Heracles, suffering great pain, ordered his son to bury him alive. His son, Hyllus, prepared the pyre but refused to light it. Philoctetes did, and was given in return Heracles' famous bow and poisoned arrows, with which Heracles had once taken Troy.
In Homer, Diomedes is sent to Lemnos, in Aeschylus, Odysseus, in Euripides both Diomedes and Odysseus.
The play was presented in 409 BC and won first prize. In the play Stage Right is never used: Stage Left leads to the boat. The stage building serves as Philoctetes' cave. We must presume that it has an entrance at the back, as well as the main entrance. Hence Philoctetes can enter stage via the cave, having walked through it. Sophocles' play, like Ajax, opens with natural action which reveals the situation and the plot whilst keeping the audience guessing at the start.
The play is a clash between the noble and straightforward heroic code of Achilles, Heracles and Philoctetes on the one hand, and the Odyssean principle of profit and ambition. The oracle of Helenus prophesied that the Greeks could not win without:- (a) Neoptolemus (b) Philoctetes and (c) the bow and poisoned arrows of Heracles
p.163 a desolate is1and This is not a cheery place: Sophocles is setting the scene to enlist our sympathy for Philoctetes.
To work!/I need your help. A major motif in the play is that Odysseus gives the orders and Neoptolemus does the work.
p.164 Above or below you./ I cannot see from here. Odysseus remains by the parodos crouching down. He's terrified that Philoctetes will see him.
Perhaps he's as1eep inside. Odysseus' terror of discovery comes over very strongly. Why is he so afraid of a maimed castaway
There's a pile of leaves ...... There's a rough wooden cup Here's something else: rags hanging out to dry,/ .. Stained Consider the implications: a pile of leaves, a wooden cup, some dirty rags. Sophocles is piling on the sympathy for Philoctetes.
p.165 ..Send your man. A silent extra is sent to the other parodos.
You've got to get that bow from Philoctetes. The bow is the most integrated prop in Greek tragedy. In the opening scene it is introduced in three aspects: (a) here, it is ordained that Troy shall only fall to the bow. See p.166 for (b) and p.169 for (c).
p. 166 While he still holds the how Aspect (b): the bow is Philoctetes' unconquerable defence against his enemies, hence Neoptolemus' deceit and Odysseus' hiding.
I confess, sir, there are things ... Note the reluctance of Neoptolemus which is abandoned by line 120, but which resurfaces gradually through the play.
p.167 Arrows that never miss, flying to kill. Odysseus' cleverness is shown by the way he handles Neoptolemus, only revealing the past as is necessary, and only when it will be most effective. This technique also enhances the audience's interest cf. King Oedipus.
You and the arrows: neither without the other. See previous note.
A prize for intelligence. Odysseus exploits Neoptolemus' desire for glory .
Say no more. I'II do it,/ And conscience be hanged. Realising that his own hope of fame and honour in the Trojan war will be nullified without the bow, Neoptolemus agrees.
p.168 By Hermes the subtle Note the prayers to Hermes, the god of trickery, and Athena. CHORUS. The chorus is greatly reduced in this play: almost totally integrated into the action, becoming a minor character. Apart from the first stasimon there are no formal odes. AIl the rest are choral lyrics interspersed with lyrical dialogue (called epirrhematic construction). The attitude of the chorus is not entirely consistent. Here they express sympathy for Philoctetes. Later their attitude varies less than that of Neoptolemus.
p.169 Where can he be./ Poor devil. Note the chorus' sympathy again.
They , say that's how he 1ives, Aspect (c) -the bow is Philoctetes' only means of survival.
p.170 I think it is under the will of heaven The gods must agree to Philoctetes' sufferings because they don't want Troy to fall under his arrows until the appointed time.
Hark! What was that? Philoctetes is heard offstage from this line.
