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.
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.
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.
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.