Cedric H. Whitman (essay date 1951)

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SOURCE: Whitman, Cedric H. “The Matrix of Heroism: Ajax.” In Sophocles: A Study of Heroic Humanism, pp. 59-80. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1951.

[In the following excerpt, Whitman explores Ajax's motivation as a hero, commenting on whether what he displays is actually hybris, and on what ideas Sophocles expresses concerning the individual and society.]

The Greeks invented, among their other contributions to culture, the concept of heroism. Rather say, they invented heroes; for there was no initial concept to which the Homeric Achilles was drawn. The state of mind which produced such a figure embraced a certain group of associations and convictions—pictures, attitudes, and beliefs—rather than a philosophic estimate of the nature of man. These pictures and beliefs grew into a kind of religious vision, a vision which demanded at least a certain solemn respect, however vague its outlines were and however its very existence seemed to impose on the assumptions by which the ordinary man can live. The vision, for such it is, rather than a concept, was typically Greek—and by “typically Greek” is meant simply that such a vision did not occur in the mythologies of other people. Beowulf can swim eight days and nights in armor, slaying “whale-fishes” all the way; Thor can eat three whole oxen and wash them down with four or five barrels of mead; when the heroes of the Kalevala bleed, prodigious floods ensue; and in a similar vein, Firdausi's Rustum, at the age of eight days, toddles out of his crib and slays a bull elephant with one blow of his fist. Not to deny these myths their significance and beauty, it must be said nevertheless that they contain an element of sheer megalomania which may have appealed to Carlyle as essentially heroic, but which is, on the whole, absent from the Greek vision. Where it does occur, except possibly in the case of Heracles, it is peripheral rather than central to the hero's character.

There are two qualities deeply rooted in the Greek view of heroism which make it different from all other views, and these are qualities of the hero himself. The first is self-destructiveness. The hero is primarily, in most mythologies, the man whom nobody can destroy; but in Greece he was the man who had to destroy himself. The normal assumption, perhaps, would be that Achilles, with his superhuman strength and speed, his divine armor, his immortal horses, and the Pelian spear, would almost inevitably live to an advanced age. But it is precisely the opposite. The necessary condition (aisa, moira) of these supreme gifts is misery and an early death. Achilles is the saddest man at Troy. But his grief and death are not foreordained by an external fate; they are foreordained by that innermost quality known to Homer—arete. Achilles had his choice between long life and greatness; he chose greatness, and therefore was Achilles. His greatness, however, was a kind of continual spending of himself, and Achilles was already on his way to self-destruction long before he slew Hector. For the self-destructiveness of the hero hinges upon a certain excess, an ability to outdo not only everyone else, but especially himself, for whom he has no regard except as the receptacle of certain supreme standards. There are exceptions, of course, the most notable being the adroit Odysseus; but a surprising majority of Greek heroes stride grimly into ruin.

The other quality of the Greek hero is intimacy with the gods. Odysseus is perhaps a better example of this than is Achilles, for throughout the Odyssey Athena stands by him with...

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unintermittent vigilance. But there are many passages in theIliad also which describe the function of a god in close connection with a hero. The god either directly assists the hero to do something, as Apollo helps Hector slay Patroclus, or motivates some act or idea. Of the latter there are many examples besides the well-known ones of Athena's restraining Achilles from killing Agamemnon and Zeus' sending the deceitful dream. In some cases this interference is simply accepted as a matter of course, but in others the question does arise as to who is really responsible. So Patroclus assures Hector that not he but Apollo slew him; and, in a most interesting passage, Priam tells Hecuba that he has had a divine dream bidding him go and ransom Hector, and then asks if she thinks it is just his own desire speaking to him.

The well-known “double motivation” of Homer, however it be explained, implies that to some extent the poet is unable to distinguish between the divine and human forces at play. The action of the god does not detract from the hero's own greatness, but accentuates it, and gives us some idea of what is meant by the epithets “dear to Zeus,” “godlike,” and so on. Achilles would be very much himself in any case, but he is very much more himself by virtue of the care lavished upon him by Thetis, Athena, and Zeus. And the fact that these divinities are anthropomorphically conceived and enter the action by coming down from heaven does not prevent them from acting in a psychologically appropriate way; that is, they operate in character with the hero they affect. Both methods of divine operation, the external assistance and the internal motivation, remained dear to the Greek soul. Of the former, we may see examples in sculpture, such as in the pediment at Corcyra, representing Perseus slaying Medusa, while Athena stands behind the hero; and, even more strikingly, in the great Atlas metope from the temple of Zeus at Olympia, where Heracles strains every muscle to uphold the sky, while Athena, the image of divine repose, with one graceful and relaxed arm makes the miracle possible. It is a commonplace to say that such paradoxes illustrate the gap between man and God; the truth is, they show where the boundaries of man and God begin to merge. The very puzzlement, the very question, “Who is doing it?” is the whole point. For such a mysterious interplay between the divine and the human hints broadly at the assumption of divinity in the human, and this assumption receives its fullest expression in Sophoclean tragedy.

Ajax, son of Telamon, the “bulwark of the Achaeans,” as Homer calls him, received heroic worship, both at Salamis, whence he came, and at Athens itself. This fact may have imparted to Sophocles' drama a certain regional, religious intensity, for the local heroes were deeply revered. Perhaps also, the recent death of Cimon may have suggested to the poet that peculiarly political mode of treatment, which was certainly not demanded by the myth. But neither the political nor the anthropological backgrounds can be considered more than tangential to the central idea. Behind these more superficial levels lie the beliefs and associations that are the mainsprings of both politics and cult-worship. Behind the hero-cult lay the vision of the hero and behind the aristocracy lay the long tradition of the aristocratic credo, the credo of self-mastery, honor, and arete. It is the poet's business to pierce the upper levels and find the bases of association and religious belief—to find, in short, back of all that can be said of him, the hero himself.

The plot of the play comes from the so-called Epic Cycle, stories about the Trojan War which never were fitted into any true epic scheme but always remained dramatic episodes—genre-scenes, perhaps, peripherally attached to the larger heroic saga. The poets who preserved them could not make real epics of them: they were by nature framed for tragedies, for their purpose seems to have been to delineate the character of the hero around whom they grew. Thus, for instance, there are tales which are little more than pictures of the ruthless Pyrrhus, the overweening conqueror Agamemnon, or the weak and shallow Menelaus. From these stories even more than from the Iliad and Odyssey is derived our traditional idea of the heroic figures before Troy, with a few exceptions such as Achilles. Ajax is indeed recognizably characterized in the Iliad, but we know him best from his behavior on the occasion of the Judgment of the Arms.

When Achilles died, his miraculous armor was left to be the prize of the hero who had rendered the next greatest service in the war. The two claimants stand out in high relief—Ajax, the man of strength, versus Odysseus, the man of stratagem. The arms went to the man of stratagem, and one cannot help suspecting that the episode was invented in a partial spirit; certainly the sequel—Ajax' jealousy and madness and the whole sorry fit in which he slew the flocks and herds, thinking them the Greek leaders—did little enough in the original tale to sustain the dignity of the great warrior in his disappointment, and did much to gain him the reputation of a “beef-witted lord.”

Sophocles' play begins in the middle of the fit of madness. Like Samson, Ajax had fallen victim to the combination of his own passions and his enemies' cleverness; and like Samson he more than redeemed himself by the manner of his death. When his madness was over and he came to himself, he debated briefly what he must do. Then, stating that he would wash away his crimes in the ocean, he went out, sought a lonely spot on the seashore, and fell upon the sword which Hector had given him as a chivalric token after their duel. Later, we learn from a messenger that Calchas had prophesied that if Ajax remained in his tent for one day, without going forth, he would be purified and live; if, however, he went out, he would die. Hearing this, Tecmessa hurries out with the chorus to look for him, and finds the body. The play concludes with the funeral of Ajax, but only after a long and bitter dispute between Teucer, his half-brother, and the leaders of the host, Agamemnon and Menelaus, who wish to take vengeance on the hero by leaving him unburied.

Such is the simple plot. Sophocles, far from condemning the excessiveness and unruliness of Ajax, immediately throws the sympathy on the hero's side in the opening scene, where Athena, ostensibly in the guise of an avenging goddess, encourages Ajax in his madness and plays with her victim so cruelly that even his enemy Odysseus is revolted and crushed. Throughout the following scenes, where Ajax comes to himself, debates his case, and dies by his own hand, we are given the strange spectacle of a man whose criminal insanity and uncompromising estimate of himself tower over a world of sensible people and emerge in some sense justified, or perhaps better, glorified. The play is in a way the inversion of all that we commonly hold to be Greek: immoderation rises to grandeur; an overweening excess stands forth finally as a kind of righteous pride; the body of a mad, would-be murderer is buried in the final scene with such pomp and orchestral sonority that no one can disbelieve in the hero's greatness. It is an apotheosis without rationale, a tour de force of the sheer human spirit.

From a purely formal point of view, the Ajax is imperfect. The death of the hero divides the play into two almost equal halves, involving a change of scene and a long epilogue which seems superficially like a mere post mortem. This scene is often thought cold and undramatic. Sophocles was struggling here with the problem of evolving a single play out of the trilogic form used by Aeschylus, and had only succeeded so far in reducing the parts of the action from three to two. Aeschylus' three plays had been the Judgment of Arms, The Thracian Women, and The Women of Salamis. In Sophocles, the parts are perhaps mechanically ill-joined, but there is no disunity of meaning. Actually, it is only in the second half of the play that the moral problem finds full expression and the originality of the poet reveals itself. Sophocles may have been still partially dependent on Aeschylus for framework, but his purpose was already his own; through the many obscurities and difficulties which arise in reading the Ajax, it is possible to trace a single vision that even at this early date is clearly Sophoclean.

In Aeschylean tragedy, it has been rightly observed, the moral interest is centered in the kind of action, the character of the deed involved. But for Sophocles the character of the hero is the core. Hence the violent acts of Ajax, though not condoned, are not specifically analyzed; they are left to be what they are, while the man himself creates the drama. Ajax is the first full-length portrait of a tragic hero in Western literature, and it is by no mere coincidence that both he and Achilles, the first epic hero, find themselves in identical situations. Both isolate and destroy themselves in the struggle with their own offended honor. Much has been written about the tragic character, but it has not perhaps been sufficiently noticed that the tragic character is first the heroic character; it is so, at least in origin, and it remains consistently so in Sophocles. The real ancestor of tragedy is the epic, and the character of Ajax stems from the tradition of Achilles, the man of a compelling inner excellence. Both represent a kind of aristocratic self-conception, which is in strong contrast to the supple adjustments of Odysseus. The antinomy is finely expressed by Homer in many a passage, the best, perhaps, being the scene in the underworld where Odysseus meets the shade of Ajax and approaches it with friendly words; he is conciliatory, sensible, and sorry about the whole affair of the arms, which he terms a “god-sent woe.” But Ajax is utterly unrelenting, even after death. He utters not one word, but stalks away in eternal resentment.

For all his association with the democracy, Sophocles appears to have had a profound sympathy for the aristocratic tradition. Neither Aeschylus nor Euripides created such truly aristocratic figures as Ajax, Deianeira, and Neoptolemus. Of the fifth-century poets, only Pindar shows a similar concern with the standards and ideals of the old and rapidly fading nobility. In the Ajax, as the chorus assembles to investigate the dreadful rumors of madness and bloodshed, their first utterances characterize the hero immediately by touching upon a set of ideas regularly associated with the education of accomplishment, discipline, and breeding. Ajax, sing the choristers, is great of soul, but he is therefore the more subject to slander and envy; to a hero, loss of reputation is terrible, yet the great man is indispensable and imparts his own worth to those who are around him; if Ajax would show himself, the petty carpers who are saying he is mad would disappear in fright, but if he hides in his tent, the rumor will become worse. These ideas form the framework within which the greatness and fall of Ajax are to take place. His very life is rooted in the self-mastery which brings achievement and the achievement which brings glory. Beautiful from without, as they appear in Pindar, these attributes are nevertheless the deadly stuff of tragedy, when viewed from within by Sophocles. They mean more than they say: they imply a standard which will not relax one jot of its requirements in the face of any circumstance.

Odysseus, on the other hand, is shown throughout the prologue as the man of prudence and common sense, who is greeted with approval by Athena in her first speech. He is also a talker, and responsible for the evil rumors which surround Ajax. The contrast between the talker, or man of reason, and the doer, or man of heroic standard, corresponds, of course, to the contrast of guile and strength in the Judgment of the Arms. But it has other overtones which stretch all the way from Homer down through the fifth century. Sometimes, indeed, in the Iliad both talents are equally respected, at least by the poet. But between the individuals themselves there was usually tension, and some hostility, for already there existed a social gap between the two which only the venerable but valiant Nestor could bridge. Odysseus and Achilles are, on the whole, polite enough about it to each other. But there is often the intimation that the true gentleman holds himself above reasoning matters out; he preferred to fight them out. Hence reason, debate—all, in fact, which the Greeks summarized as logos—slowly became associated with the democratic outlook. It seems to be no accident that Hector's companion in the Iliad, Polydamas, though far the wiser of the two in council, is of humble birth and therefore gains little attention or honor from the princely man of deeds, Hector.

In the course of the fifth century, the antinomy between these two types became acute. We see it from the aristocratic point of view in Pindar. Thucydides is a more impartial witness, who, though democratic at heart, understood the excellence and limitations of each, and saw in their opposition a symbol of the two great ideologies which clashed in the Peloponnesian War. Behind the oligarchies at Sparta and Thebes lay centuries of aristocratic culture with its strict discipline, stability, and rigid standards of performance. Athenian democracy, on the other hand, rested upon a faith in every kind of enlightenment, and in human nature itself; discipline might relax, for intelligence would carry the day; the social system might relax, for anyone might be intelligent. But always there were dangers; the unruliness of individuals, the fickleness of the sovereign people, the possible failure of intelligence on any given occasion. The true Spartan regarded all reasoning and debate as a tricky, suspicious business, and slightly déclassé; the Athenian, always ready to discuss anything for as long as possible, admired Spartan strength, but looked pityingly upon its naïveté and repressive bigotry.

By the early forties of the fifth century, these attitudes were completely framed. The intellectual and political stage was already set for the Ajax of Sophocles to appear. And yet, the play is no mere contrast of political types. Odysseus, for instance, though characterized at first as a typical talker, a casuist and an opportunist, emerges in the end as a man with a kind of ideal and universal intelligence, quite above mere party politics. Ajax too transcends the contemporary scene. By the end of the play, it is not he but the two sons of Atreus who typify the Spartan pattern of thinking, while Ajax himself looms larger and larger in the light of his own personal heroism and dwarfs the other characters. In the last analysis, the keenest contrast for Sophocles is not between oligarch and democrat, but between oligarch and true aristocrat, or better still, between humanity in general and the self-slain greatness of a hero. At this point it becomes clear that the political analogies were only a means, a point of reference, whereby Sophocles might reach his audience. His greater purpose was to present a hero, the eternal hero, who was for him a divine paradox, and the central mystery of all life.

Kierkegaard once wrote in the Unscientific Postscript, “It is really the God-relationship that makes a man a man.” For the Greek tragic character, it is also the “God-relationship” which destroys a man; and in the particular case of Ajax it is not too much to suggest that the two processes were one, that Ajax' relation with divinity made him what he was and destroyed him. The metaphysic of such heroic morality, however, is always difficult to explain, and in the case of Sophocles' play, the use of the divine figure of Athena in the prologue has greatly obscured the issue. The goddess appears and summons Odysseus, who is skulking by Ajax' tent, to come and witness the humiliation she has inflicted on his enemy. She then calls to Ajax, and mercilessly encourages him in his madness. When he departs, to continue his slaughter of the sheep, Odysseus, shattered by the whole experience, and pitying Ajax, says gloomily:

Well I perceive that we are nothing more
Than images, we living—weightless shadows.

Athena then pronounces what is apparently the moral of the play:

Let this example teach you to beware
To speak profanity against the gods.
And if perhaps in riches or in power
You seem superior, be not insolent;
For know, one day suffices to exalt
Or to depress the state of mortal man.
The wise and good are cherished by the gods,
But those who practise evil they abhor.

This traditional warning against hybris and presumption is often, indeed always, taken as the moral of the play. Ajax in his insanity and violence has been made light of by Athena, but the question is, who is Athena? Readers have always been shocked by this heartless divinity who mocks in one breath and moralizes in the next, and scholars, in the effort to save the character of a prominent Olympian, have interpreted her as everything from the “spirit of sophrosyne” to a kindly savior who has prevented Ajax from killing the Greek chiefs by allowing him to commit a lesser crime. As if to clarify the dubious situation, Sophocles inserts a passage later on in the play, which implies that Ajax' murderous plan was not his first offence. It seems that twice before he had offered insult to Athena, and this, as the seer Calchas points out, is the reason why the goddess took this opportunity to drive him mad:

This day alone, he said, Athena's wrath
Would last against him …
                                                                                                    Thus spoke
The prophet, and long since was Ajax deemed
To have a mind disturbed: when first he left
His native soil, “Be conquerer, O my child,”
His father said, “but conquer under God”;
Impious and proud his answer was: “The worst
Of men,” he cried, “assisted by the Gods
May conquer, I shall do the work without them.”
Such were his boastings; and when Pallas once
With kind assistance urged him to the fight,
Dreadful and horrible was his reply:
“Go, queen, to other Grecians lend thy aid,
'Tis needless here; for know, where Ajax is,
The foe will never come.” By words like these,
And pride ill-suited to a mortal's power,
Did he offend the vengeful deity.

Unfortunately, this explanation only makes matters worse, with its confused doubling of causes. The story of these two insults to Athena occurs nowhere but in Sophocles, hence it has been thought that he invented them in order to inject meaning into the fabula sacra. But that is not how Sophocles worked. The myth already possessed meaning on many levels, and Sophocles labored to express the profoundest one. He may have invented the insult-stories, but in a spirit akin to Dante's prose explanations of his sonnets, to satisfy those who cared to look no further and to warn the more curious that the answer was not so simple. Hence he put a moral of sorts in the prologue, but then in his apotheosis of the hero denied its meaning. He invented a story about insults to Athena, but made no clear connection between this story and the Judgment of the Arms, which was the real cause of Ajax' wrath. He let it be known that Ajax had conceived his murderous designs before Athena intervened and turned them against the sheep, so that no such explanations were necessary anyway. Murder was hybris enough. Finally, he made the goddess limit the punishment of Ajax to one day—a strange procedure. The usual Olympian method in cases of mortal presumption was far more simple and direct.

If all this be taken in the least literally, simple chaos follows. Given similar material, Aeschylus would have taken great pains to unravel the complex causes and establish their nexus. All these proud words and bloody actions would have been the structure of his plot. For Aeschylus, crime itself was tragedy; he gave his hybristic figures a tragic grandeur in the very monstrousness of their actions, or more exactly, in the moral ambivalence involved in their actions. So they reflect the moral duality of the world in which Zeus works his mysterious justice through time. Men learn in time, the world improves, and the curse is at length cast out. Likewise in Herodotus, the story of Croesus and Cyrus shows how a man, relatively sinless, but verging on hybris through the mere possession of wealth and power, may learn modesty through a god-sent affliction. The formula of hybris and punishment spelled for the Greeks a kind of grim optimism about the world, which is not very apparent in Sophocles. Croesus suffered, but repented and was saved; Orestes won his case at the last and lived happily thereafter. But it is all very different with Ajax. He learned no lesson, or if he did, he perished before he could profit by it.

It is clear, however, that Ajax does not learn his lesson, and that the so-called moral of the prologue, the stories of insulted goddesses, hybris, and punishment, are all part of an old framework which Sophocles has here used, partly perhaps, through imitation of Aeschylus, but entirely in his own way. The proud words of Ajax and the strange prologue with Athena no longer reveal the bones of the tragic structure. They are modes of characterization and are only meaningful as such. The hero's haughtiness and crimes are symptoms of something deeper in the man himself, symbols of a greatness which antedates, survives, and all but obliterates their criminality. They are used as highlights upon a tragic scheme which is internal and psychological. Athena is a particularly subtle figure. Far from being an actual epiphany of the Olympian deity, or the embodiment of divine law, she is powerless to act except through some mortal's character, if she can be said to act at all. She motivates nothing; she acts through no direct line of events; and the whole latter half of the play is devoted not to a justification of the gods, least of all Athena, who disappears entirely. It is Ajax who is justified, and nothing is said in favor of Athena's apparent “justice.” The supposed fabula docet of the prologue is utterly forgotten, and Odysseus himself defends the fallen hero.

But if she motivates nothing, Athena illustrates much. In the prologue she is a kind of spirit of the hour, a catalyst without whom the scene would have been impossible. She illustrates what has happened and what can happen, but she does nothing to further the action. She merely confirms Ajax in his madness and Odysseus in his sanity. As patron goddess of both men, but especially of Odysseus, she is appropriate to the scene, for she stands for a vision of life which Odysseus accepts, but which Ajax has always rejected and still rejects. Thus she represents the sanity of the one in her calm and warning words to Odysseus, and yet reflects the wild mood of the other during that terrible cat-and-mouse game which seems so shocking. But she tells no great truth and exhibits no great power. She is limited within the capabilities of Ajax himself, and Odysseus' estimate of them. It is wholly in keeping with the plasticity of Greek polytheism that the figure of Athena can be used here to symbolize the inner being of the two men, painted large and timeless at the beginning of the play.

Later on she is used more narrowly. Ajax' refusal of her aid in battle, which Calchas accounts the origin of his punishment, is nothing but a device for characterizing the heroic nature. His father's warning and Athena's offer were both wishes for his safety. But Ajax, like Achilles, cared nothing for his safety, and laughed at both. Herein is the essence of the self-destructive heroic spirit. Its action may be folly and pride by the world's or even by the gods' standard, but by its own, it is simply arete. Arete includes consciousness of arete, and with such consciousness Ajax knew well where the real valor lay. The “help of the gods” was irrelevant to the man who knew himself; the gods for him were in himself.

Similarly the one day's punishment is the most transparent symbolism: if Ajax can be forced to endure one day of disgrace quietly at home, where his friends can look after him, of course he will live on for any number of days. He will have done the sensible thing—reason things out, yield honor lost, and reckon life worth more. The gods need no longer afflict him, because, no longer being Ajax, he will no longer afflict himself. Athena's command for him to remain in his tent for one day is simply a mode of saying that Ajax cannot endure one day's disgrace.

In his later plays, as he grew more and more independent of Aeschylus, Sophocles found symbols which invited less confusion, though even in the late Philoctetes, it is easy to be too literal about the sudden appearance of Heracles. As the single drama of the single hero gradually evolved from the trilogy, it found its own way through the psychological difficulties which arose, and could abandon old formulas. But in the relatively early Ajax the character of the hero himself, in his opposition to Odysseus, demanded a symbol which could span both men and somehow reflect light both on the heroic nature, with its superhuman pride and self-sufficiency, as well as on its more sane but less heroic antitype.

As for Odysseus, he behaves with perfect civilization and decency throughout. His reaction to the sight of Ajax mad is that of a sane man before the spectacle of a great soul mocked. He yields, so to speak, to Athena, and admits the supremacy of the gods—a lesson easy for him who felt that way in any case. When he says that human beings are mere empty shadows, he is not saying anything new or great; least of all is he acting here as the channel for Sophocles' own belief in the nothingness of man and the almightiness of the gods, a doctrine which has often been stated as the central philosophy of Sophocles. Those lines express merely Odysseus' view of life at the moment. He is the sort of person who draws lessons from life shrewdly, and before the play is over, he draws the more important lesson that there is a value to be set upon humanity over and beyond that which appears—beyond the “images” and the “shadows.” In the final estimate, it is not his own prudence which is exalted so much as Ajax himself, the man “good in all things, and second to no mortal.”

