Places Discussed

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Greek camp

Greek camp. Encampment of the Greek army outside the walled city of Troy where the play opens in front of the Greek hero Ajax’s hut. His position is dangerously exposed; the location reflects both his reputation for reliability as a warrior and his political marginality. To appreciate this setting, one must understand the disposition of troops in ancient Greek war camps. Inferior in strength only to the dead Greek hero Achilles, Ajax guarded the second most vulnerable area, providing protection for the Greek ships. Since Achilles is dead when the play opens, the location of Ajax’s hut suggests that Ajax now is the preeminent warrior.

However, there are more ways than geography to judge merit. Athena, goddess of wisdom, as well as the Greek commanders Agamemnon and Menelaus, believe that clever Odysseus is more deserving than Ajax of being awarded the fallen Achilles’ armor. Feeling affronted, Ajax sets out to kill those who have slighted him, and his hut becomes both the location of his mad acts and a visual reminder of his disastrous intent. Colored by what can be learned through dialogue about Ajax’s actions there, the site becomes an encapsulation of the plot: Ajax’s physical preeminence, the affront to him, and his madness in mistaking cattle for humans and dragging them into the hut to torture and kill them.

Wooded area

Wooded area. The second setting is the area to which Ajax, sane again and shamed by his mad assault upon animals instead of enemies, withdraws to commit suicide. The remoteness of the site reflects Ajax’s isolation from his former comrades and his desolation. Other characters enter the area only after he dies, and his corpse then functions as part of the setting, silently testifying to the issue that confronts survivors: Should the former hero be honored with burial, or should he be abandoned in this desolate terrain to become carrion for wild dogs and vultures? In the end, the traditional belief in honoring the dead triumphs, promoted by the noble Odysseus. Under the direction of Teucer, the dead man’s brother, Ajax receives a hero’s burial at the site.

Historical Context

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In the fifth century B.C., life in Greece was characterized by warfare and epic battles. For many years Greece struggled to expand its empire, and it was inevitable that conflict would result. Athens enjoyed her first great military triumph at the Battle of Marathon in 491 B.C., when legend has it, some 20,000 Greeks defeated the 100,000 man Persian army. The numbers were probably much lower, but the odds were definitely against the Greeks, who proved that superior discipline and courage were stronger than sheer numbers.

This was the first major defeat for the Persian army, whose strength and reputation actually scared and intimidated many Greek soldiers. This victory would inspire the story of a courier who ran to Athens with news of the victory but then fell dead of exhaustion upon his arrival, thus inspiring the idea of 26-mile marathon races, which endures to modern times.

Within ten years, the tables would turn. The Persian army—then more than two million men— would score a huge victory, pushing the Greek army into retreat. The Persians sacked Athens, but within a month, the Greeks once again got the upper hand, and in a decisive naval victory, more than 1000 Persian ships were sunk. Within a year, the Persian invasions stopped completely, and Greece once again entered a peaceful period known as the Golden Age of Greece.

These are the battles that form a backdrop to Sophocles’s childhood. These historical events are...

(This entire section contains 682 words.)

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filled with heroic men and great leaders, tremendous odds and great victories, and function as the source material for much of Greek theater.

Greek drama needed these larger-than-life heroes, since real life did not seem to provide material for heroic drama. Historically, there are many complaints about Greek tradesmen, who were well known for short-changing their customers and lying about their goods. Many politicians were also thought to be dishonest, and bribery was a common way of transacting government. Therefore, heroic warriors and brave leaders offered the role models and excitement many Greek citizens needed for their entertainment.

For many Greek citizens, life revolved around not offending the gods; unfortunately, there were no hard, set rules for this. Therefore, much controversy arose from what was offensive to the gods. The Greeks used oracles and dreams to figure this out, and eventually there were certain behaviors that were established as necessary, such as extending hospitality to a traveler or not violating an oath. Generally, gods were not interested in petty thievery, primarily because Greek political life involved bribery, corruption, and lying. Moreover, gods were also not interested in more serious crimes, except for murder.

The disposal of dead bodies was deemed important. Corpses were thought to cast a bad aura upon both victim and murderer; besides, it was a public health concern. It was especially important to deal with corpses in a correct and ritualized manner, regardless of the cause of death. Not to do so could result in serious divine punishment, hence Odysseus’s reminders to Agamemnon that Ajax’s body must be given proper burial.

