Sophocles was born in about 496 B.C., the son of a wealthy Athenian, an armor manufacturer, and played a distinguished part in the public life of Athens. Noted for his perfect craftsmanship as a playwright, Sophocles wrote some 123 plays and met with wide critical success; he took first place at between 18 and 24 tragedy competitions. Unfortunately, only seven of Sophocles’ plays have survived, none from the first 25 years of his creative life. Among those that do survive, the best known are Oedipus Rex and Antigone, but Ajax and Oedipus at Colonus, from which the selections here are taken, are of similar dramatic stature.
Sophocles’ view of life is a positive one, displayed in his skill as a tragic poet: he asserts the dignity, worth, and value of humankind, as well as the mysterious and divine power that ordains the laws of the universe. Sophocles lived to be about 90, and died shortly after the death of his contemporary Euripides [q.v.], just before the defeat of Athens in the Peloponnesian War.
Ajax is generally considered to be the earliest of Sophocles’ extant plays, written sometime between 450 and 440. The legendary events portrayed in this tragedy occurred between those covered in the Iliad and the Odyssey, during the period after the fall of Troy. Ajax and Odysseus have been contenders for the honor of receiving the arms of Achilles upon his death, but the arms have gone to Odysseus. In a frenzy of jealousy, Ajax has been driven temporarily insane; led by Athena into thinking they were the Greek generals who had insulted him, Ajax has tortured and slaughtered the army’s livestock. The play opens the following morning: “In the darkness of night madness has seized/Our glorious Ajax: he is ruined and lost.”
Now sane again, Ajax surveys what he has done, and the remainder of the first act follows his decision to kill himself, an act of shame and remorse. The heavily excerpted text here focuses on Ajax’s decision, his friends’ reflections on intervention in a suicide they see is coming, and the play’s overriding sense that suicide is the outcome of a curse originating with the gods. The second half of the play, not included here, concerns the rather different question of what to do with Ajax’s body after the suicide, and while there is extensive discussion of whether he merits a hero’s burial, the fact that he was a suicide is not at issue. In the end, Odysseus, once his “worst foe,” praises him as a brave man, among the noblest heroes, a friend.
The second, very brief selection is from Oedipus at Colonus, Sophocles’ last work and thought by many to be his greatest. It is the continuing tragedy of Oedipus’ discovery that, without knowing their identities, he has slain his father Laius and married the newly widowed queen Jocasta, who is in fact his mother. In remorse, he has blinded himself. This passage from the chorus underscores the tragic drama that is unfolding in the play: it makes the case for not living too long, but returning “with all speed” whence one came.
Sophocles, “Ajax,” tr. R.C. Trevelyan, and “Oedipus at Colonus,” tr. R. C. Jebb, in The Complete Greek Drama, Vol. I, eds. Whitney J. Oates and Eugene O’Neill, Jr., New York: Random House, 1938, pp. 320, 324-327, 329-330, 333-334, 335-336, 338-342, 444, 654.
Seest thou, Odysseus, how great the strength of gods?
Whom couldst thou find more prudent than this man,
Or whom in act more valiant, when need called?
I know none nobler; and I pity him
In his misery, albeit he is my foe,
Since he is yoked fast to an evil doom.
My own lot I regard no less than his.
For I see well, nought else we but mere
Phantoms, all we that live, mere fleeting shadow.
Warned therefore by his fate, never do thou
Thyself utter proud words against the gods;
Nor swell with insolence, it thou shouldst vanquish
Some rival by main strength or by wealth’s power.
For a day can bring all mortal greatness low,
And a day can lift it up. But the gods love
The wise of heart, the forward they abhor.
(ATHENA vanishes and ODYSSEUS departs.)
Liegemen of Ajax, ship-companions,
Ye children of earth-sprung Erechthid race,
Lamentation is now our portion, to whom
Dear is the far-off house of Telamon,
Now that the stern and terrible Ajax
Lies whelmed by a storm
Of turbid wildering fury.
Yonder man, while his spirit was diseased,
Himself had joy in his own evil plight,
Though to us, who were sane, he brought distress.
But now, since he has respite from his plague,
He with sore grief is utterly cast down,
And we likewise, no less than heretofore.
