Friday, 13 November 2015

Ajax by Sophocles.

The Quarrel between Ajax and Odysseus by Leonaert Bramer (1625 - 1630).
Ajax (Αἴας) is a tragic play by Sophocles. It's perhaps his earliest play of the seven that survived, composed around 450 - 430 B.C. The hero Ajax has fought in the Trojan War, as Homer tells in The Iliad, where he was known for his strength and courage, however when Achilles died, Achilles' armour was give to Odysseus, thus recognising him as the great hero, not Ajax. At the beginning of the play the two meet again - Odysseus slowly approaches him -
Aᴊᴀx: Odysseus! What are you looking for? Still on the trail
Of some advantage over your enemy?
Yes, I have watched you, and I watch you now
Here by the seaboard where the tend of Ajax
Guards the furthest flank of the line; I see you,
Doglike, nose to the ground, reading the tale
Of his freshly printed traces, whither they lead,
Inwards or outwards. You'll find him, if anyone will;
No Spartan hound has a keener sent for the chase.
He's there, the man you're looking for, his head
And hands sweating and blooded from the sword.
Leave peering and prying around the doors and tell me
What is the purpose of your anxious search;
My knowledge can give you guidance.
Odysseus, accompanied by the goddess Athena, who reveals to Odysseus that she had tricked Ajax - he intended to kill Agamemnon and Odysseus however with Athena's intervention he actually killed sheep and cattle. This could almost be funny but it isn't - Ajax, once one of the greatest of Greek heroes, has now fallen. Tecmessa, his captive-wife, tells the chorus of how he is mad, "struck blind / With madness in the night": he suffers great shame and humiliation, he feels disgraced and hated by all that was dear to him. He resolves to kill himself, and does so, throwing himself on to Hector's sword which he has planted in the earth with the blade sticking up.

What remains is what to do with his body. His enemies Menelaus and Agamemnon do not wish to bury him, Menelaus says, "let the sea-birds / Feed on his carcase". Teucer, Ajax's half-brother, wishes to give him a proper burial. They argue, but Odysseus steps in, saying -
... For the love of all the gods, think twice
Before you do so rash and vile a thing.
You cannot leave this man to rot unburied.
You must not let your violent will persuade you
Into such hatred as would tread down justice.
There was a time when I too hated him;
From the time I won the armour of Achilles,
He was the bitterest enemy I had; and yes,
Such though he was, I could not bring myself
To grudge him honour, or refuse to admit
He was the bravest man I ever saw,
The best of all that ever came to Troy,
Save only Achilles. It is against all justice
For you to treat him with contempt. God's laws,
And not the man himself, you would annihilate.
Even if you hate him, it is against all justice
To lift your hand against a good man dead.
The play ends with Teucer preparing a proper burial for Ajax.

This is one of Sophocles' psychological dramas, like Antigone or Philoctetes. The focus is not on action as such, it is about the fall of a noble hero who is at times morally questionable and very stubborn. It is a study of public humiliation, uncompromising hatred, suicide, and death rites, and such is Sophocles' writing, it is a very disturbing, dark, and unsettling play. And it contains one of my favourite lines - this from Odysseus -
... Are we not all,
All living things, mere phantoms, shadows of nothing?
It isn't my favourite of Sophocles' plays, but nevertheless, as with the others, it is still outstanding.

The Death Of Ajax by Antonio Zanchi.
~ Sophocles' Plays ~

The Theban Plays: Oedipus Rex (429 B.C.) | Oedipus at Colonus (406 B.C.) Antigone (441 B.C.)
OthersAjax (450 - 430 B.C.) | Women of Trachis (440 - 430 B.C.)
Electra (410 B.C.) | Philoctetes (409 B.C.)


  1. Great posting! At the heart-and-soul of Greek tragedies is the problem of the "agon." Humans are in constant struggle with gods and themselves, and the consequences are not always pleasant. Nevertheless, we has humans have no choice. We must persist in the struggle. Related to that concept -- the "agon" -- I think Flannery O'Connor has much in common with Sophocles et al. I have more to say about O'Connor at my blog:

    1. Thanks RT. I've still not read any Flannery O'Connor - I must remedy that! :)


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