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....
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