Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 342
Philoctetes (Ancient Greek: Φιλοκτήτης) is one of the seven plays written by Ancient Greek tragedian Sophocles that have survived to this day. It was presumably written during the Peloponnesian War, and it was first performed in 409 BC, at the City Dionysia, where it won the Grand Prix for best play.
The story revolves around Hercules’ friend and companion Philoctetes, who was abandoned by The Greeks on the island of Lemnos after he complained from the insufferable pain in his wounded foot. However, it turns out that, in order to win the Trojan War, the Greeks need his magical bow, which was given to him by Hercules. Thus, they send the King of Ithaca, Odysseus, and Achilles’s son, Neoptolemus, to try to persuade and even trick Philoctetes to come back to Troy and help them end the war.
Sophocles obviously draws inspiration from Homer’s Iliad, and he describes the events that have led to the greatest milestone in the Trojan War: the Trojan Horse. He chooses to focus on Philoctetes, however, through whom he showcases the unpredictability of human nature and people’s never ending quest for meaning and purpose.
Another interesting and important element of the play is the personality clash between Neoptolemus and Odysseus. On one side, we have the kind, honest, just, and honorable Neoptolemus, who is capable of showing remorse, pity, and compassion when he faces Philoctetes. On the other side, we have the pragmatic, unscrupulous, deceitful, and even cruel Odysseus, who believes that they should use any means necessary to bring Philoctetes back to Troy. Thus, Sophocles manages to metaphorically describe the battle between ‘right and wrong’ and explain the importance of morality and ethics.
In the end, the newly turned God Hercules manages to convince Philoctetes to return back home by promising him that he will heal his foot and reward his sacrifice. Despite its somewhat ‘happy ending,’ the play is actually considered a tragedy, as it describes Philoctetes’s physical and emotional pain and suffering, his traumatic and torturous exile, and his life in isolation.