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ANCIENT GREECE - SOPHOCLES - AJAX

(Tragedy, Greek, c. 444 BCE, 1,421 lines)

Introduction | Synopsis | Analysis | Resources
Introduction
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“Ajax” (Gr: “Aias”) is a tragedy by the ancient Greek playwright Sophocles. Although the exact date of its first performance is unknown, most scholars date it to relatively early in Sophocles' career (possibly the earliest Sophoclean play still in existence), somewhere between 450 BCE to 430 BCE, possibly around 444 BCE. The subject is taken from a lost epic poem, which was alluded to in Homer's “Odyssey”, and it chronicles the fate of the Greek warrior Ajax the Greater after the events of “The Iliad” and the Trojan War.

Synopsis
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Dramatis Personae

ATHENA
ODYSSEUS
AJAX
CHORUS OF SALAMINIANS
TECMESSA, concubine of Ajax
MESSENGER
TEUCER, half-brother of Ajax
MENELAUS
AGAMEMNON
MUTE PERSONS
EURYSACES, child of Ajax and Tecmessa
ATTENDANTS, HERALDS, ETC
Prior to the beginning of the play, there has been a struggle between Odysseus and Ajax over who should receive the armour of the Greek warrior-hero Achilles after his death. The invulnerable armour had been made for Achilles by the god Hephaestus, and the recipient would thus receive recognition as the greatest after Achilles. The Greeks had the Trojan captives vote on which of the two warriors had done the most damage in the Trojan War, and the armour was eventually awarded to Odysseus (although not without the help of his protector, the goddess Athena). The enraged Ajax vowed to kill the Greek leaders Menelaus and Agamemnon who had disgraced him in this way but, before he can enact his revenge, the goddess Athena tricks him.

As the play begins, Athena is explaining to Odysseus how she has tricked Ajax into believing that the sheep and cattle that were taken by the Achaeans (Greeks) as spoils of war are actually the Greek leaders. He slaughters and mutilates some of them, and takes the others back to his home to torture, including a ram which he believes to be his main rival, Odysseus.

When he finally comes to his senses, Ajax is shocked and ashamed over his actions and pities himself over his disgrace. The Chorus of sailors underscores how low this great warrior has been brought by fate and the actions of the gods.

Ajax’s wife, Tecmessa, after explaining to the Chorus how Ajax is filled with remorse on discovering what he has done, expresses her fear that he may do something even more dreadful, and pleads with him not to leave her and her child unprotected. He pretends that he is moved by her speech, and says that he is going out to purify himself and to bury the sword given to him by Hector.

After he has gone, a messenger belatedly arrives to say that the seer Calchas has warned that if Ajax leaves his house that day, he will die. His wife and soldiers try to track him down, but are too late: Ajax had indeed buried the sword but left the blade sticking out of the ground, and had thrown himself on it to end his life and his shame. In his death throes, Ajax calls for vengeance against the sons of Atreus (Menelaus and Agamemnon) and the whole Greek army.

A dispute then arises over what to do with Ajax's body. Ajax's half-brother Teucer insists on burying him despite the demands of Menelaus and Agamemnon that the corpse of the dishonoured warrior be left unburied. Odysseus, although not previously a great friend of Ajax, steps in and persuades them to allow Ajax a proper funeral, pointing out that even one's enemies deserve respect in death, if they were noble. The play ends with Teucer making arrangements for a respectful burial for his half-brother, although Odysseus himself is not to attend.

Analysis
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SophoclesAjax is portrayed as a great hero, but he is rigidly defined as the old-fashioned hero, proud and uncompromising and unable to recognize his own weaknesses and limitations. Homer, who was probably Sophocles’ source for the play, also depicted Ajax as obstinate to the point of stupidity in “The Iliad”. It is Ajax’s hubris in rejecting the help of the goddess Athena in the first place that sets the stage for this tragedy. Despite his uncompromising violence and his rather detestable treatment of women, (especially as contrasted with the more generous and reasonable Odysseus), Ajax has great stature and nobility and dominates the play even if he is only actually on stage for a limited time.

The play explores themes of anger and hatred, honour (in the Homeric tradition, honour is entirely dependent on what others in the warrior community think of you), and also the extent to which individuals have genuine choice or are merely the pawns of fate.

During his early period, Sophocles is alleged to have admitted that he was deliberately trying to write like Aeschylus. Nevertheless, he still has the audacity to bring an Olympian deity (Athena) onto the stage, and also to show Ajax’s actual death on stage (elsewhere in ancient tragedy, killings always take place off stage), almost unparalleled violations of expected dramaturgical practice of the period.

Resources
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Introduction | Ancient Greece | Ancient Rome | Other Ancient Civilizations
Timeline | Alphabetical List of Authors | Index of Individual Works | Index of Important Characters | Sources
 
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