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Julian Meynell's Books

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Sophocles' Philoctetus

Philoctetes - Sophocles



Philoctetes is the last extant play of Sophocles that I have read and for some reason that I cannot put my finger on my least favorite.  The play concerns Odysseus and Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles, travel to Lemnos to recover the bow of Heracles from Philoctetes without which they cannot win the Trojan war.  Philoctetes has been marooned on Lemnos because he was bitten by a snake and his cries of pain and the smell of the festering wound were intolerable to his fellow Greeks.  In particular, it was Odysseus who tricked Philoctetes into being marooned and he has led a ten year long miserable existence as a result.  Quite reasonably Philoctetes hates the Greeks and Odysseus in particular.  Odysseus at the beginning of the play talks Neoptolemus into tricking Philoctetes into giving him the bow.  After an attack of conscience, Neoptolemus gives back the bow and agrees to save Philoctetes, even though it will mean war with his fellow Greeks.  At the very end of the play, the divine and dead Heracles intercedes to convince Philoctetes to return to Troy with the bow.


A few things stand out about the play.  First and foremost, it is not a Greek Tragedy in the conventional sense, for one because it has a happy ending.  It is also entirely unusual in that the action centres around Neoptolemus, who does something wrong, but then redeems himself and everything turns out all right.  That is not a very Greek storyline, although in our Christian world it is a familiar one.  Stories of redemption are just not very Greek and what we have here is something strikingly modern.  In addition, Philoctetes is a remarkably well drawn character.  In absolute agony, he is often torn between his desire to escape his exile and his hatred of Odysseus and this makes him prone to sudden and very realistic shifts of purpose.  The language is also remarkable as is the scene setting which is exceptional.  One can smell the sea salt, feel the wind and hear the cries of the sea birds on every page. 


Given all of this I'm not sure why Philoctetes did not grab me more.  Partially, it is that the intervention of the divine Heracles is a full fledged Deus Ex Machina moment and an entirely unnecessary one at that, because the action is on the edge of resolving itself and could have been done psychologically.  But there is just something about the play which is not as compelling as Sophocles' other works, even though I cannot identify what it is.  Having said all that, it is still an excellent play and one that stands out from regular Greek drama.