Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Philoctetes is a play written by Sophocles around 409 BCE. The background of the play is that Philoctetes is the owner of the fabled bow and arrows of Hercules. When he sets out along with the Greek army to fight in the Trojan War, he suffers a snakebite at the temple of the goddess Chryse. It results in a malodorous, festering wound, and he is left alone with his weapons on the uninhabited island of Lemnos.
The play commences with Odysseus, along with Neoptolemus, arriving by sea at the island of Lemnos. The Trojan War has dragged for ten years, and according to a prophecy by Helenus, a Trojan mystic, the war can be won by the Greeks only if they employ Philoctetes, who possesses the bow and poison-tipped arrows of Hercules.
The war-weary Greeks send a contingent to get Philoctetes to Troy, but it's a difficult task. Philoctetes is furious at the Greeks, particularly Odysseus, for marooning him on the uninhabited island. His incurable wound suppurates, bleeds, pains, and causes him great grief, and he holds the Greeks responsible for his misery. Moreover, he's had ten years to let the hatred against Greeks take deep root in his heart. He is an expert archer, and his poisoned arrows kill unfailingly.
Odysseus coaxes Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles, to use deception and get Philoctetes to agree to come with them. Neoptolemus is repulsed by the idea of treachery and initially refuses. He ultimately agrees when Odysseus tells him that this is the only way to bring an end to the war.
Neoptolemus approaches Philoctetes and manages to win over his confidence by faking hatred for Odysseus. Neoptolemus states that the fabled armor of Achilles is with Odysseus even though, by birthright, it should be with him—the son of Achilles.
Having thus won over Philoctetes with his words and the offer of sailing back to Greece, Neoptolemus manages to hold the bow of Hercules in his hands. However, as Philoctetes swoons away from the pain in his foot, Neoptolemus revisits his own conduct with the man, and his inherent sense of honor prevails.
Odysseus reveals himself, and as the truth dawns upon Philoctetes, he is enraged and points his deadly arrow at Odysseus. After a standoff between Odysseus and the Greeks on one side and Philoctetes on the other, Odysseus leaves the scene.
Neoptolemus tries his best to convince Philoctetes to accompany him to Troy, but the latter agrees to sail with him only for a journey to Greece. Neoptolemus gives in, even as he warns Philoctetes that they'd be facing the ire of the Greek army for this act.
At this juncture, Hercules appears and tells them that if Philoctetes were to sail for Troy, then not only would he play an important role in a significant victory, he would also be cured. Philoctetes agrees to do so. He is cured. He kills Paris, the son of Priam, and many other Trojans.
The play raises important points about ends justifying the means. While Odysseus believes the ends do justify the means, especially when an individual's sense of honor is at stake, Neoptolemus would rather lose honorably than win through deceit.