Philoctetes, arms bearer to Heracles and one of Helen’s suitors, was on his way to fight in the Trojan War when he stopped to visit the temple of the goddess Chryse and was bitten on the foot by a venomous snake, either the guardian of the temple or an agent of Hera’s revenge on Heracles. The incurable wound was so repulsive and Philoctetes in such pain that his fellow Greeks, notably Odysseus , Agamemnon and Menelaus, decide to maroon him on the isle of Lemnos.
Ten years later, the Siege of Troy continues. The Greeks capture the seer Helenus, who foretells that they will only defeat the Trojans if they can regain the unerring Bow of Heracles, which was left in the hands of Philoctetes.
Reading the Penguin edition Electra and other plays translated by E. F. Watling (ISBN 0140440283)
My thoughts :
As I read through the surviving plays from Ancient Greece, it is refreshing to find a story not already told.
Two parts of this story strike me immediately :
the shocking treatment of the badly injured Philoctetes as his fellow Greeks abandon him on an uninhabited island, and now crazed with pain, loneliness and betrayal ; and
the “end justifies the means” dilemma faced by Neoptolemus (Achilles’ son) as he is encouraged by Odysseus to lie to Philoctetes, promising rescue and friendship until he can get his hands on the all-important bow – necessary to the Greeks to end the war, but just as necessary to the lame Philoctetes to feed himself.
Odysseus is again shown as a devious, unscrupulous and untrustworthy man – almost a stock villain and very different from the hero portrayed in The Odyssey. And again we have the last minute appearance of a God to set everything straight and reverse the adamant decisions of the protagonists.
Knowing that the Hippocratic writings will appear on my reading list (probably in August) it was interesting to see the sons of Asclepius the healer are with the Greek forces at Troy and may be able to now cure Philoctetes.
Favourite lines/passages :
The fate of Philoctetes, summed up by the Chorus
“And now, lost and alone
With the furred and feathered creatures,
Tortured with want and the pain
He can never cure,
And none to answer his cries
But the echo in far-off hills” Chorus, page 170
And Philoctetes’ horror as he realises he has been tricked
“O fiend! Monster, quintessence of vilest duplicity!
Have you done this to me? Played me this trick?
And can you face me unashamed, your suppliant
Who crawled to you for pity? Heart of stone!
You take my bow from me, you take my life.
O, give it back to me son, give it back to me!
Gods of our fathers! Give me back my life! Philoctetes, page 194.
Personal rating: 6
Next: Cyclops by Euripides