Odysseus is a character who deserves admiration, but it is a mistake to assume, simply because he is so attractive and understandable, that he is a pattern of virtue, by whose standard Ajax must be condemned for wicked pride. Odysseus provides no yardstick by which to measure a hero, except through contrast, as Sophocles intended. It is the contrast between the man who yields to what he feels to be necessity, or “the gods,” and the man who yields to nothing because his own arete is for him the only divinity which can control him morally.

How right can such a man be? Can the gods make light of all men and turn them into empty shadows, or does a great individual sometimes seem to defeat the malignity of the world and fortune? As Pindar says:

                                        Man is the dream of a shadow,
Yet, whenever comes the god-given gleam,
A bright light shines upon men, and their life is sweet.

And thereupon he invokes, not Ajax, indeed, but heroes of the same blood and breeding, upon whom the god-given gleam shone—Peleus, Telamon, Achilles. The old aristocracy believed in this gleam, this arete, and measured the value of human life in terms of it. Most humanity was shadow and dream, but once in a while there came a hero, and with him it was different. For the lyric poet it was natural to say the gods shed light on him. The tragic poet, who searched for the organic nature of everything and saw that virtues were immanent in humanity, conceived that light as shining from within, perhaps even in defiance of the gods, and constituting a kind of standard which its possessor could not deny or fail. Sophocles has thrown all the sympathy on the side of Ajax. Be his faults whatever they were, and they were grave, he nevertheless emerges from his bloody trial greater than ever, and for sheer magnanimity puts everyone else, Athena included, to shame. The Ajax is anything but a demonstration of the nothingness of man. It is a hymn of moral triumph.

Traditional Greek morality would interpret the fate of Ajax simply as hybris and punishment. But it should be remembered that when the Greeks meant, “This man came to a wretched end,” they often said, “The gods sent wretchedness upon this man.” From there it was but a short step to find a perfectly good reason why they should afflict him. The man was dead and couldn't prove there was no connection between what he did and what the gods did to him. It is a poor compliment to Sophocles' intelligence to say, as some scholars have done, that Sophocles wrote the Ajax because he piously wanted to honor a local hero, but that because he believed in sophrosyne, he showed that hero's egregious failure therein and consequent punishment. Ajax' attempt to murder the Greek chiefs was hybris, but it is not the point of the play. His slight to Athena was not hybris, but it symbolizes the point very nearly. Ajax was, and knew himself to be, inwardly stronger than all the external forces which might either help or threaten to destroy him. He could trust himself to be noble. But to the small people of the chorus, such self-sufficiency looks like hybris. They naturally fear such an attitude, for they do not trust their inner selves, and in defense they ally themselves with those elements in the world which try to make men less self-sufficient, and they term those elements “the gods.”

The danger of hybris was always associated with greatness in the common mind, but there are kinds and degrees. Sophocles seems not to have interested himself in the simple folly of Croesus, nor in the sheer malign criminality of Clytaemnestra, on whom vengeance was bound to fall. It was the answer of an older generation that behind every great man's fall lay the anger of some external god. Sophocles probed into the evil which comes of good, and it is in this category that the so-called hybris of Ajax belongs. Ajax was “the greatest single hero of the Greeks who came to Troy, except Achilles,” and in that very greatness lay the necessity to behave as he did. His whole relationship with Athena illustrates merely the standard which Ajax held higher than safety. This was the really divine, daemonic force at work. The heroic assumption means precisely this—the possession of a standard which becomes a kind of fatal necessity that drives toward self-destruction. It is this which made Achilles “godlike” to Homer and which prompted the Ajax of Sophocles. The long-continued Wrath of Achilles might by some be called hybris, but it is also a defense of arete. It seems excessive and culpable only if one's standard is life and common sense; if one's standard is arete, it is an inevitable course. The true Greek hero raises the standard of his own excellence so high that he is no longer appropriate to life.

It was with no little insight that Professor Reinhardt fixed upon the isolation of the protagonist as the key to Sophoclean tragedy. But this isolation is not due to the gap between man and the gods. It is not because of the hero's helplessness and blindness that he cannot “yield” to the world order. Rather it is his own clear vision which isolates the hero and creates a gap between him and the rest of humanity. His standard, his vision of himself, brings him near to the gods—near, and even into conflict with them. Indeed he is isolated, for he stands near the center of the world order, and far from the comrades who try to advise or comfort him. In Homer, Achilles' intimacy with the gods and their participation in his life constitute a kind of ratification and eternization of his character. In Sophoclean tragedy the two distinctive features of Hellenic heroism merge into one: the attendant deity becomes a symbol of the indomitable standard; or, perhaps better, the standard, too high for life, becomes an inner god. The result is a colossal tragic unity, whose essential characteristic is the greatness of man.

This, and no other, is the force which drives Ajax. It is this divinity he fosters when he spurns Athena. Once the heroic way is chosen, there can be no turning back, no yielding. In fact, for Ajax to take the chorus' advice, yield, stay in his tent and save himself, would have been the uttermost betrayal of his own best ideal and the most abysmal depth of moral defeat.

Hence it is unthinkable that Ajax really “yields” in the great speech on time and its changes. This passage, with its stunning eloquence and its vast panoramic view of the world of phenomena through the eyes of the hero, is one of the rarest and most beautiful in all Greek tragedy, but it has been subjected to some odd interpretations. The first wild passions, when Ajax discovered what he had done, are now over. He had sworn immediately to kill himself, but Tecmessa, his concubine, and the chorus of Salaminians have momentarily prevented him. Their hope is to restrain him from any desperate acts. Ajax, now in an apparently mild, controlled mood, says that Tecmessa's pleas have touched his heart, and he implies that he has given up all thoughts of suicide. He will bury his sword, purify himself, and yield to the gods:

                                                                                                    All that's strong
And mighty must submit to powers superior.
Doth not the snowy winter to the bloom
Of fruitful summer yield? And night obscure,
When by white steeds Aurora drawn lights up
The rising day, submissively retire?
The roaring sea, long vexed by angry winds,
Is lulled by milder zephyrs to repose,
And oft the fetters of all-conquering sleep
Are kindly loosed to free the captive mind:
From nature then, who thus instructs mankind,
Why should not Ajax learn humility?

Why not indeed? The Salaminian sailors should have known their man better, if they wished to save him. Ajax talks of humility as only a proud man is able: he leaves it to others. He is now so firmly intrenched in his own conception of himself that he no longer feels any obligation to explain it. He leaves his words to those who will understand their meaning, and cares not whether any do. Yet Ajax has all but said that he has agreed to live. How could he utter all these sane and commendable intentions, and then proceed to dispatch himself as deliberately as possible?

In order to clear Ajax of this apparent lie, some commentators have involved him in a far more complex dishonesty, by saying that he tells no direct lie but words his speech so that he cannot but be misunderstood. Jebb, for instance, alleging that “the change of purpose is feigned, but the change of mood is real,” points to the humility of Ajax at this point, a humility “brought about through the human affections.” He now wishes to die in recognition of his sin and be reconciled with Athena. But none of this is in the play. Ajax does not propitiate Athena in his death scene: he prays to Hermes for a quick death, to Zeus for decent burial, and at greatest length to the Erinyes to curse and blast his enemies, the Atreidae. The rest is invocation and farewell, but not even a mention of Athena. The change of mood seems only to be the change of a man who first thought he had to commit suicide, but now knows he must. His milder tongue is due to the finality of his decision.

Various other answers have been tried, but the simple one is the right one. Ajax had to deceive his friends in order to get away and die unhindered. Only so could he remain himself. Not for a moment could he consider living in a world where his glory was no longer esteemed, where he had been mocked and made light of by the gods. The only possible way for him to save his dignity was to set it off in the perspective of eternity. So he makes a speech about time. Being no longer a part of time, or nearly so, he can view it as if from without, and whole, and dismiss its phenomena forever, albeit with a certain tenderness. Yes, he will wash off his stains; he will rid himself of the ruined parts of his honor. He will bury his sword, he does not say where. Indeed he deceives his followers, though if they had been greater men they would have seen through the deception. But he is already so isolated in his eternal being that he cannot reach them. They miss the point completely. The lie is neither deliberate nor indeliberate. Ajax simply tells them who he is, with his sorrowful irony about humility, and his quiet dismissal of the world. He will be pure, he says; and so he takes his sword and goes.

Ajax slays himself to rectify his position for all time, to let his arete appear untrammeled by the outrages of his last days. The grief of the chorus when his body is found, Teucer's gallant defense of his right to burial, and finally Odysseus' appearance as his champion prove that his position is actually rectified in the eyes of all but the carping and pusillanimous generals, Agamemnon and Menelaus. The latter should be a caution to those who prefer to find the “fault,” or hamartia, of Ajax, instead of seeing his greatness. His suicide is a moral act in defense of his arete, a fact which we are in a better position to recognize than his own companions were. We need not be deceived by the speech on time. The passage on the yielding of the seasons one to another, of storm to calm and sleep to waking, is very beautiful, but is only the world of time, change, and becoming, and it is clearly a view of the world which Ajax by his next action rejects as violently as possible. He belongs to no such world-order. Supreme arete is “in the world, but not of it.” It is an aspect of being; it never becomes, and it cannot adjust. The hero is a law unto himself, but in what a different sense from the robber-barons of the Middle Ages! There may be a touch of the robber-baron in the Homeric Achilles, but in Ajax the intuition for inward law and self-mastery is already a full-fledged moral consciousness.

In his first real exposition of himself, Ajax views death as a moral recourse, not as one in wild despair or fear, but as one who has a certain knowledge of death's meaning for him.1 After a brief review of the facts, in which he reasserts his claim to the arms of Achilles—a claim incidentally which not even Odysseus denies—Ajax speculates on his fate and future. But all recourses in the land of the living are filled with shame:

No more of this. No, I must seek a way
Whence I may try to show my aging father
My nature, born of him, is not a coward's.
I'd buy that mortal for a word—for nothing!—
Who flatters and warms himself on empty hopes.
The nobly born must either nobly live
Or nobly die.(2)

This is not pride, or if it is, it is the right kind of pride, necessary to virtue.3 It is an attempt to evaluate mortal life by means of moral reasoning based on moral faith. Ajax is measuring himself against his inner law. Tecmessa's arguments are directed entirely toward his pity,4 and she touches his heart with them, but she cannot change his mind.5 He breaks all the rules of usual piety in his firmness and even rejects Tecmessa, who kneels to him as a suppliant, with the supremely impious words:

                                                            Can you not see that I
No longer am a debtor to the gods?(6)

His final word on the subject puts all external influences, human as well as divine, in their place:

You are a fool to hope to educate
This late my nature [ethos].(7)

Ethos is man's god,” said Heraclitus, and it is true of Ajax. Ethos is a man's inward being; to this god, this daimon, Ajax owed everything, and nothing to the external gods (theoi). And he was right. In the whole latter half of the play, Sophocles underscores the triumph of Ajax' faith in the law for which he died. His suicide is not weakness, or stubbornness; it is the supreme self-mastery.8

The final estimate of Ajax as a person rests on the second half of the play, which, though less poetically rich,9 is morally all important. Without this scene, the play would be like the Oresteia without the Eumenides. Formally, it is the defense of Ajax and his right to burial, but morally it is the defense of the ultimate value of a great individual in the face of whatever claims society may have against him. And it proves that if the man is really great, society's claims must be modified; the small people must bow to the man of true standards.10 Sophocles achieves this point by a favorite method, that of contrasting characters. Here Ajax, the aristocrat of the heroic ideal, is contrasted not with the man of the people, Teucer, nor any longer with the enlightened Odysseus, but with what Aristotle would call the real opposite of the aristocrat, the oligarch.11

The distaste with which an Athenian audience in the middle forties would receive the sentiments of Menelaus, with his insistence on class, his distrust of human nature and belief that it must be ruled by fear, in short his plain Spartanism, must have been intense.12 Agamemnon is perhaps even more offensive, but he does not condescend to explain his position so fully, contenting himself for the most part with Horace's Rex sum.13 But he shows his oligarchic conception of authority when he says the great ox can be controlled with the little whip.14 The irony of this remark is that it is exactly what Agamemnon could not do. Ajax had not been controlled, and it begins to look as if, in the presence of the corpse of the great man, even Teucer, the mere bowman, will not be controlled either. The whole oligarchic assumption breaks and is humiliated, but it is allowed to depart peaceably through the kind offices of Odysseus. The end is the funeral of the hero, conducted by Teucer. Victorious over his enemies and over his own disgrace, Ajax enters history and sets himself up forever as a monument of moral triumph.

The Ajax embodies what was, in its time, a new kind of metaphysical conflict. It might be called the conflict of free will and determinism, but it is more accurate to call it the conflict of an inner moral standard with the external shape of life as a whole. As such, it became especially characteristic of Sophocles and took many surprising forms, and these in turn were always made a little obscure by the equivocal uses of the various Greek words for gods. Both sides of the conflict could equally well be regarded as divine. Thus Tecmessa and Teucer state firmly that the gods destroyed Ajax.15 Quoted as they are from Calchas, these statements may be taken as mere ways of speaking, tragic clichés drawn from the traditional language. Indeed, Teucer and Tecmessa mean, no doubt, that Athena herself destroyed him; possibly even Sophocles, since he worked with symbols rather than with concepts, might have said the same. But the real truth is that the expression “the gods” can fit either of the conflicting elements, or both.

Divinity in Sophocles moves on many levels, often on several simultaneously. Thus in the Ajax we meet Athena as a somewhat neutral spirit of the hour in the prologue, whereas in Calchas' speeches she must be taken as the familiar Olympian deity. Besides Athena, there are also “the gods” generally, destroyers of Ajax, or governors of the natural world which Ajax describes in his speech on time and yielding. These are the symbols of life in the large, with which Ajax must of his own nature conflict. Finally there is the inner law of Ajax himself, a divine force that gives him his dignity and supremacy and compels his death. It is a token of Sophocles' individualism that of all these forms of divinity the most active is the last. It is the inner god that makes the tragedy and gives it motion. It differs from the divine attendants of Achilles in the Iliad and from the figure of Athena in the Atlas metope in that it is conceived as entirely Ajax' own possession, which may and indeed must conflict with divinity in less personal forms.

To call Sophocles an individualist, however, is to run once more the risk of labeling. Yet something of the kind must be recognized. Both the Ajax and the Antigone have been used to illustrate how Sophocles, himself a harmonious blend of mid-century independence with an earlier Staatsverbindlichkeit,16 remonstrated with the lawless individualism of post-Periclean Athens. But it is once more the classic theory of hamartia which is responsible for the notion that these somewhat superhuman and highly individual protagonists of Sophocles, who go their own way so surely and directly,17 are in reality confused, impious, and wrong-headed. The voice of the chorus is not the voice of Sophocles.

Rather, if the whole be taken as meaning more than the part, the Ajax reveals itself as one long paean of triumphant individualism. The Antigone is perhaps an even greater and subtler one. But this individualism is of a special kind, a heroic kind. It is not merely democratic; it is transcendental, and as such it has one root in the Homeric epic; the other rests solidly on the deepest level of Athenian culture, and may be identified with that finely developed instinct for ideal types which has imparted to everything Athenian its humane and haunting lustre. For the Athenian mind, individual personality was a scheme of excellence, not a quirk. If the ideal failed in the Peloponnesian War, it never failed in Sophocles. Yet he would have done little service to the great tradition, had he descended to moralizing and polemic. Instead, to the end of his life, he continued creating the poetic likeness of heroic individuals and illustrating that kind of moral liberty which Thucydides in the Funeral Oration intimated was the cornerstone of the Athenian republic: “In regard to personal differences, there is equality for all before the law; and as for reputation, insofar as an individual grows eminent in any respect he is preferred to public honors, less for his rank than for his excellence [arete].”18

Similarly, the greatness of Ajax is vindicated over any mere nominal authority or personal animosity. It represents the triumph not of unleashed and unguided individualism, but of the disciplined individual whose guide is inner law, and whose infringement of other laws is only incidental to the enormous struggle he passes through in order to preserve himself as a type of noble behavior. Odysseus says he has been led to reconciliation by arete,19 and it is generally supposed he means his own. It is doubtless Ajax' he means, but it does not really matter. In the final instance, the arete of heroes is a supra-political moral possession which they alone share and which can never be fully understood by lesser souls, or adjust itself to life. It is built upon an inward daemon of self-destruction. If it loses itself, it gains itself; if it becomes a shadow, it wins glory, and its tomb is kept sacred.20


  1. Ajax 430ff.

  2. Ajax 470-473; 476-480.

  3. Cf. Jaeger, Paideia I2, 11.

  4. Ajax 485ff.

  5. Ajax 652-654.

  6. Ajax 589-590.

  7. Ajax 594-595.

  8. Ajax 967-968.

  9. Cf. Perrotta, pp. 129ff.; L. Campbell, Mélanges Weil, pp. 17ff.

  10. See Reinhardt's remark, p. 42: “Gegen das Unrecht des Grossen, welches Recht der Kleinen!” However, I am not so convinced of Ajax' Unrecht. Cf. Reinhardt's further sentiments on useless survivors, pp. 104f.

  11. Arist. Polit. 1279b5.

  12. Ajax 1071-2; 1073-1086. Cf. Ajax 1102. Contrast Thuc. II, 37, 3, and compare Thuc. I, 84, 3-4; see Finley, “Eur. and Thuc.,” p. 35, where he notes the comparison and cites other examples. Cf. Aristotle on Spartan mistrust of human nature, Polit. II, 9 (1271a20).

  13. Horace, Sat. II, 3, 188. Horace's little scene is perhaps derived from this of Sophocles. At least, it is in keeping with the Sophoclean version that Agamemnon is accused of stupidity (210), a regard for vain titles (212) and a tumidum cor (213)—all earmarks of the true authoritarian.

  14. Ajax 1253-1254.

  15. Ajax 970; 1036ff.

  16. Pohlenz, pp. 198-202. Cf. the theory of Schadewaldt, described in Chapter II.

  17. Pohlenz, p. 234, who also derives their surety and directness from the serene nature of Sophocles. This argument makes a syllogism whose conclusion is that Sophocles must have been as wrong-headed in his serenity as his heroes were!

  18. Thuc. II, 37.

  19. Ajax 1357.

  20. ἀείμνηστον, Ajax 1166. This phrase is not merely a reference to the cult of Ajax, but also a true evaluation, of which even the chorus, now that he is dead, is capable. Cf. particularly Thuc. II, 43, 2-3, on the universal moral example involved in the ideas κλέοs and δόξα. On the immortality of the nobly dead, in Pericles' eyes, cf. Plut. Per. 8. As an example of the respect and love which Ajax commanded from those who held to the heroic ideal, it is interesting to note that the most aristocratic of the Black Figure painters, Execias, painted no less than five pictures of Ajax which have come down to us. Cf. Beazley, Attic Black Figure, pp. 20-21. The numerous references in Pindar are well known.

A Selected Bibliography

Abbott, Evelyn. “The Theology and Ethics of Sophocles,” Hellenica, London, 1880, pp. 33-66.

Allègre, F. Sophocle, Etude sur les ressorts dramatiques de son théâtre, et la composition de ses tragédies. Lyon, Paris, 1905.

Barstow, Marjorie. “Oedipus Rex: A Typical Greek Tragedy,” Classical Weekly, October 5, 1912.

Beazley, J. D. Attic Black Figure. London, 1928.

Böckh, August. Des Sophokles Antigone. Berlin, 1843.

Bowra, C. M. Sophoclean Tragedy. Oxford, 1944.

Bruhn, Ewald. “Lucubrationum Euripidearum Capita Selecta,” Jahrbücher für Classische Philologie, XV (Suppl.), 1886, 225-324.

Butcher, S. H. Aristotle's Theory of Poetry and Fine Art. 3rd ed., London, New York, 1902.

Bywater, Ingram. Aristotle on the Art of Poetry. Oxford, 1909.

Campbell, Lewis. “Le point culminant dans la tragédie grecque,” Mélanges Weil, Paris, 1898, pp. 17ff.

Cooper, Lane. The Greek Genius and Its Influence. New Haven, 1917.

Croiset, Maurice. Oedipe-Roi de Sophocle, Etude et Analyse. Paris, 1931.

Denniston, J. D. Electra. Oxford, 1939.

Dieterich, Albrecht. “Schlafscenen auf der attischen Bühne,” Rheinisches Museum, 46 (1891), 25-46.

Dodds, E. R. “Euripides the Irrationalist,” Classical Review, 43 (1929), 97-104.

Dopheide, Wilhelm. De Sophoclis arte dramatica. Westfalen Universität Diss. Münster, 1910.

Earle, M. L. “Studies in Sophocles's Trachinians,” TAPA, 33 (1902), 5-29.

Earp, F. R. The Style of Sophocles. Cambridge, 1944.

Farnell, L. R. The Higher Aspects of Greek Religion. London, 1912.

Ferguson, W. S. “The Attic Orgeones,” Harvard Theological Review, vol. 37, no. 2, pp. 61ff.

Finley, J. H., Jr. “Euripides and Thucydides,” HSCP, 49 (1938), 23-68.

———“The Origins of Thucydides' Style,” HSCP, 50 (1939), 35-84.

———Thucydides. Cambridge, Mass., 1942.

Fritsch, Carl-Ernst. Neue Fragmente des Aischylos und Sophokles. Hansische Universität Diss. Hamburg, 1936.

Greene, William C. Moira: Fate, Good, and Evil in Greek Thought. Cambridge, Mass., 1944.

———“The Murderers of Laius,” TAPA, 60 (1929), 75-86.

Gruppe, Otto F. Ariadne: Die tragische Kunst der Griechen. Berlin, 1834.

Hagelueken, Hugo. Quo tempore Sophoclis Oedipus Rex acta sit. Rostock Diss. Rostock, 1873.

Harsh, Philip W. “‘Αμαρτία Again,” TAPA, 76 (1946), 47-58.

Hegel, G. W. F. The Philosophy of Fine Art. Translated by F. P. B. Osmaston. London, 1920.

Jacob, A. L. W. Sophocleae Quaestiones. Warsaw, 1821.

Jaeger, Werner. Paideia. English translation by Gilbert Highet. Oxford, I (2nd ed., 1945), II (1943), III (1944).

———The Theology of the Early Greek Philosophers. Oxford, 1947.

Jebb, Sir Richard C. “The Age of Pericles,” Essays and Addresses. Cambridge, 1907.

———Sophocles: The Plays and Fragments. Cambridge, 1885-1902.

Kaibel, Georg. Sophokles Elektra. Leipzig, 1896.

Kitto, H. D. F. “Sophocles, Statistics and the Trachiniae,” AJP, April 1939, pp. 178-193.

Kleeman, August. “Grundgedanke und Tendenz des Sophokleischen Dramas, ‘König Oedipus,’” Wiener Studien, 44 (1924-25), 33-48.

Kraus, F. Utrum Sophoclis an Euripidis Electra aetate prior sit quaeritur. Erlangen Universität Diss. Passau, 1890.

Lessing, G. E. Leben des Sophokles. Berlin, 1790.

Linde, P. Sophokles' Elektra in Verhältnis zu den des Euripides. Königshütte, O.-S., 1910.

Lübker, Friedrich. Die Sophokleische Theologie und Ethik. Kiel, 1851-55.

Macurdy, Grace H. The Chronology of the Extant Plays of Euripides. Columbia Diss. New York, 1905.

Méautis, Georges. L'Oedipe à Colone et le Culte des Héros. Neuchatel, 1940.

Moore, J. A. Sophocles and Arete. Cambridge, Mass., 1938.

Murray, Gilbert. Five Stages of Greek Religion. New York, 1925.

Nilsson, M. P. A History of Greek Religion. Trans. by F. J. Fielden. Oxford, 1925.

Nock, Arthur D. “The Cult of the Heroes,” Harvard Theological Review, vol. 37, no. 2, pp. 61ff.

———“Religious Attitudes of the Greeks,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 85 (1942), 472-482.

O'Connor, Margaret B. Religion in the Plays of Sophocles. Chicago Diss. Chicago, 1923.

Page, Denys L. Actors' Interpolations in Greek Tragedy. Oxford, 1934.

Papageorgius, P. N. Scholia in Sophoclis Tragoedias Vetera. Leipzig, 1888.

Pearson, A. C. The Fragments of Sophocles. Cambridge, 1917.

———Sophoclis Fabulae. Oxford, 1924.

Perrotta, Gennaro. Sofocle. Messina, 1935.

Petersen, Eugen. Die attische Tragödie als Bild und Bühnenkunst. Bonn, 1915.

Pohlenz, Max. Die griechische Tragödie. Leipzig and Berlin, 1930.

Reinhardt, Karl. Sophokles. Frankfurt am Main, 1933.

Robert, Carl. Bild und Lied. Berlin, 1881.

———Oidipus: Geschichte eines poetischen Stoffs im griechischen Altertum. Berlin, 1915.

Rohde, Erwin. Psyche: Seelencult und Unsterblichkeitsglaube der Griechen. Freiburg and Leipzig, 1894.

Schadewaldt, Wolfgang. “Sophokles, Aias und Antigone,” Neue Wege zur Antike, VIII, 61-109.

Schlegel, A. W. Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature. Translated by J. Black. 2nd ed., New York, 1892.

Schmid, W. “Probleme aus der sophokleischen Antigone,” Philologus, 62 (1903), 1-34.

Sheppard, J. T. “Electra: A Defence of Sophocles,” Classical Review, vol. 41, no. 1 (1927), pp. 2-9.

———The Oedipus Tyrannus of Sophocles. Cambridge, 1920.

Siess, H. “Chronologische Untersuchungen zu den Tragödien des Sophokles,” Wiener Studien, 36 (1914-15), 244-294; 37 (1915), 27-62.

Steiger, Hugo. “Warum schrieb Euripides seine Elektra?” Philologus, 56 (1897), 561-600.

Sudhaus, Siegfried. König Oedipus' Schuld. Kiel, 1912.

Templin, P. W. De Fabulae Sophocleae Oedipus Coloneus quae inscribitur tempore. Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Diss. Münster, 1930.

Thackeray, H. St. John. “Sophocles and the Perfect Number,” Proceedings of the British Academy, 16 (1930), 15-44.

Vlachos, N. “Some Aspects of the Religion of Sophocles,” Reformed Church Review, vol. 10, no. 2 (April 1906).

Weinstock, Heinrich. Sophokles. Leipzig, Berlin, 1931.

Welcker, F. G. “Über den Aias des Sophokles,” Rheinisches Museum, 1829, pp. 43-92, 229-271.

Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, Tycho von. Die dramatische Technik des Sophokles. Berlin, 1917.

Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, Ulrich von. Analecta Euripidea. Berlin, 1875.

———“Die Beiden Elektren,” Hermes, 18 (1883), 214-263.

———Einleitung in die griechische Tragödie. Berlin, 1910.

———“Excurse zum Oedipus des Sophokles,” Hermes, 34 (1899), 55-80.

———Der Glaube der Hellenen. Berlin, 1931-32.

———Griechische Tragödien ubersetzt. Berlin, 1899-1929.

———Herakles. 2nd ed., Berlin, 1895.

———“Oedipus auf Kolonos,” in T. v. Wilamowitz, Dramatische Technik (q.v.).

Wilson, Edmund. The Wound and the Bow. Boston, 1941. Title essay, pp. 272-295.

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———“Excurse zu den Trachinierinnen,” Philologus, 55 (1896), 491-633.


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Ajax Sophocles

The following entry presents criticism of Sophocles's Aias (Ajax c. 450 b.c.) For more information on Sophocles's life and career, see CMLC, Volumes 2 and 47.

Scholars believe that the Ajax, one of only seven wholly-surviving tragedies by Sophocles, is most likely his earliest extant work. Revered by his contemporaries, Sophocles is generally considered one of the greatest dramatists of all time, lauded for his masterful characterizations, plot constructions, and theatrical innovations. The Ajax is considered a masterpiece for its insightful characterization of its hero and the depiction of his downfall brought on by an overabundance of pride. Modern scholars find it illuminating for what it reveals about changing ancient Greek values.

Biographical Information

Sophocles was born in 497 b.c. in Colonus, near Athens. He took top honors in 468 b.c. with his first entry at the Athenian Dionysia festival, the Triptolemus, defeating Aeschylus, who had long been the reigning champion. Sophocles wrote 123 plays (most of them grouped in tetralogies), took first prize at least eighteen times, and never placed less than second. The Ajax cannot be dated precisely but is considered a work from his early period, when Sophocles, by his own account, “played out to the fullest the weighty majesty of Aeschylus.” Its plot is largely borrowed from a Greek myth and its characterization influenced by the Iliad, but Sophocles himself invested it with the complexities, symbolism, and suspense that helped make him revered by his public. His theatrical innovations include the use of painted scenery (instead of a usually bare stage,) expanding the chorus from twelve to fifteen members, and, perhaps most importantly, the use of three actors on stage at one time, allowing for the first time an exchange of dialogue between three actors rather than two. Sophocles died in Athens in 406.

Plot and Major Characters

The Ajax opens with Odysseus pacing before the tent of Ajax. Odysseus has been awarded the armor of the slain Achilles, an honor indicating that he has been deemed the most valuable warrior in battle, an honor Ajax feels he himself deserves instead. The goddess Athena appears and tells Odysseus that Ajax, covered with blood, is inside the tent. Enraged with hurt pride, he had decided to slay Odysseus and the Greek generals Menelaus and Agamemnon. Athena had interceded and cast a spell on Ajax which caused him to mistake some livestock and herdsmen for his true targets. Ajax has thus furiously slaughtered and mutilated them, and it is their blood which now covers him. Ajax recovers from the spell and realizes what he has done, and is consumed by shame. He determines that the only choice before him is to die. The chorus and Tecmessa, his wife, beg him not to take his life. He gives a lengthy speech, optimistic but somewhat ambiguous, and then leaves his tent, stating that he has decided to bury his sword—the sword with which he brought shame to himself and his family. He indeed buries the sword, but only its hilt, with the blade pointing straight up. He then throws himself upon it, and dies. The remaining third of the play concerns the disposition of Ajax's body, which remains on stage. Teucer, Ajax's half-brother, wants the body honorably buried, but Menelaus and Agamemnon insist that it be left exposed to the ravages of the world. Odysseus returns and declares that all Greek warriors are deserving of proper burial, and so Ajax receives his final ceremonies.

Major Themes

The Ajax illustrates what damage can occur when pride (or hybris) becomes too great a part of a person's emotional makeup. Several critics have pointed out that Ajax is the only representative of shame-culture in the Greek theater. Sophocles also contrasts the values of the uncompromising Ajax with those of the more generous Odysseus, culminating in the final burial ceremony of Ajax's body.

Critical Reception

Sophocles is considered one of the world's greatest dramatists and his tragedies are accepted as among the finest examples of classical Greek tragedy. Not all critics believe that the Ajax best represents his skills, however. John Jones, for example, assesses the Ajax as an early work which “betrays unsure command.” This view is strongly rejected by many other critics, including Mark Ringer, who calls it “arguably Sophocles' most original work, a construct of dazzling ingenuity. Dramatic suspense is created and sustained through the subtle manipulation of tragic convention and from several almost unparalleled violations of expected dramaturgical practice.” The reasons for its popularity with modern readers are examined by Cynthia P. Gardiner, who writes: “Of all the heroes of Attic tragedy, our age most admires the Sophoclean Ajax.” Ruth Scodel explains that the society in which Sophocles lived had different values than modern society. Other scholars agree, with Cedric H. Whitman examining the Greek view of hybris and the heroic code, and with Jones emphasizing how strongly the Greeks felt about shame, and how little about guilt. Undoubtedly the most heated debates among scholars concern Ajax's great speech, often referred to as the deception speech, and whether or not Ajax's intent was to deceive. In contrast to the common perception, Bernard Knox views it as a soliloquy and M. Sicherl also denies that Ajax's purpose was to deceive. Charles Segal notes that the striking contrast between the two lead characters can easily be taken as a political statement: “Odysseus embodies the flexibility, reliance on persuasion and debate, and reasonableness necessary for the Athenian democracy. Ajax harks back to an older aristocratic ideal, praised and admired, but obsolescent in the circumstances of mid-fifth-century b.c. Athens.” Critics agree that the suicide of Ajax is one of the most memorable death scenes in the history of tragedy.

John Jones (essay date 1962)

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SOURCE: Jones, John. “Ajax.” In On Aristotle and Greek Tragedy, pp. 177-91. New York: Oxford University Press, 1962.

[In the following excerpt, Jones asserts that Ajax is the sole representative of shame culture in all of the extant Greek tragedies, and he praises Sophocles's handling of the moral atmosphere in the play.]

Seven of [Sophocles's] plays survive. External information about them is meagre and seldom trustworthy, but the very credible statement that the Antigone was Sophocles's thirty-second play,1 together with the probability that it was produced in 442 or 441, provides a reliable date round which to arrange the surviving seven. In 441 Sophocles was fifty-five. He wrote about 120 plays in all. And so not much less than three-quarters of his output must be attributed to his late middle and old age. This would be a surprising and even suspicious conclusion were it not certain that two of our handful of plays belong to his extreme old age (the Philoctetes produced in 409 and the Oedipus at Colonus eight years later, in 401), and that both reveal prodigious vigour in conception and execution; while a third play, the Electra, is almost certainly also late.2 To this instance of invention running at full flood in a man's ninth decade, Verdi's music affords the only parallel in our civilisation.

Thus the Antigone is by no means a young man's work, and yet more than thirty years separate it from the two latest plays we have. The four others, with one exception, are held on strong grounds to be later than the Antigone. That exception is the Ajax. The seven survivors fall, therefore, into three groups: the Ajax and the Antigone are relatively early; the Women of Trachis,Oedipus the King, and the Electra come next, with the Electra inclining towards the third group; and the Philoctetes and the Oedipus at Colonus are very late.

While I bracket the Ajax with the Antigone in this rough chronology, the inward signs suggest to me that it is altogether less mature. Its story is based on an incident in the Trojan epic cycle. Ajax, whose soldiership is second only to that of Achilles in the Greek army, has insulted the goddess Athena by boasting that he can do without her help in battle. She bides her time to punish him, until after the death of Achilles when the Greek leaders confer the honour of inheriting the dead warrior's arms not on Ajax, who in his own estimation (which appears to be the just estimation) deserves it, but on Odysseus. Ajax now resolves to be avenged on the Greek chiefs and sets out at night, alone, to murder them. As he reaches their tents Athena afflicts him with temporary madness; he turns aside to butcher some oxen and sheep, the as yet undivided spoil of war, in the belief that these are his human enemies. The play's action begins here. When he regains his wits and understands what he has done, disgrace and misery lead him haltingly to suicide; and the last four hundred lines—more than a quarter of the whole—are occupied in debating whether Ajax's body shall be denied burial because of his traitorous attempt against the leaders. Ultimately mercy prevails, and his friends are setting to work to bury him at the play's close.

Most remarkable is the fact that Ajax responds to his situation always in terms of shame and never of guilt. He has been exposed before the whole Greek army as murderer and traitor to the full extent of criminal intention, and certainly he would have done the deed had not the goddess intervened to prevent him. It is as clear a case of guilt as a dramatist could devise. But Ajax neither admits guilt nor denies guilt nor extenuates guilt (as he might do by urging the unjust award of Achilles's arms); nor does he give any sign that he feels guilt. When he thinks of his foiled plan to murder the Greek leaders, it is with rage and chagrin that “those men laugh exultingly in their escape—never intended for them by me”,3 but by Athena. Of course, their award of the arms to Odysseus is Ajax's reason for attempting to murder them, but he does not make this his excuse. Shame possesses him entirely. He is ashamed of having killed the oxen and sheep, not because this reveals a guilty intent, but for the deed itself:

Do you see the brave, the stout-hearted warrior, the one who never flinched before the enemy in battle—do you see how I have proved my courage upon beasts that feared no harm? Oh the mockery! What shame is mine!4

The great soldier feels irredeemably disgraced because the goddess has beguiled him into using his sword against sheep and oxen. This attitude, which is shared by the Chorus of Ajax's sailor-followers,5 and by his wife,6 is almost as alien to the moral atmosphere of the Sophoclean age as it is to our own; but it accords very precisely with the aristocratic military culture depicted by Homer. Homer's people live by the standard of honour—live in the literal sense that the forces sustaining life, the deepest kind of self-vindication, depends on being seen and judged to satisfy that standard. And shame is honour's polar opposite, so that when a Homeric warrior incurs shame, a sudden and complete disintegration of personality ensues. On the other hand, he has no sense of guilt, and in this respect the honour-shame polarity of Homeric civilisation presents so striking a contrast with the situation reflected in the later literature of the Greek mainland (the cheerful boasting of Homer's men disappears, and a gingerly, circumspect address inspired by fear of hubris takes its place7; psycho-physical pollution and techniques of ritual cleansing come to the fore; Orphic and Pythagorean teachings about the pure soul's road to immortality gain many hearers and some converts), that the sociological terms of art, Shame Culture and Guilt Culture, have been responsibly applied to these two phases of Greek history.8

That the Sophoclean Ajax lives by honour and dies by shame is in every way extraordinary. There is nobody like him in extant Tragedy. He is a solitary shame-culture figure thrown up by a literature of guilt, and his shame is coupled with an equally Homeric blandness of self-assessment (“the brave, the stout-hearted”) and with a surrender of life through contact with shame which, outside the epic context, would be quite inadequately motivated. In fact, Sophocles makes Ajax build this context round himself when he defines the dilemma which is driving him to suicide. He cannot go home:

What countenance shall I present to my father Telamon when I get there? How will he bear to look at me standing honourless before him—with nothing achieved to bring me back, like him in his day, glory-crowned? That I cannot face.9

And he cannot stay where he is and meet death gloriously in single-handed assault on the Trojan defences, since that would be a service to the Greek leaders whom he hates.10 He has no third way, other than suicide.

The consequent epic neatness and clarity investing Ajax may have been evident in some of those plays, now all lost, which Sophocles was writing in the first half of his long life. This may form a link between the surviving play and what has disappeared, and it ought to make us suspect that the very ancient critical tradition designating Sophocles the most Homeric of the Tragedians had more to it than now meets the eye. At the same time, his Electra is sufficient warning that a pronounced epic bent is not by itself a trustworthy sign of relatively early composition. The Homericisms of that play (among which the silence regarding Orestes's pollution through mother-slaying is the most impressive) suggest that Sophocles could be self-consciously epic when occasion demanded; could use Homer to remove himself from Aeschylus. They also provoke deeper reflection upon something individual to the Sophoclean temperament and manifested throughout his work: a serenity of religio-moral attitude which makes the Shame Culture/Guilt Culture distinction apply uncomfortably to him. There is a natural as well as a sophisticated aspect to his Homeric inclining, and it follows that reference to the epic values of the Ajax must be wary.

In particular, one should stress that the Ajax is being judged immature not because epic values are discernible but because they cause a damaging incoherence. Which is this, that up to the moment of Ajax's suicide the dramatic and moral logic is determined by his lost honour, and from then on by his guilt—the established murderous intent—in its bearing on his right to burial. Commentators have sometimes argued that Sophocles allows Ajax to die too soon, with the result that the long posthumous debate about burial falls into anti-climax; and while this diagnosis is falsely framed (the tragic hero and a modern conception of stage-death are working mischief here), the disease itself is genuine. The mad slaughter of the sheep and oxen had been projected from the beginning of the play as a calamity “terrible as death”11, in the choric judgment “Ajax will die”12 if the killing be proved against him, for by that action he will be seen to have destroyed his own fair fame along with his victims.13 And so it turns out as he sits alone in his tent, sane at last and despairing, that “the great brave deeds which once his hands did are fallen, fallen …”.14

The mad killing is at once the substance of his shame and the focus of dramatic interest. But when Menelaus, the Spartan king and Agamemnon's brother, enter bent on denying burial to the body, he brings a change of climate with him. I forbid Ajax burial, he says, because

when we brought him here from Greece we hoped he would prove an ally and friend to us. On trial, we found him a worse enemy than the Trojans; he struck against the whole army with a murderous plot, setting out, spear at the ready, in a night attack upon us chiefs; and if some god had not smothered this attempt, our fate would have been his: we would be stretched out, ignobly killed, and he would be living still. But in the event a god deflected his hubris, so that it fell on sheep and cattle.15

At once Menelaus overlays shame with guilt. This development happens to coincide with Ajax's death, but the widely shared feeling that the play is broken-backed derives from confused intention in the artist (fumbling execution does not appear to be in question), rather than from any supposed mistiming of the hero's suicide. The guilt, moreover, which we are suddenly confronted with, is precisely tragic guilt; Ajax's hubris is here named by Menelaus who proceeds immediately to expose its working in the presumption and insubordination that led Ajax to challenge the award of Achilles's arms to another man.16

The trouble with this very familiar Sophoclean theme of overreaching, of thinking thoughts too great for a man, is that it fails to engage with what has gone before; it offers the fruit of latter-day religious experience to Homeric innocence. And when we touch Ajax's guilt at a second point—at his original affront to Athena—a similar inconsequence appears. His insulting boast that he can do without divine help in battle is grafted on to the action most clumsily, by way of explanatory flash-back in which a cumulative effect is aimed at through recounting together two separate hubristic utterances.17 The cause of Athena's terrible and extended punishment of him is too important to be introduced like this: contrast Agamemnon's peripheral boast about the stag in the Electra, where the flash-back device proves entirely adequate. A more serious criticism springs from our experience of confusion when the strenuous epic world of vaunting and taunting, of honour and shame, collides fortuitously—inartistically that is—with a hubris-dominated morality. Ajax, turning to thoughts of suicide, addresses the the Trojan river Scamander: “You shall see Ajax no more—Ajax whose equal (I will now speak a proud word) Troy has never known, not in all the warlike host that sailed here from Greece”18, and the reader catches a microcosmic reflection of the general disturbance in this parenthetical intrusion of near-apology into the plain epic boast. Character-consistency is of course not in issue, but we may fairly glance forward from the Ajax in order to remark that Sophocles habitually attains identity of moral atmosphere as nice as Jane Austen's.

If the Ajax betrays unsure command, a failure of fingertip delicacy in controlling emphasis within the tiny dramatic ambit of fifteen hundred lines, it is also very obviously Sophoclean; and just as an overreaching hubris cuts across the theme of lost honour, so other signs of his mature presence come and go bewilderingly. Sometimes the voice of Sophoclean pity is heard above the jeering and bragging of Homeric chieftains, never so clearly as at its first utterance. The play is still young. Athena has been telling Odysseus, her favourite among the Greek leaders, how she made Ajax mad during the night now past and turned him against the sheep and oxen. She calls Ajax out from his tent in order to demonstrate to Odysseus her continuing power over him. Ajax appears. He has brought some of the animals alive to his tent in the belief that they are his human enemies. Odysseus, he says, has been singled out for further torture; he intends to tie him up and flay his back crimson. “O no!” replies Athena in mock dismay, herself playing horribly with Ajax, “do not torture the wretch so cruelly.”19 But he insists, and then, letting him go with her blessing, she turns to Odysseus:

Do you see, Odysseus, how great is the power of the gods? Could you have found a man with more foresight than Ajax? Who was better at doing the sane and sensible thing at the right moment?20

Odysseus answers:

I know none. And yet I pity him in his mad distress, for all that he is my enemy, because of the hideous fate which is inescapably his. In this I am thinking of myself no less than of him, for I see that we are phantom shapes, every living one of us, and shadows without substance.21

This unexpected calling halt to horror is impressive in itself, and it grows in power to move us when its decisive role in the debate over burial becomes apparent. Menelaus, the opponent of burial, has demanded that Ajax's body “shall be thrown out somewhere on the yellow sand, for the gulls to eat”22; and now he says to Teucer, Ajax's half-brother who wishes to honour the body:

And I warn you not to bury him. If you do, you may come to need a grave yourself.23

The phrasing of this threat is well considered. Sophocles is thinking forward to the dialogue with Agamemnon, the supreme commander, in which Odysseus finally wins the day for mercy:

So you want me to grant burial to the body?
Yes. For I too shall come to that need.
It's plain everyone works for himself in everything.
And for whom should I work rather than myself?
Then let this be called your doing—not mine.
Either way you will earn high praise.(24)

It is a characteristic reversal in miniature that the thought which now impels Odysseus to ask for burial on behalf of his enemy should be the one whereby Menelaus had sought to frighten the friends of Ajax into surrendering his claim. More important, Odysseus makes us turn back over nearly the whole length of the play, towards his exclamation to Athena of pity for Ajax. His attitude draws together the primary Sophoclean elements: death—the debt we all must pay—exerting its even pressure upon life; the sudden alleviating shaft of pity; the morality (not yet examined) of visionary, selfless selfishness; mutability's full circle. In so far as it can be isolated, this is the mature and altogether worthy segment of the play, and in its working out of human fortunes it gives dramatic body to the statement of universal flux which appears here as it does in everything of Sophocles's that has survived:

The snow-bound days of winter yield to summer's fruitfulness; night ceases her long patrol to give day's white horses place to shine; the fearful gale-blast eases and allows repose to the groaning sea; and, like these others, sleep sets free the man he has bound, holding no one captive for ever.25

Once again, as in the movement of the circling Bear, mutability overwhelms antithesis in a great symphonic voice which is also a kind of silence—as if the poet held the world's heart beating in his hand. Some insight into this high mystery is afforded by Odysseus's reply to Athena, already quoted. There he makes three points: he pities Ajax; in feeling pity he has his own human state in mind as well as Ajax's; all men are ghosts and shadows. The third point has a closer and more sustained connection with the other two than at first seems possible, because where we should isolate the temporal character of mutability within the “here today, gone tomorrow” range of sentiments, the Sophoclean view embraces potency together with duration. This is why his account of life's progress towards death escapes so impressively from the unilinear forward movement which we might expect to find dominant:

What joy is there in day following day, now edging us forward upon the verge of death, now drawing us back?26

The ebb and flow imaged here is that of life's ground-rhythm—of time at its most potent, of “Great Time”,27 as Sophocles calls it. So that when Odysseus is stirred by Ajax's fate to think of all men as shadows without weight and substance his meaning is not simply that we are gone tomorrow. He is also positioning individual existences in relation to this firm central pulse and noting how comparatively weak they are. There is less reality-stuff in them. They must all meet death, of course; but the leading Sophoclean thought is rather that none of them can embody more than a morsel of life. For the society which produced Sophocles, death is an experience which the life of the group comprehends; it is only the human self at its most solitary that affirms “Death is not an event of life. Death is not lived through.”28 And for Sophocles himself, death is not so much the end of each life's journey as it is all life's constant fringe.

