Ajax Essays and Criticism
by Sophocles

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Renaissance Humanism and Heroic Nature

(Drama for Students)

No doubt students might think that there is little reason to read Sophocles, or plays such as Ajax. In fact, students might consider the mythic warriors of Greek epic and drama outdated or even unimportant as the twentieth century nears its end. This was how many people viewed Greek drama for hundreds of years following the end of the Golden Age of Greece. Yet in thirteenth century Italy, a new movement that came to be called humanism resurrected classical Greek texts, including drama, and found that there was a place for these ancient heroes in educating young men.

At that time, it was the goal of every young man of aristocratic birth to serve his country. The idea behind humanism was to prepare a young man for his new role in civic life, and ethics was an important feature of this new emphasis on education. Classical Latin and Greek became crucial elements of a gentleman’s education, while each country’s vernacular language became the language of the peasant class. Within two hundred years, knowledge of classical Greek would become an essential attribute of an educated man.

With the adoption of these languages, the literature soon followed, and this included Greek drama. Greek drama taught important lessons about loyalty, heroism, and religion. From these plays young men learned about leadership and responsibility. Young gentlemen also learned that heroism was more than bravery on the battlefield. They learned from Ajax that heroism coupled with excessive pride would lead to disaster. Heroism brought with it responsibility and the need for compromise.

Young men also learned that great heroes like Odysseus were heroic not just because they were brave and won many battles, but because they did what was expected of them. Odysseus was heroic because he could put aside his anger at Ajax and do what he knew to be the right thing. Odysseus also knew that Ajax had offended the gods, and that he too would offend the gods if Ajax were to be denied burial. From Odysseus, young men learned about the correct relationship between man and god. These models for gentlemanly behavior became an important reason to study classical literature.

Humanism also emphasized intellectual autonomy and individual expression. Sophocles’s plays focused on these attributes. He created heroes whose need to express their individuality became the centerpiece of drama. In his book on Greek drama, J. Michael Walton contends that Sophocles created a ‘‘world of unusual personal detail, a world in which a small object or a human gesture can define a man’s estate.’’ The world portrayed on stage ceased to be huge, with mythic heroes who were larger than life.

In Ajax, the audience perceives a protagonist in profound pain. Walton maintains that the audience sees is not the ‘‘stoicism of mankind but the pain to which he is heir.’’ The audience cannot help but react to this individual suffering.

Clearly, as Walton notes, Sophocles is able to engage the audience’s sympathy for the individual. This became increasingly important as the world grew larger and more complex, and was as true of the fledgling scientific world of the Renaissance as it is today.

The Renaissance humanist was willing to accept the responsibility of governing that accompanied intellectual autonomy. Here, too, the Greek model proved important. Greek heroes exemplified responsibility to their gods and to the men who fought beside them. Ajax’s tragedy was in betraying those with whom he fought: Odysseus, Agamemnon, and Menelaus. His shame is twofold—deriving from the mistaken slaughter of animals and his madness that turned such terrible anger on his allies.

In her discussion on the use of debate and conflict in Sophoclean tragedy, Jacqueline de Romilly states that there is a contrast in Ajax between ‘‘an aristocratic ethic based on honor and a more humane ethic based on obligations to individuals.’’ This obligation to the individual is seen in Odysseus’s championing of Ajax ’s burial...

(The entire section is 4,536 words.)