NOTES ON AJAX

p. 17 How does the play start? Something must be going on before Athena speaks. A person (unknown until Athena speaks) comes in and looks around, looking at tracks on the floor. Sophocles is a master of intrigue. Even after Athena speaks there are still questions: Why is Odysseus looking around Ajax's tent? Why the footfrints? Why are Ajax's hands and head bloodied?

Yes, I have watched you Has Athena been on stage for some time before Odysseus enters from the side entrance? Peter Jones thinks so. Oliver Taplin (Greek Tragedy in Action) thinks she follows Odysseus onto the stage.

p.18 although I cannot see you Could equally well be translated as even when I cannot see you. Odysseus hears her first, and then turns to see her. NB she is on the ground, not above the skene. According to Taplin, gods who appear in prologues are always on the ground.

p.19 It was that baulked him ..... darkening his vision. NB Athena has blinded Ajax. Ajax has his sight, but is blind: Odysseus can't see Athena but knows what is happening. Compare Oedipus and Teiresias in King Oedipus .

p.20 Mercy, Athena! Donít call him out Odysseus appears as a coward. Ajax is a hero in the Achilles mould. He won't survive. Odysseus is a lesser man and will survive.

Now you can laugh at him. A desire to confound and/or laugh at one's enemies was a very Greek ideal. Consider what Odysseus say to Nausicaa when he first approaches her in Odyssey 6. But here Odysseus shrinks from scorn. Perhaps he has in mind the sentiment he expresses on p.65.

Iíd rather leave him where he is. Athena invites Odysseus to laugh at his enemy, but Odysseus declines

p.21 (Stage direction) See Taplin page 85. There is no evidence from the text that Ajax has a whip. His blood-stained sword is a much more effective prop.

p.22 He was my enemy, but Iím sorry/Now with all my heart. Odysseus' pity intensifies ours for a great man fallen. The gods don't need to change their purposes and enmities: mortals must. For other remarks about human friendship compare Ajax's words at the top of p.41, and Odysseus' at the top of p.65. Ajax is too unyielding to change until too late. In the end he has to yield and die. Odysseus will live and prosper for he is a lesser man. A recurring theme in Sophocles' plays is the need to listen to persuasion. This can be linked to Athens' historical status as a fairly new democracy, whose citizens were frequently expected to listen to arguments in the Assembly or Law Courts

Therefore beware of uttering blasphemy....This is a major theme of the play.
ENTRY OF THE CHORUS. The Chorus has heard Odysseus' story of the cattle and doesn't believe it. They want Ajax to come out and deny it. Being lowly men they cannot - the lowly need the mighty as much as the mighty need the lowly. Even if what Odysseus says is true, some god drove him to it: the real Ajax would never go so far in folly.

p.28 Tecmessa's involvement in Ajax's fate makes her more effective than thc conventional messenger

p.29 O! O! The cry in Greek is io, moi, moi. It is heard three times in the play: here, at line 891 (Tecmessa), and at 974 (Teucer). Three times in the see-saw movement of this play a low point is marked by this cry. Teucer is the man whose arrival is keenly awaited in the first half. He is the key figure in Ajax's scheme.

p.30 Iíll open it and look within. A standard cue for the use of the ekkuklema. (Stage direction) Ajax appears on the ekkuklema (probably). It is a ghastly tableau scene - Ajax among the slaughtered cattle and sheep - captures shockingly the extent of Ajax's disaster. He can't move without touching the disgrace. From this depth he must rise up to regain his stature. It seems as if he doesn't physically rise during this tableau scene.
There is some debate about whether he has the sword at this point: nothing in the text indicates one way or the other.

p.32 Aias! Aias! The Greeks had a superstition about people's names, that they might be in some way connected with what happened to them in life. Aias (the correct Greek spelling of Ajax) is like Aiai, the Greek word to express grief Compare the play on Eurysaces (p.37) or Helen in Agamemnon.
Notice also the typical balance of speeches found in many tragedies - each actor makes a long speech separated by a short choral utterance, and then the actors speak in short one-line dialogue - called stichomythia which indicates a rising emotional climate. Note that the choral interjection on p.34 is a plea for moderation and yielding to persuasion.

p.36 Eurysaces! Your father wants you. Eurysaces was played by a boy with no speaking part. But he is vital to the tragedy. Ajax sees his son as his successor and replacement, and his future safety is uppermost in his thoughts.
Yes, he's coming..../ One of the guards is bringing him. Note how stage directions in Greek tragedy are written into the dialogue. All stage directions in a translation of a tragedy are the invention of the translator, and have no authority.
Bring him into my arms. He embraces the boy amid the futile, slaughtered sheep.

p.37 Take him away with you. The end of the last embrace. Ajax casts his son into a hostile world. But Eurysaces touches Ajax again (see p.58).

p.38 CHORUS. The chorus laments their long absence from Salamis, and now Ajax's madness will bring them more unhappiness.

p.40 (The "deception" speech). This speech is in fact Ajax's farewell to Tecmessa and the army. It has long been a mystery (see Taplin pp. 127-131). It can only be understood in retrospect after Ajax's death speech (pp. 45-7). It prepares us to look for the effects of time and change. By becoming temperate he has made his peace with the gods, and so can spend much of his death speech in prayer. Athena ended the prologue by saying "The gods love the temperate and hate the wicked." At the time we supposed that Ajax was "the wicked." The last third of the play makes it clear who "the wicked" are.
Ajax definitely has the sword here. He explains with balanced ambiguity (e.g. I will take this sword ... out of sight forever, and I must be on my way .... this suffering ended) what he intends to do with it.

