The Staging of Ajax's Suicide
1 Pages Posted: 17 May 2010
Date Written: May 14, 2010
The Staging of Ajax’s Suicide How does Ajax commit suicide? In full view of the audience? In partial view (a screen of bushes)? Offstage? The heated scholarly debate has produced no consensus. I set forth 2 new reasons – one textual, one thematic -– for imagining that Ajax leapt on his sword in full view.
First the textual evidence. From the outset Sophocles repeatedly emphasizes the public revelation of Ajax. In the prologue Athena says to Odysseus: “Here – to you as well I’ll show his sheer lunacy in full view (periphanê, 66).” After Odysseus expresses his reservations the goddess asks him, “Do you shrink from seeing a madman in full view (peri-phanôs, 81).” Later, after Tecmessa reveals to the chorus their master’s abject state, the alarmed sailors exclaim “Oimoi, I fear what is approaching! In full view (periphantos, 228) the man will die because with his sword he has slaughtered willy-nilly...” Sophocles’ unique periphanês sequence – in all of extant tragedy the word occurs only in Ajax – raises a clear expectation of public display. Why would Sophocles continually raise this expectation of a suicide in full view only to disappoint at the climatic moment? The strong implication of this textual evidence seems confirmed when later the enraged Teucer challenges Agamemnon: “Yes, since it is honorable for me to die conspicuously (i.e. in public), toiling for this man (Ajax), rather than to die in battle in behalf of your wife (Helen)…” (thanein prodêlôs, 1311 echoing 228, periphantos anêr thaneitai).
Secondly, the studied nobility of Ajax packing his sword in the earth (which action almost certainly did take place in full view), of delivering a long speech (815-65), and of leaping on the (retractable) sword-blade – all this would produce a stunning contrast to the earlier tableau of him sitting (on the eccyclema) for 250 lines among the beasts he had so ignominiously slaughtered (348-595). Such staging would also contrast powerfully with the earlier treatment of Aeschylus whose Ajax committed suicide offstage. We know this from a messenger’s account in the only fragment to survive of Aeschylus’ Thracian Women, the second play of his Ajax trilogy: “And, since his skin would not yield anywhere to the fatal blow, he kept bending his sword, like a man drawing a bow, until some goddess appeared and showed him the place” (i. e. the armpit). It would be very much in keeping with Sophocles’ innovative dramaturgy to deviate from his predecessor by showing the suicide onstage. Ajax’s suicide was represented by artists with some frequency before Sophocles; the metope on the Temple of Hera (c. 560) near Paestum is one such conspicuous example. These various artistic representations may have encouraged the dramatist to set aside any of the traditional dramatic conventions about staging such violence.
In sum, the adduced passages represent important and hitherto unnoticed empirical evidence for an on-stage suicide in full view of the audience. Such stagecraft fits well into the more general context of Sophocles’ agonistic relationship with his arch-rival Aeschylus.
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