Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1095
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 action moves by antithesis, by the juxtaposition of opposites, in the revelation of Ajax’s character and heroism. At the end of the play the audience arrives at a complete assessment of this tragically flawed man, and the impersonal verdict is that he is to be buried as a hero rather than left to rot like a renegade. The decision is close, for Sophocles shows Ajax at his very worst, in total degradation.
At the beginning, when Athena calls Ajax from the tent to reveal his shame to Odysseus, Ajax is insane. He is vindictively slaughtering and tormenting helpless animals in his delusion. Odysseus is appalled and touched by pity. Athena is merciless, however, because Ajax in his own mind is savagely murdering the Greeks. Ajax himself is pitiless in his wounded pride.
When his sanity returns, his pain is excruciating because he fails to kill his enemies and because he makes a fool of himself. He thinks of himself as a hero, and public disgrace is unbearable. As he talks to his soldiers, or to Tecmessa and Eurysaces, he shows himself to be self-centered, hard, concerned only with his damaged honor. However, this portrait is relieved by the pity and the love these dependent people feel for him. An ignoble man cannot command such loyalty.
The audience is further softened to his plight when he seems piously resolved to live with his shame out of concern for Tecmessa and his son. Then the audience realizes he is simply putting on an act to avoid a scene. He is still intent on suicide. Beyond that, the audience learns the reason for Athena’s hostility to Ajax. He deliberately affronts her in his arrogant pride by twice refusing her assistance, desiring all the glory for himself. Athena, then, operates by the same vengeful morality. She, however, merely supervises Ajax’s destruction—it is actually his own pride that forces him to commit suicide. He is proud to the last, calling upon Zeus to ruin his enemies and arrange a means of burial.
Sophocles goes further and points up the desolation caused by Ajax’s stubborn vanity and death. Tecmessa, Teucer, and the Salaminian warriors are utterly bereft of comfort: friendless, unprotected, subject to ridicule, and exiled from home. Ajax betrays them all in his inhuman pride.
This situation makes the debate over Ajax’s right to burial doubly forceful, because Teucer is defending a man who violates every human trust, a man who cut him off from his own father. Menelaus’s argument that Ajax put himself before the good of the community has special validity in this context. Ajax even put himself before the gods. Teucer’s assertion that, on the other hand, Ajax prevented a complete defeat of the Greek army is also true. He is a hero no matter how monstrous he became. Neither the Atridae nor Teucer is allowed to make the final judgment. The Atridae want Ajax unburied out of vindictiveness, while Teucer wants him buried out of brotherly loyalty. Neither is impartial. It is Ajax’s enemy, Odysseus, who decides that Ajax is to have a decent burial. Odysseus, who was capable of pity when Ajax was mad, is also capable of forgiving him in death. In this way, Ajax receives his burial by sheer grace.
Sophocles demonstrates in this play the hairbreadth line between criminality and heroism. The very pride that motivates the hero to surpass everyone else can also degrade him into the vilest bestiality. Heroes do not feel the demands of others; they live by some imperious demand within their own breast. Heroes can call forth extraordinary loyalty from their followers—a loyalty that persists after heroes betray their followers—but heroes can also conjure up terrible hatred in their pride. At the last it is grace alone that pronounces the verdict. Ajax is a profound and moving study of the nature of the hero.