Ajax | Study Guide

Sophocles

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Ajax | Themes

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Sophocles valued wisdom over might in his own life. He had a strong affiliation with the gods. Some historical records state that he may have served as a priest. His beliefs and values are strongly suggested in his themes of fate, gods, and morals.

Fate

Sophocles releases tidbits of information throughout Ajax that suggests Ajax's fated doom. As each scene unfolds, Ajax steps closer and closer to sealing his fate. His friends and loved ones try desperately to change Ajax's fate. No matter what action they take, it only brings Ajax closer and closer to his end. The unfolding of details brilliantly builds the tension to a crescendo before the ultimate confirmation arrives in the form of a prophecy, and Ajax's friends find his body too late to stop his death.

The first suggestion that Ajax's fate is out of his control comes from his rival Odysseus. When Odysseus meets the goddess of wisdom and war Athena outside of Ajax's tent, he refuses to fall to Athena's goading. Athena encourages him to mock Ajax, who is in a fit of madness and is slaughtering livestock that he believes to be the Greek army. Odysseus replies to Athena, "all is possible when 'tis a god contrives." This is the first suggestion that the events about to unfold are outside the control of the humans involved.

When the Salaminians who make up the chorus learn of Ajax's madness, there is the immediate belief that his behavior has something to do with a god's ill will. They attempt to comfort Ajax with this belief, reminding him that "as God appoints, so every man laughs or laments."

Ajax does not heed the chorus's wise words. He cannot let go of his pride. As Ajax contemplates how best to redeem himself, he laments his name. The first letter in Ajax's name in Greek means sigh. This is another sign that Ajax was fated from birth to have a tragic end.

As Ajax concludes that suicide is the only honorable way to die, he leaves his tent with the Trojan hero Hector's sword. He cites an ancient proverb that "Foes' gifts ar no gifts." The sword was given to him after man-to-man combat that ended in a draw. Both men had exchanged gifts to show their mutual esteem for each other. It is revealed that the belt that Ajax gifted Hector is the same belt that attached Hector's dead body to Achilles's chariot. Hector's sword brings Ajax closer to his fate when Ajax buries the sword in the earth to fall upon it. In taking up the sword, Ajax accepts the gift of Hector as part of his fate.

After Ajax leaves his tent, a messenger delivers a chilling warning. A prophecy about Ajax has said that if he leaves his tent he will die. This prophecy is the final step towards sealing Ajax's fate and suggests that the whole ordeal is out of Ajax's hands. While Ajax's friends hurry to search for him and attempt to stop the unstoppable, Ajax falls on his sword and dies.

The Greek Gods

Various Greek gods are mentioned throughout Ajax. The most prominent is the goddess of wisdom and war Athena. Ajax demonstrates the Greek belief in the will and power of the gods. It also delivers the morals of piety. The ancient Greeks believed that if a human achieved too much, the gods would get jealous and bring that human down from glory to ruin. As Ajax learns of his desperate situation, it is clear to him that what has taken place is the will of the gods. His friends agree that he has angered the gods with his pride and is paying for it.

At the onset of the play, Athena is meddling directly in human affairs by influencing Ajax's madness. She calls Ajax out in front of Odysseus, but because of her deception, Ajax is not even aware that his rival is with Athena. This highlights Athena's absolute power over Ajax.

When the Salaminians in the chorus learn of Ajax's madness, they immediately assume it is the doing of the gods. At first they suspect Artemis who is the goddess of the hunt and known for her cleverness. The gods have had an active part in the war with Troy. Each favors a different side and directly influences the outcome of the war. Artemis is a goddess who supports the Trojans so the chorus suspects Ajax's madness to be a trick of Troy.

When Ajax awakes from his madness, and the chorus attempts to help him see reason, they urge him to see that the madness is the will of the gods and cannot be helped. