tent and clearly reveals to his friends that he is a shamed and broken man. Sick in mind at the thought of the taunts of Odysseus, he wishes only to die. Even in his abject misery, however, he is sure that had Achilles personally chosen his successor he would have named Ajax. The despairing man tries to find some means of escape from the consequences of his deed. The alternative to death is to return to Salamis and his noble father, Telamon, but he knows that he can never shame Telamon by facing him. His friends, alarmed at his deep gloom and sensing tragedy, advise him to reflect; Tecmessa urges him to live for her sake and for the sake of their little son, Eurysaces. At the mention of the name of his beloved son, Ajax calls for the boy. Solemnly he gives Eurysaces his great shield and directs that the child be taken to Salamis, so that he might grow up to avenge his father’s disgrace. After dismissing Tecmessa and his son, he remains in his tent alone to clear his troubled thoughts. His followers, meanwhile, resume their lament over their disgraced leader.
Apparently reconciled to his fate, Ajax emerges at last from his tent and declares that he is ready to recognize authority, to revere the gods, and to bury his sword with which he brought disgrace and dishonor upon himself. His decision, he says, was dictated by his affection for Tecmessa and Eurysaces. This apparent change brings forth cheers of rejoicing from his countrymen; they thank the gods for what appears to be Ajax’s salvation.
In the meantime, the Greeks taunt Teucer, Ajax’s half brother, for his kinship with one demented. Calchas, the Greek prophet, warns Teucer that unless Ajax is kept in his tent a full day, no one will again see Ajax alive, since the proud warrior twice offended the goddess Athena in the past. Ajax, however, already left his tent in order to bury his sword. Teucer and the men of Salamis, in alarm, hasten in search of their leader.
Ajax plants his sword, a gift from Hector, the great Trojan warrior, hilt down in the earth. After he asks the gods to inform Teucer of his whereabouts so that he might receive a proper burial, he falls upon his sword. Heavy underbrush partly conceals his body where it lies.
Tecmessa is the first to discover her dead lord; in sorrow she covers him with her mantle. Teucer is summoned. Tecmessa and the men of Salamis cannot refrain from mentioning the dire part played by Athena in the tragedy of Ajax and the pleasure Menelaus and Agamemnon will feel when they hear of Ajax’s death. Fearing foul play, Teucer orders Tecmessa to bring Eurysaces immediately. Teucer is in a dilemma. He knows that the Greeks detest him because of his kinship with Ajax. He fears also that Telamon will suspect him of being responsible for Ajax’s death, so that he might be Telamon’s heir.
While Teucer ponders his own fate, Menelaus appears and tells him that Ajax cannot receive proper burial because he was a rebel, offensive to the gods. Teucer maintains that Ajax was not subject to Spartan Menelaus, nor to anyone else, for he came to Troy voluntarily at the head of his own men from Salamis; therefore he deserves burial. Seeing that Teucer holds firm, Menelaus goes away. Teucer digs a grave while Tecmessa and Eurysaces stand vigil over the body. The men of Salamis sing a dirge over their dead leader.
Agamemnon, king of Mycenae, appears and rebukes Teucer, the son of a slave, for his audacity in defying the will of Menelaus. Agamemnon insults the memory of Ajax by saying that he was stronger than he was wise. Teucer, bitterly recalling Ajax’s many heroic deeds in behalf of the Greek cause, reminds Agamemnon of the many blots on the escutcheon of the Atridae, Agamemnon’s royal house. Teucer defends his own blood by pointing out that although his mother, Hesione, was a captive, she was nevertheless of noble birth.
Odysseus resolves the dispute by declaring that no Greek warrior should be denied burial. He himself hates Ajax, but he admits that Ajax was both noble and courageous. He shakes hands with Teucer in friendship, but Teucer, lest the gods be offended, refuses his offer to assist in the burial. Thus Ajax, whose pride brought him to an early death, receives proper burial and the death ceremonies of a warrior hero.