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The part of Teucer
has a singular pathos. He is altogether devoted to his brother Ajax, by whose side he so often fought, and is strenuously loyal to the trust reposed in him. When he arrives, his first thought is for the safety of Eurysaces. With Teucer alone it rests to defend the memory of Ajax, and to insist that he shall have burial. Firm in his good cause, he braves the threats and repels the taunts of the Atreidae. Yet he well knows the prospect that is before him. When he thinks of his return to Salamis, he can foresee the fury with which the aged Telamon will denounce him, the son of the slave-woman, as the base betrayer of his true-born brother. He will be cast off, and driven forth into exile1.

The intervention of the Atreidae

His scenes with the Atreidae.
has already been considered in its general relation to the dominant idea of the play. Their scenes with Teucer now require consideration from a different point of view, viz., with regard to the poetical workmanship. One aim of the poet has evidently been to prolong the controversy sufficiently for a gradual tension of interest. This is especially manifest in the words of the Chorus after the exit of Menelaüs,—‘A dread strife will be brought to the trial2’; words which mark the crescendo, and prepare the way for Agamemnon. The whole process which leads up to the climax is skilfully managed. First, there is the scene between Teucer and Menelaüs. The king of Sparta has those traits of harshness and arrogance which Athenian audiences would expect in the part3, and is clearly intended to be more odious than his brother. Though he is not the Captain General,—as Teucer reminds him, —yet the insubordination of Ajax is the topic on which he chooses to dwell. Ajax, he complains, would never obey him; and then he enlarges (like Creon in the Antigone) on the public danger of unruliness. After his angry dialogue with Teucer, he departs, with a hint of appeal to force. Then comes that beautiful scene which affords a pause between the two parts of the controversy; the child Eurysaces is brought in by Tecmessa, and placed as a suppliant by the corpse of Ajax. In the choral ode which follows, it may be noticed that the closing prayer—to pass beneath Sunium, and ‘greet sacred Athens’—is peculiarly suggestive at this point, when Teucer has just encountered the Spartan, and is about to withstand the Argive. The second chapter of the contest then begins with the entrance of Agamemnon. He alone can finally decide whether burial shall or shall not be granted. Whereas Menelaüs had resented the want of deference in Ajax, Agamemnon takes a more vital point, and depreciates his services. This calls forth the fine vindication of Ajax by Teucer, in which the debate culminates. The short dialogue which ensues between Agamemnon and Odysseus shows the former in a comparatively favourable light, and illustrates his superiority to Menelaüs. If he is not gracious or generous, he at least indicates a wish to see his duty4, and is capable of yielding to wise counsel. Thus the whole controversy concerning the burial of Ajax has variety, dramatic life, and a gradually rising interest.

To those who further realise

Modern criticism on this part of the play.
that the decision concerning the burial is the true climax of the drama, this part of the play will certainly not appear unworthy of its author. The disfavour which it has sometimes found with modern criticism may be ascribed partly to inadequate appreciation of its poetical art and dramatic significance, but more, perhaps, to the fact that a prolonged rhetorical debate has not the same attraction for modern readers which an ancient Athenian audience found in it. The example of Aeschylus in his Award of the Arms, where Ajax and Odysseus spoke in support of their respective claims, may have had some influence in leading Sophocles to compensate for the more restricted scope of his subject by providing a rhetorical interest of a similar kind. A fragment of Aeschylus5 indicates that his heroes exchanged taunts of the same nature as those which pass between Teucer and the Atreidae. It may be granted that some parts of the scene between Teucer and Menelaüs are wholly repugnant to a modern taste6. The best apology for them is that Attic Tragedy was a popular entertainment, and that Athenian hearers not only tolerated but expected sharp personalities in a strenuous debate, however dignified the disputants or the occasion,—as Demosthenes is a witness. But there is no ground for any such suspicion as that of Bergk7, that the latter part of the play is by an inferior poet (such as Iophon , the usual scape-goat),—and has been tacked on to an early play of Sophocles, which stopped, or was left unfinished, at the death of Ajax. A careful and sympathetic study will rather leave a conviction on the mind that both the dramatic treatment and the diction bear the stamp of Sophocles, though some of the details are not in his happiest vein, and though the form of the whole—a prolonged controversy—makes a somewhat exacting demand on the modern
The test of performance.
reader. When the Ajax is seen on the stage,—and this is the proper test,—a modern spectator finds that in the latter part of it the interest is thoroughly sustained8. The foreground is full of movement and animation, as Menelaüs, Agamemnon and Odysseus successively appear; while the pathetic group in the background—the child kneeling in supplication by his father's body, with Tecmessa near him—keeps before the mind the significance of the issue which is in suspense. It is then, far more easily than in a mere perusal of the text, that one can view the whole action of the play in a right perspective; and justice is instinctively rendered to the degree in which, here as elsewhere, Sophocles evinces his command over the highest art of the theatre.

1 Vv. 1006—1020. The reference here to the subject of the poet's “Τεῦκρος” is like that in the Oedipus Coloneus (1410 n.) to his Antigone, and that in the Philoctetes (1437 ff.) to his “Φιλοκτήτης ἐν Τροίᾳ”.

2 V. 1163.

3 It is to Menelaüs that the Andromachè of Euripides addresses her invective against Sparta ( Andr. 445 ff.).—Welcker (Rhein. Mus. for 1829, pt. iii. pp. 258 ff.) finds allusions in this part of the play to contemporary relations between Athens and Sparta (Menelaüs), and between Athens and Argos (Agamemnon): but I cannot think that the poet intended this.

4 See on v. 1350, “τόν τοι τύραννον εὐσεβεῖν οὐ ῥᾴδιον”. There is a somewhat similar utterance of Agamemnon in a fragment of the Polyxena (fr. 481 Nauck), where he is perplexed by conflicting demands upon him.

5 See above, p. xx, n. 5.

6 Especially vv. 1142—1158.

7 Gr. Lit. vol. III. p. 381. Cp. Bernhardy, Gr. Lit. pt. II. sect. ii. p. 366.

8 The Ajax was performed at Cambridge, by members of the University, in 1882. No result of that experiment was more striking than the decisive proof which it afforded that the Ajax, as a whole, is a thoroughly effective play for the stage, and that its power of holding an audience is not diminished by the death of the hero at a comparatively early moment in the action.

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  • Cross-references in notes from this page (1):
    • Euripides, Andromache, 445
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