Philoctetes centers around two interrelated themes; first, to what extent does an individual owe his society? Despite being jaded, neglected or abused is the individual responsible for the life and happiness of his fellow citizens? Second, to what extent do the ends justify the means? Does the harm of one outweigh the benefit of saving many?
During the height of the Trojan War, while guiding his fellow chieftains to a particular altar along their way to Troy, Philoctetes is bitten by a snake which leaves him crippled and repugnant to those around him who must continually be subjected to his festering and noxious wound. While the chieftains attempt to prepare their sacrifices and pay homage to the gods, none can concentrate with the perpetual cries of anguish coming from Philoctetes, a soundtrack that does not create an atmosphere of confidence and victory.
At last, Odysseus can no longer handle the constant barrage of screams, and the never ending foul smell and he maroons Philoctetes on the deserted island of Lemnos, where Philoctetes is left to live in a cave for ten years, with only the bow of Heracles as a companion. His lot is truly dire, and as he sits in his little cave, his snake bitten heal isn't the only thing that festers; his heart has become a cesspool of hate which he nourishes with a monologue of bitterness.
And then the Greeks receive an oracle that the only way Troy can be taken is with the help of Philoctetes and his bow, so Odysseus (who Philoctetes hates more than anyone else) and Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles are sent to fetch the castaway. This is problematic, because as mentioned above, Philoctetes hates Odysseus...so how than can they convince him to let bygones be bygones and come along to save a country that has abandoned him? Odysseus believes the only way to convince Philoctetes to either come along or give up his weapons is to be cunning with a touch of guile and he debates with Neoptolemus who would rather be upfront and let the art of persuasion work its magic. Neoptolemus, the son of a hero, who has grown up listening to tales of his fathers chivalry, must now, as his first assignment, cheat a helpless cripple. And as he embarks on his mission, he is nervous and conscious stricken.
As Neoptolemus slowly makes his way along the beachy shore of Lemnos, he ruminates over his recent debate with Odysseus.
Neoptolemus: When counsels pain my ear, son of Laertes, then I abhor to aid them with my hand. It is not in my nature to compass anything by evil arts, nor was it, as men say, in my sire's. But I am ready to take a man by force, not by fraud; having the use of one foot only he cannot prevail in fight against us who are so many. And yet, having been sent to act with you, I am loth to be called traitor. But my wish, O King, is to do right and miss my aim rather than succeed by evil ways.
Odysseus: Son of brave sire, time was when I too, in my youth, had a slow tongue and a ready hand; but now, when I come forth to the proof, I see that words, not deeds, are ever the masters among men.
Neoptolemus: What then is your command? What but that I should lie?
Odysseus: I say that you are to take Philoctetes by guile.
So Neoptolemus crafts a story of betrayal and as he finds the crippled Philoctetes he begins his narrative. He too has been deceived by Odysseus and he has fled the Greeks. Philoctetes does not need much encouragement, after being alone for ten years anyone speaking Greek within a proximity of five miles is destined to be his new BFF. After listening to his new friend's tale of betrayal and woe, Philoctetes says it is a story remarkably similar to his own, mentioning "well I know that (Odysseus) would lend his tongue to any base pretext, to any villainy, if thereby he could hope to compass some dishonest end." This last barb hits a little too close to home...isn't this exactly what Neoptolemus is in the process of doing? And in a moment, after fully gaining the trust of Philoctetes, while he is in a paroxysm of pain, Philoctetes hands his bow to Neoptolemus who now find himself in possession of the only thing that has kept this helpless cripple alive and his only belonging besides his rags and festering wounds that he can call his own.
He is about to run back to the ship that is quietly waiting along the coast for him and the bow of Heracles, when he is overcome by the suffering and heartache of Philoctetes. He instead tells him of the plot against him and after a bit of hesitation gives the bow back and tries to persuade Philoctetes to come with him to Troy where his victory has already been prophesied, but to no avail. Philoctetes is enraged by the audacity of a further betrayal, by taking his bow Neoptolemus has despoiled him of life and its return is only the merest salve on a gaping wound.
Odysseus eventually shows up and tries to persuade Philoctetes to put this recent betrayal behind him and return with them to Troy where he will "be the peer of the bravest, with whom you are destined to take Troy by storm and raze it to dust"...but the flattery and promises of grandeur do little to assuage his cosmic black hole of bitterness.
At the last minute Heracles shows up and convinces Philoctetes to go where mythic tradition requires him to go.
Heracles:...You shall go with yonder man to the Trojan city, where, first, you shall be healed of your sore malady. Then chosen out as foremost in prowess of the host, with my bow you shall slay Paris, the author of these ills. You shall sack Troy; you shall carry the spoils to your home, for the joy of Poeas your sire, even to your own Oetaean heights. And whatever spoils you receive from the host, take from them a thank offering for my bow to my pyre...
Heracles makes a compelling argument/ he's a god and no one can really argue with him, so Philoctetes, being persuaded, puts his bitterness aside and makes his way to Troy for his glory and vindication.
According to Simon Goldhill, in his essay "The Language of Tragedy: rhetoric and communication" (The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy, edited by P.E. Easterling) Goldhill says "Deception, persuasion, and the morality of how language is to be used are constant subjects of discussion in the play: it is a key sign of how men interrelate. Significantly, Philoctete's first delight in meeting Neoptolemus after many years of solitude is 'to hear a Greek voice again': that this voice should be a lure in a deceptive plot is typical of the ironies, powers and deception of language..."
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