The precarious relationship between gods and humans is the basis for a number of plays during that time. Plays were performed once a year at the festival of Dionysus. Three playwrights were chosen to present four plays, three tragedies and one comedy. These plays were performed during daylight, in outdoor theaters that often held as many as 14,000 spectators. All actors were men, and until Sophocles, there were only two actors and the chorus. Sophocles introduced the third actor, which permitted more complex plays to be presented. Although there was little scenery—in fact, often none—the actors wore elaborate masks.

In addition to the competition between playwrights, the lead actors also competed for awards. Playwrights probably did not receive much compensation for the writing, staging, and directorial duties that occupied them, and all of the best known playwrights, including Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides also held military or political posts. These plays fulfilled an important function, since they illustrated moral issues important to early Greeks. Ajax’s situation would have provided an important lesson to the audience.


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Modern medicine would classify Ajax’s problem as battle fatigue or as post-traumatic stress. In Sophocles’ play, Athena is to blame, or be praised, since by sending a fit of madness to Ajax she saves her champion Odysseus. The immediate result is the mass slaughter of the Greek army’s herd animals. The ultimate outcome is the suicide of the disgraced Ajax.

Ajax has reason for his anger. Agamemnon and Menelaus have denied him the armor of the dead Achilles and awarded it instead to Odysseus, the great strategist of the Trojan horse. Odysseus is the hero most beloved by Athena, the goddess who masterminds the Olympian strategies that keep Zeus in power. Usually, Athena is protrayed as a benign and comforting deity who reassures everyone that order in the cosmos is possible. Sophocles’ Athena, however, has a sadistic streak. She encourages Ajax in the delusion that he is killing the Greeks who slighted and ridiculed him, even to the point of admiring the ram he plans to kill last and believes to be Odysseus. His suicide at the play’s climax places him literally and figuratively among the animals that he has slaughtered.

John Tipton’s textual realization of Sophocles’ play is not so much a translation as it is a modern rendering. In verse, it employs what Tipton calls the “counted line.” By this he means that each line of dialogue represents his choice of six words that render the parallel Greek line. The immediate effect is to shorten and simplify diction and sometimes to create poetic shorthand that preserves the narrative while rewriting Sophocles’ poetry.

An example of this technique is worthwhile. When Ajax’s wife Tecmessa realizes that her husband has awakened from his fit and realizes what he has done, she says:

At least while he was sickhe was happy in his havoc;I was the one in pain.But after he could breathe againthe ugly truth poured over him.I’m no better now than beforeand his problems have just doubled.

Ian Johnston’s translation, which is closer to the Greek text, reads:

That man in there, when he was still so ill,enjoyed himself while savage fantasiesheld him in their grip, but we were sane,and, since he was one of us, we suffered.But now there is a pause in his disease,he can recuperate and understandthe full extremity of bitter grief,yet everything for us remains the sameour anguish is no milder than before.This is surely not a single sorrow,but a double grief?

Tipton’s rendering reduces twelve lines of Greek to seven. More significant, he changes the emphasis of Tecmessa’s speech. He makes her a character independent of the collective identity of the Greek forces and a pained wife rather than a captive woman among sympathizing onlookers. What Tipton’s text loses in fidelity to Sophocles it gains in immediacy and humanity. A reader might object to this, but it is hard to argue that Tipton departs from Sophocles’ larger intention to describe human transcendence. Tipton’s immediate influence is the poet Louis Zukofsky, who employs the counted line in his anthology 80 Flowers (1978).

Tecmessa is a bride by capture who becomes a willing spouse. Teucer is an initially diffident brother who argues for Ajax’s right to burial and ultimately performs that ritual scrupulously. Even Odysseus, the warrior who receives the armor by judgment of Agamemnon and Menelaus, argues for Ajax’s honorable burial. While even Menelaus recognizes the necessary justice of this, Agamemnon does not. In fact, Agamemnon becomes a paradigm of the leader who refuses to acknowledge a disastrous mistake. The mistake extends beyond awarded armor to prosecution of the Trojan War itself. Agamemnon had begun this enterprise by sacrificing his daughter Iphigenia, what one could reasonably characterize as a mad act performed by a man the world judges as sane. He remains unconverted to the last.

