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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 440

Philoctetes was a play by the Greek playwright Sophocles. It was first performed at the City Dionysia in 409 BC, where it was awarded the first prize. Like most Greek tragedies, it is not based on original characters invented by the author but rather on legendary figures from the heroic age who are also portrayed in the Homeric epics. The events of the play were, in fact, a popular tragic subject, as both Aeschylus and Euripides also wrote plays about Philoctetes, which have not survived. The play was performed by three actors and a chorus, all of whom would have worn masks, enabling actors to play multiple roles. The main characters of the play are described below.

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Chorus of Sailors: The chorus of the play consisted of sailors who would have performed choral odes involving singing and dancing. They were the crew of the ship Odysseus sailed to Lemnos to recover Philoctetes and his bow. They comment on the action of the play but do not have individual names or identities. Although the chorus leader has individual lines, the chorus generally speaks in unison in a single voice and represents generally accepted views and reactions.

Disguised Sailor: One sailor, disguised as a trader, is sent by Odysseus to spy on Neptolemus and Philoctetes.

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Odysseus: Familiar to Greek readers from Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, Odysseus was the King of Ithaca, son of Laërtes and Anticlea, husband of Penelope, and father of Telemachus. He is presented in the play as unscrupulous and clever, willing to deceive, steal, and kidnap to obtain his goal of getting the help of Philoctetes and his bow in the war against the Trojans. Due to his abandonment of Philoctetes on Lemnos prior to the events of the play, Odysseus is hated by Philoctetes.

Philoctetes: The eponymous protagonist of the play was the son of King Poeas of the city Meliboea in Thessaly and a favorite of the deified hero Herakles. He possessed a uniquely powerful bow that once belonged to Herakles. Odysseus had abandoned him on Lemnos after he was wounded but in response to a prophecy is now trying to persuade him to help the Greeks in the Trojan war.

Neoptolemus: The son of the warrior Achilles and the princess Deidamia, Neoptolemus is presented in the play as morally upright and honest. He is a reluctant participant in the deceptions of Odysseus and his moral dilemmas are a key theme of the play.

Herakles: The Greek Herakles (Latin: Hercules) was the son of Zeus and Alcmene and renowned for his strength. He appears at the end of the play and persuades Philoctetes to help the Greeks.

Characters Discussed

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 605


Philoctetes (fihl-ok-TEE-teez), a Greek warrior who had received as a legacy from Herakles his magical bow and arrows. As the Greek expedition sailed toward Troy, it had paused at Chrysa, where Philoctetes, approaching a shrine, had been bitten on the foot by a serpent. The wound refused to heal. Because Philoctetes’ screams of pain and the odor emanating from the wound caused acute discomfort to his shipmates, he was, at the instigation of Odysseus and the Atreidae, marooned on the barren island of Lemnos. Ten years later, the Greeks captured Helenus, a Trojan prophet, who revealed that the city would never fall without the willing aid of Philoctetes. Odysseus and Neoptolemus were sent to persuade Philoctetes to rejoin the cause of those who had abandoned him. At the beginning of the play, Philoctetes, who has endured ten years of loneliness, starvation, and hideous pain, is kept alive only by his superhuman stamina and his fierce hatred of the Greeks who wronged him. He is deceived by Neoptolemus, who, having promised to take him home, is entrusted with the great bow. When the real purpose of Neoptolemus’ visit becomes clear, Philoctetes adamantly refuses to go to Troy, even though to remain on Lemnos would mean certain death for him without the weapon he uses to kill sea birds for food. There is no question but that he is morally right to resist not only Odysseus’ threats but also Neoptolemus’ persuasions; however, the kind of heroism to which Philoctetes dedicates himself, although grand and noble, is essentially sterile and selfish. Having triumphed over both the callous enmity of Odysseus and the spontaneous friendliness of Neoptolemus, itself a soft and subtle infringement on his will, Philoctetes can at last freely offer himself to the world again, an action symbolized by the epiphany of Herakles. With Odysseus and Neoptolemus, he sets out for Troy, where he will win glory and where his wound will be cured.


Neoptolemus (nee-op-TOL-eh-muhs), the young son of Achilles, noble and courageous but as yet untried in battle. Convinced by Odysseus that it is his duty to deceive Philoctetes, he tells the outcast that he has deserted the Greek army because his father’s armor had been denied him. He promises to take Philoctetes back to Greece with him and watches as Philoctetes struggles against an excruciating wave of pain brought on by his disease. When Neoptolemus at last acquires possession of the great bow, Philoctetes is made helpless. Later, in spite of Odysseus’ strong protests, his sense of decency and honor and the instinctive sympathy he has felt for the sufferer cause him to return the weapon. He finally agrees truly to take Philoctetes home but is relieved of this obligation when the bowman resolves to go to Troy.


Odysseus (oh-DIHS-ee-uhs), the crafty and unscrupulous Greek leader who puts expediency over honor. His purpose is to get Philoctetes to accompany him to Troy; his means are deceit and violence. He temporarily convinces Neoptolemus that a reputation for wisdom and goodness can be won by a man willing to sacrifice personal honor for the benefit of his cause. After his experience with Philoctetes, the young man holds both Odysseus and his advice in contempt. Odysseus is not totally without dignity, and he reveals a sense of responsibility to the Greek army and its generals.

A sailor

A sailor, disguised as a trader, sent by Odysseus, who cannot allow himself to be seen, to spy on Neoptolemus and Philoctetes.


Herakles (HEHR-uh-kleez), the legendary Greek hero, now deified, whose spirit informs Philoctetes that destiny requires him to leave Lemnos and go to Troy.

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