SOPHOCLES 444 B.C.
Ajax is the earliest of Sophocles’s surviving plays. It is thought that the play’s first performance took place about 444 B.C., but the exact date is not certain and might have been a few years earlier or later.
The hero of the play, Ajax, illustrates the uncompromising nature of the noble warrior; yet at the same time, he also represents the failings of excess pride, or hubris. Ajax believes that he deserves the armor of Achilles, and he is unable to accept that another warrior has been chosen as more worthy. His pride will not permit him to see the strength of Odysseus, nor will it allow Ajax to recognize his own limitations.
Ajax is a great hero, but he is rigidly defined as the old-fashioned hero—uncompromising and unable to recognize his own weaknesses. It is his rejection of help from the goddess Athena that sets the stage for this tragedy. Athena’s gloating punishment of Ajax also presents the gods in a less favorable way than earlier plays, such as Aeschylus’s Oresteia, which portrays the gods as wise protectors rather than vengeful deities.
Sophocles’s source was probably Homer, who depicted Ajax as obstinate to the point of stupidity in The Iliad. Both Ajax and Odysseus fought bravery with Achilles, and it took both warriors to retrieve Achilles’s body after his death. Both men were honorable, but the Greek commanders voted that Achilles’s armor should be awarded to Odysseus. Page 2 | Top of ArticleThis act provides the impetus for Ajax’s actions, which take place just prior to the opening of Sophocles’s play.
Sophocles was born in Colonus Hippiu, now a part of Athens, c. 496 B.C. He was the son of Sophillus, an armor manufacturer. Little is known of his youth, except that he is thought to have received a traditional aristocratic education. Sophocles married and was elected to high military office, although he was not interested in the military life.
His dates of birth and death closely correspond to the beginning and end of the Golden Age of Athens (480-404 B.C.). This was a period in which the city reached political and cultural supremacy in the Greek world. In 468 B.C., he entered the drama competition at the Great Dionysia, a festival to celebrate the god Dionysus. As part of the festival, four plays were performed and judged. Sophocles defeated Aeschylus, then the preeminent dramatic poet in Greece, and won the competition; unfortunately, his winning play, Triptolemos, has since been lost. Sophocles later won the first prize more than twenty times and the second prize many more times. It is said that he never won less than second prize in any competition.
Sophocles lived to be ninety, and during his long life he is believed to have composed more than one hundred and twenty-three plays; unfortunately, only seven are known to have survived in their entirety. Of these seven, Ajax is the earliest composition, having been written in about 450 B.C.
Other surviving dramas include Antigone (c. 442 B.C.), Ichneutai (c. 440 B.C.), Trakhiniai (c. 440-430 B.C.), Oedipus Rex (c. 430-426 B.C.), Electra (c. 425-410 B.C.), Philoctetes (409 B.C.), and Oedipus at Colonus (c. 404 B.C.). This last play was presented posthumously in 401 B.C. by Sophocles’s grandson.
Sophocles is responsible for several theatrical innovations that changed Greek drama. Among these modifications was the focus on individual characters and individual tragedy. In addition, he created a greater realism on stage by introducing scene paintings and more elaborate masks to the usually austere stage. The most important innovation was the addition of a third actor. Prior to Sophocles, two actors played all the roles, with the chorus to comment upon and fill in the missing pieces. The addition of a third actor permitted more complex dialogue and moved the focus from the chorus to the actors, thus changing the drama to a more character-driven format.
Sophocles was able to create exceptional and complex characters, heroes and heroines who were often afflicted with a fatal flaw. Rather than being ideal, his characters embodied a realistic humanity; they often struggled with their own weaknesses and limitations. Sophocles’s impact on Greek drama and the literature that follows cannot be overestimated. He is considered to be one of the great figures in world literature.
The play opens with Athena telling Odysseus that Ajax slaughtered all the captured sheep and cows during the previous night because Odysseus was given the shield of Achilles, an honor Ajax felt he deserved instead. Athena explains that she cast a spell over Ajax so that he thought the animals were Greek warriors; Ajax thought he was killing his fellow soldiers. Meanwhile, Ajax has recovered his wits and is shocked and ashamed at his actions.
The Chorus enters and underscores how low this great warrior has been brought by fate and the actions of the gods. Tecmessa, Ajax’s captive and the mother of his child, enters and relates the details surrounding Ajax’s attack on the sheep. She also tells of his profound grief and pain when he realized what he had done.
In a lengthy monologue, Ajax bemoans his family honor. He contends that he deserved the honor of Achilles’s arms. Instead, the prize unfairly went to Odysseus. Ajax’s grief derives not from his homicidal impulse to kill Agamemnon or Odysseus, but that Athena fooled him into killing sheep. Worse, he believes that the other warriors are laughing at him.
Ajax speaks of suicide, and Tecmessa argues that he must not kill himself. She maintains that she needs him and so does his son. She also points to his mother’s grief and his father’s love, and Ajax responds by asking that his son be brought to him.
After Ajax and Tecmessa leave the stage, a soldier enters and describes the arrival of Ajax’s brother, Teucer. He has entered the camp to the jeers Page 3 | Top of Articleand insults of soldiers who call him the brother of a madman. He was also warned by a prophet to keep Ajax inside all day, but he has arrived too late to prevent Ajax from leaving. The prophet has predicted that Athena’s rage will be spent by nightfall, and that unless Ajax is kept inside for the day, he will die.
The prophet asserts that humans aim too high and that men should not look to be as great as the gods. This was Ajax’s mistake, and this is why the gods are punishing him. The scene ends with Tecmessa asking that everyone go in search of Ajax and save him.
Ajax enters, alone. He puts his sword in the sand, hilt first, and asks Zeus to send messengers to inform his brother of his death. Ajax is afraid that his enemies will learn of his death first and his body will be desecrated. Ajax also asks that his death be avenged, and after expressing concern for his mother and father, Ajax falls upon his sword and commits suicide.