Sophocles’ Ajax is, thus, a deceptively subtle play that contrasts small-minded brutality and generous forgiveness. Ajax sacked Tecmessa’s city and tore her from her father, yet she comes to love him as her husband. Odysseus is the ally who becomes, after receiving the armor, Ajax’s most hated enemy. Odysseus forgives Ajax and argues for his burial; this is a request Agamemnon grants with mean reluctance.

Tipton takes even greater liberties with the Chorus than he does in translating the dialogue. The choral odes become abstractions of the Greek rather than translations. This is by design. Tipton eliminates all first-person references. He further abstracts syntactical elements to make the Chorus’s words those of a psychologically distressed human being. After Ajax leaves the stage, intent on his suicide, the Chorus, which consists of sailors rather than soldiers, compares the dull pain of wielding oars to the formless ache it feels for Ajax’s disgrace. Alliteration merges with repetition in the words

hurt heaps hurt here  left right  left where it willwill it learn the place?  dropped itdropped can’t find it be foundhalf a boat’s oars in sync  with what?

These changes create a dynamically contemporary play. They underscore its symmetry in the sense that the initial frenzy that results in Ajax’s slaughter of the herds parallels the ten-year slaughter of the Trojan War. The dead Ajax among the herds becomes another senseless corpse among the other corpses, leveling the value of warriors and the animals that sustain them. In essence, Tipton has written another play. It extends the myth to an apocalypse, a bare landscape that is timeless, and such, after all, was the goal of Sophocles. In Tipton’s realization, the ancient world merges with the modern. Tipton has no problem having Ajax describe his sword, a “gift” he received through Hector “who was my most hated enemyplanted in the angry Trojan ground,” as though it were a gun “cocked and ready . . . ” The zeugma describes both the sword that Ajax will plant upright in order to fall upon it and Hector himself, for whom his city has become his burial place. Tipton’s Chorus wonders about “where it will end/ the count of years wandering/ the toll the statistics of missiles.” It concludes that it is “better [to be] hurled into space/ or into the crowd in hell/ than to be a bomb maker/ and share your results/ the Los Alamos boys knew what they’d done.”

None of this is Sophocles. It has an anger that one never finds in that playwright. Tipton still does manage a powerful realization of the mythic idea implicit in the Ajax myth. That myth, in the final analysis, is about endless war, brutalizing by its nature, and the power of the human heart to generously forgive. In doing this, Tipton continues in the tradition of the ancient playwrights who created neither their characters nor the plots of their plays. The originality of Sophocles, just as the originality of Aeschylus, Euripides, or Tipton, lay in his ability to emphasize an aspect of personality or an element of the theme that is appropriate to a historical period.

Ajax was a great hero, but he was never the greatest hero. The decision of Agamemnon and Menelaus to award the armor of Achilles to Odysseus makes logical sense. Odysseus had masterminded the scheme through which the Greeks stole the statue of Athena from the Palladium, the temple that stood on the Trojan citadel. This achievement, which fate had decreed necessary if Troy were ever to fall, would have been enough to ensure Odysseus’s fame. The deep-seated fear of Ajax, then, is his realization that while he is a hero, he is not one of the first rank.

Ajax’s achievement, such as it first seems to him to be, is that he has slain and imprisoned his enemies, his fellow warriors who brought him to Troy, allowed him to fight there for ten years, and then would not recognize his service. Athena encourages this delusion. Ajax’s achievement, such as it is in reality, is that he has proved that though everyone considers that killing the herds proves Ajax’s insanity, Agamemnon’s pursuit of a ten-year war and the death of thousands of soldiers is proof of courage and perseverance.

Tipton’s rendering allows the audience to realize that those Ajax perceives as his enemies, his fellow warriors, may be so in actuality. Agamemnon had led him into war and maintained the war for ten full years. After madness that Ajax cannot control causes him to kill the herds, Agamemnon becomes Ajax’s declared enemy.