Are there not here two woes instead of one?
Yes truly. And I fear, from some god came
This stroke; how else? If, now his frenzy is ceased,
His mind has no more ease than when it raged.
‘Tis even as I said, rest well assured
But how did this bane first alight upon him?
To us who share thy grief show that befell
Thou shalt hear all, as though thou hadst been present.
In the middle of the night, when the evening braziers
No longer flared, he took a two-edged sword,
And fain would sally upon an empty quest.
But I rebuked him, saying: “What doest thou,
Ajax? Why thus uncalled wouldst thou go forth?
No messenger has summoned thee, no trumpet
Roused thee. Nay, the whole camp is sleeping still.”
But curtly he replied in well-worn phrase:
“Woman, silence is the grace of woman.”
Thus schooled, I yielded; and he rushed out alone.
What passed outside the tent, I cannot tell.
But in he came, driving lashed together
Bulls, and shepherd dogs, and fleecy prey.
Some he beheaded, the wrenched-back throats of some
He slit, or cleft their chines; others he bound
And tortured, as though men they were, not beasts.
Last, darting through the doors, as to some phantom
He tossed words, now against the Atreidae, now
Taunting Odysseus, piling up huge jeers
Of how he had gone and wreaked his scorn upon them.
Soon he rushed back within the tent, where slowly
And hardly to his reason he returned.
And gazing round on the room filled with havoc,
He struck his head and cried out; then amidst
The wrecks of slaughtered sheep a wreck he fell,
And sat clutching his hair with tight-clenched nails.
There first for a long while he crouched speechless;
Then did he threaten me with fearful threats,
If I revealed not all that had befallen him,
Asking what meant the plight wherein he lay.
And I, friends, terror-stricken, told him all
That had been done, so far as I had knowledge.
Forthwith he broke forth into bitter wailing,
Such as I ne’er had heard from him before
For always had he held that such laments
Befitted cowards only, and low-souled men:
But uttering no shrill cries, he would express
His grief in low groans, as of a moaning bull.
But now prostrate beneath so great a woe,
Not tasting food nor drink, he sits among
The sword-slain beasts, motionless where he sank
And plainly he meditates some baleful deed,
For so portend his words and lamentations.
But, O friends!—‘twas for this cause I came forth—
Enter and help, if help at all you can:
For by friends’ words men so bestead are won.
Child of Teleutas, fearful are thy tidings,
That our prince has been maddened by his griefs.
Alas! Woe, woe!
Soon, I fear, worse will follow. Heard you not?
‘Twas Ajax. Oh, how dreadful was that cry.
Alas! Woe, woe!
He seems either still frenzied, or else grieving
For his past frenzies, now he sees their work
Alas! My son, my son!
Woe’s me! Eurysaces, ‘tis for thee he calls.
What can he purpose?—Where art thou?—Ah, woe!
Teucer, come!—Where is Teucer? Will he never
Come back from cattle-raiding?—while I perish!
He seems in his right mind. But open the doors.
Perhaps even the sight of me may sober him.
(She opens the doors of the tent. AJAX is revealed sitting among the slain beasts.)
See, I have opened. You may now behold
What he has done, and in what plight he lies
My shipmates and friends, you that alone to me
Loyal and true remain, of all friends alone,
Behold how great a billow lately rising from the storm of blood
Surging around engulphs me!
Ah me, too true, it seems, was thy report.
This sight reveals the work of no sane mind.
My mates, skilled and tried in brave seamanship,
Ye who embarking drove the wave-cleaving oar,
In you, in you alone I see a help and refuge from despair.
Smite me, and spill my blood too.
Keep silence from dread words; nor curing ill
By ill, so swell the misery of this curse.
Behold now the bold, the man stout of heart,
Who ne’er shrank in fight agáinst fóes—behold
How I have spent my rage on beasts that feared no harm!
Ah me, the mockery! To what shame am I brought low!
Ajax, my master, I entreat thee, speak not so.
Away hence, I command thee! Take thyself elsewhere
Aiai! Who ever would have thought my name
Would harmonize so aptly with my woes?