The Chorus enters, looking for Ajax, but Tecmessa finds him and emits a loud wailing sound of grief. The Chorus and Tecmessa lament for Ajax’s life, now lost. Teucer enters and he, too, is grief-stricken at his brother’s death. Teucer orders that his nephew be brought so that he can be protected from Ajax’s enemies, who might seek to harm the child. Teucer expresses concern that their father will blame him for having allowed Ajax to die in such a manner.
Menelaus enters and orders that Ajax’s body be left to rot where it fell and that no honor be given to the warrior in death. Menelaus decrees that Ajax’s rotting body will serve as a lesson to any soldier who thinks to raise a hand against him. The Chorus warns that there must be respect for the dead, but Teucer interrupts in anger and reminds Menelaus that he had no authority over Ajax when he was alive and certainly not when he is dead. Teucer will bury his brother because the law of the gods demands it.
The argument between Teucer and Menelaus continues, with both men calling each other names and insulting one another. The conflict ends when Menelaus and his men leave. In a few moments, Tecmessa and her child enter for a final farewell with Ajax. Teucer leaves to dig a grave, but hurries back accompanied by Agamemnon. Agamemnon is angry and insults Teucer and Ajax.
The Chorus calls for compromise, but Teucer reminds Agamemnon of the times that Ajax saved his life and fought beside him in terrific battles. Teucer also reminds Agamemnon of the honorable lineage of Ajax’s family.
Odysseus enters, complaining that he could hear Menelaus and Agamemnon yelling across the camp. Acting as the voice of reason, Odysseus asserts that Ajax deserves the honor. Not to bury him would do serious dishonor to the gods. Agamemnon disagrees and argues with Odysseus that to bury Ajax would make Menelaus and Agamemnon appear weak.
Agamemnon finally agrees to a burial, but only out of friendship with Odysseus. Teucer thanks Odysseus for his help, but asks that the burial be left to family and Ajax’s soldiers; Ajax would not have wanted Odysseus to touch his body. As the men begin to prepare the body for burial, the play ends.
Agamemnon is a great Greek warrior. He appears after Ajax’s suicide to support Menelaus’s Page 4 | Top of Articledecree that Ajax not be buried. He and Teucer argue bitterly, and he also argues with Odysseus. Finally out of friendship with Odysseus, Agamemnon permits Ajax to be buried.
A courageous Greek warrior, Ajax feels that he has been disrespected when he is passed over for the shield of Achilles. In his grief and disappointment he tries to sneak into the tents of the other Greek warriors and slay them. Casting a spell, Athena causes him to think that he has captured Odysseus and that he will torture him, but in reality he has killed sheep and cattle. When the spell wears off and he recovers his wits, Ajax is deeply shamed and kills himself to save face and family honor.
It becomes clear that the gods are punishing Ajax because he has rejected their help. When Athena attempted to help Ajax during battle, he rebuffed her, stating that the gods should help lesser men.
The daughter of the god Zeus, Athena is the goddess of war. It is she who creates the illusion that Ajax is killing Agamemnon and Menelaus; in reality, he is slaying sheep and cattle. She is punishing Ajax for his rejection of her help.
The Chorus sings sections of the play. Their purpose is to explain events or actions and to provide commentary on the events that are occurring. During their first appearance they blame the gods for having brought such a great warrior—Ajax—so low.
Comprised of Ajax’s soldiers, the Chorus laments his death and sympathizes with Tecmessa’s grief. When Menelaus and Agamemnon refuse Ajax’s burial, the Chorus reminds them of the gods’ insistence on observing the proper burial rights. They also provide the voice of reason and compromise.
The son of Ajax and Tecmessa, Eurysaces is a small child. He is taken to Ajax in an emotional farewell scene and again to help prepare his father’s body for burial.
Another great Athenian warrior, Menelaus appears after Ajax dies and refuses permission to have him buried. He argues with Teucer until he finally leaves to get Agamemnon’s help.
Odysseus is a great warrior. He is given the arms of Achilles, much to Ajax’s chagrin. When Ajax’s murder of the sheep is revealed, Odysseus is initially angry; yet when he learns that Ajax has lost his mind, he feels great pity for him.
When Agamemnon refuses to allow Ajax’s burial, Odysseus is the calm voice of reason who reminds those present that Ajax was a great warrior and that he deserves to be honored with a proper burial. Odysseus emerges as a strong, thoughtful leader.
The unnamed soldier brings news of Teucer’s arrival as well as the prophet’s warning.
Tecmessa is Ajax’s Phrygian captive and the mother of his son. She loves him very much and grieves at the madness that has overtaken him. It is Tecmessa who describes to the Chorus and the listening audience the details of Ajax’s madness during the night. She begs Ajax not to kill himself, pointing out that her future will be at great risk. After his suicide, she is the one who finds Ajax’s body.
Teucer is Ajax’s brother. As he rides into camp he is insulted and attacked by soldiers who call his brother a madman. He learns from a prophet that if Ajax remains inside until nightfall, Athena’s rage will end and Ajax will live; in a panic, he sends a soldier ahead to warn Ajax in an attempt to save his brother’s life.
Teucer grieves for his brother and is concerned that his father will blame him for his brother’s death. He also risks his own career in arguing with Menelaus and Agamemnon over the burial of Ajax. Teucer proves himself brave and honorable. When Odysseus agrees with his argument, Teucer is appreciative and thanks Odysseus for his help. He prepares his brother’s body for honorable burial.
Anger and Hatred
The action of the play is driven by Ajax’s vengeful anger as he turns on Odysseus, Menelaus, and Agamemnon after Odysseus is voted Achilles’s armor. The hatred once meant for his enemies is now directed on these three warriors, and Ajax sets out to murder them in their sleep. The interference of Athena spares their lives, but his intended victims learn of how near they came to death and turn their fury on Ajax.
After Ajax’s suicide, Menelaus and Agamemnon are so filled with hate that they would willingly offend the gods and leave Ajax’s body to rot in the open. Only Odysseus’s levelheaded calm prevents anger from ruining more lives.
Choice and Fate
Ajax believes that he is in control of his destiny. He thinks that his strength and reputation as a warrior should govern his fate, but he is really a pawn in the hands of the gods. When Ajax rejects Athena’s help, declaring that he needs no assistance from the gods, he seals his doom. It is the gods who determine if Ajax is honored, and while men may vote on the disposition of Achilles’s armor, Athena leaves little doubt that she had a hand in that decision.
