Philoctetes (Sophocles)  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Philoctetes (Template:Lang-grc, Philoktētēs) is a play by Sophocles (Aeschylus and Euripides also each wrote a Philoctetes but theirs have not survived). The play was written during the Peloponnesian War. It was first performed at the Festival of Dionysus in 409 BC, where it won first prize. The story takes place during the Trojan War (after the majority of the events of the Iliad, and before the Trojan Horse). It describes the attempt by Neoptolemus and Odysseus to bring the disabled Philoctetes with them to Troy.



When Heracles was near his death (the subject of another play by Sophocles - The Trachiniae), he wished to be burned on a funeral pyre while still alive. No one but Philoctetes would light the fire, and in return for this favor Heracles gives him his bow. Philoctetes leaves with the others to participate in the Trojan War, but gets bitten on the foot by a snake when walking on Chryse, a sacred ground. The bite leaves him in constant agony, and emits a horrible smell. For this he is left by Odysseus on the desert island Lemnos.

Ten years pass, and the Greeks capture the Trojan seer Helenus, son of Priam. He foretells that they will need Philoctetes and the bow of Heracles in order to win the war. Odysseus sails back to Lemnos with Neoptolemus (son of Achilles) in order to get Philoctetes. The task will not be easy, as Philoctetes bitterly hates Odysseus and the Greeks for leaving him there.


Sophocles' Philoctetes begins with their arrival on the island. Odysseus explains to Neoptolemus that he must perform a shameful action in order to garner future glory - to take Philoctetes by tricking him with a false story while Odysseus hides. Neoptolemus is portrayed as an honorable boy, and so it takes some persuading in order for him to play this part. In order to gain Philoctetes's trust, Neoptolemus tricks Philoctetes into thinking he hates Odysseus as well. Neoptolemus does this by telling Philoctetes that Odysseus has his father's (Achilles) armor. He tells Philoctetes that this armor was his right by birth, and Odysseus would not give it up to him. After gaining Philoctetes' trust and offering him a ride home, Neoptolemus is allowed to look at the bow of Heracles.

Neoptolemus holds the bow while Philoctetes is going into an unbearable fit of pain in his foot. Feeling ashamed, Neoptolemus debates giving it back to him. Odysseus appears, and a series of arguments ensue. Eventually Neoptolemus's conscience gains the upper hand, and he returns the bow. After many threats made on both sides, Odysseus flees. Neoptolemus then tries to talk Philoctetes into coming to Troy by his own free will, but Philoctetes will not agree. In the end Neoptolemus consents to take Philoctetes back to Greece, even though that means that he will be exposed to the anger of the army. This appears to be the conclusion of the play; however, as they are leaving, Heracles (now a deity) appears above them and tells Philoctetes that if he goes to Troy then he will be cured and the Greeks will win. Philoctetes willingly obeys him.

The play ends here. When Philoctetes later fights in Troy, his foot is healed, and he wins glory, killing many Trojans (including Paris).

Themes and Ideas

The concept of having a moral high ground is a key aspect in this play. The play makes the reader question what morality means to each man. Furthermore, the play makes one question the struggle between what is right for the individual versus what is right for the group. It is possible that this struggle is irreconcilable. More specifically, one can see this struggle by looking at what has happened to Philoctetes versus what the Greeks need.

Another theme is that of trauma. Philoctetes has suffered wounds that will not heal. Furthermore, Philoctetes' suffering is now what defines him, yet Neoptolemus pretends not to know Philoctetes at first. In other words, Philoctetes' suffering should at least make him known, however it is as if his story is dead.Template:Citation needed

The Philoctetes Project

The story of Philoctetes, dealing with the wounded man and the interwoven relationships with others, has been frequently noted. In 2005 Bryan Doerries, writer and director, began a series of readings of the play in the New York city area. Noting the reactions of the audience to the reading, especially related to the reactions of audience members to the interaction of the suffering soldier and the conflicted caregiver, he and others started the Philoctetes Project. The project revolves around presenting such readings, especially to audiences of medical professionals and students.

A number of readings were followed by a panel discussion about doctor-patient relationships, involving presenters in psychiatry, physicians, and military medical personnel among others.

The concept has also been extended to training of medical students, such as a presentation also in 2007 to the first year medical class at Weill Medical College of Cornell University, involving not only the students, but also faculty members. The presentation included a discussion of an actual case dealing with the patient-caregiver interactions that parallel the situation that Sophocles presented.

In 2008, at a conference dedicated to finding new ways to help US Marines recover from post-traumatic stress and other disorders after serving in Iraq or Afghanistan, four New York actors presented a dramatic reading from this play and Ajax (Sophocles). The plays focussed on physical and psychological wounds inflicted on the warrior.


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