For now well may I wail that sound out twice,
Yea thrice; such woeful destinies are mine,
Whose father from this land of Ida won
Fame’s noblest guerdon over the whole host,
And crowned with praises only sailed back home;
But I, his son, who to the self-same Troy
Came after him, in might no less that he,
Nor rendering meaner service by my deeds,
Dishonoured by the Argives perish thus.
Yet this methinks I know for truth, were now
Achilles living and called on to adjudge
As the award of valour his own arms,
No man’s hand would have grasped them before mine.
But now the Atreidae to a scheming knave
Have dealt them, thrusting by my valiant deeds.
And if these eyes, these wits had not in frenzy
Swerved from my purpose, never would they thus
Pervert judgment against another man.
But the irresistible fierce-eyed goddess, even
As I was arming my right hand to slay them,
Foiled me, smiting me with a maddening plague,
So that I stained my hand butchering these cattle.
Thus my foes mock me, escaped beyond my reach,
Through no goodwill of mine: but if a god
Thwart vengeance, even the base may escape the nobler.
And what should I now do, who manifestly
To Heaven am hateful; whom the Greeks abhor,
Whom every Trojan hates, and this whole land?
Shall I desert the beached ships, and abandoning
The Atreidae, sail home o’er the Aegean Sea?
With what face shall I appear before my father
Telamon? How will he find heart to look
On me, stripped of my championship in war,
That mighty crown of fame that once was his?
No, that I dare not. Shall I then assault
Troy’s fortress, and alone against them all
Achieve some glorious exploit and then die?
No, I might gratify the Atreidae thus.
That must not be. Some scheme let me devise
Which may prove to my aged sire that I,
His son, at least by nature am no coward.
For ‘tis base for a man to crave long life
Who endures never-varying misery.
What joy can be in day that follows day,
Bringing us close then snatching us from death?
As of no worth would I esteem that man
Who warms himself with unsubstantial hopes.
Nobly to live, or else nobly to die
Befits proud birth. There is no more to say.
The word thou hast uttered, Ajax, none shall call
Bastard, but the true offspring of thy soul.
Yet pause. Let those who love thee overrule
Thy resolution. Put such thoughts aside.
I am fearful, listening to this eager mood.
The sharp edge of thy tongue, I like it not.
O my lord Ajax, what are thou purposing?
Question me not. To be discreet is best.
Ah me, heavy is my heart. Now by thy child,
By the gods, I entreat, forsake us not.
Vex me no further. Know’st thou not that I
To the gods owe no duty any more?
Utter no proud words.
Speak to those who listen
Wilt thou not heed?
Too much thou hast spoken already.
Yes, through my fears, O king.
Close the doors quickly.
For the gods’ love, relent.
‘Tis a foolish hope,
If thou shouldst now propose to school mood
(AJAX enters, carrying a sword. As he speaks, TECMESSA also enters.)
All things the long and countless lapse of time
Brings forth, displays, then hides once more in gloom.
Nought is too strange to look for; but the event
May mock the sternest oath, the firmest will.
Thus I, who late so strong, so stubborn seemed
Like iron dipped, yet now grow soft with pity
Before this woman, whom I am loath to leave
Midst foes a widow with this orphaned child.
But I will seek the meadows by the shore:
There will I wash and purge these stains, if so
I may appease Athena’s heavy wrath.
Then will I find some lonely place, where I
May hide this sword, beyond all others cursed,
Buried where none may see it, deep in earth.
May night and Hades keep it there below.
For from that hour my hand accepted it,
The gift of Hector, deadliest of my foes,
Nought from the Greeks towards me hath sped well.
So now I find that ancient proverb true,
Foes’ gifts are no gifts: profit bring they none.
Therefore henceforth I study to obey
The Gods, and reverence the sons of Atreus.
Our rulers are they: we must yield. How else?
For to authority yield all things most dread
And mighty. Thus must Winter’s snowy feet
Give place to Summer with her wealth of fruits;
And from her weary round doth Night withdraw,
That Day’s white steeds may kindle heaven with light.
After fierce tempest calm will ever lull
The moaning sea; and Sleep, that masters all,
Binds life awhile, yet loosens soon the bond.
And who am I that I should not learn wisdom?
