“Aias” by Sophocles

[All excerpts quoted taken from the translation by Michael Ewans, published by Everyman]

The tale of the downfall of Aias (or Ajax) lends itself easily to a satisfactory dramatic form. The tragic drama may start with a council scene, where the leading figures of the Greek forces meet, and decide to award the armour of the dead Achilles not to the great warrior Aias, but to he wily Odysseus. Aias could then be given a monologue where he expresses his sense of humiliation (there are other works that have a major council scene near the start, and from which the principal character emerges feeling humiliated and alienated: Hamlet, for instance; or The Iliad). Or perhaps the play could start immediately after the council scene, with the hurt and humiliated protagonist. Then, after the monologue, Aias, his immense pride wounded beyond repair, could have an exchange with a chorus consisting of his men: he wants to slaughter the Greek leaders who, in his opinion, have dishonoured him; and the chorus could try, but fail, to dissuade him from this course of action. Aias could then exit, sword in hand, and after the chorus has expressed its fears, a messenger could come in with a long narration: instead of slaughtering the Greek leaders, as Aias had intended, he has been driven mad by the goddess Athena, and has merely slaughtered animals instead. Aias now enters, filled with shame, and, after another monologue, and another exchange with the chorus, he goes offstage to kill himself. In an epilogue, Tekmessa, his concubine, and Teukros, his half-brother, could enter and, with the chorus, deliver a lament.

This would have been a perfectly acceptable dramatic arc. All the characteristics that we imagine define Greek tragedy are present and correct. We see the downfall of a great hero; and we can even identify the hubris that brings about his downfall. Audiences can go home happy, having learnt the moral that pride comes before a fall; and for centuries, this play would have been held up as the archetypal Greek tragedy – one where everything is so clearly and precisely laid out.

The only problem is that this is the play Sophocles chose not to write. And we must, I think, ask ourselves why.

Instead of starting with the council scene, or immediately after it, Sophocles starts at a point here the slaughter of the beasts has already taken place; and instead of starting with Aias, he starts with the goddess Athena, who gloats in the further humiliation of Aias, and with Odysseus, whom she invites to gloat with her. It may seem a strange place to start.

And neither is the suicide of Aias the culminating point of the drama: this suicide comes not at the end, but at a point where there is still nearly half the play remaining. The latter part of the play is taken up not with the themes of Aias’ pride and Aias’ shame, but, rather, with a squabble over how his body is to be disposed of: the Greek commanders, Agamemnon and Menalaos, who show themselves as somewhat petty and mean, refuse to accord Aias a proper burial; however, Teukros, Aias’ half-brother, is openly hostile, and even, at times, insulting to the commanders, reminding them of Aias’ heroic courage, and of his skill and prowess in the war which he had fought on their behalf. The unseemly squabble over the hero’s body only comes to an end when Odysseus, Aias’ greatest enemy, overrules Agamemnon and Menelaos, makes peace with Teukros, and orders Aias to be given a funeral befitting a hero.

This curious construction has not escaped censure. Sophocles, it has been claimed, has written here a curiously disjointed play – a play in two parts which don’t really fit together, and which, as a consequence, lacks unity. It is certainly true that the play falls into two distinct parts, almost equal in length; and it is true also that the narrative arc of the first part is very different from the narrative arc of the second. But, unless we want to accuse Sophocles of being an incompetent dramatist who gets wrong even basic things that any journeyman playwright would have got right, we have to ask ourselves why Sophocles has chosen to write it in this manner – why he was happy to introduce a narrative discontinuity that could so easily have been avoided. Clearly, Sophocles must have felt that this discontinuity was a price worth paying; but worth paying for what?

I think we may get the earliest intimations of this in the first scene, where Athena invites Odysseus to gloat at Aias’ madness, but Odysseus instead pities him. And the reason for his pity is interesting:

… I pity him

as he is now, although he is my enemy, because

he has been bound fast to a terrible downfall.

In this, I think no more of him than of myself.

I see that all of us who live are nothing else

but phantoms, empty shadow.

Odysseus’ pity and compassion, his humility in this situation, are not entirely altruistic. Humility as a virtue in itself is more a Christian than a Greek concept: Odysseus’ humility is, as he says himself, occasioned by his thinking of himself. For he recognises that all humans, himself included, are subject to the same forces, since they are all “but phantoms, empty shadows”. And the terrible downfall to which Aias has been bound fast could be his own downfall too, since he too, like Aias, is human.   

This sense of the mutability of the state of human affairs becomes a central point of the play. We are all phantoms and empty shadows: he who was yesterday a great hero and an invincible warrior is now a laughable figure, reduced to slaughtering mere animals. Tekmessa, in a moving speech, tells of her own past reversal of fortune as she pleads with Aias:

… Your spear destroyed my native land:

another cruel fate seized both my mother

and my father; they are now in Hades, dead.

I have no other home except your house,

no money; my whole life depends on you.

Odysseus is today a revered leader of men, famed for his guile and his intelligence; but what will he be tomorrow? What will any of us be tomorrow? For Athena, “the sweetest of all laughters is to laugh at enemies”. But she is an immortal, not subject to the mutability to which humans are subject: she is no mere phantom, no mere empty shadow. But we who are, like Odysseus, mortal, have to ask themselves how we should behave, given that phantoms and empty shadows are precisely what we are. As Athena herself says:

One day can weigh down everything a human being is or has

or lift it up again.

Aias too becomes aware of the mutability of the nature of things – how friends may become enemies, and enemies friends:

… I now know that an enemy

should only be so hated, as a man who will

become a friend again; and I wish

only to help a friend so far – because I know

he won’t always be true.