p.41 CHORUS. The chorus sings a joyful song celebrating Ajax's change of mood To have the chorus misinformed and sing a song of joy before a catastrophe is a typical Sophoclean device. The chorus' happiness is seen by the audience as dramatic irony, and it sharpens the emotional intensity of the next bit.

p.43 (Messenger's speech on 43-4) Note the hubris of Ajax's attitude.

p.45 As fast as my feet can carry me. The dismissal of the chorus, the change of location and the suicide on stage are all unusual features in tragedy. The chorus leaves by both parodoi. The stage is cleared for Ajax alone.
There. Now he' s ready The sword is important again. See Iliad 7.303 (Penguin p. 149). After the duel Aias (Ajax) and Hektor exchange gifts: the belt was used to tie dead Hektor behind Achilles' chariot, and the sword is used to kill Ajax (see lines 1024-35 p.53) (not in Homer). This speech is a kind of second prologue. It is both the end of the first part and the opening of the second part. N.B. It is also followed by a second parodos.

p. 47 (Death of Ajax). The stage is empty of all living people. This is also a very unusual feature. The chorus then re-enter in a second parodos. Note the parallel with Odysseus tracking at the opening of the first part. The first half of the play is about the consequences of Ajax's madness, and the second half is about the treatment of the body.
Note the complexity of this choral song (see Taplin p. 149)

p.48 The entry of Tecmessa here and Teucer (p.5 1) ensure that Ajax is found by his friends, as he had prayed.
What cry was that? In the wood. What wood? We didn't know there was a wood. The wood could provide a solution to a very ancient problem: what happens to the body of Ajax, and how is it substituted for a dummy/extra? Note that later on (p.63) we need all three actors. Probably the part of Agamemnon (and Menelaus) was played by the Ajax actor.
Dead, and the sword still sunk in his heart. The sword again.

p.49 So dies/A wilful man. NB Ajax's hubris
Show us,/ Show us where Ajax lies. More mystery for the staging. Clearly the chorus is not now where Tecmessa found the body. So where are they, and where is the body?

p.52 Lose not a moment/Go with her. When Teucer dismisses Tecmessa she never speaks again in the play.
Uncover him; let me see everything. He uncovers the body

p. 54 Menelaus, the man for whom we made this \/oyage. Another stage direction written into the dialogue.
This is the reason This speech of Menelaus is a justification for obedience. Ajax must serve as an example to those who would act against their leaders.

p.55 O my good friends . Teucer makes the point that Ajax owed no obedience to the Atreidae.

p. 56 The archer must enjoy..... Teucer is the archer (NB the lliad emphasises his use of the bow) Menelaus is the meanest of Ajax's enemies, only too eager to kick a man who is down. His rhetoric is sly and low, and Teucer, who is no Ajax, is reduced to his level. They end up swapping Aesopic tales.

p.58 (Stage direction). Tecmessa here is played by a non-speaking extra. Contrast her constructive silence here with her passivity during the "deception" speech.
Here come his wife and son Another stage direction. Teucer makes the child kneel solemnly by the corpse.
And lay your hand upon him....As I this hair do sever For Greeks an oath was activated or strengthened if it was associated as it was uttered with a concrete object or action, compare Iliad I (Penguin p.56).
This tableau is carefully posed before the choral song. they touch Ajax as if for asylum. They protect the body, and he in turn protects them. Even in death he is big enough to save them.

p.59 The chorus laments the long years of exile from home. They curse the man who first taught the use of arms in war.

p. 60 (Entry of Agamemnon). Agamemnon is little better than his brother, and Teucer, though desperately courageous, cannot lift himself above the low level of dispute.

p.61 The best advice that I can offer This is a typical chorus plea for moderation.
No day when fire was raging Compare Iliad 15 (Penguin p.271)

p. 62 Who was your fatherís father. Agamemnon's ancestry was no better than Teucer's if taken further back. This sounds like an appropriately democratic thought for an Athenian audience.

p. 63 Iíd pardon the man Odysseus takes Ajax's side. He is the last of Ajax's enemies to enter, and he has some of Ajax's insight into time and change (see his comments on p. 65) which is so memorably expressed in the "deception" speech.

p. 64 The best of all that ever came to Troy Odysseus says that Ajax was the second most valiant Greek, and that it is a wrong against heaven to dishonour the dead.

p.65 A friend today etc. These sentiments echo Ajax's last words.

p.66 I scruple to accept your help. Teucer refuses Odysseus' help, and Odysseus accepts this limitation. Ajax was too big for this world, but the world is a smaller, meaner place without him. This is the meaning of the two part nature of the play.
The ending provides a balance with the beginning, with the presence of Odysseus who has been absent for most of the play. But when he returns there is nothing cautious or devious about him as there was at the start. His arguments show that the Atreidae are offending the gods as much as Ajax had. Like Ajax the Atreidae follow the course of wisdom reluctantly. Their characters remain narrow, suspicious and vindictive.
At the end all the close dependants of Ajax - Teucer, Tecmessa, Eurysaces and the sailors - take the corpse away in a funeral procession. Ajax is saved, his honour preserved and his dependants live together under his protection. Earlier the chorus dispersed in disarray on a lost cause. Now they march together on a mission which leads to secure success, even as it marks the fate of the tragic hero. Ajax is not only the tragedy of the death of a hero, but also the death of a heroic world. to explore this conjunction to the full, Sophocles constructed a play in two parts.