BMCR 1999.07.16

Untersuchungen zum Sophokleischen Philoktet: Das auslösende Ereignis in der Stückgestaltung

Tamara Visser, Untersuchungen zum Sophokleischen Philoktet : das auslösende Ereignis in der Stückgestaltung. Beiträge zur Altertumskunde ; Bd. 110. Stuttgart and Leipzig: B.G. Teubner, 1998. x, 289 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 9783519076599 DM 108,-.

Philoctetes has a lot to offer. Yet with some regularity studies appear dealing with the infamous man-bow problem, which is really a set of problems. Is the object of the embassy to Philoctetes to bring back the bow of Heracles, Philoctetes alone, or both? What is the relationship of this mission to the prophecy of Helenus? Do the apparently differing purposes of Odysseus and Neoptolemus reflect the actual wording of the prophecy or interpretations of it? Must Philoctetes (or the bow, or both) be won through persuasion, or may deception or even force be used? Most important, how are we to understand inconsistencies within the play on all these matters? At times a cease-fire seems to be in effect on these questions while other interesting aspects of the play receive due attention.

V.’s study once again attempts to put the man-bow problem into the center of things. In her introduction she reviews the familiar inconsistencies in the play, examines the mythological background (which she ultimately pronounces of no use in solving the problem), restates the importance of the issues involved, and surveys attempted solutions. She divides the questions surrounding the prophecy into the man-bow problem proper (if the prophecy demands the bow only, the man only, the free decision of the man — i.e. it contains a πείθειν clause — the man or the bow or the man and the bow) and the εἰ δεῖ problem (fall of Troy conditional on delivery of goods or predestined). Her restatement of the theoretical importance of these questions (pp. 15-21) is reasonable: in a play obsessed with ethical issues, our moral evaluation of Odysseus, of Neoptolemus, of the chorus, and even of Philoctetes himself is to some degree dependent on Sophocles’ representation of the prophecy. For example, if the prophecy demands only the bow, the mission is accomplished when Neoptolemus gets it, and Odysseus’ proposal (1054-1062) to leave Philoctetes behind (apparently) to certain death portrays Odysseus as completely unscrupulous. On the other hand, if Philoctetes himself is required, Odysseus’ plan can be seen a clever (and unscrupulous) ruse to force Philoctetes’ cooperation. Likewise, Neoptolemus’ great change of heart will be interpreted differently in each case. No one could argue that the problem is totally irrelevant to interpretation of the play.

V.’s survey of previous scholarship on the man-bow problem organizes the solutions into four broad categories: 1) the production-oriented methods which attempt to reconstruct and sometimes to harmonize the various pieces of the puzzle; 2) the reception-oriented methods which examine the way in which the information is actually presented to the audience; 3) the symbolic methods of interpretation which attempt to find the symbolic worth of various elements (the bow, the wound) and to resolve ambiguities this way; 4) the extratextual methods which bring to bear logic and arguments from outside the text to clarify the mystery of the prophecy of Helenus. Such pigeon-holing is obviously unfair to those writers for whom a solution to this problem was not the primary concern, and V. is almost contemptuous of what she has dubbed the “symbolic” method, characterized as popular mostly among Americans and “also in France.”1 From the presentation of this survey alone it comes as no surprise that V. aligns herself with the reception-oriented approaches — the communis opinio, incidentally — as the logical way to approach this dramatic text. The rest of her work is organized on the basis of the reception and interpretation of the prophecy by each character (Odysseus, Neoptolemus and the chorus) in three “phases” of the play, with comments at the end on Philoctetes’ understanding of its meaning. She proposes to focus on all aspects of the text, to explicate the nuances of language, and even to reconstruct the lost “choreography” of the performance to solve this thorny problem.

