Philoctetes, produced in 409 bce, is said to be Sophocles’ second-to-last play before Oedipus at Colonus, a play to which it bears resemblance. Here, “Sophocles expresses what it feels like to be a man so isolated, so impersonally, so instrumentally used by his friends” (Grene 191).
The play begins with Odysseus lurking about Lemnos where he had marooned Philoctetes almost ten years ago, just before the start of the Trojan War, “his foot / diseased and eaten away with running ulcers” (195) after being bitten by a snake. He tells Neoptolemus, son of Achilles, that he had orders to do it. Neoptolemus is expected now to chum up to Philoctetes so that they can get the bow of Heracles from him. Philoctetes had received the bow as a reward for lighting Heracles’ funeral pyre; a prophecy claims it is needed against Troy now. Neoptolemus can pretend he’s fed up with the Greeks for not giving him the arms of Achilles, which have gone instead to Odysseus himself. Neoptolemus claims to “have a natural antipathy / to get [his] ends by tricks and stratagems” (198), but he and a Chorus of sailors proceed.
Philoctetes greets them, pleading for pity and apologizing for his savage appearance. He respects Neoptolemus as son of Achilles and tells his story. Neoptolemus tells a mix of his story and some lies, reporting that his father is dead while Odysseus lives: “War never takes a bad man but by chance, / the good man always” (211). Neoptolemus promises that he’ll take Philoctetes back home and gets to hold onto the bow. The Chorus pities Philoctetes with the most poignant lines from any Greek drama: “Alas, poor soul, / that never in ten years’ length / enjoyed a drink of wine” (222).
Eventually Neoptolemus must tell Philoctetes the truth — that he must join the Atridae (the sons of Atreus: Menelaus and Agamemnon) in the Trojan War. Neoptolemus refuses to give him back his bow. When the “shabby slit-eyed” Odysseus appears (236), Philoctetes wants to kill himself. He cannot be appealled to, and Odysseus and Neoptolemus leave to prepare to sail. The Chorus chides Philoctetes.
There’s a falling out between Odysseus and Neoptolemus, and the latter decides to give back Heracles’ bow, but he prevents Philoctetes from killing Odysseus. Philoctetes will not relent, and his “final refusal is the refusal of a man so wounded as to be unwilling to resume normal life itself because, with that life, will come new and unpredictable suffering. Better the old known pain, with the old known remedies” (Grene 192). This play also registers early an anti-Odysseus tradition in which the erstwhile hero is cast as a “treacherous deceiver” (Powell 571).
Aristotle and countless others since have objected to the deus-ex-machina ending: the spectre of Heracles appearing above the cave and commanding Philoctetes to proceed to the war where he will be healed and will succeed in killing Paris, “the cause of all this evil” (253).
Powell, Barry. Classical Myth. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2001.
Sophocles. The Women of Trachis. Trans. Michael Jameson. Sophocles II. Ed. David Grene and Richmond Lattimore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957. 189-254.