The character of Ajax, as fixed in the Iliad and therefore familiar to the audience, was of an extraordinarily powerful man, next to Achilles the best of the Greek warriors at Troy, but also of a man extraordinarily headstrong and self-centered. After Achilles’ death, according to legend, the divine armor made for him by Hephaestus was to be given to the worthiest of his survivors, and Ajax naturally expected the prize. Instead the chieftains voted to award it to Odysseus. Ajax’ consequent hatred of Odysseus is mentioned in the Odyssey: when the two meet in Hades, Ajax refuses to speak to Odysseus but turns his back on him.
The opening of the play informs us that in chagrin at his disappointment Ajax was on the point of murdering the Greek generals; to save them Athena darkened Ajax’ senses so that he mistook the army’s livestock for the generals and slaughtered them instead. When Ajax recovers and realizes, not that his intention was wrong, but that its miscarriage would make him ridiculous, he determines on suicide. He ignores the pleas of Tecmessa and the chorus, bids his child farewell, and departs.
Soon he returns, ostensibly reconciled to life; he says he will go and bury his unlucky sword by the seaside and then have peace forevermore. After Ajax has gone and the chorus has sung its premature joy, a messenger from Teucer brings Calchas’ warning that Ajax must be kept indoors that day. The chorus and Tecmessa leave to find him. The scene changes to seaside sedge (the only change of scene in the extant plays of Sophocles) and there Ajax makes a farewell speech, with a curse for the Atreidae, buries his sword point up, and falls upon it. The searchers enter and the body of Ajax is found, fittingly by Tecmessa. Teucer comes to bury the body but is forbidden to do so, first by Menelaus, whom he outfaces, and then by Agamemnon, who presents a reasonable argument for denying burial. Odysseus, despite Ajax’ animosity toward him, persuades Agamemnon to allow the burial.
Modern readers sometimes find the dispute about the burial anticlimactic and irrelevant; but the last third of the Ajax is not a Hamlet without Hamlet. It is not an episode in Ajax’ life which is the theme but the totality of his career. To assess his career justly the arguments for and against burial are relevant, and the final decision puts the seal on Ajax’ claim to heroization.
Chorus of Salaminian Sailors
Eurysaces, Attendants, Heralds (mute characters)
SCENE: Before the tent of Ajax at Troy.
(Odysseus is seen scanning footprints, athena aloft.)
ATHENA. Always I have seen you, son of Laertes, seeking to snatch some occasion against your enemies; and now at the tent of Ajax by the ships, where he is posted at the very edge of the camp, I see you pausing long on his trail and scanning his fresh tracks, to find whether he is within or abroad. Your course keen-scenting as a Laconian hound’s leads you well to your goal. Even now the man is gone within, sweat streaming from his face and from hands that have slain with the sword. There is no further need for you to peer within these doors. But what is your aim in this eager quest? Speak, so that you may learn from her who can give you light.
ODYSSEUS. Voice of Athena, dearest to me of the Immortals, how clearly, though you are unseen, do I hear your call and seize it in my soul, as when a Tyrrhenian clarion speaks from mouth of bronze! You have rightly discerned that I am hunting to and fro on the trail of a foeman, Ajax of the mighty shield. It is he and no other that I have been tracking so long.
This night he has done to us a thing unthinkable—if he is indeed the doer. We know nothing certain but drift in doubt, and I took upon me the burden of this search. We have lately found the cattle, our spoil, dead, slaughtered by human hand, and dead beside them the guardians of the flock.
All men lay this crime to him. A scout who had descried him bounding alone over the plain with reeking sword brought me tidings and declared the matter. Then straightway I rushed upon his track; sometimes I recognize the footprints as his, but sometimes I am bewildered and cannot read whose they are. Your help is timely; yours is the hand that always guides my course, as in the past so for the days to come.
ATHENA. I know it, Odysseus, and came early on the path, a watcher friendly to your chase.
ODYSSEUS. Dear mistress, is my toil to some purpose?
ATHENA. Know that yonder man is the doer of these deeds.
ODYSSEUS. Why was his insensate hand so fierce?
ATHENA. In bitter wrath touching the arms of Achilles.
ODYSSEUS. Why then this furious onslaught upon the flocks?
ATHENA. It was in your blood, as he thought, that he was dyeing his hand.
