By Sophocles (497-405 B.C.)
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Ajax Gigantic Greek warrior who helped the Greeks defeat the Trojans.
Odysseus Supreme military strategist who designed the Trojan horse, a ruse that enabled the Greeks to win the Trojan War.
Athena Goddess of wisdom and war.
Agamemnon, Menelaus Greek generals in the Trojan War.
Tecmessa Concubine of Ajax.
Eurysaces Child of Ajax and Tecmessa
Teucer Half-brother of Ajax.
Chorus of Salaminians
Time of Action: About 3,200 years ago in recorded history's infancy, when humankind's imagination peopled the known world with great heroes and villains and nature reflected the mood of the gods inhabiting the mountaintops, the seas, the forests, and the unseen worlds above and below.
Place of Action: City of Troy and surrounding plains in northwestern Anatolia, a region in Asia Minor that is part of modern-day Turkey. Anatolia is west of Greece (across the Aegean Sea) and north of Egypt (across the Mediterranean Sea).
Setting as the Play Opens: Before the tent of Ajax at Troy as the sun rises.
Historical Troy: In archeological digs between 1870 and 1890, Heinrich Schleimann proved that the ancient city of Troy was a fact, not a myth, as many had thought. However, the story of the Trojan War was a mixture of fact, legend, and myth.
Mythological Background and Plot Summary
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
........Near the end of the Trojan War, Achilles, the greatest of the Greek warriors, lies dead after a Trojan arrow guided by Apollo mortally wounds him. Ajax, the second-greatest Greek warrior in battlefield prowess because of his colossal size and strength, expects to receive the prize of prizes: Achilles' armor, which was made by the blacksmith god Hephaestus (Vulcan in Roman mythology). But the Greek generals Agamemnon and Menelaus award it instead to the brilliant strategist Odysseus (Ulysses in Roman mythology), the man who would later design a gigantic wooden horse, an engine of war in the guise of a gift, that ultimately resulted in the downfall of Troy.
........Ajax then becomes so enraged that he plots the murder of Odysseus, Agamemnon, and Menelaus at night. However, the meddling Athena, goddess of wisdom and war, decides to thwart Ajax's plan. She has always sided with the Odysseus, her favorite Greek warrior. Like her, he favors guile to overcome his enemies. Moreover, he honors her as no other goddess. To save him from Ajax, she casts a spell of insanity upon the giant. In a frenzy, he mistakes sheep for his intended victims, slaughters them, and takes captives he plans to torture.
........Sophocles picks up the thread of the story when Ajax, still reeling from Athena's spell, is in his tent at Troy. His friends from Salamis enter with his concubine, a Phrygian princess, Tecmessa. As Ajax comes to his senses, he feels deep humiliation, believing that he has ruined his reputation as a warrior and disgraced his family in Salamis. Before the chorus, he recites a catalogue of his woes. He wants to die. Tecmessa and the Salamanians try to assuage his terrible grief. When he addresses them, he seemingly alleviates their fears. However, he then leaves the tent with the sword of Hector (the dead Trojan hero) and falls upon it, killing himself. Although Agamemon and Menelaus decree a humiliating post-mortem punishment for Ajax--to leave him lie unburried as carrion for animals--Odysses persaudes them to relent.
Type of Work: Ajax is a stage play, a tragedy that recounts the events leading up to the death of Ajax the Great, one of the Greek heroes of the Trojan War.
Date Written: Probably about 444 B.C.
Who Ajax Was: Ajax (Aias, in transliterations based on the original Greek) was the son of Telamon, King of Salamis. A warrior of enormous stature and courage, Ajax was second only in strength and bravado to Achilles on the Greek side in the Trojan War, according to Homer's Iliad. Homer and other storytellers often refer to Ajax as Ajax the Great or as the Telamonian Ajax to distinquish him from another Ajax who was the son of Ileus (or Oileus), King of Locris. The latter Ajax, who also fought for the Greeks in the Trojan War, was known as Ajax the Less (Aias the Less), or the Locrian Ajax.
Characteristics of Sophoclean Tragedy: (1) It is based on events that already took place and with which the audience is familiar. (2) The protagonist is a person of noble stature. (3) The protagonist has a weakness and, because of it, becomes isolated and suffers a downfall. (4) Because the protagonist's fall is not entirely his or her own fault, the audience may end up pitying him or her. (5) The fallen protagonist gains self-knowledge. He has a deeper insight into himself and understands his weakness. (6) The audience undergoes catharsis, a purging of emotions, after experiencing pity, fear, shock and other strong feelings. The people go away feeling better. (7) The drama usually unfolds in one place in a short period of time, usually about a day.
Role of the Chorus : The chorus generally had the following roles in the plays of Sophocles: (1) to explain the action, (2) To interpret the action in relation to the law of the state and the law of the Olympian gods, (3) to foreshadow the future, (4) to To serve as actor actor in the play, (5) To sing and/or dance, and (6) to give the author's views. In some ways, the chorus is like the narrator of a modern film or like the background music accompanying the action of the film. In addition, it is like text on the film screen that provides background information or identifies the time and place of the action.
Pride as a Character Flaw: Great pride, such as that of Oedipus (Oedipus Rex) or Creon (Antigone), is referred to as hybris or hubris.
Difference Between Tragedy and Comedy: A tragedy focuses on a great and noble character; a comedy usually does not. Also, in a comedy, the author usually pokes fun at the characters. Finally, a comedy does not end tragically.
Pride and conceit cause the downfall of a great warrior. Even though Ajax is treated unjustly, it is his own great pride that ultimately brings him to ruin. Pride was considered a grave sin by the ancient Greeks because it placed too much emphasis on individual will, thereby downplaying the will of the state and endangering the community as a whole. Because pride makes people unwilling to accept wise counsel, they act rashly and make bad decisions.
Intelligence is more powerful than brute force. In the end, it was the genius of Odysseus that overcame the Trojans, not the physical prowess of Ajax. Consequently, the Greek generals awarded the armor of Achilles to Odysseus instead of Ajax.