Renaissance Humanism and Heroic Nature

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1645

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 In fact, students might consider the mythic warriors of Greek epic and drama outdated or even unimportant as the twentieth century nears its end.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...

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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 In fact, students might consider the mythic warriors of Greek epic and drama outdated or even unimportant as the twentieth century nears its end.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 rights. Odysseus clearly understands the god’s directive that bodies must be buried, but his reasons go beyond that. Although he abhors Ajax’s actions, Odysseus acknowledges that Ajax was a great warrior who fought bravely for their causes:

‘‘Deny him burial and trample justice! I loathed him, more than any other Greek in camp. I detested all he was—and still I say he was the bravest man I ever saw, except for Achilles, the best and bravest who ever came to Troy. Admit it! Justice demands! If you shame him you smear God’s law. Hate him or love him, he was an honorable man; you owe him honor.’’

In the ensuing argument with Agamemnon, Odysseus contends that Ajax deserves respect. In the end, as both Agamemnon and Odysseus agree, this is fulfilling obligations and providing the honors rightfully bestowed upon an honorable man. Doing what was right, what benefited the individual man, was a crucial part of Odysseus’s decision.

Honesty and the search for truth were also important elements of the humanist movement, and they were important to defining the strengths of the individual. Ajax chooses to die alone, separate from family and the men who still follow him. He commits suicide. This is not the expected death for a great hero—Ajax is in great pain and thinks that he can redeem his honor only through taking his own life. In her essay on the feminine in Greek drama, Froma I. Zeitlin argues that Ajax’s suicide is a woman’s way of dying but that Ajax appropriates a woman’s death and makes it masculine:

‘‘Suicide is a solution in tragedy normally reserved only for women—and what we are given to witness is this convention borrowed for a man’s version of it. He [Ajax] dies a heroic death, then, in the women’s way, a whetted will penetrated by a whetted weapon, befitting . . . the curious ambiguities of this most masculine hero.’’

Zeitlin asserts that although Ajax briefly considers Tecmessa’s pleas, to continue living would feminize his will and deepen his shame. Ajax is embracing the only recourse left to an honorable man, hoping to restore his family’s honor. He deceives his family and the chorus, convincing them that he is recovering and the danger has passed.

There is a temptation to label Ajax’s words as lies, heaping more dishonor on a man already dishonored. But Ajax is a complex man, and as Zeitlin suggests, Ajax ‘‘seems to have arrived at the kind of tragic knowledge we recognize as intrinsically true to the genre.’’ This is because, as Zeitlin argues, although ‘‘deceit and intrigue are condemned in women, they are also seen as natural to her sphere of operations and the dictates of her nature.’’

Thus, since Ajax has chosen to die in the manner of women, that he first deceives those around him means that he is employing, as Zeitlin notes, a ‘‘feminine strategy enlisted in the service of restoring an unequivocal manliness he can only achieve . . . by dying the manly death . . . in the woman’s way.’’ The audience is left with the knowledge that Ajax took the only choice still left to him, the choice to die. For Ajax, truth lies in his acceptance of his actions.

Medieval Christianity taught that obedience was more important than individualism, but humanism stressed just the opposite. If individualism was identified with arrogance, the study of classical Greek pointed to individualism as the mark of the strong, virtuous man—one who saw good deeds, not as the way to get into heaven, but as the way to create a better world.

This individualism is not with problems, as the complexity of Ajax illustrates. The opening ceremonies of the festival in which Sophocles presented his plays included honoring the children of Greece’s war victims. Simon Goldhill states that this ceremony affirms the connection between these young men and the city that has been responsible for their education. It was a moment of civic pride, and combined with the remainder of the ceremonies, it provided an important civic occasion.

Yet as these ceremonies affirm the importance of the city, the tragedies themselves affirm the importance of the individual. This tension, this ambiguity in the hero, provides for a realistic depiction. This is not a remote hero without fault; this is a hero who is capable of mistakes.

