Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

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

(Drama for Students)

In the fifth century B.C., life in Greece was characterized by warfare and epic battles. For many years Greece struggled to expand its...

(The entire section is 682 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

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...

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Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

In ancient Greek drama, a chorus consists of a group of actors who interpret and comment on the play’s action and...

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Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

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


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Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Discuss the relationship between man and the gods as portrayed in Ajax.

What do the speeches in Ajax suggest about...

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What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

Oedipus Rex, a drama written by Sophocles (c. 430-426 B.C.), is the story of one man’s attempts to escape his fate. It is the...

(The entire section is 97 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Goldhill, Simon. ‘‘The Great Dionysia and Civic Ideology,’’ in Nothing to Do With Dionysos? Athenian...

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(Great Characters in Literature)

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.