Scholars consider Sophocles in many ways the greatest and most modern of the Greek tragedians. Sophocles’ innovations include increasing the number of actors from two to three and diminishing the role of the chorus, thus making room for greater character depth, psychological complexity, and intricate plots. Greek myth still provides the background, yet each of Sophocles’ plays focuses on unique moral dilemmas in human terms.
One of Sophocles’ main themes, seen in Oidipous Tyrannos (c. 429 b.c.e.; Oedipus Tyrannus, 1715) and Antigon (441 b.c.e.; Antigone, 1729) as well as in Philoctetes, is the suffering of the individual caused when a strong-willed person contradicts the will of the gods or the rational solution to a problem. Sophocles does not reveal the will of the gods until the end of Philoctetes, when the Greek sailor disguised as a trader explains that Helenus, a prophet and son of the Trojan king Priam, was captured by Odysseus. Helenus prophesies before the warriors that the Greeks will never take Troy until they persuade Philoctetes to leave his island and come with them. This puts the burden of responsibility upon Odysseus, since it was his idea to maroon Philoctetes, and now Philoctetes is needed to win the war.
In Homer’s epic Iliad (c. 750 b.c.e.; English translation, 1611), the poet reviews the Greek troops gathering to begin the assault upon Troy to retrieve Helen, wife of commander Menelaus. Homer says that seven ships were led by Philoctetes, the master archer “superbly skilled with bow in lethal combat.” Homer explains that after the battle, Philoctetes lay in agony upon the shores of the island of Lemnos. From this threadbare legend, Sophocles develops his three primary characters—Philoctetes, Odysseus, and Neoptolemus—in a profound statement about the meaning of suffering and personal integrity.
Sophocles’ drama explores the idea that people learn the meaning of life only through suffering. Often in Greek stories, misery and torment are caused by the arbitrary workings of the universe. Knowledge and virtue are attained through coping with difficult circumstances such as the ten years of Philoctetes’ abandonment or the twelve “impossible” labors of Herakles.
Philoctetes and Herakles, the most famous of Greek heroes, share similar stories. Herakles suffers because of the wrath of Hera, queen of the universe; Philoctetes suffers because of the help he gave to Herakles. According to some Greek authorities, Hera sent the snake to injure Philoctetes. When the dying Herakles lies upon a funeral pyre on Mount Oeta, none of his followers will light the fire. Herakles offers Philoctetes his bow in exchange for lighting the fire, thus helping Herakles to be transposed to Olympus. Both Herakles and Philoctetes experience restoration. Herakles becomes an immortal after his labors; physicians heal Philoctetes’ incurable wound after his bow brings about the fall of Troy.
Philoctetes’ identity is linked to enduring pain. According to one myth, Philoctetes is wounded accidentally while in the act of sacrificing to Apollo on the island of Chrysa. The snake that bites him may have been either the guardian of an unmarked shrine or a punishment sent by Hera for helping Herakles. Philoctetes’ pain is so great that he cries out, uttering oaths and curses, becoming a nuisance to Odysseus and his men. Odysseus regards the festering wound as a bad omen that terrifies the warriors. Philoctetes tells Odysseus that “You have joy to be alive, and I have sorrow/ because my very life is linked to this pain.”
Nevertheless, while isolated on Lemnos, Philoctetes builds his skills and attempts to restore his confidence. His arrows never miss the birds and wild...
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animals that are his food during his isolation. When Herakles rescues him at the end of the play, Philoctetes’ restoration is complete.
In Philoctetes, Sophocles compares a multidimensional hero (Odysseus) to a static, one-dimensional sufferer (Philoctetes). Philoctetes’ unhealed wound is a symbolic blemish upon his psyche, a sign that he is not yet initiated into complete understanding of himself and the gods. Odysseus is himself wounded in a boar hunt, according to Homer’s Odyssey. Odysseus is also nearly killed by a host of other monsters such as the Cyclopes, Circe, and Scylla, but he always overcomes the physical challenge with knowledge and craft. Odysseus’s and Philoctetes’ wounds are important signs of contact with the transcendent, divine world. Odysseus overcomes his wounds, earning his glory through cunning, and Philoctetes must also rise to the occasion.
Odysseus’s advice to Neoptolemus to lie to Philoctetes when they go to Lemnos shows his willingness to abandon absolutes. However, Odysseus is in error by telling Neoptolemus that only Philoctetes’ bow is needed for the Greeks to have victory. In fact, the prophet Helenus specifically stated that both Philoctetes and his weapon needed to be transported to Troy. Philoctetes needs to rise above the limitations and challenges imposed upon him in order to obey the command of the gods and salvage his place in history. However, Philoctetes waits until he sees the deus ex machina appearance of Herakles in order to make his decision to leave the island.
Neoptolemus’s name means “young warrior,” and he is just that—pure and strong but gullible and naïve. When Odysseus brings Neoptolemus with him to Lemnos, Sophocles presents the problem of two very different people with the same desire: to win the Trojan War. Neoptolemus is Achilles’ son, who may feel sublimated hatred against Odysseus because of the fact that Odysseus received his father’s armor after his death. Neoptolemus feels ashamed of his part in tricking the innocent Philoctetes, and he gives him his word that he will take Philoctetes back to Greece—directly countering Odysseus’s desire to get the bow.
A sympathetic brotherhood emerges between Neoptolemus and Philoctetes as the full extent of his pain and suffering becomes apparent. Neoptolemus is too honest to fully comply with Odysseus’s trickery, changing his mind once he gets to know Philoctetes’ story. Sophocles raises the question of whether the greater end (winning the Trojan War) justifies the smaller means (telling lies to Neoptolemus and Philoctetes). Sophocles shows the value of personal integrity and honesty over scheming and conniving to achieve a desired result. Neoptolemus willingly goes with Odysseus to retrieve Philoctetes, but then he feels sympathetic toward the abandoned man and guilty that he uses trickery to get the bow. In the end, the honor goes to the one who endured suffering with grace, Philoctetes.