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6 june 2013

"Only Philoctetes, of all the Greeks, / Outshot me at Troy," says Odysseus in Book 8 of the Odyssey. But Philoctetes is otherwise unmentioned in the Iliad or Odyssey, unless I've forgotten about it, which is more than half likely. In any case, he's not what you'd call a major character. He has one character note – good with bow and arrow – but otherwise, not much of a stage presence.

Such brief mentions were a major source of inspiration for classical tragedians, of course, and Sophocles's Philoctetes is one of the most famous elaborations of a Homeric brief mention. As if getting a thousand ships to Troy weren't hard enough, it seems that every major hero either had to be tricked into participating, cursed for participating, or in serious debt to a god for getting himself into or out of participating. Even Odysseus himself, who tricked several other notables (including Achilles), had to be tricked to start with, as Philoctetes reminds him in the play:

you tried
to escape induction by playing mad.
But they put your son in front of your plow
and they had you, forced you to sail with them. (ll. 844-47, p. 253)
Philoctetes himself is initially one of the accursed. Bitten by a serpent for having offended a god, he's been abandoned on an island to a living death. But the Greeks can't conquer Troy without him and his bow, the bow of Heracles. So Odysseus has been sent back to the island to add trickery to curse, and re-enlist the abject Philoctetes in the war effort.

Sophocles makes drama out of this sordid situation by supposing that Neoptolemus, son of Achilles, is Odysseus's sidekick on this trickery expedition. The men in Achilles's family don't lie. Odysseus, of course, never doesn't lie; he is the sort of character who won't admit that his hands contain five fingers. And so the dramatic engine is wound up. Odysseus retreats into a dark corner, and Neoptolemus must be untrue to himself and his heritage if he wants to fulfill his fate as the eventual conqueror of Troy.

Meanwhile, Philoctetes seems to have done nothing very bad by the standards of Greek mythology, nothing at least that would merit the gods treating him like a fly to a wanton boy. "He robbed or wronged no man," the Chorus points out (l.532, p. 238). Apparently "he blundered into Chryse's roofless / sacred place and stirred the serpent guardian" (ll. 1082-83, p. 265). They really ought to have signs up.

Philoctetes spends half his time raving, half his time feeling sorry for himself, and the other half (to paraphrase Yogi Berra) being very angry at Odysseus and the absent Agamemnon for abandoning him on the island in the first place. He has a lot in common with Achilles himself, though Neoptolemus doesn't connect the dots very well. It seems like Agamemnon cannot avoid the basic personnel-management error of screwing over the guys with the exact skills that his team needs to carry out its mission.

In Philoctetes' case that's his archery talent, and here too, a Homeric parallel suggests itself. When Odysseus gets hold of the bow, Philoctetes laments

He plays with the bow; it was my life.
O my bow, how I loved you,
Mine the only hands that bent you. …
A bad man is stringing you, you serve a master
of deceit—shareholder in that company of men
who have hurt me. (ll. 915-17, 920-22; pp. 255-56)
One immediately thinks of that other bow back in Ithaca, where a company of bad men will try to string it at great insult to Odysseus. He will win that archery contest too, as it turns out – Odysseus is fated to go from success to crooked success, as Philoctetes also never tires of complaining – but he'll have to taste a little of what it's like to have men messing with things that are dear to you.

Like the Odyssey itself, the Philoctetes ends with a god coming down to sort things out. But the characters in this play are not at an impasse when the machine descends. Heracles (and it's really his bow, after all) merely shows up to ratify a decision the characters have already arrived at, however painfully. Life goes on, it seems; if there are no second acts in American life, there were occasionally second acts in ancient Greece, and Philoctetes, in this version of the myth, bonds with Neoptolemus and goes off to shoot himself some Trojans.

Sophocles. Philoctetes. Translated by Armand Schwerner. In Sophocles, 1. Edited by David R. Slavitt & Palmer Bovie. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998. 215-271. [Penn Greek Drama Series]