(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.

Principal Works

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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

Cedric H. Whitman (essay date 1951)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 9973 words.)

John Jones (essay date 1962)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 5855 words.)

Ruth Scodel (essay date 1984)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 11857 words.)

Marc Ringer (essay date 1998)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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....

(The entire section is 8191 words.)

Further Reading

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)


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....

(The entire section is 368 words.)