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Philoctetes and the call for integrity

My first tentative experiment in the arts was at the age of 12 when I wrote a short play. This re-told the story of Philoctetes, the legendary archer who - on the way to besiege Troy - was abandoned by his fellow Greeks on the deserted island of Lemnos. Philoctetes is barely mentioned in Homer and the most famous version of the story is contained in the play bearing his name by Sophocles, first performed in Athens in around 409BC. Thankfully, perhaps, I have not retained the script of my play, and have only a vague memory of its subsequent performance (which I recall involved rowing a boat made of sheets). But there was clearly something about the story that captivated my younger self, and I recently began to consider what that might have been…

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Philoctetes is a very unusual play, even compared with the other surviving plays by Sophocles (circa 497/6 – 406/5 BC). It is not set in a city, but on the bleak shoreline. There are no institutions or authority figures to provide a moral framework to the action. The situation is stark and minimalist. There are only three important characters, none of whom are women. No-one is related to anyone else, and no-one dies. It cannot really be said to be a tragedy at all. It is more like a psychological drama, a struggle, intellectual and moral, between three characters. Edith Hall, in her wonderful book, Greek Tragedy (2010), notes that it is the original desert island story. Like Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1791) or Robert Zemeckis’s movie Cast Away (2000), the setting is used to explore the nature of humans as socialised beings.

Philoctetes is abandoned because of a snakebite on his foot which becomes infected. Not only is the wound smelly and festering, but Philoctetes drives his comrades to distraction with his constant unseemly groans of pain. It is a decision the Greeks eventually regret. As the long war before the walls of Troy drags on, the Greeks come to regard the uncanny skill of Philoctetes with his bow as essential if they are to achieve victory over the Trojans. It is a sort of magic bow, which never misses a target, given to Philoctetes by his comrade Hercules before dying. The wily Odysseus is despatched to Lemnos to find Philoctetes and bring him to Troy. Odysseus enlists the help of Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles, who is on his way to Troy to avenge the death of his father at the hands of Paris. Neoptolemus is young and idealistic, and keen to be of service to the Greeks.

Odysseus argues that only guile and deception will persuade Philoctetes to board a ship bound for Troy. He advises Neoptolemus to win the trust of the archer by pretending that he, too, has been ill-used by the Greeks. Neoptolemus is initially persuaded to go through with this deception. Odysseus makes the classic argument that the ends justify the means. The Greeks must do whatever it takes to win the war against Troy and they should have no moral qualms about tricking, or using force against, Philoctetes. There will be time for honour and honesty later, once the vital objective has been achieved. Philoctetes himself lives by a strict code of honour and honesty, and his physical pain is matched by the bitterness he feels at the behaviour of his supposed comrades, whose treachery he is unable to forgive. The neophyte Neoptolemus is thus presented with two competing role models, two surrogate father figures: one corrupt and manipulative, the other proud and lacking in any dissimulation.

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Initially, everything goes as Odysseus has planned. Neoptolemus wins the confidence of Philoctetes, who entrusts his precious bow to the young man whilst he himself endures a series of violent seizures. Left vulnerable, Philoctetes is assaulted by Odysseus’s men. Despite being humiliated and wracked with pain, Philoctetes reacts with scorn and defiance to his capture, and Neoptolemus is won over by his openness and integrity, qualities which he associates with his father, Achilles. Neoptolemus defies Odysseus and refuses to submit to the latter’s threats. He restores the bow to Philoctetes, although he restrains the latter when he attempts to use it to kill Odysseus. He allows Philoctetes a free choice of destination. Importantly, the archer does not make the ‘right’ decision. He chooses not to help the Greeks at Troy but to go home and let his former comrades stew. Only a last-minute intervention by the ghost of Hercules, appearing as a deus ex machina from the depths of a volcano, saves the day. It is Hercules who instructs Philoctetes to proceed to Troy where (he predicts) he will kill Paris and help the Greeks to take the city.

How was this play understood by the Greek audience in Athens in 409BC? It is fascinating that the unbearable thing about Philoctetes was his ugly and suppurating wound. In exploring this distressing bodily pain and the smell of an infected wound, maybe the play was probing a very Greek obsession with health and bodily beauty? This aspect is perhaps also relatable today. In the movie The Beach (also released in 2000), based on the novel by Alex Garland and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, one of the Swedes on the secret island is attacked by a shark. However, like Philoctetes, he does not die but merely survives in agony, sweaty, smelly and with an infected wound. His groans of pain also drive his comrades to distraction and prevent them from sleeping and he, too, is banished from the main community, being relegated to a small tent away from the principal encampment. In this modern story, also, the self-image of the community does not find it easy to tolerate ugliness, pain and suffering in plain sight.

