BMCR 2006.04.08

Sophocles: Philoctetes. Duckworth Companions to Greek and Roman Tragedy

, Sophocles : Philoctetes. Duckworth companions to Greek and Roman tragedy. London: Duckworth, 2005. 159 pages ; 22 cm.. ISBN 0715633848. $22.00.

Roisman (R.) has selected a particularly attractive play for her entry in Duckworth’s very useful series of companions to ancient tragedy. Easterling had pointed out that this play had attracted more attention during the 1960s and 1970s than any other play by Sophokles. This critical attention has not eased off, for good reason, since Philoktetes has a lot going for it: an unusual setting, a particularly isolated and suffering Sophoklean hero, the coming of age of a sympathetic young man, a plot full of unanticipated twists and turns, and a deus ex machina to resolve the impasse (or is there?). Plus it admits of a variety of readings, thus a godsend for the students of Greek tragedy.

Waldock entitled his chapter on Philoktetes, “Sophokles Improvises”, laying stress on the unexpected plot twists that Sophokles adds to “a dramatic subject of the second rank” (196), rather unsuccessfully so in Waldock’s view. Dramatic irony is rare in this play, precisely because the audience is unsure of the truth of what is said by the characters. R. takes a similar line on the play, not so much on the convolutions of the plot-line, but on the ambiguity of Sophokles’ handling of the myth and the delineation of its characters. For each of the main characters R. detects an ambiguity that she will regard as fundamental to the ‘meaning’ of the play. Most will agree with her initial assessment of “Odysseus as a sleazy politician tainted by sophistic values and rhetoric” (73), but will be less happy with her analysis of Odysseus as a positive figure, responsive and subservient to the “interests of his fellows and the plans of the gods” (75). R. needs to consider the negative picture of both Odysseus and the Trojan War drawn by Euripides during the War years. I feel that R. is trying too hard to wrestle Odysseus into this mould of ambiguity that she has created for the characters.

Critics before R. have noted the harshness in the soul of Philoktetes and wondered if he has gone too far in his misery and self-pity (his threat of suicide at 1203ff.) and especially in his wrath, when he rejects Neoptolemos’ attempt to persuade (a crucial word) him to come to Troy (1348ff.). But not all would agree here, and Sophokles has so constructed his play that when it seems that Philoktetes and Neoptolemos will leave for Greece, abandoning the Greeks to a fruitless siege of Troy, this is somehow morally and ethically the ‘right’ outcome (1361-1408). Much would depend on how the actor played the scene.

Likewise, Neoptolemos appears to R. as first “a noble-minded naïf” and then very quickly a “corrupt young man” (92). She assumes that most of the tale that the boy relates to Philoktetes at 343-90 is a fiction and thus views Neoptolemos as a “talented pupil” of the crafty Odysseus. But how much of a lie does the boy actually tell? R. assumes that the audience would instantly recognise this story as a fabrication, but given the importance of creating a new “version” as a dramatic technique, would not the spectators have wondered (as they wonder about so much in this play’s plot) whether this was Sophokles’ new treatment of the contest for the arms of Achilles? It could be argued that the only open lie that Neoptolemos tells is that he is going home to Skyros (384). R. sees the chorus at 391-402 as reinforcing the larger lie, as “they know it cannot be true, since they did not sail to Sigeum” (48). But they must have accompanied Neoptolemos to Troy and landed somewhere — why not at Sigeum? There is no reason to regard the description of Neoptolemos’ arrival at 354-60 as a fiction. I suspect that R. and I will have to agree to disagree here — I prefer to regard Neoptolemos as innocent and truthful until proven otherwise. Certainly at 1362ff. Philoktetes still assumes this part of the story is true, even though he knows now that Neoptolemos has lied to him in other matters. Incidentally, R. quite rightly stresses that Neoptolemos is usually addressed in the play as ‘boy’ ( pai), ‘child’ ( teknon), or ‘son of Achilles’, but she misses two crucial designations: first Philoktetes’ cold rejection after learning that he has been deceived: “What have you done to me, stranger [ xene ]?” (923-4), and second Herakles’ command to Philoktetes: “go with this man [ andri ] to Troy” (1423). By the end of the play the boy has become a man.

R. presents her larger views on the play in chapter IV (57-71), viewing the drama in its Homeric context: “Sophocles frames the conflict between Philoctetes and Odysseus in terms similar to the differences between Odysseus and Achilles in Homer” (58), “we see Sophocles establishing Homeric underpinnings for his play and then deliberately departing from them” (61). So far, so good, but R. then attempts to link this “difference in sensibility” (62) to the moral malaise of the late fifth century, the sinister influence of the sophists, and “the long and demoralizing Peloponnesian War” (71). Here we are on less secure ground that reflects the tendency to link Greek tragedy intimately and intrinsically with the issues and experience of the Athenian democracy. But we should allow, as R. does at various points, for the sheer entertainment value of the drama, with its unpredictable plot twists and the suspense created for the spectators. What exactly did the oracle say?