With our perception of time and death thus changed and perhaps made richer, the self-poise of Sophoclean mutability ceases to be altogether strange. The solemn peace at its heart grows out of such darkness as the monistic imagination of Ajax conceives—darkness at once deathful and life-begetting, from which “the long and countless years draw all things to the light, then bury them once more”.29 And since time is power (sometimes figured as an adamantine substance wearing away men and things by its action, causing them to “wither”),30 we must be careful to catch the accent of temporal frailty proper to Odysseus's “shadows without substance”. It is an accent which advertises Sophocles's traditional cast of mind as well as his individual idiom, since by stating the mortal theme in the words “men are shadows” he gives it an entirely Greek turn. The connections between the shadow-life of tragic humanity and the shadow-life of the epic dead, and between both of these and the pervasive substance-and-shadow dialectic of Greek speculation, are many and vital, for all that they run irrecoverably deep.

Odysseus's expression of pity for Ajax raises a second traditional issue in the selfishness of its form. “I am thinking of myself no less than of him”, he tells Athena, and the self-regarding bent of his solicitude is further exposed in the dialogue with Agamemnon:

Yes [I want you to grant Ajax burial]. For I too shall come
to that need.
It's plain everyone works for himself in everything.
And for whom should I work rather than myself?

Sophocles takes care that Odysseus's decisive action in supporting the claim of Ajax shall rest, and shall be seen to rest, on consideration of his own advantage. The stress is inescapable; but it is one which the reader educated in a morality of altruism may be expected to interpret precisely wrong: I mean he may take for worldly-wise acknowledgment of the selfishness that sustains generous action what Sophocles intends as a kind of homage to enlightened self-love—as a demonstration of its moral efficacy. The standpoint from which to regard Odysseus is that of the old blind Oedipus at Colonus. Oedipus is awaiting the arrival of Theseus, king of Athens, who (Oedipus hopes) will come forward to befriend and protect him. And this is a rational hope because Oedipus is able to show that various benefits will accrue to Athens if the people there receive him kindly—benefits promised by Apollo's oracle. When he hears about them Theseus will surely prove gracious; “for what good man,” so Oedipus concludes, “is not his own friend?”31

Now Theseus is very evidently a good man—the type of the just and brave soldier-king in ancient tradition, almost the founder of Attic virtues; and the action of the Oedipus at Colonus declares him his own friend both through anxiety for his city's welfare and in a personal way:

I would never turn aside from a stranger, coming as you do now, or deny him help in trouble. For I know that I am a man, and that the day comes when my portion is no greater than yours.32

We observe his course running parallel to that of Odysseus who grew merciful in the thought that he would come to need a grave himself, one day. The connection, moreover, between concern for self and remembering that one is a man (which was implicit in the Ajax) comes into the open in the late play, and points the difference between the vulgar selfishness of average unheroic humanity—the selfishness of the guard in the Antigone who expresses regret that he can only escape punishment himself by incriminating Antigone, but concludes: “all these things matter less to me than my own safety”33—and the self-love of the good man who is his own friend.

Odysseus of the Ajax, then, is another such good man, and the moral tone and prominence of his statement to Athena, and of his dialogue with Agamemnon, are very materially affected by this consideration. The local naturalness of Sophoclean dialogue is an agent of confusion here, as often happens; it appears to solicit a rueful or cynical inflection for Agamemnon's “It's plain everyone works for himself in everything”, and a corresponding narrow defensiveness for Odysseus's “For whom should I work rather than myself?”—the exchange between them amounting to no more than a skirmish with the ignoble theme of selfishness, but perfectly adequate to that modest end. It ceases to be adequate when the end ceases to be modest—when the self-love of the good man receives its due scope and force in the play's economy. In fact, the obvious and “human” interpretation of the dialogue collapses when the altruistic ideal of the modern reader is laid aside. This will have imposed no strain on Sophocles's first audience who, unlike ourselves, had never assumed that ideal. For them a self-regarding bent in moral discourse was inevitable. Their habit was to ask where a man's true interest lies, and they did so without (of course) any sense of a slightly comic inversion of civilised procedure such as assails ourselves when we encounter this habit in Sophoclean Tragedy or Socratic Dialogue or Thucydidean History or Aristotle, or elsewhere. A conviction, usually unreasoned, that the individual's just appraisal of his advantage is the stuff of corporate moral health runs through Greek humanism and helps to establish its characteristic buoyancy of mood.

Then banish those rounded Sophoclean characters, Odysseus and Agamemnon, dandling between them lightly, with Sophoclean irony, the thought that selfishness begets its opposite; and admit the type-faces of the tragic masks, turned inward, certainly, in the subtle contact of line-by-line dialogue—supplying ethical colour to the action, as Aristotle says; but turned outward also; facing the world; expounding, acting out, doing again the religio-legendary triumph of Odysseus's self-love. This great moment when Odysseus secures burial for his enemy is one the public import of which contains the private: the mercy shown to the dead man falls within the establishment of the hero's cult. For to Sophocles and his audience Ajax was a hero in the technical public and religious sense of one whose spirit, while not divine, was the recipient of sacred honours. Moreover, the focus of the Greek heroic cult was the tomb where offerings were made, so that any defect or omission in funeral obsequies would touch the object of contemporary worship adversely, while to refuse him a tomb was almost to deny his subsequent cult altogether.

It is therefore not surprising that the Ajax should be built round the hero's burial rather than his death. The play is about the winning of a tomb for one who was revered at Athens in later times, and when it is regarded in this way the inner connection between private charity to the helpless dead and the successful inauguration of the public cult needs no stressing. In this closely worked segment of the play we see very clearly that the action which is the object of tragic imitation is Ajax's entry upon heroic status.

The moral impulse of Odysseus's self-love brings first to mind, from the large cognate tradition, Aristotelian pity-and-fear, the tragic emotions which we hyphenate because there can be no pity for Aristotle where there is not also fear. The correspondence with Sophocles runs deeper than the general disposition to link pity for another with fear for self, and to found both upon the self-regarding instinct; Aristotle is reconstructing, in the language of spectator-psychology, the experience that falls within the Sophoclean play. Responding with pity-and-fear emotions to the reversals taking place on the stage, responding ultimately (as the Poetics would have it) to the action's universal tendency of change (metabolē), the fourth-century audience stand where Odysseus stands, and King Theseus, and, with interesting modification, Queen Deianeira in the Women of Trachis.34 In fact pity-and-fear are specifically tragic emotions because they grow out of the root-situation of Tragedy at its full maturity; and while the abruptness of Aristotle's text makes the selection of these two emotions appear arbitrary, all the available evidence requires that we understand ‘mature’ to mean ‘Sophoclean’. There is no need to labour the commendations of Sophocles scattered through the Poetics, or the singling out of Oedipus the King for special praise; Aristotle's whole attitude to Tragedy—its premises, its system, its purposes—proves sufficiently compelling. And we may pause, while noting the interpenetration of Aristotelian critical concept and Sophoclean dramatic fact, at the point where fear on the one hand (or the hidden resources of fear) engages with the self-love of the good man who is his own friend on the other. For the self-regarding instinct common to the Poetics and the Sophoclean æuvre presents a fruitful paradox in the fact that its issue is a kind of selflessness. Thus Odysseus moves easily, with no sense of hiatus, from his self-interested argument (“I too will come to need a grave”) to the statement that the burial of Ajax will be in itself a good and generous act. Selfishness seems to spend itself in determining the deed, which can then be contemplated in its objective rightness. The essence of this movement is a self-externalising process, already encountered in visions of mutability:

This I say since starry night does not abide with men, nor does calamity, nor wealth. In a moment they have left us, and someone else has his turn of joy, and of joy's loss. Therefore I bid you—you our Queen—hold fast this truth in expectancy; for Zeus always looks after his children.35

Such tragic peace depends on the ability not merely to see the self out there, caught up in the mutability rhythm, but to realise this affectually. And what seems to call for moral heroism—without reservation to lay the self alongside other selves, to accept the touch of joy and pain, on me, on him and him and him, on me again, for consummation and cosmic sufficiency—reveals in Sophocles, apparently, a natural inclination to think and feel thus; self-surrender of this kind is almost ordinary.36 We are at grips with that most extraordinary problem, the absence of problem in Sophoclean Tragedy. His Chorus of Trachinian women, so far from thinking that the will must be educated to the acceptance of the passing touch of joy and pain, tell Deianeira to embrace the fact of mutability so that she may remind herself of Zeus's care for his son Heracles. It is not simply a case of the harsh disconnection which is here presented to a Christian understanding (and to others) being tolerable to the Sophoclean Chorus. The disconnection does not exist for them at all. This is partly explained by the absence, for nearly all important purposes, of the infinite: there is a limited stock of joy and pain under Zeus's rule, and he ensures fair shares. And partly by the strength of the collective consciousness. But nothing must obscure the ease with which the dramatic figure realises his projection into universal flux. This is not felt to be an achievement, not an end toilfully gained. The expected overtone of visionary resignation is missing, and so are the splendid prematurities of individual resentment and outrage—everything that falls before the resolving moment of Hamlet's “Let be”. It follows that not many of the received ideas about tragic experience and its fruit are worth retaining: they distract the modern eye from the ancient dramatic object, and especially from its enfolding, upon a single level of experience, of indulgent self-nursing in debate and statement of motive together with the letting go of self now before us.

The issuing of selfishness into selflessness recalls that principle of self-spending which exerts its hidden but very powerful influence upon the Poetics. We contrasted self-spending with the counter-principle of self-conservation in an attempt to dislodge various misconceptions, and chief among these was the taking of a single and inward focus of being for the universal type of achieved selfhood.37 We had to supplant this image by one of discrete and centrifugal selfhood in order to make sense of Aristotle; and we have now to repeat the process when we encounter the Sophoclean stage-figure moving unanxiously outward in self-subjection to the rule of change, and declaring Zeus's care for his children as he does so. When we wonder why he does not attend his god in his own heart's solitude—in that pure extreme of self-identity—we have only to remember that he does not look for himself there either.


  1. This information is contained in a prose Argument or summary of the Antigone attributed to Aristophanes of Byzantium. The date of the play is an inference, but a reasonable one, from an observation in the Argument about Sophocles's career.

  2. The question largely turns on the disputed relation of this play to Euripides's Electra. The latter was probably produced in 413, and many have held—in my judgment rightly—that Sophocles's play is the later of the two. (But see Denniston's edition of the Euripidean Electra, xxxv n.)

  3. ll. 454-5.

  4. ll. 364-7.

  5. Their choral song and subsequent dialogue with Tecmessa, Ajax's wife, show a divided concern for his madness and for the disgrace that will overwhelm him if he is proved to have killed the cattle (ll. 134-355). They fear that reprisals against Ajax will involve themselves, but their failure to engage with the question of his guilt is complete.

  6. Her response to his plight is shame-focussed throughout. Ajax has been brought so low that he utters words “which once he would never have deigned to speak” (l. 411).

  7. Theseus in the Oedipus at Colonus is the type of valiant and devout soldier-king. His assurances of help to Oedipus are characteristically qualified: “Unless I die first, I will not rest until I restore your children to you” (ll. 1040-1); “I have no wish to boast, but you should know that your life is safe so long as any god saves mine” (ll. 1209-10). Such careful avoidance of hubris is essential to his piety.

  8. By E. R. Dodds, in Chapter Two of his book The Greeks and the Irrational: “From Shame-Culture to Guilt-Culture”.

  9. ll. 462-6.

  10. ll. 466-70.

  11. l. 215.

  12. ll. 229-30.

  13. ll. 405-9. The text is unsatisfactory.

  14. ll. 616-20.

  15. ll. 1052-61.

  16. ll. 1071-90.

  17. ll. 762-77. Late in the day my eye falls on a sentence in Richmond Lattimore's The Poetry of Greek Tragedy: “Sophocles sometimes writes as if he had been reading the handbooks of Attic tragedy and suddenly realized that he had left something out, namely, the theory of hamartia, or of pride and punishment, or of hybris, or what you will” (p. 73).

  18. ll. 421-6.

  19. l. 111.

  20. ll. 118-20.

  21. ll. 121-6.

  22. ll. 1064-5. The controlled legato phrase distinguishes this great writer. …

  23. ll. 1089-90.

  24. ll. 1364-9.

  25. ll. 670-6.

  26. ll. 475-6.

  27. l. 713.

  28. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 6.4311.

  29. ll. 646-7.

  30. l. 713. The Ajax Chorus are “worn by time” (l. 605).

  31. Oedipus at Colonus, l. 309.

  32. Ibid., ll. 565-8.

  33. ll. 439-40.

  34. Deianeira's pity for Iole, the captive princess and newly acquired concubine of her husband Heracles, is stated thus: “When I set eyes on her I pitied her most earnestly, because her beauty has wrecked her life” (463-5). The wording recalls Deianeira's own feelings of long ago, when Heracles fought with a monstrous river-god, his rival in love, to make her his wife: “I sat there, overcome with terror lest my beauty should finally bring me pain” (24-5). Her present feeling of pity is disinterested in that her own initial experience of the sad conjunction of beauty and pain lies in the past—and I think this affords one clue to Deianeira's elusive modernity. But that experience of hers is a continuing one; the play principally concerns her immediate and justified fears for her marriage with Heracles, and her unsuccessful attempt to save it. The pity-and-fear complex is preserved in the community of interest and experience between herself and Iole, and it is sustained in poetic continuity by the Chorus who follow her declaration of pity with a flash-back narrative of the fight between Heracles and the river-god, raging long and loud while “she, the tender girl with the beautiful eyes, sat on a distant hillside, waiting for the one who would be her husband” (523-5)—an example of dramatic purposefulness lurking within the ornamental choral lyric.

  35. Women of Trachis, ll. 131-40.

  36. Remember that this utterly Sophoclean Mutability grows out of a shared Greek Mutability which is a consolatory commonplace of their literature.

  37. See p. 32 ff.

Principal Works

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Aias [Ajax] (play) c. 450 b.c.

Antigone (play) 442-41 b.c.

Oedipus tyrranus [Oedipus the King or Oedipus Rex] (play) 425?

Electra (play) c. 425-10

Philoctetes (play) 409 b.c.

Oedipus Coloneus [Oedipus at Colonus] (play) 401 b.c.

Women of Trachis (play) date unknown

The Complete Greek Tragedies, Vol. 2 (translated by David Grene, Robert Fitzgerald, Elizabeth Wyckoff, John Moore, and Michael Jameson) 1959

Sophocles: The Theban Plays (translated by E. F. Watling) 1974

Sophocles: The Three Theban Plays (translated by Robert Fagles) 1984

Sophocles I: Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone (translated by David Grene) 1991

Sophocles: The Complete Plays (translated by Paul Roche) 2001

Ruth Scodel (essay date 1984)

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SOURCE: Scodel, Ruth. “Sophocles and Athens” and “Against Time and Chance: Ajax.” In Sophocles, pp. 1-26. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1984.

[In the following excerpt, Scodel describes the society Sophocles lived in and its history, presents a character study of Ajax, and analyzes the dual themes of hybris and sophrosyne in the play.]


The name of Sophocles is indelibly associated with Athens at the height of her glory. Like the sculptures of the Parthenon, his plays are symbols of Athenian greatness. This symbolic quality is at least partly justified. Sophocles' career coincided closely with the height of Athenian power, and he was active in his city's service. His work as a poet is central within the flowering of thought and literature whose focus was Athens. At least a brief outline of the busy history of Athens in the fifth century b.c. is thus important for any study of the tragedian.1

When Sophocles was born, around 496, Athens, though not a backwater, was neither an intellectual center nor a great power within the Greek world. She was one among the Greek city-states of the Greek mainland and islands, the coasts of Asia Minor and the Black Sea, southern Italy and Sicily. On the mainland, Sparta was more powerful by far, and all the little states of the Aegean were dwarfed by the Persian Empire to the east. But Athens's cultural life had been fostered by the tyrant Pisistratus and his sons, and in 508-6 a democracy had been established in the midst of inner turmoil and Spartan intervention. Athens and its countryside, Attica, was organized by local wards, the demes, each joined with demes in other parts of Attica so that ten tribes were formed, none with a regional base. The chief magistrates, the archons, were elected from the two highest of four property classes, and after their year in office became members of the Council of the Areopagus. A second council (Boule), the Council of Five Hundred, was chosen by lot from an elected pool, and prepared business for the assembly of all adult male citizens.

This newly democratic Athens had its first great triumph in 490. Eight years before, Athens and Eretria, on the nearby island of Euboea, had sent help to the Ionian Greek cities who were in revolt against the rule of Persia. Now the Persian Empire sought to avenge itself in a punitive expedition. Eretria was sacked, and the Persians invaded Attic territory on the coast, at Marathon. The Athenians sought help from Sparta; but the Spartans came too late, and the Athenians won a complete victory on their own. The victory greatly boosted Athenian self-confidence and prestige. Around 487 the election of archons was changed, so that they were chosen by lot from an elected pool, like the Council; this change naturally weakened both the archonship itself and the Areopagus, the most aristocratic institutions. The people were beginning to feel their strength. From now on the most powerful office in Athens was the generalship; a board of ten, one from each tribe, was elected annually.

In 483 a great find of silver was made at Laurium in Attica, and the brilliant Themistocles, who envisioned Athens as a seapower, persuaded the people not to distribute the money among the citizens, but to build a new fleet. In 480 the new warships proved themselves, for the Persians returned under the personal command of King Xerxes. This was no mere punitive strike: the aim was the conquest of Greece. The great Persian army, both land and sea forces, invaded from the north, and the first attempts of the allied Greeks to stop them failed. The Athenians abandoned their city and moved their dependents to the island of Salamis; the city and its temples were ravaged by the invaders. But Themistocles lured the Persian fleet into offering battle in the narrow strait between Salamis and the mainland, where greater numbers were less of an advantage, and the Greeks, with the Athenians the backbone of the fleet, won a spectacular victory. The Persians retreated. Though they invaded again the following year, they were again defeated, this time on land at Plataea, while a Greek force was again victorious at Mycale on the coast of Asia Minor, freeing the Greek cities there. But Sparta was not eager to pursue such overseas operations; Athens was. In 478/7 a large number of Asiatic and island cities formed the Delian League under Athenian leadership as a perpetual alliance against the Persians. Larger cities were to contribute ships to the allied fleet, smaller ones money. The treasurers, Hellenotamiae, were Athenian officials.

This league was the basis of the Athenian Empire. Gradually fewer and fewer states provided ships, and with the tribute Athens developed her own navy. Rebellious allies were reduced to subjection to Athens. At the same time, when the power of the city rested in the common sailors, the power of the common people could not be withstood. In 462 the Aeropagus was stripped of all its powers except that of trying homicide cases. In 457/6 the archonship was opened to the third property class. And at some time in this period came the most famous innovation of Athenian democracy: pay for public offices and for the jurymen on the very large panels which tried the endless flood of new litigation. Thus it became possible for the poor to participate in government not only in law, but in fact. Through the middle years of the fifth century the leader in both imperial policy and domestic reform was Pericles.

This close contemporary of Sophocles (born around 495) was a remarkable leader: personally austere, he succeeded in dominating the people rather than being dominated by them, so that Thucydides says (2.65.9) that his government was “in name a democracy, but in fact the rule of the first man.” He was associated with the philosopher Anaxagoras and the sculptor Phidias. In 447 he served as building commissioner for the new temple of Athena Polias, the Parthenon; the allied tribute paid for the glorification of Athens through the temples whose ruins now adorn the Acropolis.

The growth of Athenian power naturally alarmed Sparta, head of the Peloponnesian League of mainland states. When war began in 431, Pericles was confident: while Sparta could invade and ravage Attica, the citizens could retreat into the fortified city and conduct operations by sea. But in 430, plague broke out in the overcrowded city. Morale temporarily collapsed. Pericles was removed from office and fined, then restored; he died in 429, and his successors lacked his restraint. Demagoguery came into flower. In 425 Athens achieved a brilliant success at Pylos, and Sparta sued for peace, but Athens refused. In 424 Athens met with severe losses, and a year's truce followed; in 422 peace became possible when both Sparta's most brilliant general, Brasidas, and the chief popular leader at Athens, Cleon, were killed. Even this peace was no real peace; not all Sparta's allies accepted it, and anti-Spartan intrigue continued. In 416 Athens committed the most notorious atrocity of the period, attacking the neutral island of Melos, and, when the island refused submission, killing its male population and enslaving the women. In the following year the Athenians, asked for help by Segesta in Sicily, conceived the grand scheme of conquering the island, and sent a large and badly mismanaged expedition. In 413 the force was utterly destroyed; the loss was catastrophic.

Meanwhile Sparta recommenced operations in Attica, and with the help of subsidies from the Persians built a fleet. The enemies of democracy had their chance; after the disaster special commissioners were appointed. Athens held on through 412, using a reserve fund established by Pericles to rebuild, but in 411 the coup took place. Many of the lower classes were away with the fleet on Samos; a double revolution was planned for both Athens and Samos. The oligarchs held a campaign of intimidation. There were two main groups: one favored a government of all those rich enough to serve in the infantry, the other sought control for itself, a small band of conspirators. The moderates were bribed with the promise of a change in Persian policy and help for Athens. A Council of Four Hundred, the oligarchs and their supporters, was formed, but it was soon overthrown when it failed to meet its promises. The moderate government which followed lasted less than a year, for new successes by the fleet revived the strength of the popular party. Athens, weary as she was, continued to fight, and even rejected an offer of peace after the Athenian victory in the naval battle of Arginusae in 406. But the following year the fleet was surprised at Aegospotami on the Hellespont, and Athens was blockaded. Sophocles was fortunate: he died in 406 or the following year, and did not see the final surrender of Athens in 404.


The earliest origins of tragedy are controversial and obscure, but fortunately of little relevance for Sophocles. By the time he came to know tragedy, it was a highly developed, though still young art. Tragedy formed a part of the celebration of the Great or City Dionysia, a festival organized by the tyrant Pisistratus, in the spring month of Elaphebolion (usually in March).2 Tragedy was thus created in a public and sacred context. This element should not be exaggerated, however. It is difficult for a native of modern, secular society to imagine how permeated was ancient Greek life by religion, and equally difficult for an heir of the Judeo-Christian tradition to sense the complex nature of archaic and classical religion. Separation of church and state was unimaginable, for the welfare of the city depended on the goodwill of the gods; at the same time a glorification of the city's gods could also be a glorification of the city itself. Piety and patriotism were often united. Further, the center of Greek religion was in cult, not faith; a matter of daily practice, not dogma or sacred books. Practically all slaughter of domestic animals was sacrificial, so that any feast was a sacred occasion, while sacred occasions were welcome chances for a feast. Pericles in the Funeral Oration put in his mouth by Thucydides (2.38) calls the Athenian festivals and competitions “relaxations for the mind” and praises Athens for celebrating more of them than other cities. A less secular mind would have called them also the proof of Attic piety, but holy day and holiday cannot fully be distinguished.

The basis of tragedy is the union of two kinds of poetry. Spoken verse belongs chiefly to actors, sung verse to the chorus. The basic pattern of a drama is that a scene spoken by actors ends with an exit, and a song divides the episode from the next, which is opened by an actor's entrance.3 This pattern, however, is open to much variation. The chorus enters the orchestra—its “dancing space”—early in the play, and rarely exits before the end. A chorus has a composite personality; when a chorus participates in a spoken exchange, the chorus-leader speaks on its behalf. In the tragedy Sophocles knew as a child, there were only two actors, who wore lifelike masks. By changing mask and costume an actor could play different characters, while a character without a speaking part in a given scene could be played by an extra. Extras also accompanied royal characters as attendants. The early tragic stage was simply an open place for dancing, but the Sophoclean tragedies were performed before a stage-building with a central door, representing the tent of Ajax or the cave of Philoctetes. The subject matter was heroic legend or, occasionally, contemporary history. Tragedy was governed by a stylistic decorum which provided great events with a grand style, but only real vulgarity was absolutely excluded, and language could range from the almost colloquial to the grandiose. Tragedy was performed before a huge audience (perhaps fifteen thousand) in the open air; it was expected to treat major issues, religious, ethical, and in the widest sense political.