When Ajax would take revenge upon Odysseus, Menelaus, and Agamemnon, it is Athena who saves their lives. Ajax believes he is murdering his former colleagues, but Athena has cast a spell so that he is really murdering a herd of sheep.
Although Ajax is unaware of Athena’s interference, it is she who leads him toward suicide. As the prophet foretold, if Ajax remains inside for this day, Athena’s anger would dissipate and he would survive. Yet she makes sure that he recovers his senses and leaves his dwelling to view his shame; thus, she sets into motion Ajax’s final scene, his death.
Gods and Man
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, God is a forgiving and beneficent creator. Man views his relationship with God in a cause-and-effect manner, in which good deeds and faith are rewarded with God’s grace.
The Greeks had a different relationship with their gods. For instance, instead of one all-powerful
god, there were many gods; man’s relationship with these deities was marked by the arbitrary nature of each god. Whether or not a man was good, honest, or brave had no bearing on how the gods treated him. Instead, it depended on the whims of the gods themselves. If the gods were warring amongst themselves, they would quite likely inflict some revenge upon men, rather than on the offending deity.
This very arbitrary nature of the gods meant that men could not determine their own fates, nor could they even assume responsibility for their own behavior. There were no rules to live by, because the gods behaved on impulse. Moreover, the gods often had favorites and scapegoats amongst the mortal population, and they didn’t hesitate to punish those that displeased them. Obviously this created a very precarious and dangerous world.
The effects of the capricious behavior of the gods are clearly seen when Ajax is destroyed because he rejects Athena’s help. Ajax has too much confidence in his own ability and not enough respect for Athena’s strength, and this means that he is Page 6 | Top of Articledoomed. He has no warning of her anger and no way of placating it.
Excessive pride—also known as hubris—leads to Ajax’s downfall. His first mistake is in rejecting the help of the gods. According to Greek life, his life, his destiny, and his successes are all determined by the gods; when he rejects Athena’s help, her pride is offended, and she decides that Ajax’s boast that he needs no help from any god means he must be destroyed. When Achilles’s armor is given to Odysseus, Ajax’s pride is what leads him to seek revenge.
Unfortunately, he is so blinded by his pride that he is unable to see that Odysseus is as strong and deserving as he is. Odysseus has qualities that Ajax lacks, such as the ability to solve conflict without weapons. However, Ajax’s arrogance does not permit him to accept that he is deficient in the qualities that make Odysseus a great leader.
Finally, it is pride that leads Ajax to kill himself. He is shamed before the other Greek warriors and cannot live with that shame. He perceives his only recourse as suicide.
Strength and Weakness
Ajax is a strong and brave warrior. In fact, he is known as Ajax the Great because of his excellence. Yet the problem is he views himself as perfect. Ajax believes that he exemplifies the best of heroic man, but he forgets that heroism is more than just exhibiting bravery. It also involves making good choices, compromise, and the ability to recognize and compensate for his weaknesses.
Ajax is lacking in these areas. The very strengths that he exhibits in battle—leadership of men, physical strength, and prowess with his weapons—are incomplete without these other abilities. A hero needs modesty and the strength to compromise; he also needs to realize that accepting another man’s competence does not diminish his own.
In ancient Greek drama, a chorus consists of a group of actors who interpret and comment on the play’s action and themes, most often singing or chanting their lines. Initially the chorus had an important role in drama, as it does in Ajax, but eventually its role diminished. As a result, the chorus became little more than commentary between acts. Modern theater rarely uses a chorus.
A drama is often defined as any work designed to be presented on the stage. It consists of a story, action, and actors portraying characters. Historically, drama can also consist of tragedy, comedy, religious pageant, and spectacle. In modern times, drama explores serious topics and themes but does not achieve the same level as tragedy. Ajax is traditional Greek drama, and as such, provides important lessons for men about their relationship with the gods.
Genres are a way of categorizing literature. Genre is a French term that means “kind” or “type.” Genre can refer to both the category of literature such as tragedy, comedy, epic, poetry, or pastoral. It can also include modern forms of literature such as drama, novels, or short stories. This term can also refer to types of literature such as mystery, science fiction, comedy, or romance. Ajax is a Greek tragedy.
Plot refers to the pattern of events. Generally plots should have a beginning, middle, and conclusion—but they may also sometimes be a series of episodes connected together. Basically, the plot provides the author with the means to explore themes. Students are often confused between the two terms; but themes explore ideas, and plots simply relate what happens in a very obvious manner. Thus the plot of Ajax is what happens to Ajax after he chooses to seek revenge upon Odysseus, Menelaus, and Agamemnon. The theme of the play is how excessive pride and vanity can lead to a man’s destruction.
Traditionally, a scene is a subdivision of an act and consists of continuous action of a time and place. However, Sophocles is not using acts, and so two scenes divide the action, which is separated by only a few hours at most.
The time and place of the play is called the setting. The elements of setting may include geographic Page 7 | Top of Articlelocation, physical or mental environments, prevailing cultural attitudes, or the historical time in which the action takes place. The primary location for Ajax is the battle for Troy, with the initial setting outside Ajax’s tent. In the second scene, the setting moves to a nearby beach and the action spans a day.
In tragedy, this is the mechanism that brings about the destruction of the hero. While Ajax is brave, strong, and heroic, he also suffers from excessive pride. This flaw angers Athena and provokes her revenge upon Ajax.
In the fifth century B.C., life in Greece was characterized by warfare and epic battles. For many years Greece struggled to expand its empire, and it was inevitable that conflict would result. Athens enjoyed her first great military triumph at the Battle of Marathon in 491 B.C., when legend has it, some 20,000 Greeks defeated the 100,000 man Persian army. The numbers were probably much lower, but the odds were definitely against the Greeks, who proved that superior discipline and courage were stronger than sheer numbers.
This was the first major defeat for the Persian army, whose strength and reputation actually scared and intimidated many Greek soldiers. This victory would inspire the story of a courier who ran to Athens with news of the victory but then fell dead of exhaustion upon his arrival, thus inspiring the idea of 26-mile marathon races, which endures to modern times.