As Goldhill observes, ‘‘the negative example of Ajax is touched with a certain glory. It is an essential dynamic of Sophocles’s tragedy that Ajax should seem both an outstanding hero and also unacceptable in society. The hero does not simply reverse the norms of what it means to fit into society but makes a problem of such integration.’’

Ajax is almost setting a precedent for the twentieth- century anti-hero. The modern hero is prepared to do the right thing, to rebel against a controlling government when it is wrong. Athena’s role as god is not unlike the authority of modern government. She establishes laws and expects exact obedience, and she does not expect to be challenged. Ajax does challenge authority; but as Goldhill points out, Ajax, although managing to transgress what is expected of him, ‘‘achieves his greatness, his superhuman status, precisely by such transgression.’’

Ajax is first and foremost an individual. He wants to be in control of his destiny, and although not flawless, he proves that he is heroic in coming to terms with those faults. The Greek tragic hero was an important model for the autonomy and individual expression that humanists embraced, and it became an important element in creating the Renaissance man who would build the foundation of the modern world. Humanism’s resurrection of Greek drama created a profound change in the way Renaissance men approached society and religion, and this has carried over into the twentieth century.

Source: Sheri E. Metzger, for Drama for Students, Gale, 2000.

Overview of Ajax

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 881

After the death of Achilles in the war against Troy, the Greek hero’s arms were awarded to Odysseus rather than to Ajax who believed he had deserved them. Intent on revenge for the slight, Ajax is diverted from his purpose by the goddess Athena who drives him mad so that he kills and tortures sheep and cattle, seeing them as his Greek enemies. When he returns to sanity, shame at what he has done impels him to commit suicide. Odysseus pleads with Agamemnon and Menelaus for Ajax to be treated with the respect due to a hero and eventually wins his point.

Ajax is the only Sophocles play, with the arguable exception of Philoctetes, in which a god or goddess appears. Traditionally a devout man. Sophocles proposes a theological standpoint which is more complex than it is sometimes painted. Ajax may have been planning a dire revenge against his former friends, when he believes himself cheated of his due, but the way in which the goddess Athena gloats over the state to which she has reduced him looks forward to the savage Dionysus of Euripides’ Bacchae rather than back to the wise patrongoddess of Athens who solves the problems in Aeschylus’ Oresteia.

Applying modern standards to a Greek attitude towards friends and enemies is, of course, risky. Turning the other cheek would have seemed as contrary to the nature of the Greek hero as turning his back. Nevertheless, there is in Ajax a sense of moral argument which suggests that man is progressing beyond the simple rules of programmed response. Odysseus is not only the soldier who defeated Ajax in the award of arms but is also traditionally a crafty and untrustworthy man whose eye is always to the main chance. So he appears in Sophocles’s later play Philoctetes, where his machinations to persuade the eponymous hero to go to Troy are so Machiavellian as to be self-defeating. In Ajax this is the sort of man Athena is expecting when she invites Odysseus to witness Ajax’ humiliation. Instead of pleasure at the downfall of an enemy, Odysseus shows himself instinctively compassionate.

The tone of the play is established in the first scene. All the later characters to appear reveal predictable attitudes. Ajax’ half-brother, Teucer, defends him as best he may, but he is only half-hero as well as half-brother. Tecmessa, mother of Ajax’ son Eurysaces, is loyal and loving but utterly without influence in such a male world. Agamemnon and Menelaus, respectively commander-in-chief of the Greek forces at Troy, and husband of Helen, the cause of the war, are angry savages for whom the only response to what Ajax has done is the ultimate insult: deprivation of burial. Odysseus stands up to them and wins for Ajax the honour due to what the man was when he was a friend, not what he became when thwarted and deranged. If the play’s moral dimension is its paramount feature, there is little sense of Ajax degenerating into a tract. The appearance of Athena in the prologue is literally above the action where Odysseus cannot see her. Such an awareness of stage space, a principal factor of Sophocles’ stagecraft in all his surviving plays, is given an unusual twist in the handling of both location and chorus.