Of all men I, whom proof hath taught of late
How so far only should we hate our foes
As though we soon might love them, and so far
Do a friend service, as to one most like
Some day to prove our foe; since oftenest men
In friendship but a faithless haven find.
Thus well am I resolved. (To TECMESSA) Thou, woman, pass
Within, and pray gods that all things so
May be accomplished as my heart desires.
And you, friends, heed my wishes as she doth;
And when he comes, bid Teucer he must guard
My rights at need, and withal stand your friend.
For now I go whither I needs must pass.
Do as I bid. Soon haply you shall hear,
With me, for all this misery, ‘tis most well.
Well, he is gone. To wisest purpose now
His mind is turned, to appease heaven’s wrath
These words of thine are filled with utter folly,
If there was truth in Calchas’ prophecy.
What prophecy? And what know you of this thing?
Thus much I know, for by chance I was present.
Leaving the circle of consulting chiefs
Where sat the Atreidae, Calchas went aside,
And with kind purpose grasping Teucer’s hand
Enjoined him that by every artifice
He should restrain Ajax within his tents
This whole day, and not leave him to himself,
If he wished ever to behold him alive.
For on this day alone, such were his words,
Would the wrath of divine Athena vex him.
For the overweening and unprofitable
Fall crushed be heaven-sent calamities
(So the seer spoke), whene’er one born a man
Has conceived thoughts too high for man’s estate:
And this man, when he first set forth from home,
Showed himself foolish, when his father spoke to him
Wisely: “My son, seek victory by the spear;
But seek it always with the help of heaven.”
Then boastfully and witlessly he answered:
“Father, with heaven’s help a mere man of nought
Might win victory: but I, albeit without
Their aid, trust to achieve a victor’s glory.”
Such was his proud vaunt. Then a second time
Answering divine Athena, when she urged him
To turn a slaughterous hand upon his foes,
He gave voice to this dire, blasphemous boast:
“Goddess, stand thou beside the other Greeks.
Where I am stationed, no foe shall break through.”
By such words and such thoughts too great for man
Did he provoke Athena’s pitiless wrath.
But if he lives through this one day, perchance,
Should heaven be willing, we may save him yet.
So spoke the seer; and Teucer from his seat
No sooner risen, sent me with this mandate
For you to observe. But if we have been forestalled,
That man lives not, or Calchas in no prophet.
Woful Tecmessa, woman born to sorrow,
Come forth and hear this man who tells of a peril
That grazes us too close for our mind’s ease.
(TECMESSA enters from the tent.)
Why alas do you break my rest again
After brief respite from relentless woes?
Give hearing to this messenger, who brings
Tidings that grieve me of how Ajax fares.
Ah me, what sayest thou, man? Are we undone?
I know not of thy fortune; but for Ajax,
If he be gone abroad, my mind misgives.
Yes, he is gone. I am racked to know thy meaning.
Teucer commands you to keep him within doors,
And not to let him leave his tent alone.
And where is Teucer, and why speaks he thus?
He has but now returned, and he forebodes
That this going-forth will prove fatal to Ajax.
Woe’s me, alas! From whom has he learned this?
From the seer, Thestor’s son, this very day,
Which if fraught either with his death of life.
Ah me, my friends, avert this threatening doom!
Speed some of you to hasten Teucer hither:
Others go search the bays, some west, some east,
And track my lord’s ill-omened going-forth.
Yes, now I know I have been deceived by him,
And from his former favour quite cast out.
Alas, child, what shall I do? Sit still I must not:
But far as I have strength I too will go.
Let us start quickly ‘tis no time for loitering,
If we would save one who is in haste to die.
I am ready, as not words alone shall prove,
But speed of act and foot to make words good.
(The CHORUS, TECMESSA and MESSENGER go out. The scene
changes to a lonely place by the sea-shore. Bushes and
underbrush are in the background. AJAX enters alone.)
The slayer stands so that his edge may cleave
Most surely (if there be leisure for such thought),
Being the gift of Hector, of all friends
Most unloved, and most hateful to my sight.
Then it is planted in Troy’s hostile soil,
New-sharpened on the iron-biting whet.
And heedfully have I planted it, that so
With a swift death it prove to me most kind.