But this understanding has come to him too late: he is already in disgrace not only in other’s eyes, but in his own – to such an extent, indeed, that he cannot think of any way out other than suicide. And suicide is not noble in Greek culture: in all the extant Greek tragedies, there are only two suicides – that of Antigone, and that of Aias, and in neither is there any intimation, as there frequently is in Shakespeare’s tragedies, that it was a noble act. But even if this understanding had come to Aias earlier, it is doubtful whether he would have had the intelligence to act upon it. For what he had planned to do to the Greek leader – his erstwhile companions in battle – was hideous. When we see him still in the grips of madness, he actually boasts with joy that he has Odysseus his prisoner, and will torture him before killing him. And all this because he feels he had been slighted – although it is worth noting that, apart from his own followers, no-one else seems thinks so. It would be hard to imagine a tragic protagonist less worthy of the audience’s sympathy.   

It is perhaps not very surprising, therefore, that Agamemnon and Menelaos should be so spiteful towards Aias, even after his death, refusing him even a burial. What is more surprising is Odysseus’ generosity to his fallen enemy – the man who not only intended to kill him, but to torture him first. Agamemnon and Menelaos aren’t convinced by Odysseus’ generosity – and in this, we may well sympathise with them, despite their pettiness: but they do not oppose him.

At the conclusion of the play, Odysseus makes peace with Teukros, and agrees to help him bury the fallen hero: the understanding that had come to Aias too late – that friends may become enemies, and enemies friends – proves true.

And this, I think, is at the heart of the play. It is not so much a character study of Aias – who has, frankly, not enough depth to his character to carry the burden of an entire drama: it is, rather, an examination of the question of how we are to live, how we are to behave with each other, given the mutability of everything, given the constant flux that is our lives, and given that we are all but phantoms and empty shadows.

But I would, however, be interested in other interpretations.

[See here for Amateur Reader’s post on Aias.]

6 responses to this post.

  1. Poking around, I see that yours is like the H. D. F. Kitto interpretation, that the play is as much or more about Odysseus as Ajax.

    I take Ajax as more Promethean, rejecting the gods and embracing his hatred. Mere humans like Odysseus, and me, have to live differently, but not the heroes living (dying) under the old ethics. Ajax actually ends his mutability. As we know from the Odyssey, he will keep his hatred. As a phantom, as Odysseus perceives – what a great bit of Odysseus there.

    Any character who can make the speech in the center of the play has as much depth as I can handle. But I know I find the drama of the plays in different places than you.


    • I really need to get hold of Kitto’s book. I’m in London on Wednesday, so might have a look for it then.

      Whatever tone I may have projected in my post – and an author really does need to project some element of authority – I am very diffident about my interpretation, such as it is. My starting point is the curious structure: why did Sophocles structure it in this curious manner when far more obvious structures were available? What did he achieve by doing so?

      Looking through the text, it was hard to miss, scattered around the text and spoekn by different characters, the various references to the mutability of human affairs. So I wondered whether it was this, perhaps, that was the central theme. But I remain far from convinced that I have got it right.


    • I might agree about the central theme if I believed works like this had central themes.

      The structure looks pretty firmly built to me. Odysseus at both ends (with an awful god, then with awful humans), the big speech right in the middle, with the bloody mess on one side and the suicide on the other. Ajax, or the dummy representing his body, is on stage for almost the entire play, and all of the action and discussion are about him. I guess it seemed obvious enough to me. Still worth thinking about why that structure rather than the other.


      • Yes, Odysseus appearing at the beginning and at the end, the secon£ tim3cto bring about a resolution, does certainly provide a symmetry. The resolution, though, has to be related to what he says in his first appearance, I think: otherwise it would seem merely arbitrary. However, thete does seem to me two distinct narrative arcs, and, i strad of running concurrently, are placed sequentiallt: the first concerns Aias’ shame and despair, and culminates in his suicide; the second concerns the disposal of Aias’ body, and culminates in the resolution offered by Odysseus. It dies make me wonder where the centre of gravity is, as it were. But perhaps you’re right in that there *is* no central theme.

  2. I think that if you look at the play as the story of “why Ajax received a hero’s burial,” then it’s a unified action from start to finish, and that unity would (I think) satisfy Mr Aristotle. Odysseus’ on-stage opinion of Ajax differs at each end of the play because he’s speaking to different hearers and with differing motivations, but both times about the political (or, if you will, societal) use of Ajax’ death. “What do we do with our fallen heroes?” the play seems to ask. It’s a play about propaganda, in a way, of turning the disgrace of one man from a personal tragedy affecting him and his immediate circle, into a triumph of the people, of the government.

    And yes, it’s also about the personality of Odysseus, the hubris and suffering of Ajax, etc, but I think the big picture is that this is a broad commentary about one’s place in the system, living in a hierarchical society that is ultimately ruled by the unknowable gods. The intense personal drama of Ajax and his family is used to illustrate an idea of political good, I think. Or at least that’s what I think today, after browsing through Poetics.


    • Yes, I agree – the unity lies in the question of “why Ajax received a hero’s burial”. The answer to that, of course, is that Odysseus insists on one; so the question now becomes “Why does Odysseus insist on one?” And, as far as I can see, it is not really a political decision of Odysseus’ part: to achieve the unity, Odysseus’ decision in the final scene must be related to his first appearance in the first scene, where, against the expectations of Athena, he says he pities Aias. Aias’ downfall may, one day, be his.

      It is an intriguing play!


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