Changes of scene are rare in surviving Greek tragedy and appear to have become more so, with tragedy moving towards realism at the same time as comedy, in the hands of Aristophanes, moves to a world of fantasy where anything can happen anywhere. The initial setting of Ajax is outside Ajax’s tent, over which Athena appears (presumably, in the original production, with the help of the stagecrane). After Athena has departed and Ajax has returned to sanity, his sailors, who form the chorus, and Tecmessa with his baby attempt to save him from despair at the carnage he has perpetrated. For a time it seems that they have been successful. Ajax emerges from his tent calm and apparently reconciled to what he has done. He departs for the beach to cleanse himself.

News arrives that this is to prove a crucial day in Ajax’s fortunes and the chorus and Tecmessa leave the scene to look for him. Ajax now appears at the sea-shore and carefully prepares his own death, before falling on the sword given to him in battle by the Trojan Hector. The sense of isolation is emphasised both by the place where the action is now unfolding and by the absence of the chorus who habitually accompany on-stage action, from their first entrance through to a play’s conclusion. Physical use of the resources of the Athenian theatre and the expectations of the audience are consciously manipulated by Sophocles to draw attention to the man’s loneliness and to the unusual sight on the Greek stage of someone committing suicide.

Ajax is a touching play and a heartening one for ending on a note of hope, if not reconciliation. Life may present atrocities and heroes may perpetrate them, but a case can be made for human decency which allows some rules and some rights for even the major sinner.

Source: J. Michael Walton. ‘‘Ajax’’ in The International Dictionary of Theatre, Volume 1: Plays, edited by Mark Hawkins-Dady, St. James Press, 1992, pp. 7–8.

Sophocles's Ajax and Homer's Hector

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2010

Modern critics have proposed a number of interpretations of the nature of the tragedy in Sophocles’ Ajax, without perhaps completely exhausting the subject. The present paper is no more than an attempt to add slightly to this material by focusing attention on what seems to be an overlooked element in the drama, that is, the implicit contrast between the title character and the Homeric Hector.

Without attempting to go more fully into the question, I shall say at the outset that in general it seems to me that the Ajax, in its ‘‘diptych’’ structure, is preeminently a study in contrasts, as has been usually recognized, and that the contrast between the enemies Ajax and Odysseus is the most important and striking of these. This contrast is first and most drastically shown in the prologue, which juxtaposes the savage vengefulness of Ajax with Odysseus’ canny moderation and pity for the misfortunes even of an enemy. This contrast is carried through the play in the ironic disparity between the distorted image of Odysseus held by Ajax and shared by Tecmessa and the chorus, and the magnanimous reality, as it appears in the prologue and the final episode. Subsidiary contrasts are those between Teucer, a lesser Ajax, and the contemptible Atridae, and between the human characters of Odyssesus and Ajax and the ruthless divinity Athena.

Another contrast, however, is implicit, I believe, in the characterization of Ajax in his relations with his wife and his infant son. It is impossible, I think, to read Tecmessa’s speech of expostulation to Ajax bent on suicide, without being immediately reminded of the colloquy between Hector and Andromache in Iliad 6.407–65: there is the same plea that the rest of the wife’s family being dead, the husband is all in all; the same vivid picture of the wife’s captivity in a hostile land; the same imagined taunt—‘‘this was the wife of a hero who was once the mightiest, and see how she has fallen’’; the same pleading to the warrior not to leave his son a helpless orphan. Is this a mere chance echo, Sophocles’ homage to the poet who had exhausted the pathetic possibilities in the fate of a dead warrior’s family? If there were no other evidence, this might be. But is it chance that the sword with which Ajax kills himself is Hector’s sword? He says of it bitterly in his speech of deception to the chorus: ‘‘For ever since I received this in my hand from Hector, the gift of my worst enemy, I have never yet had anything good from the Achaeans. True is that proverb of mortals, that an enemy’s gifts are no gifts, and the reverse of helpful.’’ And in his last soliloquy, Ajax addresses the sword as it stands braced in the Trojan ground to be his killer, as ‘‘the gift of Hector, that man who of all my guest-friends was most hated by me, the most detested to look upon.’’ And finally, when Teucer uncovers his brother’s body and recognizes the sword, he calls attention to the fatality of the gift exchange between Ajax and Hector (Iliad 7.303–5): ‘‘You see how it was destined that in time Hector, though dead, should destroy you? Consider, in God’s name, the chances of two mortals: Hector, bound to the chariot rail by the belt he received from this man, was torn continually until he breathed out his life; and this man, with the gift he received from the other, has perished in a leap of death.’’ It is hard to pass over the persistent appearance of the Hector theme as a chance irrelevance.