Nearly a third of the play follows Ajax’s suicide. This is a definite indication that Sophocles intends something more for his audience to consider. It can only be the debate over Agamemnon’s refusal of burial. Both in Sophocles’ text and in Tipton’s vision of the play, this passage shows maturity in the character of Teucer, generosity on the part of Odysseus, and sullen stubbornness in the character of Agamemnon. Only Odysseus’s appeal to Agamemnon as a friend causes the latter to relent, though he remains ungracious to the end and refuses participation in the rites. The world at large would judge Agamemnon a great leader. Sophocles’ audience, and certainly Tipton’s, might easily question that hero’s sanity.

Literary Style

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Chorus In ancient Greek drama, a chorus consists of a group of actors who interpret and comment on the play’s action and themes, most often singing or chanting their lines. Initially the chorus had an important role in drama, as it does in Ajax, but eventually its role diminished. As a result, the chorus became little more than commentary between acts. Modern theater rarely uses a chorus.

Drama A drama is often defined as any work designed to be presented on the stage. It consists of a story, action, and actors portraying characters. Historically, drama can also consist of tragedy, comedy, religious pageant, and spectacle. In modern times, drama explores serious topics and themes but does not achieve the same level as tragedy. Ajax is traditional Greek drama, and as such, provides important lessons for men about their relationship with the gods.

Genre Genres are a way of categorizing literature. Genre is a French term that means ‘‘kind’’ or ‘‘type.’’ Genre can refer to both the category of literature such as tragedy, comedy, epic, poetry, or pastoral. It can also include modern forms of literature such as drama, novels, or short stories. This term can also refer to types of literature such as mystery, science fiction, comedy, or romance. Ajax is a Greek tragedy.

Plot Plot refers to the pattern of events. Generally plots should have a beginning, middle, and conclusion— but they may also sometimes be a series of episodes connected together. Basically, the plot provides the author with the means to explore themes. Students are often confused between the two terms; but themes explore ideas, and plots simply relate what happens in a very obvious manner. Thus the plot of Ajax is what happens to Ajax after he chooses to seek revenge upon Odysseus, Menelaus, and Agamemnon. The theme of the play is how excessive pride and vanity can lead to a man’s destruction.

Scene Traditionally, a scene is a subdivision of an act and consists of continuous action of a time and place. However, Sophocles is not using acts, and so two scenes divide the action, which is separated by only a few hours at most.

Setting The time and place of the play is called the setting. The elements of setting may include geo graphic location, physical or mental environments, prevailing cultural attitudes, or the historical time in which the action takes place. The primary location for Ajax is the battle for Troy, with the initial setting outside Ajax’s tent. In the second scene, the setting moves to a nearby beach and the action spans a day.

Tragic Flaw In tragedy, this is the mechanism that brings about the destruction of the hero. While Ajax is brave, strong, and heroic, he also suffers from excessive pride. This flaw angers Athena and provokes her revenge upon Ajax.

Compare and Contrast

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c. 445 B.C.: Architecture and art make Athens preeminent in the world and lead to the designation of the Golden Age of Greece.

Today: Greece remains a favorite tourist destination, as thousands of people journey each year to visit the Temple of Poseidon, Delphi, and the Parthenon, which was rebuilt after the Persians sacked Athens.

c. 445 B.C.: 25-35% of the population of Greece are slaves, many of whom work in the silver mines.

Today: Slavery has long since ended, but Greece is now dealing with severe poverty and a shrinking economic base.

c. 445 B.C.: The Greeks triumph over the Persians and stave off the invasion of their country.

Today: Greek politics has been preoccupied with military coups and conflict with neighboring Turkey since the end of World War II.

c. 445 B.C.: The Greek historian, Herodotus, provides some of the earliest and most thorough histories of Greece. He will later be known as the ‘‘father of history.’’

Today: History now unfolds on television and in newspapers everyday. The future role of historians will have to accommodate the overwhelming proliferation of material now available.

c. 445 B.C.: Destroyed by the Persians, the rebuilding of the Acropolis begins. It will take fifteen years to finish the job.

Today: The Parthenon, situated on the Acropolis and overlooking Athens, is still a favorite destination for tourists.

c. 445 B.C.: Festival games, a tradition of competitiveness begun nearly three hundred years earlier, continue in Greece. By the 5th century, their ritual meaning—they were originally held at funerals—has been lost.