Tragedies were performed in competition. The archon in charge of the festival “granted a chorus” to the three tragedians he chose from those who applied; these received state-paid actors, while the expense of the chorus was carried by wealthy citizens as a kind of income tax. This man, the choregus, could increase his prestige by being lavish. The poet produced his own play; each produced three tragedies and an afterpiece called a satyr-play from its chorus of beast-men. Each poet's production was on a separate day, starting early in the morning; this made possible the Aeschylean tetralogy, three tragedies telling one story and the satyr-play a lighthearted version of the same theme.

Unfortunately, we have no play of Aeschylus early enough to represent the tragedy Sophocles first knew, nor is any surviving play of Sophocles early enough to show obvious Aeschylean influence. Sophocles is credited in the tradition4 with introducing the third actor, which first appears in Aeschylus's Oresteia of 458; if this is true, Sophocles must have had considerable influence even as a young poet. The same source credits him with inventing “scene-painting”: while nothing approaching a realistic set was ever used, the erection of a permanent stage-building as a backdrop may have inspired more scenic elaboration. These hints at development are important less for themselves than because they show how the rules of tragedy were not inflexible.


Sources for the life of Sophocles are anecdotal and unreliable.5 The surviving ancient biography is a curious mixture of inferences from the poetry itself, naive belief in jokes from comedies, folklore, and genuine information. For Sophocles few dates of production are given, unfortunately, so that his artistic career cannot be traced in detail, but we do have at least some idea of his public life.

While the sources differ as to the date of his birth, the 496 of the Parian Marble (a chronological inscription listing events down to 264 b.c.) or 495/4 of the biography would be appropriate. His deme was Colonus, just outside Athens, and although deme membership was hereditary and thus not proof of origin, this was probably his native place. His family was certainly wealthy, and he is said to have studied music with a famous teacher, Lamprus. His first victory came in 468 with a tetralogy including the Triptolemus; Triptolemus was a hero associated with the Eleusinian mysteries, and the play's theme may have struck a note of patriotic piety. Ajax and Women of Trachis may have been written in the fifties or forties.

In the year 443/2 Sophocles enters history: a Sophocles of Colonus, (almost certainly the poet), is listed on the inscribed tribute lists as a Hellenotamias. This was a major state office, requiring financial responsibility (probably restricted to the highest property class), but not usually a political stepping-stone.6 That Sophocles held it shows both the respect in which he was held and his dedication: though most of the minute work was doubtless performed by the clerk, the task of the treasurer must have been time-consuming. His holding the post also suggests that he supported Athenian imperial policy. In 441/40, Sophocles served as general in the war against Samos, which had rebelled. According to the ancient prefatory note to Antigone, he was elected because of popular admiration of this play. The story may not be true, but the dates of plays were known (Aristotle had collected them in his Didascaliae), so that at least the chronology may be right; we know, however, that Euripides was victorious in 441. Antigone is therefore tentatively dated to 442, although Sophocles would have had a busy time of it. The story is not impossible. At the time of the elections, the Athenians would not have expected the Samians to revolt, and might have chosen to honor the poet in this way; but Sophocles seems in general to have been a very popular man.

As general, he sailed to collect a squadron from Lesbos, and was entertained by the Athenian “honorary consul” on Chios. Some anecdotes of this visit were recorded by Ion of Chios, a contemporary poet, in his Visits, and for once, at least, the gossip is believable and comes from a source close to the subject: Ion describes some literary joking about a handsome serving boy, and Sophocles' success in obtaining a kiss—he claimed, according to Ion, to be a better “strategist” than Pericles thought. Ion remarks that Sophocles said and did much that was witty while drinking, “but in politics he was no cleverer nor more efficient than any upper-class Athenian.” All this rings true—the tone of friendly banter is in place, and the charm is mentioned in the biography and accords well with the epitaph he is given in Aristophanes' Frogs, where in the year after his death he is called eukolos: easygoing or good-natured (line 82).

In 421 Aristophanes' Peace (697 ff.) shows another, obscure side. He is said to have “become Simonides”—a poet famed for avarice—and it is said that “being old and rotten, for profit he would sail on wicker-work.” The line parodies a proverb Sophocles used in a drama, but its meaning is far from clear. In the following year the cult of Asclepius was brought to Athens, and Sophocles entertained the god, in the form of his sacred snake, while his shrine was built; the poet was already, apparently, the priest of an obscure healing hero associated with Asclepius, Halon. He also composed a paean to Asclepius. As a reward for his service he was given a cult of his own under the name of Dexion, the Receiver.7 In 412 he was one of the special commissioners, probouloi; Aristotle8 mentions an occasion when, challenged by the oligarch Pisander as to whether he had not voted for the establishment of the Four Hundred, he replied that he had, “for there was nothing better to be done.” It may not be a coincidence that his only firmly dated play, Philoctetes of 409, depicts the political world as deeply corrupt.

Though stories of his quarreling with his sons are likely to be fiction, his two marriages need not be doubted; his son Iophon had his first tragic victory in 435, while from another marriage he had a son, Ariston, whose son the younger Sophocles was also a tragedian. Of Sophocles' old age we have a near-contemporary anecdote in Plato's Republic (329B-C): asked by someone whether he was still capable of intercourse with a woman, Sophocles replied, “Speak no ill-omened word! I have escaped from it with joy, as if I'd run away from an insane and wild master.”

After his death in 406, the comic poets call him lucky. Aristophanes' Frogs praises his good nature, and Phrynichus (T. 105 Radt) speaks of his happiness in writing so many fine tragedies and dying before he endured any evil (a reference to the fall of Athens). His genius did not fail him to the end, for his last surviving work, Oedipus at Colonus, was produced only posthumously.

What emerges from the biography is a coherent picture of a highly urbane man, and a meticulous artist. According to the Byzantine encyclopedia Suda he composed a prose work On the Chorus; whether or not this is true, the conversation recorded by Ion shows his self-consciousness in art, and we are told that he increased the number of chorus members from twelve to fifteen. He won eighteen victories at the Dionysia, and probably others at a lesser festival, the Lenaea, where tragic competitions were held from about 440 on. The ancient scholars of Alexandria knew 130 plays, but considered seven of these spurious. We are told that he was never third in the competition. Both his piety and his public service was conspicuous, but this does not prove that he was serenely faithful in religious belief or simple in his contemplation of life.


During Sophocles' lifetime, an intellectual revolution took place. At its center were the Sophists, professional teachers of success in public life, but other intellectuals also participated.9 Inherited wisdom was challenged in almost every area; the common elements in every field are rationalism and relativism. Success demanded rhetoric, and sophistic rhetorical training involved the ability to argue both sides of any question, arguments from probability in preference to reliance on facts, and self-conscious attention to language. A sophistically trained speaker could “make the worse argument the better”: the technique revealed the ambiguity of the relation between language and truth.

The distinction between physis (“nature”) and nomos (“custom”) was essential to much fifth-century debate. A growing ethnographical literature—represented for us by the work of Sophocles' friend Herodotus—showed how different were different human societies. But if customs varied so widely, local custom lost its simple authority. Furthermore, sophistic theorizing argued that instead of having degenerated from the Golden Age of mythology, humanity had begun in a condition of savagery, and had progressed through technical advances and the development of social life. The antithesis between nature and custom was explored in many directions: political theory, based on ideas of government as a social contract or agreement among men, and on comparison among different forms of government, was developed; on the darker side, the antithesis was exploited by those who were hungry for power to dismiss the claims of justice as “merely” conventional. All kinds of social distinctions were opened to question, once nature and convention were separated: the upper-class Greek's superiority to the lower classes, slaves, women, and foreigners could be doubted and debated.

Natural philosophers were also active; the philosopher Anaxagoras, a friend of Pericles, gave the true cause of eclipses and used a famous meteorite fall to support his argument that the heavenly bodies were stones heated by friction. Such theorizing seemed to many people to undermine religion, and the Sophists contributed to overturning traditional belief by including the origins of belief in gods in the history of human culture. Nothing was immune to discussion or accepted without question. The most famous statement of the period is the Sophist Protagoras's “Man is the measure of all things—of how those that exist exist, and how those that do not exist do not exist.” This is not a vague humanistic boast, but the declaration of a subjective philosophy in which reality depends on individual perceptions. If I feel cold, but you feel warm, it is both warm and cold. While the details of Protagoras's views are difficult to reconstruct, to ordinary people he must have seemed to be dissolving the stable world into a meaningless riot of perceptions and opinions.

The Clouds of Aristophanes (ca. 417), a satire of Socrates, shows how intellectual life appeared to the popular mind. Some of the jokes are at the expense of the countryman who comes to Socrates for help in escaping his debts: he has never seen a map, and thinks Sparta should be moved farther away. The Socrates of the play, in accordance with a theory identifying the substance of mind with air, hangs in a basket so as to think better. He gives explanations of weather which ignore the gods, and has replaced Zeus (whose name in the gentive case is “Dios”) with the Vortex (“Dinos”). His teaching includes metrics and grammatical problems. He can make the worse argument the better, and the Unjust Argument, who inhabits his school, urges the student to “follow nature” by committing adultery. When the countryman's son has been trained in Socrates' school, he beats his father and defends the practice by analogy with roosters.

Athens was at the center of the new thought. At the age of fifty-five Sophocles composed an ode to the historian Herodotus (fr. 5 West), who around this time joined the colony of Thurii, founded under Pericles' inspiration in 443 and given its law-code by Protagoras. Sophocles several times shows his familiarity with Herodotus's work; for example, in Oedipus at Colonus (337-41) Oedipus says that his sons follow Egyptian customs. Another poem (fr. 1 West) begins with a joke about the difficulty in putting the name of the philosopher Archelaus into verse; Archelaus was a follower of Anaxagoras who concerned himself with issues of nomos and physis. There is no doubt that Sophocles knew the thought of his day. His plays, however, unlike those of his younger contemporary Euripides, do not often refer explicitly to currently debated topics. The “Ode on Man” of Antigone (332-75) gives a sophistic account of human progress; in Philoctetes the protagonist's life on a desert island is modeled on that of primitive man. In Oedipus the King (583-602) Creon uses arguments from probability to prove that he would not have wanted to overthrow Oedipus. The speech helps characterize Creon as a cautious and reasonable man, lacking the grandeur of Sophocles' main characters. In Antigone, when the heroine argues that “unwritten ordinances” from Zeus commanded her to bury her brother (450-70), the speech may arise from a current debate on whether universal, unwritten laws govern humanity in addition to local codes, but the speech is not primarily an entry in this debate, but an affirmation of Antigone's belief that the gods require her deed. In Ajax, Menelaus sneers at Teucer as an archer instead of a hoplite, who fought at close quarters (1120), while Agamemnon calls him a bastard of a non-Greek mother (1228-34). Euripides would have had the characters debate whether these judgments had a real basis or were foolish conventions; Sophocles uses them to characterize his actors but does not explore them in general terms. The Sophoclean drama, with its intense concentration on individuals and their actions, was not suited to generalizing argument.

In Oedipus the King, Oedipus's intellectual self-confidence reflects the spirit of the sophistic age. The world of the drama, however, is not the comprehensible and lucid order imagined by philosophers; neither is it the chaos of the Euripidean stage, where traditional certainties have been abolished and nothing has replaced them. The characters of Sophocles live in a traditional order, in which the authority of the gods is unquestioned and the characters live by inherited aristocratic values. But this order is presented at its most complex and problematic. While Oedipus the King rejects the tendency to treat all problems as rationally soluble, it offers no banal alternatives. Instead of looking at traditional belief from the outside, Sophocles presents tragic situations which test it on its own terms. Although the intellectual crisis of the fifth century only occasionally appears openly on the Sophoclean stage, the challenge it offered to the inherited view of the universe and humanity's place in it added intensity to his portrayal of the difficulties and mysteries that view implied.



Ajax was a great hero of the Trojan War, second only to Achilles, according to Homer's Iliad (2. 768-69). When Achilles was slain, his armor was offered as a prize for the best of the other Greeks; but it was awarded to the crafty Odysseus instead of Ajax. Ajax killed himself. This is the simplest form of the myth behind Sophocles' drama, as the story appears, for example, in the Odyssey, where Odysseus, visiting the Underworld, sees the shade of Ajax, and speaks apologetically of the Judgment as an expression of divine hostility to the Greeks. Ajax, however, refuses to answer (11. 540-65).

There were different versions of how the arms were awarded and how Ajax met his death. The Odyssey mentions “the children of the Trojans and Pallas Athena” (11. 547): in one of the post-Homeric epics known collectively as the Epic Cycle, spies overheard two Trojan girls comparing Ajax and Odysseus; one praised Ajax for rescuing the body of Achilles, but the other, inspired by Athena, said that “even a woman could carry a burden.”10 For the older contemporary of Sophocles, the lyric poet Pindar, Ajax, who lost in a secret ballot of the Greeks through being no rhetorician, exemplifies the destructive power of envy and ignorance.11 While both Homer and Pindar mention only the suicide, the Cycle included the story of how Ajax went mad in his grief over the loss of the arms and slaughtered the cattle the Greek army had gathered as booty. Unfortunately, Aeschylus's treatment of the theme in his trilogy about Ajax is not known.12

Outside the story of his death, however, we have a clear picture of Ajax in the Homeric poems. He is the great hero of defense, characterized by his huge shield, and he is the only major hero who is never directly helped by a god. In Iliad 7 he fights a formal duel with the Trojan leader, Hector, and when night parts them (Ajax having the advantage) they exchange gifts, Ajax giving a shield-strap and Hector a sword. In the ninth book, Ajax is the third member of an embassy sent to persuade Achilles, who has withdrawn from battle because he is angry at King Agamemnon, to return. Odysseus lists the gifts Agamemnon offers, and is rebuffed. Old Phoenix, Achilles' tutor, invokes honor, and is told not to serve Agamemnon. Ajax speaks briefly and from the heart. Achilles is cruel to reject his friends; and to Ajax Achilles answers that the speech is after his own heart, though anger prevents him from yielding. There is an affinity between these two, which Sophocles will exploit. But Ajax is always the defender of the values of loyalty and friendship in the poems, constantly encouraging his comrades as he fights alongside his illegitimate brother, the archer Teucer. He also delivers one of the most moving prayers in Greek literature.13 Supernatural darkness covers the battlefield, so that Ajax, defending the body of dead Patroclus, cannot find anyone to deliver a message to Achilles, and cries: “Father Zeus, save the sons of the Achaeans from this cloud / And make clear air; permit us to see. Kill us in the light, if that is your will.”


The play begins at daybreak, with the goddess Athena greeting Odysseus outside Ajax's tent. Odysseus is tracking the killer of the Greek cattle, and Athena confirms that this is indeed Ajax. In his anger over the Judgment, Ajax set out by night to murder Odysseus and the leaders of the army, Agamemnon and Menelaus. Athena, however, drove him mad, so that he attacked the cattle. She calls Ajax out, after making Odysseus invisible. He congratulates her on her help, and he glories in his success. At present he is torturing Odysseus before killing him; Athena objects to this, but he insists. The goddess points the moral of the display. No one was more foresighted than Ajax or better at acting appropriately, but the power of the gods has reduced him to this. She warns the pity-filled Odysseus not to be boastful toward the gods or proud because of strength or wealth, for a single day can change everything for mortals: “The gods love the self-restrained, and hate the bad” (133).

Man and divinity exit, and the chorus enters. These are followers of Ajax from his native island of Salamis (politically part of Attica). They are confused by what they have heard, and hope that Ajax will come forth to dispel their fears. But Tecmessa, the concubine of Ajax, emerges instead (200). She describes the events of the previous night and morning: his night exit, his return with the cattle, his conversation with nothing at the door, and his recovery of reason, which has plunged him into deepest grief. Cries come from within, and the doors open to reveal Ajax among the cattle (346).14 He laments his humiliation and sees the hand of Athena. In a long speech he deliberates: his name (which resembles the Greek “alas”) has proven true. Achilles would have awarded him the arms. Hated by both gods and army, he must find a way to die honorably without helping his enemies. Tecmessa tries to calm him, citing her own endurance of fortune (she is a captured princess) and the evil that will befall her if Ajax dies. He is unmoved, and sends for his son. He envies the child's innocence. But the true son of Ajax will not fear the blood of the cattle. Ajax prays that his son will be luckier than he, but otherwise like him. He goes inside, refusing to soften (595).

The chorus sings of longing for Salamis and the coming grief of Ajax's parents. But Ajax emerges, and speaks of the power of time (646-92). Natural forces yield to each other, and he too feels pity. In a meadow he will purify himself and hide his sword, with which he slew the cattle; no good has come to him from the Greeks since Hector gave it to him. For the future, he will know how to revere the sons of Atreus (Agamemnon and Menelaus) and yield to the gods, as winter yields to summer, sleep to waking. He too will be self-restrained, sophron. He will be aware that friends and enemies may change places. Telling Tecmessa to pray that his wish be accomplished, he exits, and the chorus sings in joy. But now a messenger enters (719), to say that Teucer, who had been away on a raid, has returned. The Greeks met him with hostility, but the prophet Calchas in friendship warned him that Ajax must stay indoors one day, while the anger of the goddess lasts. He twice offended Athena: on leaving Salamis he ignored his father's advice to seek victory with the gods' help, for even a weakling could win if gods aid him—he could win alone; and when Athena came to encourage him in battle, he told her to help others, for his place in the battleline would not break.

All exit to find Teucer and Ajax. Ajax enters alone—the scene has become the meadow by the sea (815). He fixes the sword in the earth and prays that Teucer prevent his body from being thrown to the dogs and birds, that he have an easy journey to the Underworld, that the Furies avenge his death, and that the Sun tell his parents. He falls on the sword, and chorus and Tecmessa enter to find him and lament. Teucer enters (974) and foresees how his father will blame him for his brother's death.15 Ajax, he says, was slain by the dead Hector through the sword, as Hector was dragged to his death, tied to Achilles' chariot by the strap given him by Ajax. He sends Tecmessa to bring the child.

Menelaus enters to forbid the burial of Ajax (1047). As Ajax was excessive, so now it is his turn to be proud, and he will rule at least the dead Ajax. Teucer denies that Ajax was subordinate to Menelaus. The two wrangle over the justice of the award of arms and whether the gods would want Ajax to be buried, and the scene ends with the two exchanging threatening insults thinly disguised as fables. Tecmessa returns, and she and the boy sit as suppliants by the body. The chorus sings again of the misery of the war, even worse now without Ajax.

Agamemnon enters (1226), denying that Ajax was a greater warrior than himself, and calling Teucer a bastard, a slave, and a barbarian (his mother was a Trojan captive). Order will disappear if he gives way to such a one. Teucer names Ajax's greatest deeds, which Agamemnon could not equal, and evokes Agamemnon's barbarian ancestry and adulterous mother. As violence threatens, Odysseus enters (1318), and argues for Ajax's burial. He was the best of the Greeks, and excellence overcomes hate; to insult the dead is impious, and Odysseus sees that no mortal should dishonor the dead. Agamemnon gives way as a favor to Odysseus, though he insists as he exits on his hatred for Ajax; Odysseus wishes to join in Ajax's funeral. Teucer praises him while cursing Atreus's sons, but shrinks from allowing Odysseus to help in preparing Ajax for burial, lest the dead be displeased. The play ends as Ajax is carried off in procession.


The Ajax of this play is not a character with whom we find it easy to feel sympathy. His willingness to murder because his honor has been slighted is not the result of his madness, for the madness was the divine mechanism which frustrated his intention. In the play he first appears carrying the whip with which he has been torturing a ram he thinks is Odysseus, while his second entry is made sitting in a pool of bloody corpses. He is harsh toward Tecmessa. Yet with the horror generated by the spectacle of Ajax is a genuine pity. The audience is directed to pity Ajax from the first by the response of Odysseus. From the initial exchange with Athena we know that Odysseus and Ajax are enemies, so that his response is defined as that of a hostile observer. When the goddess makes Odysseus invisible, and calls Ajax forth in order that Odysseus may tell the Greeks what he has seen (66-67), Odysseus is made, in effect, the audience for a play-within-a-play, whose reaction is a guide. When, therefore, he rejects Athena's suggestion that he laugh at his humiliated enemy, as Ajax laughs over his imagined victim Odysseus, and instead announces his pity (121), we cannot but realize that pity is the human response to such a sight. Ajax is gleefully cruel, but we cannot be certain how much of this is his madness, how much the real Ajax; the intent to murder need not imply this horrible gloating. And Athena is even crueller than Ajax, playing with her victim's belief that she is his ally. The end of the scene defines the earlier Ajax in terms which establish him as a model: inferior to none in either foresight or in ability to perform appropriate action. The latter term suggests a great deal: the excellence of Ajax was not apparently confined to war, nor was it a simple, heroic, inflexibility. To do what the occasion demands encompasses the whole of arete, the aristocratic ideal of excellence in every sphere. It is surely deliberate that Athena's description of what Ajax was echoes, in its division of good sense and proper action, Hector's praise of Ajax as both sensible and mighty at the end of their inconclusive duel in the Iliad (7. 288-89). This encounter, with its air of chivalry, may symbolize what Ajax was; yet he and his brother regard that very chivalry, marked by the exchange of gifts between the two enemies, as a cause of the downfall of Ajax.

In the first part of the play, the issue of the attempt to kill the chiefs is suppressed. Ajax himself does not regret it, but is grieved only by his humiliating failure. Such revenge, which requites a mere insult with death, belongs to the Homeric world. It is not, however, a goal we would associate with Homer's Ajax, but with his Achilles, whose anger is so strong that it does not allow him to accept the convincing plea of Ajax. In the initial quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon in the Iliad, the king announces that he will take Achilles' prize of honor to replace his own, which he is being forced to surrender. Achilles draws his sword, hesitating whether to kill Agamemnon or restrain himself, when Athena appears to restrain him, invisible to all but himself (1. 188-218). Yet his rage fulfills itself by a withdrawal from battle which leads to the deaths of his own comrades. It is this anger which Sophocles has given his hero, and he relies in part on the sympathy the epic has already created for the excessive and destructive rage of Achilles to define his protagonist. There is a certain rightness in Achilles' arms serving to motivate an anger like his own. But Achilles had divine support in his wrath; Athena stopped him by a promise of future compensation. Athena had a grudge against Ajax, and her intervention was disastrous for him. Gods, however, generally intervene only in accordance with human character, so that Ajax's suffering cannot simply be blamed on Athena: it is notable that he tried to take his revenge at night, by craft—a method which violated his own nature.

When the revenge is finally argued by Teucer against Agamemnon and Menelaus, the kings weaken their own case by themselves seeking revenge on the dead Ajax. They also assert their own authority, describing Ajax as a disobedient subordinate. Teucer answers that Ajax came to Troy in obedience to his oath, not to Menelaus or for Helen's sake (1097-1114). This is the oath of Helen's suitors, wherein all promised to defend the man chosen to marry her (Menelaus, as it turned out). Teucer's claim is evidently based on Achilles' statement in the same scene of the Iliad already echoed (1. 149-71) that he owes no obedience to Agamemnon; he came to Troy as a favor to him, and will not remain to be dishonored. Again there is a similarity and a difference. Achilles did not take the oath—he was only a child when Helen was married—and came to Troy to seek glory for himself. Hence the argument is sounder for him than for Ajax. Yet Teucer recalls the truth that the chiefs in Homer are only primi inter pares; Agamemnon is commander in chief and leads the largest contingent, but he is not the overlord of the other kings.

