Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Ajax - Sophocles

Sophocles (497-406)

After the death of Achilles, his armor was to be given to the worthiest of his successors, presumably Ajax, the king of Salamis and warrior of Agamemnon. Ajax, second only to Achilles in his extraordinary strength was also incommensurately headstrong and arrogant. When Ajax was passed over and instead the coveted coat of arms was bequeathed to Odysseus, Ajax' arrogance was only then surpassed by his hatred for Odysseus. In the Odyssey, when the two meet in Hades, Ajax turns his back refusing to speak or even acknowledge him.

As his hatred festers, Ajax develops a plan that will give him the ultimate satisfaction and somewhat assuage his pride; he will sneak up on Odysseus and the Achaean leaders in the middle of the night and slaughter them all; saving Odysseus and a few others, he will tie them up, drag them back to his tent where they will be shamed and humiliated to his hearts content; a little scourging here and there for good measure. He gleefully embarks on his plan, while unbeknownst to him the gods have had a bit of a tete-a-tete and have a different fate in store for our protagonist.

A messenger describes a conversation Ajax had with his father: "...His father said to him: "My son, seek victory in arms, but seek it always with the help of heaven." Then haughtily and foolishly he answered: "Father, with the help of the gods even a man of nought might win the mastery, but I trust to bring that glory within my grasp even without their aid."

If that wasn't bad enough, while Athena was urging him on in battle he has the audacity to say: " Queen, stand beside the other Greeks; where Ajax stands battle will never break our line."

The hornets nest has been kicked. The gods stand back appalled, none more so than Athena, who takes it upon herself to teach Ajax a lesson or two about fate and mortality.

As Ajax is creeping up on Odysseus and his men, Athena inflicts him with madness, wherewith he mistakes the army's livestock for men and after an expansive slaughtering, he drags his captives back to his tent, a few bulls, shepherd dogs and fleecy prisoners in tow.

Athena, to add further insult to injury, brings Odysseus to witness his rivals insanity, saying: "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, not look for evil from the man, for I will turn  the vision of his eyes away and keep them from seeing your face."

Athena finds Ajax sitting amongst the slaughtered animals, and with Odysseus looking on, further taunts him, asking him what he's doing and what is intentions for Odysseus are.

Athena: "...And 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 for him to die just yet."
Athena: "What would you do first? What larger advantage would you win?"
Ajax: "First he will 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."

After goading him on, they leave Ajax to revile a poor white-footed ram and Athena asks Odysseus, still looking on, if anyone can now doubt the strength of the gods. Odysseus responds with pity for Ajax, because he is "bound fast to a dread doom." He tells Athena that he realizes that "...we are all but phantoms, all we who live, or fleeting shadows."

And then, while the curses have barely left his lips, his arm raised in the act of flogging, Athena grants Ajax his sanity and then, by slow painful steps as he regains his reason, he sees the butchered livestock surrounding him and he cries "Alas the mockery! How I have been shamed!"

Tecmessa: "...Like a southern gale, fierce in its first onset, his rage is abating; and now, in his right mind, he has new pain. To look on self-wrought woes, when no other has had a hand in them - this lays sharp pangs to the soul."

Ajax, now completely humiliated realizes the only option he has left is to kill himself. In a further twist of fate, the sword Hector, a Trojan prince and one of the greatest Trojan warriors, gave him after their duel, in which  neither could outmaneuver the other, resulting in a stalemate and exchanging of gifts...Ajax now props in the earth and impales himself, the rivulets of blood engendering a brood of hyacinths. In his death the Trojans are victorious. As Teucer, Ajax's half brother, uncovers his body he cries "Now do you see how Hector, though dead, was to destroy you at last!" (Hector, who was given Ajax's girdle, was tied to Achilles chariot with it, his corpse being dragged around the walls of Troy...fulfilling the proverb "The gifts of enemies are no gift, and bring no good.")

Teucer: " ...I at least would deem that these things, and all things ever are planned by gods for men..."

Enter Menelaus. He argues that the corpse of Ajax must not be buried, but be left as carrion  for the birds. His fate is the will of the gods and "if we were not able to control him in while he lived, at least we shall rule him in death..." Ajax brought this upon himself is his pride and arrogance against the gods, anyone who boast  of their own strength, set themselves up to be destroyed by a light blow, (see David and Goliath or the Greek victory over the Persians at the Battle of Salamis.)

Menelaus: "...No, where fear is proper let me see fear too established; let us not dream that we can act according to our desires without paying the price in our pains..."  

Finally, Odysseus enters the fray (Teucer for burial, Agamemnon and Menelaus against) and argues that Ajax should be buried with respect.  He cautions Agamemnon: "Do not delight in gains which sully honor, son of Atreus."  Agamemnon argues that Ajax was Odysseus' mortal enemy and that they all would have been scourged to death if Athena hadn't intervened...what right does a man like this have of a decent burial? Should not, as an enemy, he be further humiliated in death? But Odysseus contends that many are friends at one time and enemies the next and for Ajax, "his worth weighs with me more than his enmity."

As the play comes to a close, Odysseus, with further grace, decides not to participate in the burial, giving preference to Ajax's pride and as Teucer prepares a fire for holy ablution the chorus cautions:

"Many things shall mortals learn by seeing; but before he sees no man may read the future or his fate."

It's interesting how much of an emphasis there is on destiny. Men are hardly masters of their fate or captains of their souls ("Invictus," 1875), but rather life is a delicate balance between appeasing the gods and of pursuing honor. Once again, when Ajax is tested against Odysseus, it is Odysseus that not only wins the coat of arms but who also becomes the hero, immortalized for his noble character.

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