A sound like the weary cry The sounds are inarticulate, but human. We must remember, in spite of our sympathy for Philoctetes, that his howls and stench were intolerable. The noise of his approach reminds us that his wound affects others as well as himself. At line 744 (p.188 I'm done for boy etc.) the actual Greek for his cries of pain ( represented in our translation as Pff) is papai apappapai apappapappapappapai.
The chorus here expresses considerable sympathy for Philoctetes. Perhaps the strong expression was necessary to counterbalance the natural Greek inclination to mock disability.
Look alive, the man is near. Poor translation: the Greek says literally ITe man is not outdoors, but close within. i.e. he enters from the cave; see earlier note about staging.
p.171 ENTRY OF PHILOCTETES. Before the awesome moment of his arrival, it has been anticipated with apprehension, wonder and pity, and he is heard off stage slowly approaching. He pauses at the cave mouth to take in this crowd. This is the man Odysseus can't face, the dupe, the victim, once great but now maimed by suffering. Will his mind have become as savage as his appearance? His first speech is courteous, apologetic, open-hearted. He is transparently noble and honest - are they?
To this strange coast? There is .... In fact in Classical times at least Lemnos was large, endowed with excellent ports and inhabited.
p.171 ..Speak, men!/ ..Speak if... Neoptolemus' silence indicates his moral dilemma, and Philoctetes has to urge him to speak.
p.172 ..'Son of Achilles, you must The first mention of the bow. It is a cunning stage prop. There it is in full view, the object of the mission, and yet it is referred to only sparsely.
Left me with it alone, lad. Neoptolemus' youthfulness is constantly stressed.
p.173 This bow/ Was servanrt to my belly; Second mention of the bow. Another moral dilemma for Neoptolemus when he realises that the bow is Philoctetes' only means of staying alive.
p.174 Truly we are sorry, for you. More sympathy from the chorus.
You speak the truth, for I have suffered... Neoptolemus obeys Odysseus' instruction to slander him.
p.176 Ay, by the Mother of all,... The chorus complies in the deception,
Anld those two worthless ones -the spawn of Sisyphus. Post-Homeric legend made Odysseus the son of Sisyphus, not Laertes.
p. 178 Now to my ship./ Goodbye The first in a series of delayed/frustrated exits. This one is appropriately a sham, intended to increase Philoctetes' eagerness to leave. Since Philoctetes never dreams that Achilles' son would tell a lie, the ploy is successful.
p.179 If you but think .., Compare the sentiments expressed at the end of King Oedipus.
You Cannot leave him More sympathy from the chorus.
p.180 Finding this pestilence more i.e. the smell
(Enter a merchant seaman) Could this be Odysseus in disguise? Certainly it is the Odysseus actor .
p.182 What is it, my son Neoptolemus' youth again.
Whatever it is..... Neoptolemus' openness,
p.183 Back from the grave, the way his father came. i.e. Sisyphus.
(Exit of the merchant). No attention is drawn to the bow throughout the long deception scene (lines 219-538), nor does the "merchant" mention it. Up to this point it has only been mentioned twice, both by Philoctetes (see notes above), Of course it can be seen, and the visual tantalising must not be overlooked.
Oceans must separate us. ...The entry of the false merchant has delayed the false departure, but further sharpened Philoctetes' desire to go.
p.184 Is that thef amous bow When Neoptolemus gets round to mentioning the bow it has been in a rather roundabout way. Neoptolemus actually touches the bow, the only person ever allowed to handle it.
p.185 And live to remember you are the only man ..... This gives the bow a special dimension -a moral significance: it is an object of special trust. That Neoptolemus is allowed to touch it is a measure of the success of his deception.
Yes come. My sickness needs your care. Neoptolemus helps Philoctetes.
The story was told The story of Ixion. ,
p.186 This fate he endured... Ixion suffered for the wrongs he did, but Philoctetes has
done no wrong (except to Chryse).
