The Significance of Heracles' bow in Philoctetes
(from Oliver Taplin's Greek Tragedy in Action)
In the prologue (pp 163-168) we meet the idea of the bow under 3 headings:-
Troy will only fall to this bow
It's Phil's only means of defence/attack
It's Phil's only means of survival
When Phil enters (171), he obviously has the bow with him but no attention is drawn to it at first. In the long deception scene it is only mentioned twice: when Phil introduces himself (172m) and when he explains how he gets food (173m):
The phoney merchant doesn't mention it at all. When he tells of Helenus' prophecy it is Phil and not the bow that must go to Troy (183t).
It's only at the end of this long episode (184-5) that the bow becomes a significant feature in the action. Neo's request to hold it gives it a moral and religious significance. At this point in the plot, it is interesting that the handing- over of the bow to Neo is a measure of the success of his deceit.
In the next episode (188 ), the bow passes again to Neo when Phil lapses into his coma. This time Neo has doubts about his methods, cleverly shown by his silence (190m) when asked to help Phil die. "The bow in his hands shames his deceit to silence." When the chorus urge him to go with the bow, he puts them off.
When Phil re-awakes, Neo confesses the trick but cannot still bring himself to return the bow. His instinct to obey orders remains strong (194m). In Phil's emotional speech that follows (194m-195b), the bow plays a significant part.
He mentions its vital role as provider of food but also signals again to Neo that he has taken a sacred object of trust by fraud.
Odysseus' sudden reappearance puts an end to Phil's pleading. With taunts that he will use the bow himself at Troy (198b), Od leads off Neo still holding the bow. It thus disappears from view for the first time since Phil brought it on early in the play.
On 200 here is a lyrical lament by Phil about the fate of the bow, stressing again the deceit involved and the shamelessness of the man who now has it. But he is actually mistaken because Neo has not given up the bow; when he returns he makes it clear that he intends to return it to its rightful owner .
206 is full of physical and symbolic action centred around the bow. The handing back restores the trust between Phil and Neo and signals the complet ness of Neo's conversion.
Od's ineffectual attempt to seize the bow and his submission to the threat of Phil's arrows show the end of the effectiveness of deceit.
With trust restored via the bow, Neo can honestly try to persuade Phil to go to Troy but to no avail. Phil's hatred of the Greek leaders is too deep. In the end, Neo is persuaded to use the bow - against his own people! (210)
At this point Heracles appears as the deus ex machina. He mentions his bow and its arrows three times. They will kill Paris and then guarantee the fall of the city. Some of the spoils from Troy are to be placed on Heracles' tomb, 'in remembrance of the bow" .
This pious act, in honour of the bow, should be a reminder to men of how they should have.