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Given that it was written in a city state obsessed by civic duty and identity, the play must also have been seen as testing the limits of individual loyalty to the community. Is Philoctetes still obliged to help the Greeks in their war when he has been abandoned by them so callously? Are the responsibilities of the individual and the city reciprocal? This issue may have been firmly in the minds of the play’s initial audience. Alcibiades, the beloved student of Socrates, had been a successful soldier but had fallen from favour and had shockingly defected, first to the hated Spartans, the main enemy of Athens, and then to the Persians. At the time the play was written, many of the Athenians were keen to welcome Alcibiades back to Athens and restore his citizenship. In fact, he was recalled to Athens in 407BC, only to be exiled again and finally assassinated in 404BC in Persia. Loyalty to one’s own city was not supposed to be negotiable, and the crimes of Alcibiades were held to include blasphemy. It is fitting, perhaps, that Philoctetes is finally recalled to his duty by the demi-god Hercules.  

I can understand the wound and the pain and bitterness it has caused. What I have more difficulty in interpreting is the bow, a weapon which – in the hands of Philoctetes – is invincible. The bow is a symbol of both status and prowess. Its symbolism is perhaps difficult for modern audiences to grasp fully, together with the dissonance arising from the fact that its wielder is living like an animal in a wretched cave, littered with filthy bandages and rags, and surviving on a diet of seabirds, which he kills with his bow. The wound and the bow clearly co-exist in the make-up of this complicated figure.

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This seems to have been the starting point for Edmund Wilson (1895-1972), an American literary critic influential in defining and championing modern literature, who gave the figure of Philoctetes a strange literary afterlife. In his essay collection, The Wound and the Bow, first published in 1941, Wilson used Philoctetes as a symbol of the relationship between the arts and suffering. His suggestion is that great gifts and great suffering are often both required for the creation of great art. There is possibly even a sense in which the exceptional talent of Philoctetes is inseparable from his alienation and his disability. When I first encountered Wilson’s book, I was very taken with this idea of the suffering artist, but nowadays I am not so convinced. Is it really true that an artist must be wracked with pain in order to create great art? I suspect not. In her introduction to the 1997 edition of The Wound and the Bow, Janet Groth also notes the praise that Wilson heaps on Neoptolemus, the guileless person who, through sympathy and admiration, unlocks the talents of the archer. Surely, she says, this must be understood as a metaphor for Wilson’s own role as a sympathetic literary critic, a champion and a mediator.

The ancient Greek audience would have understood that Philoctetes was destined to be healed of his wound at Troy by the son of the semi-divine physician Asclepius. So, the story is at least implicitly also about the healing of an apparently incurable wound. It is this aspect which seems to have appealed most to the Nobel Prize-winning poet, Seamus Heaney (1939-2013), whose version of the Sophocles play was published in 1990 under the title The Cure at Troy. Heaney’s version came to play a quite disproportionate part in the Anglo-Irish Peace agreement, its most famous lines being quoted by Bill Clinton, Mary Robinson and others as indicative of the peace and reconciliation being painfully engendered in Northern Ireland:

‘History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.’

In Heaney’s version, Neoptolemus takes a risk in the hope of dissolving the bitterness of the wronged Philoctetes and of redeeming his people. What better words could be found to mark the occasion of peace in Northern Ireland? And now, Philoctetes is once again being used as the basis of a heartfelt appeal for a return to political decency. On 21st August 2020, in accepting the nomination as Democrat candidate for US President, Joe Biden ended his speech with the same famous lines from Heaney’s play.

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The image of Philoctetes, the sick man lying in squalor in a cave as the waves crash against the headland and as wind and rain batter the shoreline, clearly resonated with the ancient Greeks, and it resonates with us still. Philoctetes has endured the humiliation of being abandoned and of living like an animal, but he has retained his sense of justice, his anger at being wronged.

For all the interest to be found in the modern applications of the Philoctetes story, to creativity in the arts, peace and reconciliation, or to a renewed call for political decency, for me the real message of the Sophocles play comes when Neoptolemus makes his moral decision, preferring principle, risk and personal integrity to the cynical arguments and dark threats of Odysseus. Neoptolemus recognises and acknowledges the wrongs done to Philoctetes, opening up the possibility that his bitterness can at last be exorcised.

I remember this decision as the key moment of moral confirmation, change and dramatic release in the childish version of the story which I wrote at school. It was, for me, the pivot on which the whole piece turned. This decision goes beyond a sense of personal morality to embrace a larger sense of what it means to be a citizen and to be fully human in a society, and it still connects with the work I am doing to this day. As Neoptolemus puts it: ‘Everything becomes disgusting when you are false to your own nature and behave in an unbecoming way’.


Graham Henderson
Chief Executive of the Rimbaud and Verlaine Foundation

Posted on:Tuesday 8th September, 2020