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Even a mere outline of the plot, such as the above, will serve to exhibit the far-reaching consequences of the change made by Sophocles, when he introduced Neoptolemus as the associate of Odysseus. The man who retains the most indelible memory of a wrong may be one who still preserves a corresponding depth of sensibility to kindness; the abiding resentment can coexist with undiminished quickness of gratitude for benefits, and with loyal readiness to believe in the faith of promises. Such is the Philoctetes of Sophocles; he has been cast forth by comrades whom he was zealously aiding; his occasional visitors have invariably turned a deaf ear to his prayers; but, inexorably as he hates the Greek chiefs, all the ten years in Lemnos have not made him a Timon. He is still generous, simple, large-hearted, full of affection for the friends and scenes of his early days; the young stranger from the Greek camp, who shows pity for him, at once wins his warmest regard, and receives proofs of his absolute confidence. It is the combination of this character with heroic fortitude under misery that appeals with such irresistible pathos to the youthful son of Achilles, and gradually alters his resolve. But this character could never have been unfolded except in a sympathetic presence. The disclosure is possible only because Neoptolemus himself, a naturally frank and chivalrous spirit, is fitted to invite it. In converse with Diomedes or Odysseus, only the sterner aspects of Philoctetes would have appeared.

Nor, again, was it dramatically possible that Diomedes or Odysseus should regard Philoctetes in any other light than that of an indispensable ally: they must bring him to Troy, if possible: if not, then he must remain in Lemnos. Hence neither Aeschylus nor Euripides could have allowed the scheme of Odysseus to fail; for then not even a deus ex machina could have made the result satisfactory. It was only a person like Neoptolemus, detached from the past policy of the chiefs, who could be expected to view Philoctetes simply as a wronged and suffering man, with an unconditional claim to compassion. The process by which this view of him gains upon the mind of Neoptolemus, and finally supersedes the desire of taking him to Troy, is delineated with marvellous beauty and truth. Odysseus is baffled; but the decree of Zeus, whose servant he called himself, is performed. The supernatural agency of Heracles is employed in a strictly artistic manner, because the dead-lock of motives has come about by a natural process: the problem now is how to reconcile human piety, as represented by the decision of Neoptolemus, with the purpose of the gods, as declared in the oracle of Helenus. Only a divine message could bend the will of Philoctetes, or absolve the conscience of the man who had promised to bring him home.

Thus it is by the introduction of Neoptolemus that Sophocles is enabled to invest the story with a dramatic interest of the deepest kind. It is no longer only a critical episode in the Trojan war, turning on the question whether the envoys of the Greeks can conciliate the master of their fate. It acquires the larger significance of a pathetic study in human character,— a typical illustration of generous fortitude under suffering, and of the struggle between good and evil in an ambitious but loyal mind. Dion, in his comparison of the three plays on this subject, gives unstinted praise, as we have seen, to the respective merits of Aeschylus and of Euripides; but he reserves for Sophocles the epithet of ‘most tragic1.’ Sophocles was indeed the poet who first revealed the whole capabilities of the fable as a subject for Tragedy.

The oracle.


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  • Cross-references in notes from this page (1):
    • Euripides, Orestes, 52
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