Thus have I made all ready. Next be thou
The first, O Zeus, to aid me, as is right.
It is no mighty boon that I shall crave.
Send some announcer of the evil news
To Teucer, that he first may lift me up,
When I have fallen upon this reeking sword,
Lest ere he come some enemy should espy me
And cast me forth to dogs and birds a prey.
This, O Zeus, I entreat thee, and likewise call
On Hermes, guide to the underworld, to lay me
Asleep without a struggle, at one swift bound,
When I have thrust my heart through with this sword.
Next I call on those maidens ever-living
And ever watchful of all human miseries,
The dread swift-striding Erinyes, that they mark
How by the Atreidae I have been destroyed:
And these vile men by a vile doom utterly
May they cut off, even as they see me here.
Come, O ye swift avenging Erinyes,
Spare not, touch with affliction the whole host.
And thou, whose chariot mounts up the steep sky,
Thou Sun, when on the land where I wan born
Thou shalt look down, check thy gold-spangled rein,
And announce my disasters and my doom
To my aged sire and her who nurtured me.
She, woeful woman, when she hears these tidings
Will wail out a loud dirge through all the town.
But I waste labour with this idle moan.
The act must now be done, and that with speed.
O Death, Death, come now and look upon me.
No, ‘tis there I shall meet and speak to thee.
But thee, bright daylight which I now behold,
And Helios in his chariot I accost
For this last time of all, and then no more.
O sunlight! O thou hallowed soil, my own
Salamis, stablished seat of my sire’s hearth,
And famous Athens, with thy kindred race,
And you, ye springs and streams, and Trojan plains,
Farewell, all ye who have sustained my life.
This is the last word Ajax speaks to you.
All else in Hades to the dread will I say.
(He falls on his sword)
I am lost, destroyed, made desolate, my friends.
What is it? Speak.
Ajax, our master, newly slaughtered lies
Yonder, a hidden sword sheathed in his body.
Woe for my lost hopes of home!
Woe’s me, thou hast slain me, my king,
Me thy shipmate, hapless man!
Woeful-souled woman too!
Since thus it is with him, ‘tis mine to wail.
By whose hand has he wrought this luckless deed?
By his own hand, ‘tis evident. This sword
Whereon he fell, planted in earth convicts him.
Woe for my blind folly! Lone in thy blood thou liest, from friends’ help afar.
And I the wholly witless, the all unwary,
Forbore to watch thee. Where, where
Lieth the fatally named, intractable Ajax?
None must behold him. I will shroud him wholly
In this enfolding mantle; for mo man
Who loved him could endure to see him thus
Through nostrils and through red gash spouting up
The darkened blood from his self-stricken wound.
Ah me, what shall I do? What friend shall lift thee?
Where is Teucer? Timely indeed would he now come,
To compose duly his slain brother’s corpse.
O hapless Ajax, who wast once so great,
Now even thy foes might dare to mourn thy fall.
‘Twas fate’s will, alas, ‘twas fate then for thou
Stubborn of soul at length to work out a dark
Doom of ineffable miseries. Such the dire
Fury of passionate hate
I heard thee utter fierce of mood
Railing at Atreus’ sons
Night by night, day by day.
Verily then it was the sequence of woes
First began, when as the prize of worth
Fatally was proclaimed the golden panoply.
from OEDIPUS AT COLONUS
Whoso craves the ampler length of life, not content to desire a modest span, him will I judge with no uncertain voice; he cleaves to folly.
For the long days lay up full many things nearer unto grief than joy; but as for thy delights, their place shall know them no more, when a man’s life hath lapsed beyond the fitting term; and the Deliverer comes at the last to all alike,—when the doom of Hades is suddenly revealed, without marriage-song, or lyre, or dance,—even Death at the last.
Not to be born is, past all prizing, best; but, when a man hath seen the light, this is next best by far, that with all speed he should go thither, whence he hath come.
For when he hath seen youth go by, with its light follies, what troublous affliction is strange to his lot, what suffering is not therein?—envy, factions, strife, battle and slaughters; and, last of all, age claims him for her own,—age, dispraised, infirm, unsociable, un-friended, with whom all woe of woe abides.