Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 872
Anger and Hatred The action of the play is driven by Ajax’s vengeful anger as he turns on Odysseus, Menelaus, and Agamemnon after Odysseus is voted Achilles’s armor. The hatred once meant for his enemies is now directed on these three warriors, and Ajax sets out to murder them...
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Anger and Hatred
The action of the play is driven by Ajax’s vengeful anger as he turns on Odysseus, Menelaus, and Agamemnon after Odysseus is voted Achilles’s armor. The hatred once meant for his enemies is now directed on these three warriors, and Ajax sets out to murder them in their sleep. The interference of Athena spares their lives, but his intended victims learn of how near they came to death and turn their fury on Ajax.
After Ajax’s suicide, Menelaus and Agamemnon are so filled with hate that they would willingly offend the gods and leave Ajax’s body to rot in the open. Only Odysseus’s levelheaded calm prevents anger from ruining more lives.
Choice and Fate
Ajax believes that he is in control of his destiny. He thinks that his strength and reputation as a warrior should govern his fate, but he is really a pawn in the hands of the gods. When Ajax rejects Athena’s help, declaring that he needs no assistance from the gods, he seals his doom. It is the gods who determine if Ajax is honored, and while men may vote on the disposition of Achilles’s armor, Athena leaves little doubt that she had a hand in that decision.
When Ajax would take revenge upon Odysseus, Menelaus, and Agamemnon, it is Athena who saves their lives. Ajax believes he is murdering his former colleagues, but Athena has cast a spell so that he is really murdering a herd of sheep.
Although Ajax is unaware of Athena’s interference, it is she who leads him toward suicide. As the prophet foretold, if Ajax remains inside for this day, Athena’s anger would dissipate and he would survive. Yet she makes sure that he recovers his senses and leaves his dwelling to view his shame; thus, she sets into motion Ajax’s final scene, his death.
Gods and Man
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, God is a forgiving and beneficent creator. Man views his relationship with God in a cause-and-effect manner, in which good deeds and faith are rewarded with God’s grace.
The Greeks had a different relationship with their gods. For instance, instead of one all-powerful god, there were many gods; man’s relationship with these deities was marked by the arbitrary nature of each god. Whether or not a man was good, honest, or brave had no bearing on how the gods treated him. Instead, it depended on the whims of the gods themselves. If the gods were warring amongst themselves, they would quite likely inflict some revenge upon men, rather than on the offending deity.
This very arbitrary nature of the gods meant that men could not determine their own fates, nor could they even assume responsibility for their own behavior. There were no rules to live by, because the gods behaved on impulse. Moreover, the gods often had favorites and scapegoats amongst the mortal population, and they didn’t hesitate to punish those that displeased them. Obviously this created a very precarious and dangerous world.
The effects of the capricious behavior of the gods are clearly seen when Ajax is destroyed because he rejects Athena’s help. Ajax has too much confidence in his own ability and not enough respect for Athena’s strength, and this means that he is doomed. He has no warning of her anger and no way of placating it.
Excessive pride—also known as hubris—leads to Ajax’s downfall. His first mistake is in rejecting the help of the gods. According to Greek life, his life, his destiny, and his successes are all determined by the gods; when he rejects Athena’s help, her pride is offended, and she decides that Ajax’s boast that he needs no help from any god means he must be destroyed. When Achilles’s armor is given to Odysseus, Ajax’s pride is what leads him to seek revenge.
Unfortunately, he is so blinded by his pride that he is unable to see that Odysseus is as strong and deserving as he is. Odysseus has qualities that Ajax lacks, such as the ability to solve conflict without weapons. However, Ajax’s arrogance does not permit him to accept that he is deficient in the qualities that make Odysseus a great leader.
Finally, it is pride that leads Ajax to kill himself. He is shamed before the other Greek warriors and cannot live with that shame. He perceives his only recourse as suicide.
Strength and Weakness
Ajax is a strong and brave warrior. In fact, he is known as Ajax the Great because of his excellence. Yet the problem is he views himself as perfect. Ajax believes that he exemplifies the best of heroic man, but he forgets that heroism is more than just exhibiting bravery. It also involves making good choices, compromise, and the ability to recognize and compensate for his weaknesses.
Ajax is lacking in these areas. The very strengths that he exhibits in battle—leadership of men, physical strength, and prowess with his weapons—are incomplete without these other abilities. A hero needs modesty and the strength to compromise; he also needs to realize that accepting another man’s competence does not diminish his own.