Sophocles’ play Philoctetes was entered into the Dionysia competition of 409 BCE. It won first prize. Also entered in that competition was Euripides’ Medea which won third prize. I’ve seen Medea acted before but never read it and while I thought Philoctetes was quite good, I would have given first to Euripides. But of course, no one asked me.
I had thought I had never heard of Philoctetes before but since I read The Iliad I have and just didn’t remember because he had such a bit part. A little background is in order.
Very important for Sophocles’ play, Philoctetes has Heracles bow. He acquired the bow because he was the only one who was willing to light Heracles’ funeral pyre while Heracles was still alive and suffering horribly from that poisoned shirt. In return for the favor of lighting the pyre, Heracles gives Philoctetes his bow.
Then Philoctetes is off to fight in the Trojan War but he makes the mistake of walking on sacred ground on the island of Chryse and is bit in the foot by a snake. The wound does not kill him, only becomes infected, puss-filled and smelly, and, of course, terribly painful. And so, at the orders of Menelaus and Agamemnon, Odysseus dumps Philoctetes off on the uninhabited island of Lemnos (it wasn’t really uninhabited in real life but the magic of Sophocles makes it so).
Ten years have gone by and the Trojan War is winding down but the Greeks, it turns out, cannot win unless they have Neoptolemus, son of Achilles, and Philoctetes and his bow. Conveniently, Neoptolemus, who has never seen Achilles having been conceived and born not long before the Trojan War, heard of his father’s death and shows up at Troy to claim his father’s armor. Of course it has already been awarded to Odysseus instead of Ajax and Odysseus will not give it to Achilles’ son. Odysseus, having heard the prophecy, manages to sweet talk the young Neoptolemus into not being angry about his father’s armor, convinces him he is necessary to win the war (which he is) and then persuades him to go collect Philoctetes who must be made to come by persuasion not by force (prophecy’s orders).
Whew. And now the play opens with Odysseus and Neoptolemus arriving on Lemnos. Neoptolemus is all young and innocent and Philoctetes has had ten long, lonely years of festering hatred for Odysseus, Agamemnon and Menelaus to go along with his festering foot. How well do you think things are going to go? Tune in tomorrow to find out.