We left our story yesterday with Odysseus and Neoptolemos arriving on the island of Lemnos to try and convince Philoctetes to sail back to Troy with them. Odysseus is quite aware that Philoctetes probably hates him for abandoning the guy and his smelly foot on Lemnos ten years prior so comes up with a plan that Neoptolemos will do all the talking while Odysseus waits back at the ship. But of course Odysseus can’t let Neoptolemos tell the truth to Philoctetes, goodness no! Instead Neoptplemos is supposed to tell a story of woe about how he hates Odysseus because he was awarded Achilles’ armor and how he wants Philoctetes help to take revenge.
Neoptolemos rightly flinches at this tale and tells Odysseus,
I wasn’t born to act by deception,
nor, so they say, was my father before me.
I’m willing to take the man by force,
not by trickery — he can hardly take us by force, on a single leg.
Odysseus is miffed that the young pup has the nerve to challenge him and tells him that now is the time for words not deeds. Neoptolemos tries to stand up for himself and asks, “Don’t you think it is shameful to tell lies?” Odysseus replies, “No — not if lying is a means to safety.” They go on a bit more and Odysseus manages to win the argument and get Neoptolemos to agree to lie.
Odysseus exits stage left and Neoptolemos and a small chorus of sailors start looking for Philoctetes. They find him emerging from the cave where he had been living. Philoctetes and Achilles had been friends so right off Philoctetes has special feeling for Achilles’ son. And Neoptolemos tries to be true to his father, a man of deeds, while obeying Odysseus. He lies, but more by omission than anything. Most of all, however, he listens to the grief of Philoctetes with respect and sympathy. He agrees to take Philoctetes home and Philoctetes gives Neoptolemos his bow to carry to the ship.
At this point Odysseus shows up dressed as a trader who just happened to pull into the island for a little stop over. What he really wants to do is check up on Neoptolemos and he does not like what he sees. He makes a few pointed remarks and then departs. Afterwards Neoptolemos’ conscience begins gnawing at him and he tells Philoctetes the truth. Odysseus shows up a bit miffed to say the least. Philoctetes is doubly upset having been betrayed by Achilles’ son and Odysseus. Of course he refuses to go to Troy, so Odysseus has him seized by some of the sailors. But Odysseus knows Philoctetes has to come of his free will and not by force for the prophecy to be fulfilled so generously lets Philoctetes go.
Much arguing ensues and Neoptolemos and Odysseus are going to leave Philoctetes on Lemnos when Heracles appears above the cave! Heracles, the deus ex machina, tells Philoctetes to go to Troy and that’s that.
A few interesting things about the play. There is much made of who everyone’s father is. Apparently the Greeks believed that character was passed on in a like father like son way. Therefore the debate between words (Odysseus) and deeds (Achilles) is carried on between Odysseus and Achilles’ son Neoptolemos. This debate on Lemnos over Philoctetes is a draw and requires the appearance of Heracles on a visit from Mount Olympos break the impasse. It is clear in the play that Sophocles doesn’t think much of Odysseus, but yet he is unable to write the play so Odysseus loses. It is not surprising really since Sophocles himself made a career of words (writing) and deeds (acting) so must have felt rather conflicted. The appearance of Heracles meant he didn’t have to decide in the end.
I really enjoyed this play. It felt different from the other Sophocles plays I read, less stylized and formal and more natural. The translation by Carl Phillips is well done. Phillips is not a classicist but a professor of English and African and Afro-American studies as well as a poet. If you are interested in reading Philoctetes for yourself, I highly recommend the Phillips translation.