What I would have liked was a summary of the various ways in which Philoktetes has been read — in the manner so well presented by Easterling. The student (or instructor) coming to the play for the first time needs to be aware of the older ‘pietist’ approach (Bowra), Waldock’s emphasis on the innovation of plot, Poe’s bold reading of Philoktetes as an almost Euripidean play (“a paradigm of the futility of human existence”), Winnington-Ingram’s ironic interpretation and his observation that the play ends with a distressing pointer ahead to Neoptolemos’ cruelty at Troy, Blundell’s approach through the various aspects of heroism, Kitto’s optimistic reading in which Herakles’ epiphany promises that human suffering will be redeemed in the long run. I was pleased to see that R. allows for the ironic reading of the last scene (109), by which Herakles is in fact Odysseus in disguise. This play is very economical with its actors (actor 1 playing Philoktetes throughout, and actor 2 Neoptolemos, and actor 3 playing Odysseus, the Trader, and Herakles). Whether or not we regard the Trader and Herakles as literally Odysseus in disguise, there is no small temptation to see the advent of Herakles as yet another arrow in Odysseus’ quiver of schemes. Indeed one modern production had the Odysseus-actor change into his Herakles costume in a corner of the stage, in full view of the audience.

R.’s discussion of the staging (18-22) mentions some of the principal problems of mounting the play, but she could have gone into more detail. Philoktetes has an unusual setting for tragedy, the cave in which the hero has made do for ten uncomfortable years, and R. does comment on its barren location and possible skenographia (22). Her note on the other entrance for this “rock with two mouths” notes some of the critical discussion (128 n. 26), but omits the comments of both Craik 1990 and Seale (neither listed in the General Bibliography), both of whom entertain the possibility that the second entrance is visible, but in very different ways. Craik (1990: 83) observes also that only one eisodos seems to be employed in the play, that leading to the ship. Indeed there were several items that should have appeared in the bibliography: in addition to Craik 1990 and Seale, I would have included: Poe’s controversial monograph, Craik’s earlier study (1979), and Kitto’s important analysis with which R.’s final comments (111) have much in common. Wilson’s seminal study also deserves a place.

I felt that R. could have usefully brought in three other tragedies whose themes shed light on Philoktetes. First Sophokles’ own Ajax explores precisely the same antithesis of heroisms: old-fashioned action v. modern intelligence, both with Odysseus and both within the context of the war with Troy, but this time it is the older hero of physical action who is found wanting. Second there is Sophokles’ contemporary Oedipus at Colonus. Both dramas feature an isolated and wounded ‘outsider’, begged to return to the community but whose anger and bitterness lead him to reject the entreaty of a younger male. In both cases the audience is just waiting for the hero to say ‘yes’. Finally in Euripides’ Ion we again encounter the coming of age of an attractive young man with an illustrious parentage; we might consider to what extent Ion and Neoptolemos are cut from the same cloth.

I raise a few queries in passing: R. ranks the City Dionysia as “second only to the Olympics” (9), but was not the Panathenaia the principal international Athenian festival?; are all uses of the mechane“implausible endings”? (14); “flute” gives the wrong picture of an aulos, which was rather a double oboe or recorder (15); was it Aeschylus who made the change from Diomedes to Odysseus? (25); is line 91-2 really an “ugly observation” (45) or a reflection of the boy’s natural bent to physical action; finally, Connolly has called into question the tradition that Sophokles was honoured posthumously as the hero Dexion (111). The cover reproduces an arresting 18th-c. picture of Philoctetes grasping his wounded foot, but I would have liked to have seen included a pair of representations from 5th-c. vases, both illustrated in black-and-white by Woodford (54 nr. 48, 104 nr. 97). The first shows a youthful Philoktetes, of the same age as Achilles and Patroklos, who also appear on the vase. How often do we think of Philoktetes on Lemnos as a young man?

But on the whole R.’s Philoktetes is a strong and successful entry in what is becoming a useful and valuable series of introductions to ancient tragedies. Her comments on the mythical background were especially informative and to the point, and the material provided under “Reception” (112-25), an essential feature of the Duckworth series, was fascinating, especially her observations on how the theme of the wound is re-used by modern dramatists. R.’s Philoktetes deserves to be among the first secondary works read by the student or instructor interested in Sophokles’ late masterpiece.

Works cited in this review:

M.W. Blundell, Helping Friends and Harming Enemies (Cambridge 1989)

C.M. Bowra, Sophoclean Tragedy (Oxford 1965)

A. Connolly, “Was Sophocles Heroised as Dexion?”, JHS 118 (1998) 1-21

E. Craik, ” Philoktetes : Sophoklean Melodrama”, AC 48 (1979) 15-29

E. Craik, “The Staging of Sophokles’ Philoktetes and Aristophanes’ Birds“, in ‘Owls to Athens’: Essays on Classical Subjects for Sir Kenneth Dover (Oxford 1990) 81-4

P. Easterling, ” Philoctetes and Modern Criticism”, ICS 3 (1978) 27-39

H.D.F. Kitto, Form and Meaning in Drama, 2nd ed. (London 1964)

J.P. Poe, Heroism and Divine Justice in Sophocles’ Philoctetes (Leiden 1974)

D. Seale, Vision and Stagecraft in Sophocles (London 1982)

A.J.A., Waldock, Sophocles the Dramatist (Cambridge 1951)

E. Wilson, The Wound and the Bow (Boston 1941)

R.P. Winnington-Ingram, Sophocles: an interpretation (Cambridge 1980)

S. Woodford, The Trojan War in Ancient Art (Ithaca NY 1993).