Within ten years, the tables would turn. The Persian army—then more than two million men—would score a huge victory, pushing the Greek army into retreat. The Persians sacked Athens, but within a month, the Greeks once again got the upper hand, and in a decisive naval victory, more than 1000 Persian ships were sunk. Within a year, the Persian invasions stopped completely, and Greece once again entered a peaceful period known as the Golden Age of Greece.
These are the battles that form a backdrop to Sophocles’s childhood. These historical events are filled with heroic men and great leaders, tremendous odds and great victories, and function as the source material for much of Greek theater.
Greek drama needed these larger-than-life heroes, since real life did not seem to provide material for heroic drama. Historically, there are many complaints about Greek tradesmen, who were well known for short-changing their customers and lying about their goods. Many politicians were also thought to be dishonest, and bribery was a common way of transacting government. Therefore, heroic warriors and brave leaders offered the role models and excitement many Greek citizens needed for their entertainment.
For many Greek citizens, life revolved around not offending the gods; unfortunately, there were no hard, set rules for this. Therefore, much controversy arose from what was offensive to the gods. The Greeks used oracles and dreams to figure this out, and eventually there were certain behaviors that were established as necessary, such as extending hospitality to a traveler or not violating an oath. Generally, gods were not interested in petty thievery, primarily because Greek political life involved bribery, corruption, and lying. Moreover, gods were also not interested in more serious crimes, except for murder.
The disposal of dead bodies was deemed important. Corpses were thought to cast a bad aura upon both victim and murderer; besides, it was a public health concern. It was especially important to deal with corpses in a correct and ritualized manner, regardless of the cause of death. Not to do so could result in serious divine punishment, hence Odysseus’s reminders to Agamemnon that Ajax’s body must be given proper burial.
The precarious relationship between gods and humans is the basis for a number of plays during that time. Plays were performed once a year at the festival of Dionysus. Three playwrights were chosen to present four plays, three tragedies and one comedy. These plays were performed during daylight, in outdoor theaters that often held as many as 14,000 spectators. All actors were men, and until Sophocles, there were only two actors and the chorus. Sophocles introduced the third actor, which permitted more complex plays to be presented. Although there was little scenery—in fact, often none—the actors wore elaborate masks.
In addition to the competition between playwrights, the lead actors also competed for awards.
Playwrights probably did not receive much compensation for the writing, staging, and directorial duties that occupied them, and all of the best known playwrights, including Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides also held military or political posts. These plays fulfilled an important function, since they illustrated moral issues important to early Greeks. Ajax’s situation would have provided an important lesson to the audience.
There is almost no information regarding the reaction of fifth-century Greek audiences to Ajax. Sophocles was a popular playwright, and his plays would undoubtedly have been eagerly awaited. The fact that he was awarded a prize also signals the play’s reception.
There are many reasons why the plays of Sophocles were so popular and why their popularity continues. One reason was his deft ability to reinterpret the ancient myths through exploration of the individual. In this, the earliest of his surviving plays, Ajax is presented as a flawed, yet heroic figure. His suffering is compelling and functions as the focus of the play.
Ajax is also unique because Ajax dies on stage. Traditionally in Greek tragedy, the action occurs offstage. Battles are fought and deaths do occur, but Page 9 | Top of Articlethe audience learns of these events through the chorus, whose role it is to relate to the audience these offstage incidents.
Without the kind of action that modern audiences have come to expect, Greek audiences relied upon the power of language to create drama. Even before the development of drama, Greeks relied upon oral epics to provide much of their entertainment. The very stories that Sophocles drew upon for source material were rich in characters, battles, and spectacle, and their progression from oral tales to stage productions brought much excitement into the lives of the Greeks.
These stage productions were eagerly anticipated and drew huge crowds of upward to 14,000 people. Audiences were accustomed to sitting all day on hard stone benches, but even so, these plays had to be capable of holding the audience’s attention. The grandeur of ancient myths, with their exciting heroes and battles, provided an important escape from the routine nature of Greek life. They also served to inspire Greeks by reminding them of the greatness of heroic leaders. This was especially important in the years following the great Persian-Greek wars.
Ajax is still performed occasionally, as it was during the fall 1997 State Theatre of Northern Greece season. The American National Theatre also staged a production in June and July of 1986. In this latter production, Sophocles’s play was moved into modern dress and staged as an American drama.
The setting of this production was sometime in the near future after America has just won a great victory in Latin America. The director, Peter Sellers, uses a courtroom and a trial as the means to explore this Greek tragedy. Ajax uses sign language, translated by a member of the chorus, to tell his story. He is covered in blood and communicates in “slashing, spattering signs,” and according to the reviewer, W. D. King, the effect is that of “estrangement.” The cast is clothed in military uniforms, and they hold rank as according to modern military custom.
King is more of an observer than a reviewer, and he relates the actions on stage as a witness, mostly without critical analysis of the action. Ajax emerges as pathetic, as he does in the original play on which this modern adaptation is based. But by using the setting of a courtroom, Ajax becomes more centered on questions of responsibility.
With Athena as judge, her role in this tragedy seems amplified. As King observes, “She seats herself at the judge’s table, and at once the feeling that there is a higher force in the world, beyond human understanding, and of ambiguous moral substance, takes hold.” This modern production of Sophocles’s tragedy illustrates that these dramas still have a place in modern theater. Critics agree that there is a timeless quality in Ajax’s emotional breakdown that transcends time and resonates with modern audiences.
Sheri E. Metzger
Metzger is a Ph.D., specializing in literature and drama at the University of New Mexico. In this essay, she discusses how Renaissance humanism and the heroic nature of the epic form sustains the modern appeal of Sophocles’s drama.
No doubt students might think that there is little reason to read Sophocles, or plays such as Ajax. In fact, students might consider the mythic warriors of Greek epic and drama outdated or even unimportant as the twentieth century nears its end. This was how many people viewed Greek drama for hundreds of years following the end of the Golden Age of Greece. Yet in thirteenth century Italy, a new movement that came to be called humanism resurrected classical Greek texts, including drama, and found that there was a place for these ancient heroes in educating young men.