But if there is an intentional coupling here of Ajax and his dead enemy, what does Sophocles mean by it? Without explicitly pointing out the contrast, he seems to be letting the hearer form his own conclusions on two sorts of heroic conduct. Granting that Odysseus, the cool calculator who reasons out his pity for his mad enemy by saying ‘‘I think as much of my own fate as of his,’’ is no warrior, and that the contrast here is one between the ‘‘exceptional’’ and the ‘‘ordinary’’ man, it is necessary to the full appreciation of Ajax’s tragedy that he also be contrasted with a warrior of unquestioned stature. This contrast is afforded by the omnipresent figure of Hector. The soldier who received with gentleness and pity his wife’s tearful pleas to spare his life and not make her a widow and his son an orphan, and the comfort that ‘‘no man shall send me to Hades against my fate,’’ stands ghostlike in the background as Ajax with callous brutality brushes aside his wife and child and prepares to compass his own death. And when that consummation of his desires has been accomplished, and Teucer moralizes over the silver-studded sword and purple belt which had been the instruments of both men’s fates, the audience cannot but remember that Hector had died bravely in battle, fighting an unequal fight in defense of wife and child and parents and city, while Ajax had deliberately deceived his friends and destroyed himself as a useless sacrifice to his concept of honor.

The tragedy of Ajax cannot properly be explained by applying the classical hybris formula. This, formula implies that there is a norm of conduct valid for all men, deviation from which brings down the wrath of the gods upon the offender. It may be appropriate to explain some of Aeschylus’ tragedies by the concept of hybris, but not those of Sophocles. The tragedy of Ajax, as of The Trachinian Women, lies precisely in the fact that certain individuals, like Ajax and Heracles, are, by the very nature with which they have been endowed, at variance with the standards of conduct that apply to normal men. Neither a religious nor a moral consideration is involved here. Certain conduct is inevitable in the ‘‘exceptional man,’’ his nature being what it is; and this conduct inevitably also results in destruction for himself and misery for his loved ones. The very fact of being such an exceptional man is therefore tragic, but the tragedy is not the punishment of heaven for overstepping the bounds. The gods of Sophocles are merely conventional names for the sum of ‘‘the way things are.’’

The figure of Athena in the Ajax and the enmity of the goddess for the hero cannot be taken, I believe, in any personal sense, nor is undue importance to be attached to the ‘‘guilt’’ of Ajax in the words of Calchas as reported by the messenger. . . . In the first of these passages a statement is made which perhaps most clearly formulates the tragedy of Ajax, if correctly interpreted: ‘‘For, said the seer, exceptional and profitless beings fall at the gods’ hands into grievous misfortunes—all who, being engendered after the fashion of men, have thoughts that are not of human pattern.’’ This seems to be no more than a mere statement of fact, without moral implications. . . .

