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Odysseus, appearing only at the beginning and at the
Odysseus.
end of the play, is the human exponent of Athena's spirit. In the first scene he is engaged in a pursuit which the goddess declares to be characteristic of him,—the endeavour to track out Ajax, and to ascertain whether he is the author of the onslaught on the cattle. Athena is aiding him, and now, as ever, he is ‘guided by her hand.’ After witnessing the frenzy of his foe, he at once proves himself her true disciple by the pity which he feels, and by his quickened sense of human nothingness. As Athena says to him, ‘The wise of heart are loved of the gods.’ At the close of the drama, when he intercedes with Agamemnon, he urges that the career of Ajax must be judged as a whole; that he was their greatest man after Achilles; and that the enmity against him must not be carried beyond death. Agamemnon yields to him: Teucer praises his magnanimity. Yet this magnanimity bears the mark of being Athena's gift; it springs from high intelligence as much as from chivalrous sentiment. Odysseus may, in his turn, be afflicted by a god; he, too, may come to need a grave; and therefore he sympathises with Ajax1. This is ‘to think as befits a man,’—the wise moderation which the gods love, and which, though not disinterested, leads to generous action. When Odysseus shrinks from confronting the herculean maniac, this is not ‘cowardice’; if Athena calls it so2, it is because he forgets her promise to protect him3; what it really indicates is his habitual reasonableness and prudence. On the whole, the Odysseus of this play much resembles the hero of the Odyssey (who pays a generous tribute to the sullen Ajax in the shades4); a resemblance which is mainly due to the direct and ennobling guidance of Athena.


1 V. 124 “οὐδὲν τὸ τούτου μᾶλλον τοὐμὸν σκοπῶν”: v. 1365 “καὶ γὰρ αὐτὸς ἐνθάδ᾽ ἵξομαι”.

2 V. 75 “οὐ σῖγ᾽ ἀνέξει μηδὲ δειλίαν ἀρεῖ;” M. Patin (Sophocle, p. 11) remarks that this passage has been much censured, as if it defamed Odysseus; whereas that very pursuit of Ajax, in which he is engaged, sufficiently attests his courage. That is true; but we must also allow, I think, that the alarm of Odysseus is so described that it might easily raise a smile (see, e.g., v. 88 “μένοιμ᾽ ἄν: ἤθελον δ᾽ ἂν ἐκτὸς ὢν τυχεῖν”). There was a tendency in post-Homeric poetry to depict Odysseus, the representative of “φρόνησις”, as subordinating valour to discretion; (see Introd. to the Philoctetes p. xvii, xxxi;) though in Sophocles this tendency is controlled by a delicate tact. Here, the dramatic motive for the trepidation of Odysseus is to bring into stronger relief all that is terrible in the condition of Ajax.

3 Vv. 68—70.

4 Od. 11. 556 f.

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