ODYSSEUS. What? Was this design aimed against the Greeks?
ATHENA. He would have accomplished it too if I had been careless.
ODYSSEUS. How had he laid these bold plans? What could inspire such hardihood?
ATHENA. He went forth against you in the night, by stealth and alone.
ODYSSEUS. And did he come near us? Did he reach his goal?
ATHENA. He was already at the doors of the two chiefs.
ODYSSEUS. What cause stayed his eager hand from murder?
ATHENA. I, even I, withheld him, for I cast upon his eyes the tyrannous fancies of his baneful joy. I turned his fury aside on the flocks of sheep and the confused droves guarded by herdsmen, the spoil which you had not yet divided. He fell upon the horned throng dealing death and hewing them to the earth around him. Now he thought that the two Atreidae were the prisoners whom he slew with his hand, now it was this chief and now that, at each new onset. And while the man raved in the throes of frenzy I still urged him and hurled him into the toils of doom. Presently, when he rested from this work, he bound together the living oxen and the sheep and brought them home, as though his captives were men and not good cattle. And now he is tormenting them, bound together, in the house.
But I will show you this madness openly, so that when you have seen it you may proclaim it to all the Greeks. Be steadfast and of good courage, nor look for evil from the man, for I will turn the vision of his eyes away and keep them from seeing your face.
Ho, you who are binding the back-bent arms of your captives with cords, you I call; come here! Ajax, what ho! come forth from the house!
ODYSSEUS. What are you doing, Athena? Never call him out.
ATHENA. Hold your peace! Do not earn the name of coward!
ODYSSEUS. Forbear, I pray you; be content that he stay inside.
ATHENA. What is the danger? Was he not a man before?
ODYSSEUS. Yes, an enemy to your servant, and still is.
ATHENA. And to mock at enemies—is that not the sweetest mockery?
ODYSSEUS. Enough for me that he remain within his doors.
ATHENA. You are afraid of seeing a madman in full view?
ODYSSEUS No fear could make me shun him if he were sane.
ATHENA. But even now he shall not see you, though you are near.
ODYSSEUS. How so, if he still sees with the same eyes?
ATHENA. I will darken them though they are open.
ODYSSEUS. Well, all is possible when a god contrives.
ATHENA. Stand silent, then, and stay where you are.
ODYSSEUS. I must stay. I wish that I were far from here!
ATHENA. What ho, Ajax, once again I call you! Is this your scanty regard for your ally?
AJAX (enters, holding a bloodstained scourge). Hail, Athena! Hail, Zeus-born maid! How well you have stood by me! Yes, I will crown your shrine with trophies of pure gold for this prize!
ATHENA. Fairly spoken. But tell me this—have you dyed your sword well in the Greek camp?
AJAX. That is my boast; I do not disclaim it.
ATHENA. And perhaps turned your armed hand on the Atreidae?
AJAX. So that they will never again dishonor Ajax.
ATHENA. The men are dead, as I take your meaning?
AJAX. Dead. Now let them rob me of my arms!
ATHENA. Good. And then the son of Laertes—in what plight have you left him? Has he escaped you?
AJAX. What, you ask me about that accursed fox?
ATHENA. Yes, about Odysseus, your adversary.
AJAX. No guest so welcome, lady. He is sitting in the house—in bonds. I do not mean him to die just yet.
ATHENA. What would you do first? What larger advantage would you win?
AJAX. First he shall be bound to a pillar beneath my roof—
ATHENA. The unlucky man; what will you do to him?
AJAX. —and have his back crimsoned with the scourge before he dies.
ATHENA. Do not torture the wretch so cruelly.
AJAX. In all else, Athena, have your will, I say; but his doom shall be no other than this.
ATHENA. Since it pleases you to do this, then, do not hold your hand, do not abate one jot of your intention.
AJAX. I go to my work. Always stand at my side, I charge you, as you have stood today! (Exit.)
ATHENA. Do you see, Odysseus, how great is the strength of the gods? Whom could you have found more prudent than this man or more valiant for the service of the time?
ODYSSEUS I know none. I pity him in his misery for all that he is my foe, because he is bound fast to a dread doom. I think of my own lot no less than his. For I see that we are but phantoms, all we who live, or fleeting shadows.
