Words as Weapons in Sophocles’ Aias and Philoctetes
2 Pages Posted: 17 May 2010
Date Written: May 14, 2010
This paper will explore the weapon-like character of the language of two formerly epic heroes in a tragic context. If the epic tradition mostly displays heroes in a proper, harmonious relationship to their weapons, in tragedies very often this relationship seems perverted and problematic.
The importance given by Sophocles to language in shaping his characters has been stressed by the scholarship, especially by C. Segal and N. Worman. However, I have found no discussion of the obvious correspondence between the hero’s weapon, as a concentrate of his identity, and his speech. This new perspective sheds light on several problematic passages in Sophocles’ Aias and Philoctetes. In this paper I will mainly focus on the reading of two passages: Aias 646-692, and Phil. 201-209.
Ajax is considered to have given up his true physis in his so-called “deception speech” (Aias 646-692), taking over an Odyssean style of using words to modify reality and obtain results according to one’s wish. I will argue that the “deception speech” is more defensive than deceptive; it is Ajax’ last use of his metaphoric “shield”. As in the Homeric depiction of Ajax’ shield, the layers are impressive because of their impenetrable hardness, and not because of a meaning/story which transcends the concrete object (as it happens with Achilles’ shield). This is the last – and successful, as always – occurrence of the shield in his life. Ajax does not intend to manipulate the audience into a certain direction – the chorus’ disproportionate joy seems to be caused more by the chorus’ own interpretation and expectations than by Ajax’ intentions. By his use of enigmatic metaphors and philosophical sententiae, Ajax rather seeks to place a necessary distance between him and the others using language as a barrier, as a hérkos.
Similarly, Philoctetes’ shrieks (sharp and flying far, like arrows) define him since his first spectacular appearance in the tragedy (Phil. 201-209); later, they reach and win over Neoptolemus. As such, Philoctetes’ voice of pain is the only one true (Phil. 205). Throughout the play, language itself is questioned since nobody convinces anybody through discursive, articulate speech. Paradoxically, then, the inarticulate yells of the half-savage Philoctetes are able to communicate his pain better than any speech. Such a reading reverses N. Worman’s view of the wild Philoctetes: a “barrier to communication” (2000: 20), which is finally healed by “conversational cure.” (2000: 28-29). The “barrier to communication” belongs inversely to Odysseus and Ajax, the latter being “cured” of his incommunicativeness by the contact with Philoctetes’ almost beastlike suffering.
Therefore, Ajax and Philoctetes are both drifted heroic figures in tragedy, seeking for a new meaning of their weapons, in an unfamiliar context. The contrasting analysis of the two heroes’ representative ways of speech reveals a similar Sophoclean technique and reopens the debate on the dialogue between the two plays.
Scullion, S. (1993), Three Studies in the Athenian Dramaturgy (Stuttgart and Leipzig).
Segal, C. (1995), Sophocles’ Tragic World: Divinity, Nature, Society (Cambridge, MA and London). ________ (1981), Tragedy and Civilization. An Interpretation of Sophocles (Cambridge, MA, & London).
Worman, N. (2001), ‘The Herkos Achaion Transformed: Character Type and Spatial Meaning in the Ajax’, CP 96.
________ (2000), ‘Infection in the Sentence: the Discourse of Disease in Sophocles’ Philoctetes’, Arethusa 33.
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