Friday, September 23, 2022

Philoctetes by Sophocles - Let me suffer what I must suffer

Philoctetes by Sophocles (409 BCE), performed when the author was 87, which is perhaps why he is in a mood of reconciliation and healing. 

Literal healing.  Philoctetes possesses the bow of Hercules.  Either the bow, or Philoctetes himself, or both – prophecies are ambiguous – are necessary parts of the conquest of Troy by the Greeks.  But Philoctetes has spent the war abandoned on an island nursing his poisoned foot, injured when he was bit by a snake in a sacred grove.  You can see his bandaged foot on the far right in the beautiful painting of Philoctetes, contemporary with the play, on an oil flask on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The injury is so severe – so disgusting, so bad-smelling – that Philoctetes’s fellow soldiers abandoned him on the island.  But now there is a new prophecy, and they need him back, even if by treachery or force.  I was not surprised to learn that in the 21st century the play has been performed for American soldiers injured in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The relevance is direct.  The wound and its effects are described in detail with the greatest seriousness.  Neoptolemus has just taken Philoctetes’s hand when an attack of pain comes:

PHILOCTETES: Now – take me away from here –

NEOPTOLEMUS:                                           What do you mean?

PHILOCTETES:                                                                                Up, up.

NEOPTOLEMUS: What madness is upon you? Why do you look

    on the sky above us?

PHILOCTETES:             Let me go, let me go.


PHILOCTETES:               Oh, let me go.

NEOPTOLEMUS:                                Not I.

PHILOCTETES:  You will kill me if you touch me.

NEOPTOLEMUS:  Now I shall let you go, now you are calmer.

PHILOCTETES:  Earth, take my body, dying as I am.

                           The pain no longer lets me stand.  (p. 227, tr. David Grene)

There had been other plays on the story of Philoctetes, by Aeschylus and Euripides, among others.  I’ll bet they did not include a scene so, to use a word that makes me nervous, realistic.  Sophocles himself was an adept in the cult of Asclepius, the great hero-doctor of Greek mythology.

Odysseus tricked Philoctetes onto the island, and now plans to trick him off of it.  His tool is Neoptolemus, the honest, patriotic son of the recently killed Achilles,  So this is a three-character play, Scheming, righteous Odysseus versus bitter, suffering Philoctetes with Neoptolemus in the middle, like the audience full of sympathy for Philoctetes and his suffering.  He makes his decision in the end, and in a way that greatly resembles Existentialism – Philoctetes often feels quite modern – Philoctetes makes his (“Let me suffer what I must suffer,” 251) before the deus drops from the machina, or flies over on the crane, or whatever the stage business is, and ruins the play, or shades it with significant irony, by declaring that villainous Odysseus was right all along, and none of you have any choice, really, which makes Philoctetes and his great refusal of the premise even more of an Existentialist, right?

A wonderful play, far from whatever idea I might have about what a Greek tragedy is supposed to be.  It will be useful to look at Aristotle’s Poetics and see where that “supposed to be” comes from.  Which reminds me, I plan to write about Plato’s Symposium next week, so I had better get reading.

Next we have three Euripides plays in a row, the end of Euripides: Orestes (408) and The Bacchae and Iphigenia in Aulis (both performed, posthumously, in 405).  Euripides, in his old age, was not in a mood of reconciliation and healing.  Great masterpieces, all of them.  Next week, let’s say farewell to Orestes.


  1. Haha, you're totally right about the end ruining the play. I haven't minded the various deuses ex machina we've gotten in these plays, but this one feels totally wrong and I don't sense much conviction from Sophocles behind it. Neoptolemus, arguably the central character in the play, gets a mere two words in after Heracles shows up, as if he's washed his hands of the whole thing. The ending reminds me of the Hays Code-appeasing endings you get to some classic Hollywood movies, like Hitchcock's Suspicion, where the censors demand that the wrongdoers be punished and the adulterers repent. Here, instead, the ending is imposed so that it agrees with the mythic tradition of the Trojan War, whereas clearly the ending the play is building towards is Neoptolemus and Philoctetes agreeing to sail away back to Scyrus.

    I'll choose to believe that that is the real ending, since this is a beautiful play otherwise. You're right that it does feel modern. (It could easily be looked at from a disability advocacy stance.) The Chorus is really strange in this one, almost menacing at times, as when they tell Philoctetes "It was you who doomed yourself... From no other, from nothing stronger, came your mischance." I found it hard to tell whether they actually knew of Odysseus' scheme or not throughout the play.

    My favorite moment was when Philoctetes tells the birds they need no longer fear him since he has lost his bow: "Come! It is a good time to glut yourselves freely on my discolored flesh. For shortly I shall die here."

  2. When I first read this play back in 2006, it made very little impression on me, but when I read it last night, I saw how very good it is. It's so simple on the surface, but there's a lot going on and I'm sure I don't understand all of it. It's thoughtful and elegiac, and I'm tempted to call it Sophocles' "Tempest," especially with the emphasis on language, the playwright's tool. (Odysseus: "Words are what matter; words have power.") There's a lot of discussion about language here. Odysseus makes language the tool of deception, but it's also the tool of the poet, and Neoptolemus is conflicted about what he should say and why. It's tempting to see his conflict as Sophocles' response (or maybe guilt) to his having been on both sides of the political turmoil within Athens, helping bring about the oligarchy and then serving as one of the ten probouli when democracy was restored. Where was truth, one can imagine Sophocles asking himself, and having no certain answer.
    Everyone in "Philoctetes" sees himself as a patriot, and takes a stand for what is "right" in his eyes. Depending on who you are and what you want, you have your pick of three possible heroes or villains. Surely Sophocles' audience saw victory at Troy as being a good outcome, but Odysseus' claim that "Time will put us in the right, you'll see" still sounds dishonest. He tells Neoptolemus that he's not lying to Philoctetes, he's using strategy. Odysseus was always a liar, but I wonder how much of this characterization is influenced by recent events involving Sophocles' old pal Alcibiades. I think it's telling that in the end, Neoptolemus chooses honesty over all else. And then, yes, the gods interfere and claim that the final decisions belong to them.

    I never saw before how many other stories are coiled up inside Philoctetes' story. It's very like the death of Hercules, it's very like the anger of Achilles on the beach at Troy, and more I don't have time or space to prolix about. Like I say, this play is very good. I prefer it to the Theban plays, but I've never really liked them.

  3. Our next play, Orestes, has a deus ex machina ending that I believe you will find quite different in effect.

    I love the bit where Philoctetes talks to the birds. It gives a sense of the imagination of Sophocles, how complete it is.

    Both this play and the last one, Oedipus at Colonus, have a hint of The Tempest. Sophocles is healing the wounds, in some sense. Breaking the staff. You do wonder about his own, actual, role in things as a leading citizen.

    The role of Odysseus in the plays, generally, is so interesting. He gets one more appearance, in three weeks.

    I agree that Philoctetes has a story that rewards knowing other stories, that folds them in, like the brief allusion to the attempt of Odysseus to avoid going to Troy. I was thinking about writing a more complete summary, but forget it. Too many angles.