Today: The Olympic Games, a reminder of the former competitiveness of the Greeks, were revived in the late 19th century. Today, they are often imbued with political agendas that detract from the spectacle and celebration.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Goldhill, Simon. ‘‘The Great Dionysia and Civic Ideology,’’ in Nothing to Do With Dionysos? Athenian Drama in Its Social Context, edited by John J. Winkler and Froma I. Zeitlin, Princeton University Press, 1992, pp. 97-129.

King, W. D. ‘‘Nailed to a Circus of Blood; Ajax at the American National Theatre,’’ Theatre Vol. 18, No. 1, Fall- Winter, 1986, pp. 6-15.

Romilly, Jacqueline de. ‘‘Drama in the Second Half of the Fifth Century: Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes,’’ in A Short History of Greek Literature, translated by Lillian Doherty, University of Chicago Press, 1985, pp. 66-89.

Walton, J. Michael. The Greek Sense of Theatre: Tragedy Reviewed, Methuen, 1984.

Zeitlin, Froma I. ‘‘Playing the Other: Theatre, Theatricality, and the Feminine in Greek Drama,’’ in Nothing to Do With Dionysos? Athenian Drama in Its Social Context, edited by John J. Winkler and Froma I. Zeitlin, Princeton University Press, 1992, pp. 63-96.

Further Reading Ashby, Clifford. Classical Greek Theatre: New Views of an Old Subject, University of Iowa Press, 1999. An examination of Greek theater based on architectural evidence. The author has traveled extensively and examined many of the remaining sites in Greece, Southern Italy, and the Balkans.

Gressler, Thomas H. Greek Theatres in the 1980s, McFarland & Company, 1989. A study of modern Greek theater in which the author focuses on social and cultural influences of drama, discusses the history of theater, and provides a look at productions and the restoration of theaters.

Griffith, R. Drew. The Theatre of Apollo: Divine Justice and Sophocles’s Oedipus the King, McGill Queens University Press, 1996. This is a reinterpretation of Sophocles’s play that explores Apollo’s role in bringing about this tragedy. It also attempts to recreate the play’s original staging.

Rehm, Rush. Greek Tragic Theatre, Routledge, 1994. Discusses performances of several plays and encourages readers to consider the context in which the plays were performed.

Walton, J. Michael. Living Greek Theatre, Greenwood, 1987. Focuses on the staging and performance of Greek drama. The author attempts to integrate classical and modern theater, while providing a great deal of information about a number of the most important plays from this period.

Wise, Jennifer. Dionynsus Writes: The Invention of Theatre in Ancient Greece, Cornell University Press, 1998. Discusses the relationship between literature and drama by examining the influences of a newly emerging literary world on drama.

Zelenak, Michael X. Gender and Politics in Greek Tragedy, Peter Lang, 1998. This book offers some insight into the status of women in Greek culture and provides interesting analysis of many women characters from Greek drama.


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Bryn Mawr Classical Review 44 (August, 2008).

Kirkwood, Gordon MacDonald. A Study of Sophoclean Drama. Vol. 31 in Cornell Studies in Classical Philology. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1958. Analyzes Sophocles’ structures and methods of dramatic composition. Compares the plays of Sophocles. Focuses on the characters, irony, illustrative forms, use of diction, and oracles in each. Excellent coverage of Ajax.

The Nation 287, no. 3 (July 21, 2008): 41-44.

Publishers Weekly 255, no. 20 (May 19, 2008): 37.

Scodel, Ruth. Sophocles. Boston: Twayne, 1984. Focuses on the historical and mythological significance of the character Ajax. Discusses the plot and compares it to Homer’s Iliad. Includes information on Sophocles’ seven plays. Includes a chronology of Sophocles’ life, a bibliography, and an index.

Seale, David. Vision and Stagecraft in Sophocles. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982. An excellent starting point. Distinguishes Sophocles from other playwrights of his time and demonstrates his influence on later ones. Considers the theatrical technicalities in many Sophoclean plays, including Ajax. Includes an extended explanation and notes regarding Ajax.

Segal, Charles. Tragedy and Civilization: An Interpretation of Sophocles. Cambridge, Mass.: Published for Oberlin College by Harvard University Press, 1981. Compares Ajax to the other plays by Sophocles in terms of structure and theme. Traces and explains the plot.

Woodard, Thomas, ed. Sophocles: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1966. A collection of essays, including writings by Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, and Virginia Woolf. Draws connections between Ajax and later literary works.




Critical Essays