Last Updated September 5, 2023.
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.
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.
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.