Ajax is thus set against the Homeric Achilles, as he is against the former self evoked at the close of the prologue. Homer's Ajax, the loyal defender with the great shield, often seems remote from Sophocles' character, though the Sophoclean Ajax has done the deeds recounted of him by Homer; the profound attachment to the community is inverted, appearing only as resentment of that community's failure to honor him. The isolation of Ajax is underlined by the third of the Homeric reminiscences, in which Ajax is shadowed by Hector. The scene in which Ajax bids farewell to his son (545-77) is obviously modeled on the famed passage in the sixth book of the Iliad in which Hector says good-bye to his wife and son. Each detail is a careful contrast. Hector's child cries in fear at his father's helmet, while Ajax is sure that his son will not fear the gore with which he is spattered, and apparently he does not. Hector prays that his son be like him among the Trojans, and that someone say “He is by far better than his father”; Ajax prays only that his son be luckier than himself, but otherwise the same. Hector foresees evil for his wife and child, while Ajax is confident that Teucer will protect his. Ajax is prouder than Hector. But perhaps more important is the contrast in situation. Hector is the father of a legitimate child within a stable, though threatened city. He goes to his death for his honor but also in defense of his home. Ajax is far from his native land—the chorus constantly expresses homesickness—and isolated from the only community he has, the army. His child is the son of a captive. Hence he is both fiercer and yet closer to his son than Hector: he envies the boy his lack of understanding. When the child grows up, he must show his father's enemies who he is, but in the meanwhile let him “feed on light breezes.” Hector imagines the mother's rejoicing when her son comes from battle with bloody spoils, while Ajax sees him as his mother's joy in the immediate future (559). Hector's prayer assumes Troy's survival, despite his presentiments, and is not fated to be fulfilled. Ajax is more realistic, in spite of his perhaps misplaced confidence in Teucer.


One last Homeric echo stands out among these complex recollections: the remarks of Ajax which precipitated Athena's anger are evidently based on the boast of the protagonist's namesake, the Lesser Ajax, at Odyssey 4. 504. This echo, however, can only be understood in the context of the themes of hybris and sophrosyne, which some scholars have tried to make the center of the play, while others have largely ignored them. Ajax was guilty of pride toward the goddess (hybris), thus showing his lack of the virtue of self-restraint and good sense, sophrosyne. His destruction is the inevitable result of his offense; he is an object-lesson in conventional Greek morality. This is one interpretation of the play, and the work does, in two passages, directly invite this interpretation: the theme is too explicit to be ignored, yet too confined to dominate.17

The first of these passages is, of course, the end of the prologue, where Athena points the moral of Ajax's fall. Odysseus's pity defines mortals as “images” or “shadows” without substance: this attitude of helplessness before divine power is the essence of sophrosyne. Athena then warns him not to be proud toward the gods because of might or money. The gods love those who have sophrosyne but hate the kakoi, the bad. The exact application of this moral is hard to define. Ajax, whose fall proves divine power, ought to be the figure described—Odysseus is being warned against Ajax's sins. But the lines do not completely fit him. He has boasted of strength, we will later learn, but was not an especially wealthy hero. Odysseus was not one of the richest leaders at Troy either, so that this feature is not there as a special warning to him. Furthermore, the man of sophrosyne is not usually the opposite of the kakos. The latter term implies the lack of aristocratic virtue or stature—low birth, cowardice, and meanness of spirit are components of kakia. Ajax's offenses against sophrosyne, however, are excesses of aristocratic pride. The only sense in which he could easily be called “base” is in reference to his present degradation as a mad outcast, and if that is the sense the statement means nothing: it is obvious that “the gods hate the miserable,” for they would not be miserable otherwise. Rather, the moral is inspired by Ajax, but not confined to his case or even put in a form that closely fits him. It tells Odysseus what he can learn from Ajax's fall, without saying very much about Ajax's own case, and through its reference to the arrogance of wealth prepares for the sons of Atreus, who exemplify the arrogance of wealth and power. Odysseus is the prudent man, whom the gods love, and the sons of Atreus may well be base men, whom they hate. Ajax is neither one nor the other; the gods have punished him, but the prologue leaves his final relation to them in doubt.

Although it is clear from the prologue that Ajax must have committed some offense of pride against the gods, what he did is not specified until the messenger's speech. We then learn that he rejected the gods' help. There is no doubt that this was impious, but it should be judged by comparison with the model of Ajax's sin: the Lesser Ajax boasted that he had escaped the sea against the will of the gods. Sophocles' Ajax does not suggest that the gods can be defied, but desires a success which is owed not to them, but to his inherited excellence, his physis. Ironically, he has for once accepted the help of Athena in the attack on the chiefs, to his ruin; he cannot, in fact, accept divine help and live. Yet if we look at the position of the messenger's speech, Athena's anger becomes mysterious. Ajax has left after the speech which convinces his friends that he has softened (the “deception-speech”). Now the messenger says that he may be saved if he is kept within, for the anger of the goddess will only last one day. Ajax has claimed that he will “purify” himself and escape the anger of the goddess (656). If her anger is to last only one day, it appears that he will escape her anger truly, but in death. We do not know how Athena's anger affects Ajax, for his death is entirely sane, but Ajax sees his death as a reconciliation with the gods, and the reconciliation is successful. It is not an atonement, and Ajax is not penitent: his suicide is what he chooses, and it also solves the gods' hostility. In fact, the messenger ensures that the friends of Ajax will find him before his enemies, and thus helps grant the prayer Ajax has not yet made.

Ajax says in the “deception-speech” that he will learn sophrosyne (677), and evokes the cycles of nature as a model for his learning to yield. In some sense, death renders him sophron and thus, perhaps, loved instead of hated by the gods. In the second part, Menelaus calls on cyclic order to defend his own arrogance and impiety (1087-88): “Formerly this man was blazing and full of hybris, but now I am proud.” The chorus immediately points out how illogically he blames Ajax for a hybris he imitates. Agamemnon likewise misapplies the morality of restraint in arguing that Teucer's defense of the dead Ajax is hybris (1258) and that he must learn sophrosyne (1259); his sophrosyne is slavery, and his dismissal of Ajax as “a shadow by now” is controverted by Odysseus's recognition in the prologue that all men are shadows. And Odysseus, in the end, shows that he has understood what sophrosyne means, when he insists on the burial of Ajax in recognition of the common human condition. Thus the theme binds the opening and conclusion: Odysseus gains from the sight of the madness of Ajax that understanding of human weakness which enjoins the decent treatment of Ajax dead.


Sophrosyne is one of several themes which bind together the halves of a drama whose unity is much disputed. For many, the play loses tension once Ajax is dead.18 However we decide the question of its unity, the structure must be recognized. All three early Sophoclean tragedies—Ajax,Trachiniae, and Antigone—can be called “diptychs,” plays which are formed of two readily distinct parts. In the case of Ajax, this division is highly formalized.

In only one other surviving Greek tragedy do we have a change of scene and an exit and reentrance of the chorus, Aeschylus's Eumenides. In Ajax, the chorus exits after the messenger-speech, and the stage is bare. When Ajax enters, the scene has become a lonely place by the shore, while the following monologue is exceptional, since very rarely, except in a prologue, does an actor deliver a speech truly alone. His speech is followed by the reentry of the chorus, as if the play were beginning again. Ajax thus not only has two dramatic parts, one treating the process which leads to the protagonist's death, the other to his burial, but two formal parts. Even if we regard this structure as a mistake aesthetically, the second half is not just an epilogue: we are encouraged to see it as almost a new play. Yet it should be noticed that the second half begins with the suicide of Ajax, not after it; his speech is both the conclusion of the first section and the opening of the second. This “bridge” speech is therefore critical to understanding the relation between the first and second halves.

Why, then, a second drama devoted to the burial of Ajax? To say that Greeks cared deeply about the burial of the dead is a commonplace, true but not really an explanation. A further issue has often been raised in the case of Ajax, who was a hero at Athens. A hero, hērōs, in the Greek sense of the word is a dead person with power to help or harm the living, particularly in the area of his grave.19 Heroes had to be propitiated by offerings at their graves, for they were dangerous when not placated. Although many of the epic heroes were also cult heroes, not all were, and many cult heroes had no legend. Many indeed were nameless—the discovery of an already ancient tomb could lead to a cult of the anonymous hero buried there. One of the ten Athenian tribes was named after Ajax, and he was supposed to have given his help during the battle of Salamis. The burial of Ajax may have appealed to Attic patriotism. Many critics have argued that Ajax has to be “rehabilitated” by the dispute over burial in order to satisfy Athenian sensibilities. But there is no evidence that human virtues were expected of a hero, nor is patriotic sentiment enough to justify the elaboration of the second part.

But the cult of Ajax is important. Just after his entrance, Teucer sends Tecmessa to fetch Ajax's son (985-89). When the two enter, after the dispute with Menelaus, he places them by the corpse as suppliants (1168-84), and this tableau stands in the background throughout the final scene. The suppliant, like the hero, has a defined place in Greek religion; by carrying certain tokens and performing specific actions he puts himself under divine protection, so that injury to him is sacrilege. In this scene the corpse of Ajax plays the role of an altar or sacred place, and the locks of hair dedicated in mourning replace boughs or fillets. The suppliancy is intended to give Ajax the protection of the suppliants and yet to give the suppliants his protection: his burial is endangered, and yet his body is treated as though he were already a hero, with the ability to shelter a suppliant.20 Ajax seems to be at once the utterly vulnerable mortal and, in some sense, the powerful presence below. But this paradox leads to another which has already been mentioned, that the burial of Ajax is not brought about by Teucer or by the suppliants, but by Odysseus: yet the education of Odysseus is itself the work of the spectacle of Ajax provided by Athena. The hint of divine protection given by the tableau is true in another sense, and when Ajax in his madness calls Athena his “ally” in the prologue the irony is highly complex: by no means his ally in the form he thinks, she is in fact his ally in arousing the pity of Odysseus. The drama is about Ajax, living and dead, in relation to men and to gods.


The prologue establishes a complex relationship of vision and invisibility. Athena is invisible to Odysseus, but there is no sign that Ajax does not see her.21 On the other hand, Ajax is prevented from seeing Odysseus. When the events of the prologue are described by Tecmessa, it is clear that she saw nothing but shadows (301) and thought Ajax was speaking to himself. That Odysseus, the favorite of the goddess, does not see her, implies that the actual sight of the goddess is perhaps to be avoided; Ajax is intimate with the divinity, but this intimacy is his destruction. Yet it is a real intimacy. The final words of Ajax in the prologue are a request that Athena always be such an ally to him (116-17), and the messenger-speech, which gives her wrath a place among the causes of his death, marks the fulfillment of his request. Recovering from his madness, he fully knows what part Athena has played (401-3, 450-56). But he does not know that Odysseus is not mocking (379-81). Odysseus has contact with the divine only insofar as the gods can bring him to an understanding of humanity. Ajax is close to the gods, but has no understanding of other men; he misjudges Odysseus, overestimates Teucer, and surprises himself.

At 589-90 Ajax insists that he owes the gods nothing, and warns Tecmessa that she is a fool if she thinks she can educate him now (594-95). He is resolved on suicide. Yet when he emerges from his tent at the opening of the next scene (646) he has, to his surprise, changed: he now feels pity for his wife and child. In the great “deception-speech” he continues to speak of his death, but in very different terms. It now appears as an attempt at reconciliation with the gods and as a purification rite; Tecmessa and the chorus imagine, as they are surely intended to imagine, that Ajax has abandoned his purpose. This speech has caused much controversy.22 Many critics have been unwilling to believe that Ajax intends deceit, arguing that this deceit is contrary to his nature; so it is, but he has already left that nature in the crafty attack on the chiefs. On the other hand, many have asked why, if he seeks to deceive, he uses language which barely conceals the truth. Two answers may be given to this question: both that the equivocation of the speech does represent an important inner truth—death is a reconciliation with the gods—and that prophetic speech is a characteristic of those near death, so that he is almost incapable of saying anything which is not, in some sense, true—the riddle of his words is akin to the riddles of an oracle.23 The speech is extremely difficult not only because its significance lies on so many levels but also because it is not entirely coherent.

Ajax speaks of going to the bathing-places by the sea in order to purify himself and escape the goddess's wrath. There he will hide the sword Hector gave him, for no goodwill has come to him from the Greeks since he received it. He will learn to yield to the gods and revere the sons of Atreus. Snowy winter gives way to summer, night to day, and he too will learn sophrosyne. From now on he will hate an enemy only to the extent of realizing he may become a friend, and vice versa; all this will come out well. And they may hear that Ajax is saved. That Ajax sees his death as a purification is understandable. But he also links it with the cycles of change in nature, even including sleep, which loosens the one it has bound. Ajax is in one sense yielding to change, accepting it as the way of the world, and the images he chooses for change recognize it as benign. But his death will not place him among ever-recurring cycles, but rather give him permanence. He will no longer interfere with the sons of Atreus, and he is certainly giving way to the gods, since he thinks they wish his death, and that he is thus acting in harmony with them. But how will he revere the sons of Atreus, whom he curses just before his death? The word is surely sarcastic, and the line ambiguous even within an ambiguous speech; “I will learn to revere them,” he says—but the dead learn nothing, and the Greek verb can equally mean “learn how to”—the curse is perhaps the form of reverence appropriate to them. Yet in this same speech Ajax claims to understand that both friendship and enmity are unstable, even as he blames his trouble with the Greeks on the sword he received from Hector. The sword is evidently the symbol of unalterable hostility. Hector and Ajax, in exchanging gifts, acted as though hatred could be limited and did not even preclude a certain friendship, and both were destroyed by the exchange, as we later learn from Teucer. So to reconcile the sword with Ajax's words on friendship is not easy: perhaps the principle of restrained friendship and enmity is true, but not for Ajax; his friendship with an enemy led to hatred between himself and his former friends. Or it may be true, but only in a world Ajax wishes to leave. His statement that “for most, friendship is an unsafe harbor” (682-83) points to the future friendship of Odysseus—he will find a harbor in a friend he thought an enemy.

The deception-speech is the center of the play. Ajax must die, for he cannot live in humiliation and remain Ajax. In this speech he transforms his death from a rejection of the changefulness of human life to an acceptance of it, from the result of being hated by the gods to an acceptance of them. He goes to die, not in the darkness of the tent, but in the light. His comment on being saved is prophetic. The following messenger-speech confirms the meaning of his choice. Calchas says that Ajax may live if he can be kept within his tent this one day, while Athena is angry. The prophecy comes too late to save Ajax in the sense in which salvation is understood by the messenger (779). But it makes the self-chosen death of Ajax also the fulfillment of Athena's anger, and makes it clear that he will be, in some sense, saved, for her anger will not outlast the day. His decision to leave the tent, which required that his definition of his choice serve to deceive his followers, is shown to represent the only way he could die. The prophet raises the possibility that Ajax might live, but life is not what Ajax wants, and the prophecy shows that he has known without being told how to obtain the death desired. Moreover, the same speech in which Calchas depicts the limited anger of the goddess shows the rage of the Greeks, and Calchas in no way implies that Ajax will certainly survive if he lives through this day: both Ajax and his followers anticipate the worst at the hands of the army, and the messenger-speech, describing Teucer's hostile reception, shows that this is reasonable. Ajax dies while his death still belongs to the gods. The death of Ajax is caused by Athena and by the dead Hector, but these are causes of his choice. And in his last speech, his vision becomes effectual prayer.


The second half of the play makes sense only in the context of the harmony between Ajax and his goddess-destroyer. The final speech of Ajax (815-65) is mainly a series of prayers. He asks Zeus that Teucer may be the finder of his body, so as to save him from being thrown to scavenger animals, and to Hermes for a quick death; he asks the sun to report his death to his parents. He also calls on the spirits of vengeance, the Furies, to attack the sons of Atreus and the armies. The prayer to the sun cannot be answered within the play. But the answering of the other prayers is the impulse of the second half of the drama. Ajax has a special power to bless and curse, but the flawed and mortal Ajax does not leave the drama. As with his death, events following the death of Ajax have both natural and supernatural motivations.

The prayer for Teucer's rapid arrival is fulfilled, but although Ajax can pray effectually, he does not guess that Teucer may not be able to protect him. At Odysseus's entry, it appears that Teucer may die in defense of his brother without saving him. But in debating Agamemnon and Menelaus on their own terms, crudely but effectively, he causes them to damn themselves ethically, and creates a tumult which prompts Odysseus's entrance. He also builds the tableau which hints at Ajax's heroic power; yet this tableau has no visible effect on the action. The burial of Ajax is secured on the purely human level, by the intervention of a humane Odysseus. But we know that his humanity is the result of what a goddess shows him in the prologue, and the apparently ineffectual efforts of Teucer may play a hidden part.

Conspicuously, Odysseus is absent from the final curse of Ajax, although Ajax does not know that Odysseus will help him: the curse, like the deception-speech, is mysteriously guided. Odysseus also finally bestows on Ajax the praise for lack of which he died: he states that, after Achilles, he was the best of the Greeks (1340-41), and so symbolically retracts the Judgment of the Arms. This shift marks how the second half of the play recalls the essence of what happened before it began. The sons of Atreus try to dishonor Ajax, and in their debate with Teucer both reveal the impossibility of fair judgment from such men and also further confirm the accuracy of the dead man's curse. Agamemnon and Menelaus are virtually identical characters. Menelaus insults Teucer as a bowman; Agamemnon, as a bastard; Menelaus speaks of Ajax as if he had been a common soldier instead of a king, Agamemnon as if the deeds of Ajax did not surpass his own. The tension is higher in the second dispute not because the arguments are at a higher level, but because the suppliant tableau now stands behind the disputants, a reminder at once of the common humanity of the dead and of the potential power of Ajax. When the drama ends with the funeral procession, the prayers of Ajax have been fulfilled. The sons of Atreus have shown themselves more given to hybris than was Ajax, and so promised the fulfillment of the curse—which is duly repeated by Teucer (1389-92). Odysseus is not allowed to join in the actual preparation of the body for burial, but he will join in the funeral itself. Ajax cannot be brought back into the human community; but what is best in the human world will attend him with respect.


  1. This bare sketch inevitably distorts much that is complex and controversial; the reader should consult such standard works as J. B. Bury, A History of Greece, 3d ed. (New York: St. Martin's, 1951) or N. G. L. Hammond, A History of Greece to 332 B.C. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967).

  2. On the festivals and the technicalities of classical performance, see A. Pickard-Cambridge, The Dramatic Festivals of Athens, 2d ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968). There is a fine brief introduction to the theater in O. Taplin, Greek Tragedy in Action (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978), pp. 1-21.

  3. On the structure of tragedy see the work of Taplin cited in the preceding note. In referring to the choral personality, I do not distinguish between lines spoken by the chorus-leader alone and songs sung by the group; my use of the singular for “the chorus” and the plural for “the elders” or the like does not reflect any difference in how the chorus is actually working in any passage.

  4. Aristotle, Poetics, 1449a.

  5. All the evidence for Sophocles' life is collected in Radt, Fragmenta, pp. 29-95 (“Testimonia,” abbr. T). The biography itself is translated in M. Lefkowitz, The Lives of the Greek Poets (London: Duckworth, 1981), pp. 160-63 (discussion of the biography pp. 75-87). The anecdotes from Ion of Chios survive in the Deipnosophists of Athenaeus (13.603E ff.). Other interesting anecdotes survive in Plutarch (Life of Cimon 8.7 and Life of Pericles 8.5).

  6. See V. Ehrenberg, Sophocles and Pericles (Oxford, 1954), pp. 120-36.

  7. This story is open to some doubt. Many poets' legends include cultic elements. Sophocles was famous for his piety, and his paean to Asclepius (fr. 737, PMG) connected him with that god. His last play concerned a hero, Oedipus, and poets were often imagined to have prophesied their own fates. Thus, there is a basis on which the story could have been invented. The hero Dexion certainly existed; inscriptions of the third century b.c. attest to his worship. His identification with Sophocles, however, is possibly a later fiction.

  8. Aristotle, Rhetoric, 1419a 25.

  9. An excellent introduction to these issues is W. K. C. Guthrie, The Sophists (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971; reprint of A History of Greek Philosophy (1969), vol. 3, pt. 1).

  10. Little Iliad, fr. 2.

  11. Nemean 7. 24-30; 8. 22-27.

  12. P. 106 15-23, Aethiopis fr. 2, Ilias Parva frs. 2, 3 Allen; (English translation) pp. 509, 513 Evelyn-White for the Cycle.

  13. Iliad, 17. 645-57. Apparently Ajax's burial was a source of contention already in epic. One known detail of Aeschylus's treatment is interesting: Ajax was invulnerable, and the messenger who describes his suicide says that a goddess helped him find the spot where he could be wounded (fr. 292 Mette, 41 Smyth).

  14. Ajax probably appeared on the eccyclema, a wheeled platform used to display interiors, but the use of this device in the fifth century is controversial.

  15. Teucer, subject of another Sophoclean play (frs. 576-79, Radt), was forced to leave home, and founded the city of Salamis on Cyprus.

  16. See G. M. Kirkwood, “Homer and Sophocles' Ajax,Classical Drama and its Influence, ed. M. J. Anderson (London, 1963), pp. 51-70.

  17. The emphasis given these lines and the messenger-speech divides “orthodox” critics from “hero-worshippers”: a brilliant “orthodox” treatment is that of R. I. Winnington-Ingram, Sophocles, an Interpretation (Cambridge, 1980), pp. 12-13, 40-41—his Ajax is a megalomaniac even when sane; on the other side, critics such as R. Lattimore, The Poetry of Greek Tragedy (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1958), pp. 72-74, stress the lack of integration of the hybris-theme into the play.

  18. So the ancient commentator (scholiast) on 1123: “Trying to make the drama longer he became insipid and lost the tragic emotion.”

  19. The best introduction to hero-cult is still E. Rohde, Psyche, trans. W. B. Hilles (1925; reprint ed., New York: Harper and Row, 1966), pp. 115-55. I am especially indebted to P. H. Burian, “Supplication and hero cult in Sophocles' Ajax,Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 13 (1972):151-56.

  20. The complexity of who protects whom may have been increased by the fact that Eurysaces himself had a shrine in Athens (Pausanias 1.35.3 and inscriptions of the fourth century b.c.); he was the subject of a Sophoclean tragedy whose plot is unknown (223 Radt, the only fragment, is a single word).

  21. Commentators differ on Athena's invisibility. Odysseus says (14-17) that he easily knows her voice even when he does not see her; I do not see the point of this if she is visible to him. Nonetheless she should be standing close to him (I compare Iliad, 2. 172-83).

  22. Fairly close to my opinion is O. Taplin, “Yielding to Forethought: Sophocles' Ajax,” in Arktouros: Hellenic Studies presented to Bernard M. W. Knox (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1979), pp. 122-30, but he sees as Ajax' conscious decision what I see as intuition. For a very different interpretation, see B. Knox, “The Ajax of Sophocles,” in Word and Action: Essays on the Ancient Theater (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1979). (This essay was first published in 1961.) 125-60.

  23. Twice in the Iliad (16. 852-54; 22. 358-60) characters have a prophetic gift at death; Socrates refers to the phenomenon in the Apologies of both Plato (39C) and Xenophon (30).

Editions and Abbreviations

Sophocles: R. C. Jebb. Sophocles: The Plays and Fragments. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Individual plays, 1883-96; reprinted, 1902-8; text without translation and commentary reprinted 1897; full reprint, Amsterdam: Hakkert, 1966.

Fragments: S. Radt. Tragicorum Graecorum Fragmenta IV: Sophocles. Göttingen: Vanderhoeck und Ruprecht, 1980 (Radt).

