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Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 530

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...

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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.


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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1010

Odysseus abandons Philoctetes on the barren island of Lemnos after the warrior is bitten on the foot by a snake while preparing to make a sacrifice at the shrine on the island of Chrysa. The wound never heals, and the smell that comes from it and the groans of suffering of Philoctetes are the reasons Odysseus gives for making him an outcast. Philoctetes, however, with his invincible bow, once the property of Herakles, becomes indispensable to the Greeks in their war against Troy. Landing for the second time on Lemnos, Odysseus describes the cave in which Philoctetes lives. Neoptolemus identifies it by the stained bandages drying in the sun, the leaf-stuffed mattress, and the crude wooden cup he finds.

Instructed by Odysseus, Neoptolemus is to lure Philoctetes on board with his bow by declaring that he, too, hates Odysseus because the king deprived him of the weapons of his father, Achilles. Neoptolemus is disgusted by this deception, but wily Odysseus pleads necessity and promises him honor and glory. When Neoptolemus agrees to obey, Odysseus leaves him.

The chorus of sailors reports that they hear the painful approach of Philoctetes. He asks who they are and whether they, too, are Greeks. Imploring their pity, he tells them not to fear him, although he became a savage through solitude and great suffering. Neoptolemus answers Philoctetes, who asks Neoptolemus who he is and why he comes. The young warrior says that he is the son of Achilles and that he does not know Philoctetes, who replies that he must indeed be vile if no word of him reached the Greeks. His wound grew worse and because he is alone on the island he has to use all his energy to remain alive. He shoots birds with his great bow, and, in order that he might drink in winter, he is forced to build a fire to melt the ice. He curses the Atreidae and Odysseus, who abandoned him, and wishes that they might suffer his agony. Neoptolemus, answering as he was instructed, says that he, too, curses Odysseus, who deprived him of his rights and robbed him of his father’s arms. He asserts that he intends to sail for home.

Philoctetes, declaring that their grief is equal, wonders also why Ajax allows these injustices. He is told that Ajax is also dead. Philoctetes is certain that Odysseus is alive, and this fact Neoptolemus confirms. After hearing of the death of other friends, Philoctetes agrees with Neoptolemus that war inevitably kills the good men but only occasionally and by chance kills the bad. Neoptolemus stresses his determination never to return to Troy. He then says good-bye to Philoctetes, who implores them not to abandon him and to suffer for one day the inconvenience of having him on board the ship on which Neoptolemus is sailing. When he begs on his knees not to be left alone again, the chorus expresses their willingness to take him with them. After Neoptolemus agrees, Philoctetes praises the day that brings them together and declares himself bound in friendship to the young warrior for all time.

As Odysseus planned, a sailor disguised as a trader comes to help Neoptolemus in tricking Philoctetes. He says, hoping to persuade Philoctetes to go quickly on board, that Odysseus is pursuing him in order to compel him to rejoin the Greek army, for Helenus, Priam’s son, prophesied that Philoctetes is the one man who will defeat Troy. Philoctetes swears that he will never go with his most hated enemy, and the disguised trader returns to his ship.

Neoptolemus asks permission to hold the mighty bow while Philoctetes prepares to leave the island. Suddenly the wound in Philoctetes’ foot begins to pain him beyond endurance. He hands the bow to Neoptolemus and writhes on the ground until the abscess bursts and the blood flows. The sailors advise Neoptolemus to leave with the bow while the exhausted man sleeps. Neoptolemus refuses, for the bow is useless without Philoctetes.

When Philoctetes awakens, Neoptolemus reveals to him that he came to take the warrior to fight against Troy. Philoctetes refuses to go. When Neoptolemus insists on keeping the bow, Philoctetes, enraged and despairing, curses such treachery and declares that he will starve without his weapon. Neoptolemus’s loyalties are divided between duty and compassion, but before he decides on the course to pursue, Odysseus arrives and demands that Philoctetes accompany them. When he remains adamant, Odysseus and Neoptolemus leave, taking with them the bow.

The chorus of sailors assures Philoctetes that it would be best to fight on the side of the Greeks, but, out of pride, he is determined not to fight alongside the men who made him an outcast. He begs for a sword to kill himself. Then Neoptolemus returns, followed by Odysseus; he decides to redress the wrong he did Philoctetes and to return the bow. Odysseus, unable to change the young warrior’s decision, goes to tell the other Greeks of this act of treachery. Meanwhile, Neoptolemus again tries to persuade Philoctetes to join them. When Philoctetes again refuses, Neoptolemus, in spite of the return of Odysseus, gives back the bow. He is then forced to keep Philoctetes from killing Odysseus.

When Odysseus again leaves them, Neoptolemus reveals the whole of Helenus’s prophecy, which foretold that the wound would be cured when Philoctetes returns and that, together with Neoptolemus, he will conquer Troy. Philoctetes, declaring Odysseus was faithless once and will be so again, implores Neoptolemus to take him home, as he first promised. Neoptolemus, however, is afraid that the Greeks will attack his country in retaliation. Philoctetes swears that he will defend the country with his bow.

Before they can leave, Herakles, from whom Philoctetes inherited the bow, appears on the rocks above the cave. He informs Philoctetes that Zeus made a decision. Philoctetes should return to the Greek army where he will be healed. Also, with Neoptolemus, he will kill Paris and take Troy. Philoctetes, heeding the voice of the immortal, willingly leaves Lemnos to fulfill his destiny.

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