What new insights are derived from this ambitious program? V. traverses much familiar territory and offers several negative findings. For example, in dealing with the opening scene between Odysseus and Neoptolemus, she asks whether the spectators believe that both Philoctetes and his bow are needed, even though different passages seem to stress one or the other. Also, does the audience think that Philoctetes must somehow be persuaded to cooperate even though this requirement is not made explicit until 612? V. reasonably concludes that we cannot really say how the spectators understood the opening scene on the basis of the tradition but that it is unlikely that they had clearly in mind the variations on the Philoctetes theme presented in plays by both Aeschylus and Euripides almost a generation earlier. Perhaps V.’s method of explicating nuances will yield better results? No, the same problems remain. Our focus is first of all on Odysseus. Despite his apparent statement (68-69) that the bow is necessary to take Troy, there is nothing in the scene to indicate whether the bow alone is sufficient according to the prophecy or is merely part of a plan, which Neoptolemus does not yet fully comprehend, for ensnaring Philoctetes (p. 51). In fact, V. acknowledges that nothing more can be said about the motives or the stratagem of Odysseus at this point than that he appears to be using Neoptolemus to deceive Philoctetes and to do whatever it is that has to be done. At the end of the prologue the spectator is left with the impression that it is an issue, somehow ( irgendwie, p. 60), of man and bow. When V. (later) turns to Neoptolemus, the results are similar. Thus, for this important prologue, nothing substantially new is uncovered.

The focus on each character in each “phase” of the drama bloats the discussion, risks being methodologically inconsistent with an analysis of reception (which should at least hold to the way in which the audience would actually view the play), and occasionally verges on the dreaded documentary fallacy by suggesting that we can divorce a character from the scene in which he appears and speculate on hidden mental processes. One cringes at the use of phrases such as “Odysseus believes” and “Neoptolemus supposes.” A central argument in V.’s analysis of the play also appears to turn on a debatable assumption. Crucial to the man-bow problem is the interpretation of the emporos scene (542-627). In the prologue the way has been prepared for a spy disguised as a merchant who will tell useful but fabricated tales if Neoptolemus takes too long to achieve his object. In the course of his story this character relates (610-613) what appears to be the content of the prophecy of Helenus, indicating that Philoctetes ( τόνδε) must come to Troy “persuaded by speech” ( πείσαντες λόγῳ). Much has been made of these words — the famous πείθειν clause — by various interpreters. V. acknowledges the difficulty in finding the line between truth and fiction in the speech of the emporos, but she argues vigorously that these words reflect the Wortlaut of the prophecy of Helenus. On this assumption and seizing upon the report of Odysseus’ reaction to the prophecy ( within the speech of the emporos), V. has as a central argument of her study that Odysseus falsely interprets the prophecy to mean that Philoctetes can be fetched “even against his will” (618). She notes that such an interpretation is possible because the semantic range of πείθειν allows for far more than mere “persuasion.” This is clever and, as she shows, conveniently clears up many of the inconsistencies in the play. Unfortunately, it must be remembered that the image of Odysseus as explicator of oracles is a modern fantasy with little actual text to support it. If Sophocles wanted to depict this sort of thing, why was he not explicit as he is in Oedipus Tyrannus when the implications of Oedipus’ unequivocal oracle dawn on him or in Trachiniae when Heracles finally understands his ambiguous one?

Another and, as V. would have it, wiser interpreter of prophesies is Neoptolemus. V. acknowledges that many factors lead Neoptolemus to decide that Philoctetes himself must be brought to Troy, and not just the bow. This is part of the richness of this play. Her focus, however, is on his “interpretation” of the oracle, supposedly offered at 1337-1342, where the coming of Philoctetes to Troy is represented as a necessity. Any reasonable person might suppose we have here a correct, if not verbatim, account of the prophecy of Helenus, later confirmed by the epiphany of Heracles.2 Yet V. grasps tenuously (p. 203) at the use of θέλων in 1343 (i.e. not part of the prophecy) to support her thesis that Neoptolemus interprets the prophecy in a way that contradicts Odysseus.

With its exhaustive treatment of all these issues, this book will interest all specialists in Greek tragedy; however, we should not be surprised if the man-bow conundrum continues to haunt us.


1. There is even the regrettable (second-hand!) insinuation (p. 29 n.38) about one writer’s competence in Greek. The work in question was published by a European press.

2. Cf. R.P. Winnington-Ingram, Sophocles: An Interpretation (Cambridge 1980) p. 292.