Editions of Other Authors

Aeschylus: H. J. Mette. Die Fragmente der Tragödien des Aischylos. Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1959 (Mette). English translation in: H. W. Smyth. Aeschylus ii. Cambridge, Mass.: Loeb Classical Library, 1926. Reprint 1957 with a supplement by H. Lloyd-Jones (Smyth).

Bacchylides: B. Snell and H. Maehler. Bacchylidis Carmina cum Fragmentis. Leipzig: Teubner, 1970 (Snell-Maehler).

Elegiac and Iambic Poets: M. L. West. Iambi et Elegi Graeci. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972 (West).

Epic Cycle: T. W. Allen, Homeri Opera V. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1912 (Allen). English translation: H. G. Evelyn-White. Hesoid, Homeric Hymns, and Homerica. Cambridge, Mass.: Loeb Classical Library, 1914 (Evelyn-White).

Hesoid: R. Merkelbach and M. L. West, Fragmenta Hesiodea. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967 (Merkelbach-West).

Lyric Poetry: D. Page. Poetae Melici Graeci. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962 (PMG).

Pindar: B. Snell and H. Maehler, Pindari Carmina cum Fragmentis. 2 vols. Leipzig: Teubner, 1971-75. (Snell-Maehler). Vol. 1: Epinicians; Vol. 2: Fragments.

Marc Ringer (essay date 1998)

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SOURCE: Ringer, Marc. “Ajax: The Staging of a Hero.” In Electra and the Empty Urn: Metatheater and Role Playing in Sophocles, pp. 31-49. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

[In the following excerpt, Ringer explores the metatheatrical elements of the Ajax as well as Sophocles's technique for depicting his hero as a displaced man full of contradictions.]

Ajax is generally considered the earliest of the seven surviving Sophoclean tragedies, probably composed sometime between the 450s to mid 440s. Whatever its actual date of composition, it is arguably Sophocles' most original work, a construct of dazzling ingenuity. Dramatic suspense is created and sustained through the subtle manipulation of tragic convention and from several almost unparalleled violations of expected dramaturgical practice. Above all, Ajax is a profoundly metatheatrical work, often calling attention to its own status as a tragedy performed in the Theater of Dionysus. This vital metatheatrical dimension forms an insufficiently understood aspect of the play. It reminds us of the ephemeral state of human happiness and its disturbing similarity to theatrical illusion.

The prologue of the tragedy creates a performative scheme, which is periodically reenacted throughout the play. As in his later works, metatheatrical effects assist in portraying a world where sign and signifier are dangerously confused. In the prologue (1-133), Sophocles creates an image of the “great stage of the world,” which bears a striking affinity with the metatheatrical visions of Calderón and Shakespeare. The prologue serves as a self-conscious theatrical metaphor. Sophocles utilizes his performance space with the utmost virtuosity. The complex effect of this prologue must be examined as well as the way in which the staging may support and underscore its meaning.

Ajax commences with a strange pantomime, which only becomes intelligible when the dialogue begins.1 Entering from one of the parodoi, Odysseus warily scours the floor of the orchestra, approaching the skene that represents the tent or hut of Ajax at “the extreme edge of the camp” (4). He is silently watched by Athena. The goddess's speech to her favorite (1-13) suggests that Odysseus has been searching around the skene for some time (… 1),2 obviously covering a substantial segment of the orchestra. Athena's lines indicate that Odysseus' gestures and movements have imparted a strong sense of expectancy concerning the skene and what its doors may conceal from view. Ajax' eventual entrance with bloodied hands will use the skene to its maximum effect as the focal point of dramatic revelation. The skene represents Ajax' hut, and Sophocles takes advantage of the fact that the word σκηνή could mean both the scene building in the theater and a tent or hut. The duality of the word infuses Athena's interrogation of Odysseus when she asks him why he is searching near Ajax' “skene” … (3). Athena appears on the theologeion, her elevated physical presence giving a clear expression of both her omniscience and her psychological distance from the mortals she controls. Skene, theologeion, parodos, and orchestra are all utilized. As one scholar has observed, the Ajax prologue “has everything for the eye and ear.”3 It is fitting that all of the theater's physical potential be utilized for this remarkable opening scene, which creates a paradigm of tragedy itself, a tragedy in little which is over before the Chorus even enters.4

Athena asks Odysseus why he eagerly hunts after Ajax “like a keen-scenting Laconian hound” (8). Odysseus adopts Athena's bestial imagery. A witness to the slaughter of the cattle alerted him, he explains, and “I immediately rushed upon his track” (31-32). The prologue presents a world of inversion and substitution, which has resonance in the phenomenon of theater itself. Men hunt their fellows like animals and kill animals as though they were humans. This aspect of mimesis, of one thing “standing in” for another, points toward the theatrical humiliation Ajax is about to suffer. He will be disgraced not so much for his homicidal fury against the Greek host as for his being witnessed by the army/audience committing a grotesque act of substitution: Ajax has tortured and killed animals in place of the Greek host.5

With the exception of the demigod Heracles, who appears in Philoctetes, Athena is the only divinity portrayed in Sophocles' surviving work. She functions as the first of Sophocles' playwright/directors-within-the-play, her relationship to Ajax and Odysseus being analogous to the relationship of the tragic dramatist to his characters and public. She has created a bestial mimesis or Verfremdungseffekt out of Ajax' homicidal fury. Animals represent or substitute for men in his butcheries. Within the hero's tent, Tecmessa is witnessing the bloody spectacle soon to emerge through the skene doors. Tecmessa will later remark to the Chorus that Ajax was “uttering foul curses taught him by no human but by some divinity” … (243-44). The prologue has already identified the δαίμων and shows the goddess coaching her unwitting actor. In like manner, tragic poets were regarded as the “teachers” … of Athenian society; these playwright/directors were also understood to “teach” their plays to their casts of actors and chorus members.

Athena takes apparent delight in displaying her handiwork to her onstage audience, Odysseus. Like a didactic tragic poet, she takes care to underline the moral of the spectacle she has created. Laying special emphasis on the act of presentation, she prepares Odysseus for Ajax' grotesque “performance.” …

But I will show this sickness [of his] to you also
so that having seen it, you can proclaim it to all the Argives.
And you be steadfast and have no fear of receiving any
harm from the man. For, turning away the vision of his eyes,
I shall prevent him from seeing your face.


Ajax is to be made a spectatorial object both within the world of the play and in the Theater of Dionysus. Seale has noted the great emphasis placed on Ajax' entrance as a “visual event.” Athena “speaks not of disclosure but of an exhibition. She is about ‘to display the madness in full sight’ (periphane, 66), to put Ajax on show.”6 Ajax is positioned to become the performer in Athena's grotesque play-within-the-play, and Odysseus becomes that play's inner audience.

While Odysseus knows that the flocks and their guardians have been slaughtered and that someone has seen Ajax bounding across the plain with a bloody sword, he says, “we know nothing certain, rather we are floundering” (23). Odysseus' information is perhaps not much fuller than that of the average Athenian audience member who may well be familiar with some version of the Ajax myth but is as uncertain as Odysseus how the fragments of the story are going to be pieced together.7 His lack of information is a convenient device for relaying exposition and a subtle way of putting Odysseus on the audience's perceptual level. Like Odysseus, the audience lacks Athena's omniscient knowledge and control of the situation. Sophocles has constructed the prologue so that the immediately ensuing action is seen through Odysseus' eyes. Odysseus is made into the audience's surrogate onstage, an “audience-within-the-play.” This unique status will serve him well when he returns to resolve the bitter conflicts at the close of the play.

Odysseus' reluctance to view the insane Ajax, even while magically protected by Athena's veritable “fourth wall” of invisibility, prepares the theater audience for a shocking visual revelation. The goddess cannot understand why her favorite should shrink from witnessing his archenemy's degradation.

Isn't the sweetest laughter to laugh at your enemies?
It's enough for me if he stays within doors.


Odysseus' reluctance to join in the derision of Ajax conditions the audience to view Ajax' brief performance in the prologue (91-117) in a complex way.8 Odysseus' reactions prepare the audience to find terror as well as pity in the grotesque spectacle it is about to witness (74, 76, 88). It also serves to put the character of Athena in an unusually troubling light. The patron goddess of Athens, the divinity whose sacred precinct stood overlooking the theater was often seen as a benign and mediating presence, as in Aeschylus' Eumenides.9 Here she appears as a terrifying daemonic force, implacably intent on vengeance—a being more like the Eumenides she tames in Aeschylus' tragedy than a divine conciliator.

Athena summons the hero from the skene. This display of the protagonist orchestrated by the “playwright” Athena pushes the tragedy dangerously close to the ridiculous. We see the mighty hero covered with the blood of livestock, exulting in their mutilation. At the end of his brief interview with Athena, Ajax tells the goddess he must “get back to work” … (116), a shockingly casual, almost slang expression whose absurdity could easily draw a laugh from the audience. Ajax' exchange with the goddess (91-117) forms a remarkable play-within-the-play. Athena has arranged for Odysseus to stand within a charmed spot in the orchestra where he will not be recognized by the “performing” Ajax. This standing place is a specific location for viewing the spectacle from which he must not stray; nor should he interrupt the proceedings with interjections. “Stand silent now and stay where you are,” Athena tells her favorite (87). The spectators in the theater also enjoy a vantage point where they may witness and hear the madman without danger of his entering their charmed space, a magic maintained by their repose and attention.

Ajax' violence is set within a triple theatrical frame. He is exhibited both within the Theater of Dionysus and within the self-conscious play created by Athena. His murderous activity is made into a kind of mimesis within the greater mimesis of the tragedy itself. His brutalities, unbeknownst to him, are mere imitations of genuine homicide, with animals standing in for human beings.10 When Ajax finally comes to his senses, his seeming triumph over the men who dishonored him will gall him more than the exposure of his murderous intentions. Ajax' metatheatrical enframement in the prologue sets up a pattern for Sophocles' presentation of the character throughout the play. The imaginary inner stage on which Ajax is placed within this tragedy isolates him from all the other characters in the play. The substitution and enframement create a remarkably ambiguous effect. G. H. Gellie has observed, “The more terrible Ajax appears, the more ridiculous and therefore pathetic he becomes.” In the prologue, Ajax appears “foolish,” and his crime has been “turned into a farce.”11

Gellie interprets this “farcical” aspect of the situation as an attempt on Sophocles' part to soften Ajax' criminality, enabling the audience to sympathize with the hero once his sanity returns. Joe Park Poe goes a step further, viewing Ajax' first entrance as a daring mixture of tragic and comic genre, which pushes at the limits of tragic decorum and threatens to “cheat [tragedy] of its full impact.” Poe's vision of Ajax is of a “hero who is both laughable and horrible.” The extremes of Ajax' nature turn the prologue into “a parody of the tragic situation.”12 Odysseus' position as an audience member during the prologue establishes a rapport with the audience in the theater. Poe writes: “As an unwilling spectator, Odysseus expresses an ambivalence of feeling not perfectly similar to that felt by the audience but certainly analogous to it. He is repulsed by Ajax' madness and fears it (74-82). But he does not react in a predictable way, with indignation and rancor to Ajax' avowed intent to murder him. Instead, he maintains the distance of a spectator after the brief farce is over, expressing a mixture of distaste and pity (121-22) which must be shared by all who have observed Ajax' disgrace.”13

“Do you see, Odysseus, how great is the power of the gods?” (118) Athena asks her favorite, and, by extension, the theater audience itself, which has just witnessed her grotesque presentation of Ajax. Odysseus responds.

                    But all the same, I pity him …
for his misfortune, even though he is my enemy,
because he is yoked to a horrible ruin,
I think of myself no less than of him.
For I see that we, all of us that live, are nothing
more than phantoms … or fleeting shadows. …


Ajax' mad delusions are visual testimony to the instability of human existence. Watching Ajax has awakened pity (121) and fear in Odysseus, the principal emotions stimulated by the experience of tragic drama. Like Shakespeare's Prospero, Odysseus reflects that “we are such stuff as dreams are made on.” Human existence is as transitory as the mad shapes or [eidola] clouding Ajax' vision. Odysseus' view of mankind as a “shadow” (… 126), the melancholy insight gleaned from Athena's cruel show, is ironically echoed much later in the play. When Agamemnon enters and delivers his tirade against Teucer and his fallen brother, the general's words unconsciously echo Odysseus' speech at 126. “That man [Ajax] is no longer living, rather he is a shadow … now” (1257). This verbal reminiscence, with its striking use of σκιά, calls to mind Odysseus' insight and shows Agamemnon's failure to understand the instability of the human condition. Sophocles is preparing the way for Odysseus' reentrance to resolve the dispute, guided by the insights that the play-within-the-play has taught him.14

The prologue ends with Athena's proclamation of the moral of her little play.

Therefore, having beheld such arrogance
never speak a word against the gods,
nor assume any pomp, if you exceed another
in power of hand or depth of great riches.
For a day can push down or up
everything human; but gods love
the wise and hate the bad.


Stanford has noted that Athena's parting words are “the kind of moral lesson which more usually comes at the end of a Greek tragedy” than near its beginning.15 With its gnomic closure, the prologue shows itself to be not so much a parody of tragedy, as Poe suggests, but rather an intense distillation of the genre. The prologue and the lessons Odysseus has learned as “audience member” will help impart closure to the latter half of the play.

Throughout the tragedy, Ajax remains alienated from the characters surrounding him. He is constantly enframed by the onstage environment. The Chorus of Salaminian sailors takes Odysseus' place as onstage audience to Ajax' humiliation when Tecmessa enters to report the hero's behavior. Her speeches (232-44, 284-328) to the Chorus serve as a mirror image of what the prologue has just shown the theater audience. Her description serves to reveal the horrible inner scene concealed within the skene, a scene soon to be substantiated by the opening of the doors and an evident use of the eccyclema. Tecmessa would have been portrayed by an actor who, a little over sixty lines earlier, had played either Odysseus or Athena. Tecmessa's lines as she orders the opening of the hut put emphasis on the acts of revelation, witnessing and judging the spectacle inside: “Look, I'm opening [the door]; and it's possible for you to see / both this man's deeds, and his condition” … (346-47). Tecmessa inherits Athena's dramaturgical function as a revealer of Ajax' downfall, giving us another perspective on the prologue. Like Athena, Tecmessa is a female figure whose advice or help Ajax has brusquely rejected (288-94).16 This fateful rejection will be reenacted when Ajax brutally orders Tecmessa away (369-70).

Unlike the implacable goddess, however, Tecmessa has the deepest empathy with Ajax. As the prologue has shown, even Odysseus pities Ajax in his present state. Tecmessa's character, performed by either the Athena or the Odysseus actor, represents a subtle amalgamation of these two earlier roles. She is both sympathizer and revealer of Ajax, presenting the fallen hero to the Chorus, the already empathetic onstage audience. As may be seen, either the “Odysseus” or “Athena” actor in the role of Tecmessa would create fascinating and telling resonances when that actor's voice and physicality were recycled by Sophocles in the part of Tecmessa. The prologue foreshadows one of the major themes that returns later in this play and throughout the rest of the Sophoclean corpus: the notion of the instability of human relationships under the onslaught of time. Friendships turn to enmity and enemies become friends. When either the “Athena” or “Odysseus” actor enters the theater as Tecmessa, Sophocles uses tragic performative conventions to underscore this theme. An enemy of Ajax has “become” a friend. The process of performance in the Theater of Dionysus becomes part of the play's meaning. Life outside of the theater is as mutable as that of the three agonists changing identity within the skene.

Tecmessa reports the action of the prologue from her perspective inside the skene. “He finally darted through the doors, dragging up words / directed toward some shadow … concerning the Atreidae …” (301-2). From Tecmessa's vantage point within the skene, the imposing goddess Athena was no more than … a shadow or phantom of Ajax' imagination. To Tecmessa, the great goddess is as illusory as the human being itself. … The irony is intensified when we realize that lines 301-2 are being spoken by one of the actors who created the scene Tecmessa could not fully hear or see. On a linguistic level at least, not even the Olympians are free from the unstable, transitory condition afflicting beleaguered humanity. For a brief moment, both humanity and divinity seem as insubstantial as the fragile tragic mimesis that gives them life in the Theater of Dionysus.

Ajax presents fundamental conflicts between human and divine spheres and between the worlds of Homeric heroism and the mid fifth century. While the prologue blatantly embodies the human-divine dimension, the second conflict is absorbed into the relationships between Ajax, Tecmessa, and Odysseus. The heroic world of Achilles and Ajax was far removed from the Athens of the mid fifth century, a period whose political convulsions resonate in such dramas as the Oresteia and Prometheus Bound.Ajax presents a world that has transformed itself literally overnight from the distant Homeric world of geras (honor gift) and arete (heroic excellence) into the far more ambiguous world of mid-fifth-century politics. The brutal but magnificent Ajax has been maddened by the skullduggery of petty figures like Menelaus who can, in Teucer's words, make “many evil deeds appear good through crafty deception” (1137). Ajax can no longer navigate though an environment of illusion and subterfuge. His madness manifests itself in his confusion of animals and men, a grim confusion of being and representation. This misunderstanding of symbol and substance and of language itself continues to isolate and enframe Ajax throughout the play. Ajax and his concubine almost speak a different language from each other. There could be no clearer indication of the gulf that separates Ajax from the world surrounding him than the different meanings he and Tecmessa give to the word εὐγενήs. To Ajax, a man must live nobly or nobly die if he is to be regarded as “nobly born” (… 480). Tecmessa argues that a man who forgets a kindness done him may no longer be called “nobly born” (… 524). These differences in meaning seem to articulate the shifting values from a heroic to a mid-fifth-century moral universe. Ajax is made to appear a relic of some distant past, alienated from surrounding characters and stage environment. Words have become displaced from the concepts they represent. Nobility signifies different things to Ajax and those surrounding him. Animals may stand in for humans.

When he is revealed by the eccyclema at line 348, Ajax is a man trapped and isolated within his own stage setting. As his young son Eurysaces is brought to him, Ajax directs the servant leading the boy to …

Lift him, lift him here; for he will not be afraid
even looking at this newly shed blood,
not if he really is my true-born son.


The bloodied carcasses literally and figuratively cut him off from, and paradoxically elevate him over, his fellow men. This isolation was probably physicalized by the actor maintaining his place upon the eccyclema or standing on steps leading to the skene.17

Ajax slowly begins to take command of his situation. His means of control is overt manipulation of his theatricalized environment. Bent upon suicide, he orders that the skene doors be closed, concealing himself and the inner scene from the audience onstage and in the auditorium. “Won't you quickly shut the door?” he asks some unspecified character, perhaps the same mute supernumerary who opened the doors at Tecmessa's demand (593). In the following scenes, Ajax will restage or rewrite his own character within the play. He will reveal a quasi-theatrical talent for utilizing properties, speech, and movement to deceive his onstage audience. His new behavior will ultimately lead to the Chorus's vacating the orchestra, barely halfway through the play. Ajax will then in effect start the play over again, ending his life nobly before the deceived Chorus reemerges from the side entries in a “second parodos.”

After the Chorus's stasimon (596-645), Ajax reemerges from the skene carrying a sword. Even without the tableau of carnage surrounding him, his entrance at 645 finds the protagonist again enframed. The anxious Chorus and Tecmessa form an onstage audience, hanging upon every word uttered by the armed man who has so recently threatened suicide. Ajax' opening words (646-53) are a stark contrast from anything he has said before. Both the onstage and the theater audiences are drawn into his speech as he seems to play a freshly created role.

His new tone of cosmic acceptance has led some scholars to view this speech as evidence that Ajax is actually sincere in his apparent resolve to change his stubborn ways.18 Scholars espousing this interpretive line are faced with explaining Ajax' impending suicide speech (814-65) as representing an offstage regression to his old bloody-mindedness. This interpretation is a contrived strategy, which seeks to reconcile the stubborn, archaic hero of the earlier scenes with the remarkable volte-face presented by the great speech at 646-92.

Gellie is surely closer to the truth when he writes, “We must accept the fact that the Ajax of this play is capable of an ironic understanding of his world and of a very clever piece of deception.”19 Tecmessa herself refers to the speech as “deceiving” (… 807), once the true situation has dawned on her. The word she uses at 807 derives from ἀπάτη, the noun used by Gorgias in his fragmentary discussion of the “deceptive” powers of (tragic) poetry …. The deception or ἀπἀτη that is evident in this speech is a complex phenomenon suggesting contradictory layers of meaning. Ajax' entire speech is a lie in which he does not tell a single untruth.

Ajax muses on the power of time to give birth to all things and then hide them forever. Any change, any transformation is possible (646-49). His own tongue, once as inflexible as a dipped sword, has been made effeminately soft on account of the woman Tecmessa. He pities his widow and orphan, left among his enemies (650-53). He says he is going to a meadow by the sea to cleanse away the goddess's heavy wrath. In this deserted place he will hide his sword for Night and the god of death (654-60). Night is an appropriate guardian since the preceding night proved his destroyer. For a telling moment, Ajax' sword possesses metatheatrical resonance. It becomes a prop within both the Theater of Dionysus and the fictive world of Sophocles' play. Of course Ajax needs the weapon to commit suicide. In order to escape with it, Ajax gives the sword a seemingly harmless “role” to play: it will be a symbol of appeasement. Ajax has chosen the weapon carefully. The sword, he tells us, has an important history. It was a gift from his enemy, Hector. As long as he has possessed it, the Argives, his supposed friends, have shown him no respect. Now he understands the proverb that a gift from an enemy is no gift (… 665). Ajax resolves that for the rest of his life he will yield to the gods and show reverence to the Atreidae. He has come to understand that enemies may become friends and friends will turn into enemies. These reflections on the instability of friendship and enmity have already been revealed in Odysseus' unexpected reactions during the prologue and by the performative necessity of the Athena or Odysseus actor inhabiting the character of Tecmessa, Ajax' dearest supporter. The sword … inhabits a mimetic field similar to that of the actor. Ajax' prop plays a role in his tragedy. In this regard it may be compared with Philoctetes' bow and Electra's urn. It will deceive his followers as much as do his own words and actions.

Ajax must escape from his family and friends in order to die nobly by his own hand. Segal writes: “To assert his heroic greatness, he must momentarily assume the traditional role of his enemy and opposite (cf. 187-89): he plays Odysseus to be more deeply Ajax.” Since the great speech “hovers between concealing and revealing,” the audience is positioned to appreciate Ajax' remarkably self-conscious rhetorical performance.20 Ajax has learned how to act. With this speech he creates two contrasting images of himself for his two audiences. For his fellow characters within the play, his words and gestures of sublime resignation create a “new” Ajax, capable of an almost Odyssean adaptability in the face of necessity. This perceived change of heart allows Ajax to slip through the Chorus's guard and commit suicide. The other “new” Ajax is created for the theater audience. This Ajax is just as committed as ever to the code of Homeric warrior [aretē], but is capable of a new ironic perception of his place in the world.21 Before the madness descended on the hero, confusing the roles of animals and humans, the mighty warrior would presumably have been incapable of the striking oxymoron at 665. Ajax' appreciation of the sword's duality, literally the “gift-no-gift,” points to his newly developed ironic perception. The sword appears to be a deadly weapon, and of course Ajax intends to use it as such. Nevertheless, his words and gestures make it appear harmless and unthreatening, a symbol of peaceful reconciliation and atonement between himself and the gods and not a means of self-destruction.

