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Sophocles' Philoctetes: Trauma and Morality of War by Megan Finlayson

Philoctetes is one of seven surviving plays by famed Athenian tragedian, Sophocles. Produced some time in 408/409BCE, Philoctetes details the quest of Odysseus and Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles, in their task to retrieve the bow of Herakles and the famed archer Philoctetes. They undertake this task as it is prophesised that without the return of Philoctetes to battle, the Greeks will be unable to capture the city of Troy. The conflict of the play arises as a decade earlier Philoctetes had sustained a cursed wound that left him in agony and emitted a putrid smell. Due to this he had been abandoned on the island of Lemnos on the order of Odysseus, Agamemnon, and Menelaus. Realising that he is hated by Philoctetes, who will not come willingly, Odysseus enlists the help of young Neoptolemus to use rhetoric and trickery in order to convince Philoctetes to return to the war with the sacred bow.

(Above: Philoctetes on the Island of Lemnos (1798) by Guillaume Guillon-Lethière)

The Background of the Myth of Philoctetes

The story of Philoctetes provided popular source material for tragedy as both Euripides and Aeschylus had written a version of the story, although their renditions no longer survive. Prior to the Trojan War, the great Greek hero Herakles had sought to die by lying on a lit funeral pyre. However, no man would agree to light the pyre aside from Philoctetes, and for this favour Herakles gifted him his sacred bow. During the journey to Troy, Philoctetes sustained an injury to his foot. Various versions of how this occurred exist. Some suggest a bite from a snake sent by the Goddess Hera. Others suggest that he was wounded for betraying the final resting place of Herakles to his comrades after he had been sworn to secrecy. Regardless of how the wound was sustained, the source tradition is consistent that in the aftermath Philoctetes was abandoned on an island at the suggestion of Odysseus when his Greek comrades could no longer bear the smell of the infected wound or his howling in pain. The abandonment of Philoctetes is briefly mentioned in Book 2 of the Iliad, and his return to war and further success is detailed in one of the lost poems of the Epic Cycle, dubbed the Little Iliad.

Sophocles’ Play

Sophocles’ work refers to the myth of Philoctetes’ injury and abandonment but does not include this in his play. The scene opens sometime after the events of the Iliad, with Odysseus and Neoptolemus arriving on the island of Lemnos and Odysseus outlining the plan. Neoptolemus must lie to Philoctetes and convince him that he also hates Odysseus in order to gain his trust. Odysseus emphasises the need for trickery and clever words over brute force, informing Neoptolemus he must use stories rather than the strength of his body to achieve their goal. This forms part of the dilemma as due to his hatred of Odysseus, Philoctetes will not go willingly, but due to his possession of the sacred weapon and his unrivalled ability as an archer he cannot be forced either. This creates the necessity for the deception and lies which at first Neoptolemus is reluctant to be part of, saying that it is not in his nature to be cunning and dishonest, much like how it was not in the nature of his father, Achilles.

Scholars have drawn comparisons between the scenario presented in Philoctetes and the so-called ‘Embassy to Achilles’ in Book 9 of the Iliad where Odysseus was attempting to use his clever rhetoric to convince the famed warrior to return to battle. Despite his best intentions, and his reputation as a notoriously persuasive speaker, Achilles sees through Odysseus’ attempts of persuasive and famously retorts that he ‘hate[s] like the gates of hell whoever says one thing but hides another in his thoughts’ (Iliad 9.312-13).

As Sophocles is demonstrating in his play, this hatred of falsehoods and clever words seems to have been passed down to his son Neoptolemus. This conflict between lying and honesty, cunning and brute strength, is continued into another generation. The introduction of Neoptolemus is an innovation of Sophocles’, as other traditional telling of the story involve Odysseus working with other Greek heroes, often Diomedes. By implementing Neoptolemus with his relative innocence and naivety, Sophocles is able to heighten the moral dilemma as we are provided with a triangular conflict. Neoptolemus’ allegiance is not steadfast as while he is acting on the request of Odysseus, he does turn against his influencer during the play by returning the bow to Philoctetes. This creates a conflict of ideas and morality for the audience as we find ourselves, much like Neoptolemus, caught between two opposing sides.

Ultimately Odysseus is unable to complete the mission successfully as Neoptolemus develops sympathy for Philoctetes’ after witnessing his agony and experiencing guilt for his part in the deception. At the end of the play it seems as if Neoptolemus has turned his back on Odysseus’ plan to bring Philoctetes into the war, as he is set to help Philoctetes leave the island and return home as he had longed to do so. It is only at the arrival of Herakles as a deus ex machina, whereby he informs Philoctetes that if he goes to Troy he will be healed and will achieve glory, that the situation is resolved.

Themes and Impact

The issues surrounding moral dilemmas and trauma from war are central to Sophocles’ Philoctetes. The characters, and the audience, are presented with a situation where there is no simple action that will resolve the conflict for all parties. While Odysseus’ presentation in the play has been considered ‘villainous’ to some, he is perpetuating the idea that the ends will justify the means. While his insistence on the use of deception and trickery has been perceived negatively, the dilemma as presented, with neither honesty nor brute force being a viable option, means that there is little other choice. Odysseus is not attempting to deceive for his own gain, but in order to bring a long and devastating war to a close. While some may feel justified in Philoctetes’ hatred of Odysseus for his treatment, his refusal to join the war would mean the deaths of his heroic comrades were for nothing. Ultimately the play leaves us with an age-old moral dilemma: do the ends ever justify the means? And is the suffering of an individual justifiable if it benefits the group? The play leaves these issues open ended for interpretation, as there is no mortal reconciliation that is achieved naturally, and it requires divine intervention to reach a satisfying conclusion.

Another running theme is one of pain and trauma. Philoctetes’ wound, and the subsequent agony it causes, is his defining feature throughout the play. When Neoptolemus first encounters Philoctetes and feigns ignorance of his identity, Philoctetes laments that for all of his great pains and suffering his name is not known, thus the pain and trauma of his wound has become fused with his sense of self. There are moments where he is so gripped by anguish, physical and emotional, that he is unaware of his surroundings. Philoctetes’ trauma is ongoing as he is plagued by a wound that transcends physical ailments as his wound never heals. This has been particularly pertinent in discussions of PTSD in the military context, and extracts from Philoctetes along with another of Sophocles’ play, Ajax, have been used in part of the Theatre of War Project as a means of discussing both the physical and mental trauma of military conflict and its lasting impact upon both veterans and surviving civilians.


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