'Tis a wonder.... Philoctetes' loneliness.
p,188 Come on, then. Why do you .... When Philoctetes and Neoptolemus re-emerge their departure is further delayed by the pain which is so intense that it eventually induces a coma (line 821 p,191 I think he will soon sleep )
In a play of intrigue, suspense and uncertainty 'are maintained by unexpected events nd characters' moral vacillation. The sudden spasm of pain adds surprise and dramatises Philoctetes' suffering in the eyes of Neoptolemus and the audience. Other surprises are the entrance of the spy and the two sudden appearances of Odysseus.
p.189 No. Take my bow...... Here Neoptolemus takes the bow, and at least in part gains his objective.
p.190 The son of Zeus; those weapons Philoctetes unwittingly reminds Neoptolemus of how undeservedly he has obtained the bow, and the thought almost strikes him dumb.
My hand. I stay with you. Neoptolemus stands grasping Philoctetes' hand while Philoctetes is contorted by some fit. This is the first time they have touched. As in other plays ( e.g. King Oedipus) touch is important - giving a hand to help, handing over the bow.
p.191 Come down, sweet sleep. The chorus sings in praise of sleep,
other tableau: Neoptolemus' immobile stance by the prostrate figure conveys the conflict between Odysseus and Neoptolemus' better (Achillean) nature.
Now, sir, what will we do? The chorus suggests taking the bow and arrows.
But softly, softly Note the shift in the chorus' sympathy.
p.192 Now that I am allowed a little...,..Almost as soon as Philoctetes awakes he thinks of departure.
p.193 But now O what shall I do? Neoptolemus stops. He is assailed by doubts about is duty, The evil moment of choice has been delayed by (a) Philoctetes' wish to return to his cave (b) the arrival of the spy and ( c ) the spasm of pain. Again they stop, and the cause is pain, but this time Neoptolemus' mental anguish over the deceit of a long-suffering, noble and trusting hero. Neoptolemus stops in his tracks: it needs Odysseus to enforce the departure (line 994 -p.196 March! Or must we force you ?)
The offence is here, Neoptolemus' honesty.
p.194 I cannot do that. This faint-hearted but firm reply provokes one of the most powerful of all Sophoclean speeches
O fiend! etc. Philoctetes interweaves with his plea that the bow his only means of life, the moral point that the son of Achilles has betrayed a sacred trust by the use fraud,
p,195 He swore his oath... He didn't actually.
Strange how I pity him. Note that Neoptolemus still pities Philoctetes.
p.196 What think you, friends? Neoptolemus is on the point of giving back the bow. The staging is unusual and arresting. Odysseus enters in mid-line; he comes out of a bush, without warning -even the audience didn't know he was eavesdropping. Philoctetes hears Odysseus before he sees him, Ten years have passed but he recognises the voice immediately.
p.197 You shall, and I must be obeyed It needs Odysseus to enforce the departure.
Ah, helpless hands... Philoctetes turns back to the cave and plans to kill himself, but is restrained by force.
p. 198 Only by force and a cunning trick. Odysseus pretended madness to avoid going to Troy, and disguised himself as a peasant. He was detected by putting Telemachus in front of his plough, at which he turned aside.
God's plague upon you If Philoctetes' wound polluted the Greek sacrifices before, why not now?
We have your weapon Odysseus is lying when he says the weapons are enough. He is hoping that fear of being left without them and love of glory will persuade Philoctetes to come.
p.199 Not a look Addressed to Neoptolemus.
This lad is our master Neoptolemus' youth again. But the chorus looks to him for orders.
As soon as we send you word; come quickly then. Odysseus leaves with Neoptolemus and the bow; Philoctetes is left behind. Neoptolemus still has the bow.
p.202 So be it. We're ready enough It is only made clear later that both Philoctetes and the bow are necessary for victory. Up to this "ending" Sophocles has deliberately left the point unclear.
Stay! ... When the chorus takes Philoctetes at his word and start to leave, he cannot bear to be left alone and calls them back.