This remarkable double presentation is a product of Ajax' isolation and enframement, the way he and those around him, both mortal and divine, “stage” him within his tragedy both for their view and that of the theater audience. The hero's enframement is instrumental in making his great speech both an address to the Chorus and Tecmessa and a soliloquy for the theater audience alone. Reinhardt alludes to the phenomenon when he observes that Ajax' words, “instead of remaining within the play, break right through its framework and address the audience.”22

The great speech of Ajax exists in an ambiguous moral territory close to that of the deceptive [apatē] art of tragedy itself. His words are crafted to simultaneously reveal and conceal his innermost nature. It is a brilliantly executed strategy of rhetorical self-presentation. By opposing his heroism to the superhuman power of time, Ajax becomes a paradigm of the contradictions implicit in the art of tragedy. His self-conscious performance-within-the-role reveals a liar who tells the truth, an act of deception committed to reassert a higher notion of reality. His speech is a fitting stratagem within the larger game of tragedy, a rigorously organized form of human play that utilizes play-acting and [apatē] to beguile an audience into a deeper understanding of the human condition.

Ajax' deception leads the Chorus into its euphoric second stasimon expressing its relief at the hero's apparent change. This stasimon represents a dramaturgical sleight of hand, which will recur often in the latter tragedies. In comparable moments in Trachiniae (633-62), Antigone (1115-50), and Oedipus Tyrannus (1086-1109), the Chorus will mistake an approaching catastrophe for a happy resolution and sing and dance ecstatically, often with overt reference to its primary performative task, dancing. Choric language in each of these instances is metatheatrical, in that it is calling direct attention to the dancing … of the Chorus. … The audience in the theater, expecting the myth's established outcome, probably knows better and may appreciate these moments of dramatic irony. The present stasimon (693-718) presents the Salaminian sailors rejoicing and calling direct attention to their dramatic function as a Chorus. Within fifteen lines they make three pointed references to the act of dancing … (698-701), thus striking an artificial note, signaling to the audience that the rejoicing is premature.23

All of these instances of self-referential choral language will be examined in their contexts. Oedipus Tyrannus will add interesting variations on this theme in that play's second stasimon (864-910). The last use of this device appears in the second stasimon of Electra (1059-97). The Electra example reveals a fascinating reversal of this formula when the Chorus, falsely believing bad news about Orestes' death, deems the present situation a subject unfit for dancing. Dancing and singing were performance modes that were inseparable from poetry in the Greek imagination. The epic poets make frequent reference to singing and storytelling. The Pindaric Epinecian odes make reference to the arts of dancing and singing as do several Aeschylean and Euripidean choruses. But Sophocles' use of this self-referential choric language marking “false” turns in the action of his plays displays a consistent awareness of performative irony.

After the Chorus's references to dancing, the Messenger's entrance line contains a similarly self-referential description of his character's dramaturgical function. “Friends, gentlemen, first of all I wish to announce … the news / that Teucer is here, just back from the Mysian hills” (719-20). This overt reference to the function of the Messenger … encourages the audience to assume that the Messenger has arrived to describe the protagonist's death, the messenger's usual function in tragedy.24 The Messenger's opening remark that “the first news” … he will report is Teucer's arrival heightens this expectation. If “the first” news regards Teucer, surely the next news will be a report of Ajax' suicide. The theater audience must wait twelve lines for a direct reference to the protagonist. Sophocles' manipulation of tragic convention leads us to expect to hear Ajax' name at any moment, and a long narrative description of his death. Instead, the Messenger, conventionally a character who has seen a decisive offstage event and can relate it to the theater audience, runs out of material in just a few lines. We hear Ajax' name at last but it comes in the form of a question. “But tell me, where is Ajax, so that I may report this to him?” … (733). The Messenger is even more ignorant of the protagonist's whereabouts than the Chorus. The subsequent exchange with the Chorus and Tecmessa leads the Messenger to reveal his true function within the scheme of Sophocles' plot. He enunciates Calchas' prophesy and the story of Ajax' hubristic affront to Athena.

The Messenger reports Calchas' warning to Teucer that Ajax, if he is to survive this day, must stay indoors. The Messenger's language gravitates repeatedly to the metatheatrical description of Ajax' hut as a [skenē]. Calchas had warned Teucer to use “every strategy” … (752) to keep Ajax inside his hut … (754). The Messenger reiterates this warning to Tecmessa: Ajax must be kept inside the hut … (796) and must not be allowed beyond the doors … (793). We are reminded that the σκηνή before our eyes on the outer edge of the orchestra “plays” a [skenē] (hut) within the artifice of the play and is, of course, a [skenē] in the real world of the theater. Sophocles' metatheatrical language reminds us we are in a theater beholding a tragic performance. As with the Chorus's premature celebration in the second stasimon utilizing choric language, the dramatist is forcing his audience to confront the nature of theatrical illusion by reminding us how the tragic illusion works. Choruses remind us they are “chorusing,” messengers that they are “messengers,” and we hear the warning that a character who has recently left the skene or scene building is doomed. If no protagonist (be he Ajax, Oedipus, or Pentheus) ever came out of the skene during his “day” of tragic presentation, tragedy would cease to function and choruses would stop dancing. The conventional messenger speech describing the protagonist's suicide will be rendered superfluous by Ajax' onstage death. After Ajax' passing, Sophocles will give lines describing the hero's wounds, lines traditionally handled by a messenger, to Tecmessa in her dialogue with the Chorus (917-19).

The report of Calchas' warning galvanizes Tecmessa and the Chorus into action. Ajax has made his fateful exit from the skene out one of the two parodoi. Tecmessa commands the Chorus to divide into two groups and exit out both parodoi.

Ah me, friends, protect me from destined misfortune,
and hurry, some of you get Teucer to come as fast as you can,
some to the western …, others to the eastern …
bends of the shore seeking the man's ill-stared going forth …


Tecmessa's words rouse a tragic chorus to do the extraordinary—it leaves the orchestra before the play is half over. The Chorus must leave via the two parodoi, half to the west … and half to the east …, seeking the man who has made the fateful exit. … The Chorus eagerly responds to her request. …

I'm ready to go, and I shall show it not by words alone.
Rather swift deeds and footwork shall follow.


The Chorus will theatrically realize Tecmessa's request, revealing … a unity of word …, action …, and the exertion of foot …, which one expects of a chorus. With this exchange, the Chorus leaves the stage in a kind of “false exodos” similar to the Chorus's surprising midpoint exit in Aeschylus' Eumenides.25

After all of the performers have left the playing area, Ajax emerges alone to commit suicide. His deception speech has effectively shut the tragedy down and started it over again on his own terms. His suicide speech serves as a “false prologue,” in that it enables him to take charge of his destiny without the enframement or manipulation of other characters. He is at last able to present himself before the theater audience, free of Athena's stage managing and free of the onstage audience of his followers. The tragic theater is seldom so starkly empty during the duration of a performance as in Ajax' suicide speech (815-65). Now the hero may address the theater audience without the interference of onstage auditors.

Alone, preparing to fall on his sword, Ajax says farewell to his parents, his homeland Salamis, and the city of Athens (859-63). The reference to Athens does not grow logically out of Ajax' list of beloved persons and places. Sophocles is using Salamis' relative proximity to Athens to heighten the pathos of Ajax' final speech. For a fleeting moment, the theater audience on the slope of the Acropolis is drawn almost directly into the action. This moment of unusually intimate contact makes Ajax more sympathetic and surely must help in preparing a negative reception for the blustering Atreidae. The effect is repeated when, just before Agamemnon's entrance, the Chorus sings of greeting Athens on its return to Salamis (1222). Segal perceives the references to Athens (860-61, 1222) as evidence of “Ajax' special connection with Athens through his hero cult in that city.”26

Dolores O'Higgins has written about Ajax' rhetorical re-creation of his heroic persona in the suicide speech. The suicide scene, performed by one actor on a remarkably empty stage, presents Ajax' attempt to “write his own death,” making his suicide stand “for the completed combat promised and denied him in the Iliad.” O'Higgins is referring to the duel between Ajax and Hector in book 7 of the Iliad, which ends in an unsatisfactory stalemate. Sophocles, O'Higgins believes, has used all of his poetic skill to create a kind of “disinvention” of the Iliad, where Ajax is repeatedly damned with faint praise as “the second best of the Achaeans.”27 In Ajax, the hero is given magnificent language, particularly in the suicide speech. He reveals a certain flair for self-dramatization, which creates a more striking figure for himself than the one allotted him in Homer.28

Ajax' fall onto his sword represents the only onstage death in extant fifth-century tragedy. Consequently, this scene shatters one of the most firmly established conventions of ancient stagecraft. While our surviving evidence is admittedly scanty, onstage death scenes must have been extremely rare, if not unprecedented. One can imagine the original audiences' stunned reaction when, after virtually starting the play over again by giving the Chorus a false exodos, Sophocles has the audacity to stage his protagonist's suicide before their eyes. Ajax repeatedly turns convention on its head.

After Ajax' death, a divided Chorus begins to reenter the performance space, creating a veritable “second parodos.” The Chorus's second entrance, searching for the hero, also serves a practical dramaturgical objective. The entrances from both parodoi and the search of the orchestra area would afford an excellent opportunity for the Ajax actor to exit unobserved into the skene to assume the mask and costume of his second character, Ajax' brother Teucer. There is much sense in the Ajax actor doubling as Teucer. Besides having the inevitable “family” resemblance such a doubling would foster, Teucer is the character who most directly represents Ajax' interests after his death. It is striking to note that Teucer enters the play in a manner reminiscent of his brother's reemergence from insanity. Teucer's first words repeat the first offstage cries of the sane Ajax … (333, 974). Such a verbal reminiscence builds an additional link between the two brothers. Teucer's appropriation of Ajax' earlier cry occurs directly after Tecmessa's remark that Ajax no longer exists (972). (By this point in the performance, he has been replaced by a dummy or some other form of representation and the actor who had portrayed him is awaiting his entrance as Teucer.) When Teucer at last beholds his brother's “body” he declares that “now, by seeing him, I am myself destroyed” (1001). The actor is beholding an image of his former character.

The following role allocations seem likely. The protagonist doubled Ajax and Teucer, while the deuteragonist played Odysseus and, probably, Tecmessa, the two characters whom, aside from the Chorus, express the deepest empathy with Ajax. The patterning of exits and entrances from Tecmessa's exit at 989 to the reentrance of Odysseus at 1316 suggests that the deuteragonist also undertook the role of Menelaus. This extra role makes the balance of parts between the three actors more equal. It also affords a nice contrasting part for the second actor: one “anti-Ajax” role to balance the two “pro-Ajax” parts. The third actor probably played Athena, the Messenger, and Agamemnon. While the Messenger is sympathetic to Ajax and his followers, he delivers the belated explanation for the goddess's wrath, describing Ajax' fateful rejection of Athena (770-77).

In any casting scheme, the “Athena” actor has to play Agamemnon. This casting detail has profound resonance in the play's final scene. Teucer, the former “Ajax” actor, serves as the advocate for his fallen brother. He engages in a confrontation with Agamemnon, the most powerful of Ajax' human enemies who is played by the “Athena” actor. The ensuing stalemate is resolved by the return of the “Odysseus” actor, reprising his first role, linking the play's prologue with its concluding scene. This casting of the final scene, the only viable way the last scene can be staged utilizing three actors who do not share roles, allows the three performers to reprise and ultimately resolve the bitter conflict portrayed in the prologue. The structuring of the casting reveals the striking unity of the Ajax as a performance piece in the fifth-century theater, a unity that is obscured when the play is read or acted with modern theater conventions unconsciously intruding upon the play.

While the above scheme is highly likely, it is admittedly conjectural. Other readers or producers may attempt to adjust the scheme and this is healthy as it compels us to grapple with vital performative realities, which confronted the playwright as he sculpted his tragedy for performance at the City Dionysia. As in the modern performance of baroque music on “authentic” instruments, any attempt to come closer to the realities of a lost performance tradition entails conjecture. That conjecture, if it is based on informed opinion, brings us closer to appreciating the realities of a bygone aesthetic.

The reentrance of Odysseus to resolve the controversy between Teucer and the Atreidae derives its dramatic power and meaning from the unique status Odysseus has acquired through the metadrama that opened the tragedy. The last scene (1316-1420) rephrases the prologue. The “Ajax” actor playing Teucer is in conflict with his archenemy, the “Athena” actor who is playing another powerful antagonist, Agamemnon. Odysseus, enlightened by what he witnessed during the prologue, enters to resolve the action. The theater audience hears the same voices now resolving the conflict in which they were engaged at the start of the tragedy. The prologue's play-within-the-play is the vehicle that makes the reconciliation at the end of the tragedy possible. Those in the theater audience, in Poe's words, “are drawn into the reconciliation by their identification with Odysseus, so that when Teucer, at the processional exodos, calls upon … [Whoever is here who calls themselves the friend of this man] (1413-14) to join in honoring Ajax, they receive this as a call directed to themselves.”29 Odysseus' role as audience surrogate has enabled him to resolve the mighty conflicts that continue to surround Ajax, even in death.

Ajax is a drama that continually makes the impossible possible. Athena, goddess of wisdom and patron of Athens, is presented as a pitiless daemonic force, closely linked to the Atreidae. Odysseus, often portrayed as a slippery opportunist, becomes, by the play's end, a kind of ethical hero embodying a code far in advance of conventional mortal, or Olympian, morality. The Chorus leaves the orchestra halfway through the play, facilitating a shift of scene and an unprecedented onstage suicide. The power of (meta)theater has allowed Odysseus and the theater audience to see beyond the narrow and divisive conflict that separates one human being from another. The audiences, both in the theater and on the stage, have come to view the complex, often repellent hero as more than a mere personal enemy or danger to civilization. Ajax has become, through his theatrical presentation, a paradigm of the human creature itself: a mysterious combination of creative and destructive passions and of tenderness and cruelty; a victim of its own shortsightedness, yet preserved from total annihilation by its ineffable sense of dignity.


  1. See also Taplin, Greek Tragedy in Action, pp. 40-41.

  2. … all textual references for Sophocles correspond to the Lloyd-Jones and Wilson 1990 edition.

  3. Gellie, Sophocles, p. 3.

  4. The staging suggested here is not the only solution, but is, perhaps, the most obvious and meaningful one. Both Jebb and Kamerbeek in their commentaries propose the placement of Athena on the theologeion. A. W. Pickard-Cambridge suggests she be placed on the ground “perhaps partly concealed in the trees of the grove which was required later in the play [i.e. to conceal Ajax' body]”; see The Theatre of Dionysus at Athens, p. 48. W. B. Stanford, in his edition, recommends that she stand on Odysseus' level but “away from him at the furthest side of the Orchestra, in the shadow of the scene-building” (Ajax 15). Stanford attributes to Kitto the idea that the goddess is portrayed by a magnified offstage voice. Hiding the goddess (who along with Heracles in Philoctetes represents the only deus ex machina in the surviving Sophoclean corpus) in a grove, in the shadows of the skene, or completely offstage seems very weak stagecraft. See William M. Calder's summary of this controversy and his argument for the use of the theologeion in “The Entrance of Athena in Ajax,” p. 116. Mastronarde has reaffirmed Calder's suggested staging. He notes that a theologeion placement would make Athena's entrance and exit easily manageable and that her physical elevation would be “very important in a scene that plays so terribly on the theme of the limitations of human existence.” Mastronarde, “Actors on High: The Skene Roof, the Crane, and the Gods in Attic Drama,” p. 278.

  5. John Moore, in the preface to his translation of Ajax for the Grene and Lattimore Complete Greek Tragedies, observes that Sophocles “contrives … to make us lose sight of Ajax' criminality, while making of his ignominy a capital dramatic resource.” Sophocles II, p. 3.

  6. Seale, Vision and Stagecraft, pp. 147, 145.

  7. Seale notes Odysseus' use of the first-person plural in line 23 as an indication of Odysseus' “identifying himself with the rest of humanity and equat[ing] his own searching with the falterings of mankind itself” (ibid., p. 145). This argument should be taken to the next step, that Odysseus is identifying himself with the theater audience.

  8. Athena's cruel delight in Ajax' downfall may seem repellent to twentieth-century eyes, but her credo of helping her friends and harming her enemies was the common ethical standard of the fifth century. See Blundell's Helping Friends and Harming Enemies.

  9. J. Michael Walton notes the unusual role Sophocles has given the goddess: “Usually in Greek drama the goddess Athena is wise and benign, a representative of Athens itself and the Athenian people” (Living Greek Theatre, p. 69).

  10. In the American National Theater production (1988) directed by Peter Sellars, Ajax made his entrance in the prologue by being wheeled out in a plastic display case, knee deep in blood. King, “‘Nailed to a Circus of Blood,’” p. 9.

  11. Gellie, Sophocles, pp. 7, 20.

  12. Poe, Genre and Meaning, pp. 31, 32, 35.

  13. Ibid., p. 97.

  14. See also Knox, “The Ajax of Sophocles,” in Word and Action, p. 149.

  15. Ajax 127 (ed. Stanford).

  16. See also the Messenger's report of Ajax' fatal rebuff to the goddess (770-77).

  17. See also Seale, Vision and Stagecraft, p. 153. This isolation of the protagonist was given an eloquent realization in the version of the play directed by Peter Sellars. Sellars cast a deaf-mute actor as Ajax for his modern-dress adaptation. Sellars's Ajax mimed his speeches while the Chorus interpreted his words for the audience. King, “‘Nailed to a Circus of Blood,’” p. 11.

  18. Segal's Tragedy and Civilization contains a good overview of the many interpretations of this speech, pp. 432-33 n. 9.

  19. Gellie, Sophocles, p. 13.

  20. Segal, Tragedy and Civilization, pp. 114, 115.

  21. Poe interprets the speech, too cynically I believe, as an attempt to make himself “seem not only more innocent than he has seemed before but also greater.” Genre and Meaning, p. 63.

  22. Reinhardt, Sophocles, p. 26.

  23. On the subject of choral self-reference in Sophocles, see also Heikkilä, “‘Now I Have a Mind to Dance,’” pp. 51-67, and Henrichs, “Why Should I Dance?,” pp. 56-111.

  24. See also Ajax 719ff. (ed. Stanford).

  25. Since Ajax may belong to the years immediately following Aeschylus' Oresteia (456), Sophocles' shocking alteration of normal dramaturgical practice may have been directly influenced by the older master.

  26. Segal, Tragedy and Civilization, p. 142. Segal also notes: “In Ajax' violence of suffering and action reverberate some of the major clashes of values in mid-fifth-century Athens. The most recalcitrant and individualistic of heroes commands respect from those who must reject his attitudes if their institutions are to survive.” Arnott observes that the Athens reference “is both a tragic hero's farewell to the living world, and an actor's adieu to his audience” (Public and Performance in the Greek Theatre, p. 22). Of course, Arnott is exaggerating slightly since the actor playing Ajax would soon reemerge in the guise of his grieving brother Teucer.

  27. O'Higgins, “The Second Best of the Achaeans,” pp. 52, 48.

  28. The staging of the actual suicide in the ancient theater represents a fascinating and virtually unsolvable scholarly crux. See Gardiner's lucid summary of various conflicting theories, “The Staging of the Death of Ajax,” pp. 10-14. Mills also offers a stimulating analysis of the scene's possible staging along with observations concerning Sophocles' exploitation and manipulation of dramatic convention throughout the play, “The Death of Ajax,” pp. 129-35.

  29. Poe, Genre and Meaning, p. 98.


Secondary Texts

Calder, William M. “The Entrance of Athena in Ajax.Classical Philology 60 (1965): 114-16.

Gardiner, Cynthia P. The Sophoclean Chorus: A Study of Character and Function. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1987.

Gellie, G. H. Sophocles: A Reading. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1972.

Heikkilä, Kai. “‘Now I Have a Mind to Dance’: The References of the Chorus to Their Own Dancing in Sophocles Tragedies.” Arctos 25 (1991): 51-67.

Henrichs, Albert. “‘Why Should I Dance?’: Choral Self-Refentiality in Greek Tragedy.” Arion 3 (1994-95): 56-111.

Kamberbeek, J. C. “Comments on the Second Stasimon of the Oedipus Tyrannus.” Wiener Studien 79 (1966): 80-92.

———. The Plays of Sophocles. Vols. 1-7. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1953-67.

King, W. D. “‘Nailed to a Circus of Blood’: Ajax at the American National Theatre.” Theater 18.1 (1986): 9-15.

Knox, Bernard M. Essays Ancient and Modern. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989.

Mastronarde, Donald J. “Actors on High: The Skene Roof, the Crane, and the Gods in Attic Drama.” California Studies in Classical Antiquity 9.2 (1990): 247-94.

Mills, S. P. “The Death of Ajax.” Classical Journal 76 (1980-81): 129-35.

Moore, John A. Sophocles and Arete. Harvard Phi Beta Kappa Prize Essay. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1938.

O'Higgins, Dolores. “Narrators and Narrative in the Philoctetes of Sophocles.” Ramus 20 (1991): 37-52.

Pickard-Cambridge, A. W. The Dramatic Festivals of Athens. 2nd ed., rev. John Gould and D. M. Lewis. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967.

Poe, Joe Park. Genre and Meaning in Sophocles' Ajax. Frankfurt: Athenaeum, 1986.

Reinhardt, Karl. Sophocles. Translated by Hazel Harvey and David Harvey. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1979.

Seale, David. Vision and Stagecraft in Sophocles. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.

Segal, Charles. Tragedy and Civilization: An Interpretation of Sophocles. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981.

Stanford, W. B. Greek Tragedy and Emotions. London: Routledge, 1983.

Taplin, Oliver. Greek Tragedy in Action. London: Methuen, 1978.

Walton, J. Michael. Living Greek Theatre: A Handbook of Classical Performance and Modern Production. New York: Greenwood Press, 1987.

Further Reading

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Bowra, C. M. “Ajax.” In Sophoclean Tragedy, pp. 16-62. London: Oxford University Press, 1944.

Critical analysis of the Ajax.

Buxton, R. G. A. Sophocles. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1984, 38p.

Includes sections on stage action, heroes, meaning, and the chorus in Sophocles's plays.

Gardiner, Cynthia P. “Ajax.” In The Sophoclean Chorus: A Study of Character and Function, pp. 50-78. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1987.

Analyzes the men who comprise the chorus in the Ajax, commenting on their function and principles.

Gellie, G. H. “Ajax.” In Sophocles: A Reading, pp. 3-28. Carlton, Victoria: Melbourne University Press, 1972.

Explicates the actions of the major characters in the Ajax, focusing on the conflict between natural ability and social rank.

Knox, Bernard. “The Ajax of Sophocles.” In Words and Action: Essays on the Ancient Theater, pp. 125-60. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979.

Argues that the beginning of Ajax's great speech is a soliloquy and therefore not intended to deceive Tecmessa and the chorus, as many critics have claimed.

Letters, F. J. H. “The Ajax.” In The Life and Works of Sophocles, pp. 123-46. London: Sheed and Ward, 1953.

Critical analysis of the Ajax that includes a section on structure.

Minadeo, Richard. “Ajax.” In The Thematic Sophocles, pp. 1-23. Amsterdam: Adolf M. Hakkert, 1994.

Examines Ajax's failure to live by the heroic code and his response to his failure.

Ormand, Kirk. “The Ajax, or Marriage by Default.” In Exchange and the Maiden: Marriage in Sophoclean Tragedy, pp. 104-23. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999.

Focuses on Sophocles's response to new legal definitions of marriage and citizenship in Greece.

Sicherl, M. “The Tragic Issue in Sophocles's Ajax.” In Yale Classical Studies, edited by T. F. Gould and C. J. Herington, Volume 25, pp. 67-98. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

Criticizes various interpretations of the great speech which present it as deceptive and contends that Ajax submitted to death in order to salvage his honor.

Additional coverage of Sophocles's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 176; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors: British; DISCovering Authors: Canadian; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors and Dramatists; Drama Criticism, Vol. 1; Drama for Students, Vols. 1, 4, and 8; and World Literature Criticism Supplement.


Critical Evaluation


Critical Overview