At that time, it was the goal of every young man of aristocratic birth to serve his country. The idea behind humanism was to prepare a young man for his new role in civic life, and ethics was an important feature of this new emphasis on education. Classical Latin and Greek became crucial elements of a gentleman’s education, while each country’s vernacular language became the language of the peasant class. Within two hundred years, knowledge of classical Greek would become an essential attribute of an educated man.
With the adoption of these languages, the literature soon followed, and this included Greek drama. Greek drama taught important lessons about loyalty, heroism, and religion. From these plays young men learned about leadership and responsibility. Young gentlemen also learned that heroism was more than bravery on the battlefield. They learned
from Ajax that heroism coupled with excessive pride would lead to disaster. Heroism brought with it responsibility and the need for compromise.
Young men also learned that great heroes like Odysseus were heroic not just because they were brave and won many battles, but because they did what was expected of them. Odysseus was heroic because he could put aside his anger at Ajax and do what he knew to be the right thing. Odysseus also knew that Ajax had offended the gods, and that he too would offend the gods if Ajax were to be denied burial. From Odysseus, young men learned about the correct relationship between man and god. These models for gentlemanly behavior became an important reason to study classical literature.
Humanism also emphasized intellectual autonomy and individual expression. Sophocles’s plays focused on these attributes. He created heroes whose need to express their individuality became the centerpiece of drama. In his book on Greek drama, J. Michael Walton contends that Sophocles created a “world of unusual personal detail, a world in which a small object or a human gesture can define a man’s estate.” The world portrayed on stage ceased to be huge, with mythic heroes who were larger than life.
In Ajax, the audience perceives a protagonist in profound pain. Walton maintains that the audience sees is not the “stoicism of mankind but the pain to which he is heir.” The audience cannot help but react to this individual suffering.
Clearly, as Walton notes, Sophocles is able to engage the audience’s sympathy for the individual. This became increasingly important as the world grew larger and more complex, and was as true of the fledgling scientific world of the Renaissance as it is today.
The Renaissance humanist was willing to accept the responsibility of governing that accompanied intellectual autonomy. Here, too, the Greek model proved important. Greek heroes exemplified responsibility to their gods and to the men who fought beside them. Ajax’s tragedy was in betraying those with whom he fought: Odysseus, Agamemnon, and Menelaus. His shame is twofold—deriving from the mistaken slaughter of animals and his madness that turned such terrible anger on his allies.
In her discussion on the use of debate and conflict in Sophoclean tragedy, Jacqueline de Romilly states that there is a contrast in Ajax between “an aristocratic ethic based on honor and a more humane ethic based on obligations to individuals.” This obligation to the individual is seen in Odysseus’s championing of Ajax’s burial rights. Odysseus clearly understands the god’s directive that bodies must be buried, but his reasons go beyond that. Although he abhors Ajax’s actions, Odysseus acknowledges that Ajax was a great warrior who fought bravely for their causes:
“Deny him burial and trample justice! I loathed him, more than any other Greek in camp. I detested Page 11 | Top of Articleall he was—and still I say he was the bravest man I ever saw, except for Achilles, the best and bravest who ever came to Troy. Admit it! Justice demands! If you shame him you smear God’s law. Hate him or love him, he was an honorable man; you owe him honor.”
In the ensuing argument with Agamemnon, Odysseus contends that Ajax deserves respect. In the end, as both Agamemnon and Odysseus agree, this is fulfilling obligations and providing the honors rightfully bestowed upon an honorable man. Doing what was right, what benefited the individual man, was a crucial part of Odysseus’s decision.
Honesty and the search for truth were also important elements of the humanist movement, and they were important to defining the strengths of the individual. Ajax chooses to die alone, separate from family and the men who still follow him. He commits suicide. This is not the expected death for a great hero—Ajax is in great pain and thinks that he can redeem his honor only through taking his own life. In her essay on the feminine in Greek drama, Froma I. Zeitlin argues that Ajax’s suicide is a woman’s way of dying but that Ajax appropriates a woman’s death and makes it masculine:
“Suicide is a solution in tragedy normally reserved only for women—and what we are given to witness is this convention borrowed for a man’s version of it. He [Ajax] dies a heroic death, then, in the women’s way, a whetted will penetrated by a whetted weapon, befitting... the curious ambiguities of this most masculine hero.”
Zeitlin asserts that although Ajax briefly considers Tecmessa’s pleas, to continue living would feminize his will and deepen his shame. Ajax is embracing the only recourse left to an honorable man, hoping to restore his family’s honor. He deceives his family and the chorus, convincing them that he is recovering and the danger has passed.
There is a temptation to label Ajax’s words as lies, heaping more dishonor on a man already dishonored. But Ajax is a complex man, and as Zeitlin suggests, Ajax “seems to have arrived at the kind of tragic knowledge we recognize as intrinsically true to the genre.” This is because, as Zeitlin argues, although “deceit and intrigue are condemned in women, they are also seen as natural to her sphere of operations and the dictates of her nature.”
Thus, since Ajax has chosen to die in the manner of women, that he first deceives those around him means that he is employing, as Zeitlin
notes, a “feminine strategy enlisted in the service of restoring an unequivocal manliness he can only achieve... by dying the manly death... in the woman’s way.” The audience is left with the knowledge that Ajax took the only choice still left to him, the choice to die. For Ajax, truth lies in his acceptance of his actions.
Medieval Christianity taught that obedience was more important than individualism, but humanism stressed just the opposite. If individualism was identified with arrogance, the study of classical Greek pointed to individualism as the mark of the strong, virtuous man—one who saw good deeds, not as the way to get into heaven, but as the way to create a better world.
This individualism is not with problems, as the complexity of Ajax illustrates. The opening ceremonies of the festival in which Sophocles presented his plays included honoring the children of Greece’s war victims. Simon Goldhill states that this ceremony affirms the connection between these young men and the city that has been responsible for their education. It was a moment of civic pride, and combined with the remainder of the ceremonies, it provided an important civic occasion.
