Ajax may be the earliest surviving play from Sophocles, perhaps from the 440s b.c.e. It begins with Athena asking Odysseus why he’s tracking down Ajax. Odyseeus explains that he’s the prime suspect in a massive livestock butchering. Athena explains in turn that Ajax, enraged by the awarding of Achilles’ armor to Odysseus, harbored vengeful thoughts about the Greek commanders, especially Menelaus and Agamemnon, as well as Odysseus himself. Further addled by the goddess, he thought the animals were these new enemies of his and murdered them. In his madness, some he has taken into his tent and bound for torment and whippings. Athena wants Odysseus to see the sight: “to laugh at your enemies — / What sweeter laughter can there be than that?” (10). She calls out Ajax and lets his madness continue. Odysseus pities Ajax’s wretchedness.
A Chorus of Salaminian sailors holds forth on the plight of being famous. Tecmessa, Ajax’s significant other, has witnessed Ajax’s madness and his “awful curses / As no man, but some demon, must have taught him” (16). Now come back to his senses, he is overcome with anguish, groaning and shrieking and refusing food: “My name is Ajax: / Agony is its meaning” (23). He feels hated by the gods; he is hated by the Greeks (24), so he wonders if he should go out in a blaze of glory against Troy. But that would make his enemies happy.
Tecmessa tries to comfort and reason with Ajax. He spends a short time with his son Eurysaces, then leaves. After a choral interlude, a messenger reports that Ajax’s brother Teucer landed and was jeered at by the Greeks. Ajax’s valor is recalled, as when he dismissed Athena from helping him in fighting. Teucer sends word that Ajax must be kept under cover in his tent, but Ajax has already run off, and all are worried. The Chorus divides into “semichoruses” and the search for Ajax is on.
Ajax appears near the seashore and has the sword Hector gave him as “a token of guest friendship” (38). He apostrophizes his last words and falls on the sword. The semichoruses arrive, but it is Tecmessa who finds the dead Ajax and covers him with her mantle. Teucer grieves and has been designated to raise Eurysaces. Menelaus arrives and is nasty about Ajax, but Teucer chews him out and it seems the vote regarding Achilles’ armor was in fact manipulated somehow. Teucer performs a hair-cutting ceremony with Eurysaces. He has a hostile exchange with Agamemnon about their respective families. Odysseus reasons with Agamemnon about allowing the burial of Ajax, and Agamemnon relents. Teucer praises Odysseus: “How greatly you deceived my expectations” (61). The Chorus ends with platitudes.
Powell, Barry. Classical Myth. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2001.
Sophocles. Ajax. Trans. John Moore. Sophocles II. Ed. David Grene and Richmond Lattimore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957. 1-62.