But Hector too was a warrior, as valiant and devoted to duty as Ajax. The difference lay in Hector’s . . . acceptance of the limitations of human power and the obligation of human living, which his enemy rejected. The contrast is glaringly apparent in the scene with Tecmessa in which Ajax contemp tuously brushes aside the claims of family as against those of honor; it is apparent also in the words which Ajax addresses to his infant son: ‘‘Child, may you be more fortunate than your father, but in other respects like him; so you will prove no coward.’’ Hector prays for the babe Astyanax: ‘‘Zeus and you other gods, grant that this child of mine may be distinguished among the Trojans, as am I, and as great in strength, and may he reign with power over Ilion. And some day may one say of him: ‘He is far braver than his father’’’ (Iliad 6.476–9). The one prays that his son may be better than he, the other that he may be his equal in everything but luck—a difference that speaks volumes of Ajax’s unbridled egotism. And yet the comparison between Hector and Ajax is made explicit in Sophocles’ play only in Teucer’s contrast of the gifts exchanged—and these were the cause of death for the one as for the other. Hector, who goes to his last battle with the prayer that he may lie under mounded earth before he hears the cry of Andromache being dragged to captivity, and Ajax, who invokes the vengeance of the Furies upon the Atridae and their whole army for the death that he is about to inflict on himself, are alike in this—death is the end for both.

Does this mean that Sophocles views the careers of both men as moral equivalents—‘‘the paths of glory lead but to the grave’’? If this is so, then it is indeed futile to look for any meaning—or indeed any tragedy—in the play. It is inconceivable, however, that all a great poet could say on such a theme should be reducible to such banal and irrelevant pessimism. Nor would it ever occur to one of Sophocles’ contemporaries to imagine that this was so. The hero who dies at his own hand because of a nature that cannot bend itself to conform to human norms is tragic; but not the hero who dies, as a soldier should, in defending his city and his people. Such a man’s fate is happy in Greek eyes; Solon’s anecdote of Tellus the Athenian (Herodotus 1.30) is evidence enough without citing Tyrtaeus, alien in time and place; and Hector’s fate for the fifth-century Athenian must have had much the same aura as the dead whom Pericles eulogizes (Thucydides 2.42), who ‘‘endured the brunt of battle with their bodies, and in the briefest moment of time, at the summit of their fortune, were taken not out of fear, but away from fame.’’

But the dead, however different in the mode of their death, must be buried. The ending of the Ajax often been criticized, as destructive of the play’s unity, as blatantly anticlimactic, even as mere padding. These criticisms are, I believe, absurdly unjust, and possible only as long as the mistaken notion is held that the play is ‘‘about Ajax,’’ and nothing more. It is ‘‘about’’ human life, and Ajax and Odysseus and Teucer and the Atridae—and I believe Hector—are all symbols through whom the poet may voice his thoughts on this subject. It is sometimes said that Ajax is ‘‘rehabilitated’’ in the second half of the play; so he is—as a human being. The whole importance of the contrast so pointedly made between Odysseus’ magnanimity and the vindictiveness of the Atridae lies in this. When Agamemnon queries: ‘‘You urge me then to permit the burial of this corpse?’’ Odysseus replies simply: ‘‘I do; for I myself shall come to this.’’ Whatever its conduct in life, this ‘‘profitless body’’ had been a human being, and resentment may not humanly be carried beyond death.

And here we have the last implied comparison with Hector: his body too his enemy had outraged and left unburied, until with appeals to their common humanity his old father had persuaded the vengeful Achilles to relinquish the corpse and let it be given to the fire. Odysseus plays the part of Priam here, with none of his pathos and grandeur, to be sure, but with basically the same argument: we are all mortal. The play ends with the parallelism between Ajax and Hector complete, the contrast sharply drawn between the hero and his two enemies: Odysseus, his polar opposite, the man of craft and intellect and cold blood; and Hector, the warrior so strangely like him, whose ‘‘human mindedness’’ as surely as Ajax’s ‘‘inhuman mindedness’’ terminates in the grave that is the common lot of all humans.

Source: W. Edward Brown. ‘‘Sophocles’s Ajax and Homer’s Hector’’ in Classical Journal, Vol. 61, no. 3, December, 1965, pp. 118–21.

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