Towards the end of the Trojan war, Odysseus and Neoptolomos (the son of Achilles) arrive at the island of Lemnos for the purpose of retrieving Herakles’ bow, which the gods have decreed is essential for a Greek victory at Troy. The problem is that the bow is in the possession of Philoctetes, a Greek hero who was rather tactlessly dumped on the island because of his stinkily infected foot, and who has been living there alone for nine years, carefully nursing his grudge against Odysseus and the other Greeks.
This review contains a spoiler or two.
As far as I understand Greek tragedies, Philoctetes really isn’t one, but it’s usually labeled as such, and who am I to quarrel with authorities on the subject? It’s an interesting play either way, and rather different from others of its era and country of origin. There’s more theme than story – the tale basically revolves around Neoptolomos being persuaded by Odysseus to forego his habitual honesty and trick the innocent and noble Philoctetes into relinquishing his bow and return to Troy with them.
Thematically, there’s a lot more going on, what with the usual Greek obsession with honour and duty. Neoptolomos’ problem is this: if he gets the bow he will win honour and renown in war, but is that really worth anything if the means for it have been gained by dishonourable actions? It’s not like Philoctetes is a villain or a bad person, after all – he’s a persistent, dutiful and proud hero who has been treated inexcusably, and all he wants is for someone to bring him and his pus-stinking old foot back home. It is fascinating to see just how conflicted Neoptolomos becomes when faced with Philoctetes’ plight, torn as he is between his desire for glory and his equally keen desire to do the right thing.
While Philoctetes and Neoptolomos are basically on the same page, divided only by their differing needs, Odysseus is presented as an unpardonable douchebag, eagerly promoting deceit and ignoble behaviour, which is a far cry from his cunning but ultimately heroic portrayal in The Iliad and The Odyssey. Philoctetes is a man of firm, positively obstinate principle, whereas Odysseus is just as unyielding in his certainty that the ends justify the means no matter what, which leaves Neoptolomos in anguish, wavering between the two standpoints.
I hope the above makes it clear that Philoctetes is ever so cleverly thought out in terms of theme and didactic purpose, which is a great asset, but the climax is unfortunately less impressive. Just as things start coming to a head and, meanwhile, we begin to see a possible agreement between Neoptolomos and Philoctetes, up pops a deus ex machina ending that takes the decisions out of the hands of these mortals, giving us a cheap fake ending instead of a proper, satisfying resolution.
Philoctetes is a deeply fascinating play psychologically and ethically, but it stumbles on the finishing line and doesn’t force the characters to make the hard decisions I, as a reader, had been looking forward to seeing. Not the best thing Sophocles wrote, but deep flaws aside, still an impressive work.
Rating: 7 of 10.