Cursed be Troy and the men that fight there. Philoctetes curses Trojans and Greeks and asks for a weapon to kill himself
p.203 In the land of the dead... Philoctetes' thoughts are set on death, and at the end of his lyric dialogue he goes into his cave to die.. That looks like the end of the play.
Now let me die... There is a pause here. Then abruptly Neoptolemus and Odysseus re-enter arguing. The play is off to a new start. The morbid, bitter ending which seemed inescapable is superseded. Sophocles leaves Neoptolemus' reasoning off stage, and gives us merely his final conclusion. The unsoftened juxtaposition of Philoctetes' exit and Neoptolemus' return is a highly original dramatic technique. Sophocles fully explores the consequences of the Odyssean model of human relationships, before he supplants it with the Achillean.
p.204 With the sword then ... More bluffing from Odysseus.
p.206 L.aertes ' son. Not Sisyphus' son this time.
(Stage directions). The parallel with p.196 is very strong. Again Neoptolemus is holding out the bow, Odysseus appears unexpectedly from behind, and is heard before being seen; Philoctetes is the same in both scenes. But Neoptolemus and Odysseus have changed: Neoptolemus now has the courage of his convictions, and at 1305 and 1310 Philoctetes concludes that both Neoptolemus and Odysseus have shown their true colours.
(Stage directions). Odysseus is on stage for only 10 lines, and speaks only 5, No other major character in extant tragedy is dismissed so summarily.. It marks the rejection of what Odysseus stands for.
p.208 That this must come to pass Neoptolemus tells Philoctetes what is needed at Troy. He suppresses his lie about Achilles' armour (see p.175).
p.210 Yes, let us go. Philoctetes has brought a lot of pressure to bear on Neoptolemus to take him back to Greece. If Neoptolemus is to stand by Philoctetes and reject Odysseus -and this is the stance the whole play has been leading up to - he must agree. At this point the rhythm changes to trochees (long, short ) -signifying movement. At last they are on a journey, a real journey to Greece. But again they are halted.
..Stay! ..Son of Poeas Until the final epiphany of Heracles Philoctetes never gives way an inch in his determination to stay and die on his island rather than help the Greeks.
p.211 Then lose no time In the end the glory of the sack of Troy is to go to the generation of past heroes - to Achilles through his son, and Heracles through his bow.
p.212 So, farewell .... Philoctetes' farewell to Lemnos is moving in part because of the preparation for it. In 285-313 and following he tells of his harsh existence, and is only too ready to leave. But when he is betrayed by the men he thought he could trust he turns again to the things that have shared his sufferings (lines 936-40). When his further pleas meet with no response he turns back to the cave (952ft), recognising that he will be eaten by those he ate. The reciprocal intimacy with the landscape and its fauna is most fully explored at 1081-5 and 1092-4.
The play ends with a simple unimpeded movement -the departure for Troy. The action of the play has been a long series of frustrated beginnings, of journeys which never got under way (see pages 178-9, 188, 193, 197, 202, 210). Philoctetes' departure is not easy -it must be made in the right way, and for the right reasons, and to the right destination.
This is a play with only three acts: 219-675, 730-1217, 1221-1470. Almost all the play is taken up with the relationship of just two men, one long-suffering and stubborn, the other fresh and impressionable, both true-hearted and noble. In addition there are Odysseus, Heracles and the "merchant" -an unusually small and all-male cast.
One can see why readers have been put off -no death, no thrilling action, no women characters. But Philoctetes and the bow stand for a whole world view, also represented by Achilles and Heracles, both now dead. Neoptolemus is torn between this world and that of Odysseus and the Greek generals. Out of this Sophocles draws a tense and subtle series of shifting relationships.
Questions: What is the place of the bow? Of the oracle of Helenus? When and why does Neoptolemus first waver? Why the new start at line 1222? Is Philoctetes too stubborn? Why does Sophocles press him on until an external intervention is required? Is Odysseus vindicated by the outcome, or is he utterly discredited? How does Sophocles wring so much tension and profundity out of such sparse material?