Monday, January 16, 2017

Ajax by Sophocles

A man will not accept the indignity of being laughed at

Ajax, second greatest warrior in the Greek Army, fails to be awarded the dead Achilles’ armor. Apparently valuing brain over brawn, his compatriots felt wily Odysseus deserved the honor. Humiliated, and helped along with a spell of madness doled out by cranky Athena, Ajax kills a herd of cattle, the spoils of war, thinking them humans, thinking them his Greek oppressors. He tortures a ram in his tent, believing it Odysseus. Ajax’s concubine, Tecmessa, is frantic and does not know how to help him. Once Ajax regains his sanity, and realizes he not only has failed to achieve his revenge, but has in fact made himself a fool, he decides to commit suicide. He seems to let Tecmessa talk him out of it, but instead goes to a remote location and falls on his sword. The remainder of the play is occupied with the question of whether such a person as Ajax should be buried. Ajax’s half brother Teucer declares he will be buried; Agamemnon declares he won’t. In the end wise Odysseus advises that, even though Ajax was his enemy, such a noble warrior should be buried. Because if such a horrible thing happened to Ajax, it could happen to anyone.

So many things in this play felt familiar. The terror of searching for the lost mentally ill family member, and then the sad discovery. I’m not sure a modern audience is capable of understanding Tecmessa - a slave, but it also seems like she has some sway over Ajax, like a wife – someone whom he cares for. In this play, Odysseus comes off as truly wise, moving away from emotional revenge (where Ajax most definitely is) towards more nuanced view of things. The language throughout is beautiful and evocative.

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