Sophocles' "Ajax" : Earning Deeper Sympathy

It is generally agreed that Ajax and The Antigone are the two earliest extant plays by Sophocles; which of the two was produced first it is difficult to say. Perhaps an important feature of technique settles this—both tragedies need three actors, but the Ajax in this respect is more tentative than the Antigone. The scene is laid before the tent of Ajax on the plain of Troy. Enraged by the action of the Greeks in awarding to Odysseus instead of to himself the arms of the dead Achilles, Ajax sought to slay Agamemnon, Menelaus, and others in their sleep. The goddess Athena sent madness upon him so that he slaughtered cattle in their stead. Coming to himself he realizes his shame, and eluding his friends—the chorus of Salaminian sailors and the Trojan captive, Tecmessa (who has borne him a son),—he retires to a lonely spot by the sea and falls upon his sword. His brother Teucer returns too late to save him, but in time to confront and defy Agamemnon and Menelaus, who have decreed that Ajax' body shall be left unburied. At length Agamemnon is induced by Odysseus to forgo his purpose.

Sophocles is considered by many modern scholars the greatest of the Greek tragedians and the perfect mean between the titanic symbolism of Aeschylus and the rhetorical realism of Euripides. Sophocles also effected a transformation in the spirit and significance of a tragedy; thereafter, although problems of religion and morality still provided the themes, the nature of man, his problems, and his struggles became the chief interest of Greek tragedy.

No Greek play gains so much by re-reading as the Ajax. Ajax, in Greek mythology, mighty warrior who fought in the Trojan War. He was the son of Telamon, king of Salamís, and led the Salaminian forces to Troy. An enormous man, slow in speech but unshakable in battle, Ajax was called “bulwark of the Achaeans” by Homer. Angered because he was not awarded the armor of the dead Achilles, Ajax resolved to kill the Greek leaders Agamemnon and Menelaus. To prevent this, the goddess Athena struck him with madness. In his delirium, Ajax committed suicide by falling on his sword.

The character of the hero steadily grows on us; it is not that we admire him more, but that we feel a deeper sympathy. As he gains in clearness, he lifts the other characters into the light. Ajax is a man dowered with nobility, sensitiveness, and self-reliance, but ruined by the excess of those qualities. His nobility has become ambition, his sensitiveness morbidity, and his self-reliance pride. He offends Heaven by his haughtiness, and is humbled; then, rather than accept this lesson, he shuns disgrace by suicide. This resolution is strong enough to overbear the appeals of Tecmessa and the silent sway of his little son; he faces death calmly and even thoughtfully. Grouped round the central figure are first Tecmessa and Teucer, and on a lower plane Odysseus, Menelaus, Agamemnon, and the chorus. Athena stands apart. Tecmessa is one of the loveliest creations of Sophocles; there clings about her a silvery charm which is strangely refreshing amid the turbid grandeur of the play. Tenderness, patience, courage—these are commonplace enough upon the stage; yet Sophocles has made of them something frail but indestructible, and touched her with his own greatest charm—an unearthly eloquence of which we shall speak later: — When Ajax is dead, it is she, not Teucer (as Ajaxhad hoped) who finds the body, and this marvel ofquiet tenderness gleams forth again. She hardly laments at all; the choruses who accompany her are more moved.