Yet as these ceremonies affirm the importance of the city, the tragedies themselves affirm the importance of the individual. This tension, this ambiguity in the hero, provides for a realistic depiction. This is not a remote hero without fault; this is a hero who is capable of mistakes.
As Goldhill observes, “the negative example of Ajax is touched with a certain glory. It is an essential dynamic of Sophocles’s tragedy that Ajax should seem both an outstanding hero and also unacceptable in society. The hero does not simply Page 12 | Top of Articlereverse the norms of what it means to fit into society but makes a problem of such integration.”
Ajax is almost setting a precedent for the twentieth-century anti-hero. The modern hero is prepared to do the right thing, to rebel against a controlling government when it is wrong. Athena’s role as god is not unlike the authority of modern government. She establishes laws and expects exact obedience, and she does not expect to be challenged. Ajax does challenge authority; but as Goldhill points out, Ajax, although managing to transgress what is expected of him, “achieves his greatness, his superhuman status, precisely by such transgression.”
Ajax is first and foremost an individual. He wants to be in control of his destiny, and although not flawless, he proves that he is heroic in coming to terms with those faults. The Greek tragic hero was an important model for the autonomy and individual expression that humanists embraced, and it became an important element in creating the Renaissance man who would build the foundation of the modern world. Humanism’s resurrection of Greek drama created a profound change in the way Renaissance men approached society and religion, and this has carried over into the twentieth century.
Source: Sheri E. Metzger, for Drama for Students, Gale, 2000.
J. Michael Walton
Walton provides an overview of Sophocles’s play, identifying the major characters and plot motivations.
After the death of Achilles in the war against Troy, the Greek hero’s arms were awarded to Odysseus rather than to Ajax who believed he had deserved them. Intent on revenge for the slight, Ajax is diverted from his purpose by the goddess Athena who drives him mad so that he kills and tortures sheep and cattle, seeing them as his Greek enemies. When he returns to sanity, shame at what he has done impels him to commit suicide. Odysseus pleads with Agamemnon and Menelaus for Ajax to be treated with the respect due to a hero and eventually wins his point.
Ajax is the only Sophocles play, with the arguable exception of Philoctetes, in which a god or goddess appears. Traditionally a devout man. Sophocles proposes a theological standpoint which is more complex than it is sometimes painted. Ajax may have been planning a dire revenge against his former friends, when he believes himself cheated of his due, but the way in which the goddess Athena gloats over the state to which she has reduced him looks forward to the savage Dionysus of Euripides’ Bacchae rather than back to the wise patron-goddess of Athens who solves the problems in Aeschylus’ Oresteia.
Applying modern standards to a Greek attitude towards friends and enemies is, of course, risky. Turning the other cheek would have seemed as contrary to the nature of the Greek hero as turning his back. Nevertheless, there is in Ajax a sense of moral argument which suggests that man is progressing beyond the simple rules of programmed response. Odysseus is not only the soldier who defeated Ajax in the award of arms but is also traditionally a crafty and untrustworthy man whose eye is always to the main chance. So he appears in Sophocles’s later play Philoctetes, where his machinations to persuade the eponymous hero to go to Troy are so Machiavellian as to be self-defeating. In Ajax this is the sort of man Athena is expecting when she invites Odysseus to witness Ajax’ humiliation. Instead of pleasure at the downfall of an enemy, Odysseus shows himself instinctively compassionate.
The tone of the play is established in the first scene. All the later characters to appear reveal predictable attitudes. Ajax’ half-brother, Teucer, defends him as best he may, but he is only half-hero as well as half-brother. Tecmessa, mother of Ajax’ son Eurysaces, is loyal and loving but utterly without influence in such a male world. Agamemnon and Menelaus, respectively commander-in-chief of the Greek forces at Troy, and husband of Helen, the cause of the war, are angry savages for whom the only response to what Ajax has done is the ultimate insult: deprivation of burial. Odysseus stands up to them and wins for Ajax the honour due to what the man was when he was a friend, not what he became when thwarted and deranged. If the play’s moral dimension is its paramount feature, there is little sense of Ajax degenerating into a tract. The appearance of Athena in the prologue is literally above the action where Odysseus cannot see her. Such an awareness of stage space, a principal factor of Sophocles’ stagecraft in all his surviving plays, is given an unusual twist in the handling of both location and chorus.
Changes of scene are rare in surviving Greek tragedy and appear to have become more so, with tragedy moving towards realism at the same time as comedy, in the hands of Aristophanes, moves to a Page 13 | Top of Articleworld of fantasy where anything can happen anywhere. The initial setting of Ajax is outside Ajax’s tent, over which Athena appears (presumably, in the original production, with the help of the stage-crane). After Athena has departed and Ajax has returned to sanity, his sailors, who form the chorus, and Tecmessa with his baby attempt to save him from despair at the carnage he has perpetrated. For a time it seems that they have been successful. Ajax emerges from his tent calm and apparently reconciled to what he has done. He departs for the beach to cleanse himself.
News arrives that this is to prove a crucial day in Ajax’s fortunes and the chorus and Tecmessa leave the scene to look for him. Ajax now appears at the sea-shore and carefully prepares his own death, before falling on the sword given to him in battle by the Trojan Hector. The sense of isolation is emphasised both by the place where the action is now unfolding and by the absence of the chorus who habitually accompany on-stage action, from their first entrance through to a play’s conclusion. Physical use of the resources of the Athenian theatre and the expectations of the audience are consciously manipulated by Sophocles to draw attention to the man’s loneliness and to the unusual sight on the Greek stage of someone committing suicide.
Ajax is a touching play and a heartening one for ending on a note of hope, if not reconciliation. Life may present atrocities and heroes may perpetrate them, but a case can be made for human decency which allows some rules and some rights for even the major sinner.
Source: J. Michael Walton. “Ajax” in The International Dictionary of Theatre, Volume 1: Plays, edited by Mark Hawkins-Dady, St. James Press, 1992, pp. 7–8.
W. Edward Brown
In the following essay, Brown compares and contrasts the tangential subject matter in the writings of Sophocles and Homer.