ATHENA. Marking such things, therefore, see that your own lips never speak a haughty word against the gods, and assume no proud posture if you prevail above another in prowess or by store of ample wealth. For a day can humble all human things and a day can lift them up, but the wise of heart are loved of the gods, and the evil are abhorred.
CHORUS (enters). Son of Telamon, you whose wave-girt Salamis is firmly throned upon the sea, when your fortunes are fair I rejoice, but when the stroke of Zeus comes upon you, or the angry rumor of the Danai with noise of evil tongues, then I tremble and am in great fear, like a winged dove with troubled eye.
And so, telling of the night now spent, loud murmurs beset us for our shame; telling how you visited the meadow wild with steeds and destroyed the cattle of the Greeks, their spoil, prizes of the spear which had not yet been shared, slaying them with flashing sword.
Such are the whispered slanders that Odysseus breathes into all ears, and he wins large belief. For now the tale that he tells of you is specious; and each hearer rejoices more than he who told, despitefully exulting in your woes.
Yes, point your arrow at a noble spirit and you shall not miss; but should a man speak such things against me he would win no faith. ’Tis on the powerful that envy creeps. Yet the small without the great can ill be trusted to guard the walls; lowly leagued with great will prosper best, great served by less.
But foolish men cannot be led to learn these truths. Even such are the men who rail against you, and we are helpless to repel these charges without you, O King. Verily, when they have escaped your eye they chatter like flocking birds; but terrified by the mighty vulture, suddenly, if you should perchance appear, they will cower still and dumb.
Was it the Tauric Artemis, child of Zeus, that drove you—O dread rumor, parent of my shame!—against the herds of all our host, in revenge, I suppose, for a victory that had paid no tribute, whether it was that she had been disappointed of glorious spoil, or because a stag had been slain without a thank-offering? Or can it have been the mail-clad Lord of War that was wroth for dishonor to his aiding spear and took vengeance by nightly wiles?
Never of your own heart, son of Telamon, would you have gone so far astray as to fall upon the flocks. Verily, when the gods send madness it must come; but may Zeus and Phoebus avert the evil rumor of the Greeks!
And if the great chiefs charge you falsely in the rumors which they spread, or sons of the wicked line of Sisyphus, forbear, O my king, forbear to win me an evil name by still keeping your face thus hidden in the tent by the sea.
Nay, up from your seat, wheresoever you are brooding in this pause of many days from battle, making the flame of mischief blaze up to heaven! But the insolence of your foes goes abroad without fear in the breezy glens, while all men mock with taunts most grievous; and my sorrow passes not away.
TECMESSA (enters). Mariners of Ajax, of the race that springs from the Erechtheidae, sons of the soil—mourning is the portion of us who care for the house of Telamon far away. Ajax, our dread lord of rugged might, now lies stricken with a storm that darkens the soul.
CHORUS. What is the heavy change from yesterday’s fortune which this night has produced? Daughter of the Phrygian Teleutas, speak; for to you, his spear-won bride, bold Ajax has borne a constant love. You may therefore hint the answer with knowledge.
TECMESSA. Oh, how shall I tell a tale too dire for words? Terrible as death is the fate which you must hear. Seized with madness in the night, our glorious Ajax has been utterly undone. For evidence you may see within his dwelling the butchered victims weltering in their blood, sacrifices of no hand but his.
CHORUS. What tidings of the fiery warrior have you told, not to be borne nor yet escaped, tidings which the mighty Danai noise abroad, which their strong rumor spreads! Woe is me, I dread the doom to come. Shamed before all eyes, the man will die, if his frenzied hand has slain with dark sword the herds and the horse-guiding herdsmen.
TECMESSA. Alas! It was from those pastures that he came to me with his captive flock! Of part he cut the throats on the floor within; some he rent asunder, hewing their sides. Then he caught up two white-footed rams. Of one he sheared off the head and the tongue-tip and flung them away; the other he bound upright to a pillar, and seized a heavy thong of harness, and flogged with shrill, doubled lash, while he uttered revilings which a god, and no mortal had taught.
chorus. The time has come for each of us to veil his head and betake him to stealthy speed of foot, or to sit on the bench at the quick oar and give her way to the seafaring ship.
Excerpted from The Complete Plays of Sophocles by Sophocles. Copyright © 1991 by Sophocles. Excerpted by permission of Bantam Classics, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.