Modern critics have proposed a number of interpretations of the nature of the tragedy in Sophocles’ Ajax, without perhaps completely exhausting the subject. The present paper is no more than an attempt to add slightly to this material by focusing attention on what seems to be an overlooked element in the drama, that is, the implicit contrast between the title character and the Homeric Hector.
Without attempting to go more fully into the question, I shall say at the outset that in general it
seems to me that the Ajax, in its “diptych” structure, is preeminently a study in contrasts, as has been usually recognized, and that the contrast between the enemies Ajax and Odysseus is the most important and striking of these. This contrast is first and most drastically shown in the prologue, which juxtaposes the savage vengefulness of Ajax with Odysseus’ canny moderation and pity for the misfortunes even of an enemy. This contrast is carried through the play in the ironic disparity between the distorted image of Odysseus held by Ajax and shared by Tecmessa and the chorus, and the magnanimous reality, as it appears in the prologue and the final episode. Subsidiary contrasts are those between Teucer, a lesser Ajax, and the contemptible Atridae, and between the human characters of Odyssesus and Ajax and the ruthless divinity Athena.
Another contrast, however, is implicit, I believe, in the characterization of Ajax in his relations with his wife and his infant son. It is impossible, I think, to read Tecmessa’s speech of expostulation to Ajax bent on suicide, without being immediately reminded of the colloquy between Hector and Andromache in Iliad 6.407–65: there is the same plea that the rest of the wife’s family being dead, the husband is all in all; the same vivid picture of the wife’s captivity in a hostile land; the same imagined taunt—“this was the wife of a hero who was once the mightiest, and see how she has fallen”; the same pleading to the warrior not to leave his son a helpless orphan. Is this a mere chance echo, Sophocles’ homage to the poet who had exhausted the pathetic possibilities in the fate of a dead warrior’s family? If there were no other evidence, this might be. But is it chance that the sword with which Ajax kills himself is Hector’s sword? He says of it bitterly in his speech of deception to the chorus: “For ever since I received this in my hand from Hector, the gift of my worst enemy, I have never yet had anything good from the Achaeans. True is that proverb of mortals, that an enemy’s gifts are no gifts, and the reverse of helpful.” And in his last
soliloquy, Ajax addresses the sword as it stands braced in the Trojan ground to be his killer, as “the gift of Hector, that man who of all my guest-friends was most hated by me, the most detested to look upon.” And finally, when Teucer uncovers his brother’s body and recognizes the sword, he calls attention to the fatality of the gift exchange between Ajax and Hector (Iliad 7.303–5): “You see how it was destined that in time Hector, though dead, should destroy you? Consider, in God’s name, the chances of two mortals: Hector, bound to the chariot rail by the belt he received from this man, was torn continually until he breathed out his life; and this man, with the gift he received from the other, has perished in a leap of death.” It is hard to pass over the persistent appearance of the Hector theme as a chance irrelevance.
But if there is an intentional coupling here of Ajax and his dead enemy, what does Sophocles mean by it? Without explicitly pointing out the contrast, he seems to be letting the hearer form his own conclusions on two sorts of heroic conduct. Granting that Odysseus, the cool calculator who reasons out his pity for his mad enemy by saying “I think as much of my own fate as of his,” is no warrior, and that the contrast here is one between the “exceptional” and the “ordinary” man, it is necessary to the full appreciation of Ajax’s tragedy that he also be contrasted with a warrior of unquestioned stature. This contrast is afforded by the omnipresent figure of Hector. The soldier who received with gentleness and pity his wife’s tearful pleas to spare his life and not make her a widow and his son an orphan, and the comfort that “no man shall send me to Hades against my fate,” stands ghostlike in the background as Ajax with callous brutality brushes aside his wife and child and prepares to compass his own death. And when that consummation of his desires has been accomplished, and Teucer moralizes over the silver-studded sword and purple belt which had been the instruments of both men’s fates, the audience cannot but remember that Hector had died bravely in battle, fighting an unequal fight in defense of wife and child and parents and city, while Ajax had deliberately deceived his friends and destroyed himself as a useless sacrifice to his concept of honor.
The tragedy of Ajax cannot properly be explained by applying the classical hybris formula. This, formula implies that there is a norm of conduct valid for all men, deviation from which brings down the wrath of the gods upon the offender. It may be appropriate to explain some of Aeschylus’ tragedies by the concept of hybris, but not those of Sophocles. The tragedy of Ajax, as of The Trachinian Women, lies precisely in the fact that certain individuals, like Ajax and Heracles, are, by the very nature with which they have been endowed, at variance with the standards of conduct that apply to normal men. Neither a religious nor a moral consideration is involved here. Certain conduct is inevitable in the “exceptional man,” his nature being what it is; and this conduct inevitably also results in destruction for himself and misery for his loved ones. The very fact of being such an exceptional man is therefore tragic, but the tragedy is not the punishment of heaven for overstepping the bounds. The gods of Sophocles are merely conventional names for the sum of “the way things are.”
The figure of Athena in the Ajax and the enmity of the goddess for the hero cannot be taken, I believe, in any personal sense, nor is undue importance to be attached to the “guilt” of Ajax in the words of Calchas as reported by the messenger.... In the first of these passages a statement is made which perhaps most clearly formulates the tragedy of Ajax, if correctly interpreted: “For, said the seer, exceptional and profitless beings fall at the gods’ hands into grievous misfortunes—all who, being engendered after the fashion of men, have thoughts that are not of human pattern.” This seems to be no more than a mere statement of fact, without moral implications....
But Hector too was a warrior, as valiant and devoted to duty as Ajax. The difference lay in Hector’s... acceptance of the limitations of human power and the obligation of human living, which his enemy rejected. The contrast is glaringly apparent in the scene with Tecmessa in which Ajax contemptuously Page 15 | Top of Articlebrushes aside the claims of family as against those of honor; it is apparent also in the words which Ajax addresses to his infant son: “Child, may you be more fortunate than your father, but in other respects like him; so you will prove no coward.” Hector prays for the babe Astyanax: “Zeus and you other gods, grant that this child of mine may be distinguished among the Trojans, as am I, and as great in strength, and may he reign with power over Ilion. And some day may one say of him: ‘He is far braver than his father’” (Iliad 6.476–9). The one prays that his son may be better than he, the other that he may be his equal in everything but luck—a difference that speaks volumes of Ajax’s unbridled egotism. And yet the comparison between Hector and Ajax is made explicit in Sophocles’ play only in Teucer’s contrast of the gifts exchanged—and these were the cause of death for the one as for the other. Hector, who goes to his last battle with the prayer that he may lie under mounded earth before he hears the cry of Andromache being dragged to captivity, and Ajax, who invokes the vengeance of the Furies upon the Atridae and their whole army for the death that he is about to inflict on himself, are alike in this—death is the end for both.
Does this mean that Sophocles views the careers of both men as moral equivalents—“the paths of glory lead but to the grave” ? If this is so, then it is indeed futile to look for any meaning—or indeed any tragedy—in the play. It is inconceivable, however, that all a great poet could say on such a theme should be reducible to such banal and irrelevant pessimism. Nor would it ever occur to one of Sophocles’ contemporaries to imagine that this was so. The hero who dies at his own hand because of a nature that cannot bend itself to conform to human norms is tragic; but not the hero who dies, as a soldier should, in defending his city and his people. Such a man’s fate is happy in Greek eyes; Solon’s anecdote of Tellus the Athenian (Herodotus 1.30) is evidence enough without citing Tyrtaeus, alien in time and place; and Hector’s fate for the fifth-century Athenian must have had much the same aura as the dead whom Pericles eulogizes (Thucydides 2.42), who “endured the brunt of battle with their bodies, and in the briefest moment of time, at the summit of their fortune, were taken not out of fear, but away from fame.”
But the dead, however different in the mode of their death, must be buried. The ending of the Ajax often been criticized, as destructive of the play’s unity, as blatantly anticlimactic, even as mere padding. These criticisms are, I believe, absurdly unjust, and possible only as long as the mistaken notion is held that the play is “about Ajax,” and nothing more. It is “about” human life, and Ajax and Odysseus and Teucer and the Atridae—and I believe Hector—are all symbols through whom the poet may voice his thoughts on this subject. It is sometimes said that Ajax is “rehabilitated” in the second half of the play; so he is—as a human being. The whole importance of the contrast so pointedly made between Odysseus’ magnanimity and the vindictiveness of the Atridae lies in this. When Agamemnon queries: “You urge me then to permit the burial of this corpse?” Odysseus replies simply: “I do; for I myself shall come to this.” Whatever its conduct in life, this “profitless body” had been a human being, and resentment may not humanly be carried beyond death.
And here we have the last implied comparison with Hector: his body too his enemy had outraged and left unburied, until with appeals to their common humanity his old father had persuaded the vengeful Achilles to relinquish the corpse and let it be given to the fire. Odysseus plays the part of Priam here, with none of his pathos and grandeur, to be sure, but with basically the same argument: we are all mortal. The play ends with the parallelism between Ajax and Hector complete, the contrast sharply drawn between the hero and his two enemies: Odysseus, his polar opposite, the man of craft and intellect and cold blood; and Hector, the warrior so strangely like him, whose “human mindedness” as surely as Ajax’s “inhuman mindedness” terminates in the grave that is the common lot of all humans.
Source: W. Edward Brown. “Sophocles’s Ajax and Homer’s Hector” in Classical Journal, Vol. 61, no. 3, December, 1965, pp. 118–21.
Goldhill, Simon. “The Great Dionysia and Civic Ideology,” in Nothing to Do With Dionysos? Athenian Drama in Its Social Context, edited by John J. Winkler and Froma I. Zeitlin, Princeton University Press, 1992, pp. 97-129.
King, W. D. “Nailed to a Circus of Blood; Ajax at the American National Theatre,” Theatre Vol. 18, No. 1, Fall-Winter, 1986, pp.6-15.
Romilly, Jacqueline de. “Drama in the Second Half of the Fifth Century: Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes,” in Page 16 | Top of ArticleA Short History of Greek Literature, translated by Lillian Doherty, University of Chicago Press, 1985, pp. 66-89.
Walton, J. Michael. The Greek Sense of Theatre: Tragedy Reviewed, Methuen, 1984.
Zeitlin, Froma I. “Playing the Other: Theatre, Theatricality, and the Feminine in Greek Drama,” in Nothing to Do With Dionysos? Athenian Drama in Its Social Context, edited by John J. Winkler and Froma I. Zeitlin, Princeton University Press, 1992, pp. 63-96.
Ashby, Clifford. Classical Greek Theatre: New Views of an Old Subject, University of Iowa Press, 1999.
An examination of Greek theater based on architectural evidence. The author has traveled extensively and examined many of the remaining sites in Greece, Southern Italy, and the Balkans.
Gressler, Thomas H. Greek Theatre in the 1980s, McFarland & Company, 1989.
A study of modern Greek theater in which the author focuses on social and cultural influences of drama, discusses the history of theater, and provides a look at productions and the restoration of theaters.
Griffith, R. Drew. The Theatre of Apollo: Divine Justice and Sophocles’s Oedipus the King, McGill Queens University Press, 1996.
This is a reinterpretation of Sophocles’s play that explores Apollo’s role in bringing about this tragedy. It also attempts to recreate the play’s original staging.
Rehm, Rush. Greek Tragic Theatre, Routledge, 1994.
Discusses performances of several plays and encourages readers to consider the context in which the plays were performed.
Walton, J. Michael. Living Greek Theatre, Greenwood, 1987.
Focuses on the staging and performance of Greek drama. The author attempts to integrate classical and modern theater, while providing a great deal of information about a number of the most important plays from this period.
Wise, Jennifer. Dionynsus Writes: The Invention of Theatre in Ancient Greece, Cornell University Press, 1998.
Discusses the relationship between literature and drama by examining the influences of a newly emerging literary world on drama.
Zelenak, Michael X. Gender and Politics in Greek Tragedy, Peter Lang, 1998.
This book offers some insight into the status of women in Greek culture and provides interesting analysis of many women characters from Greek drama.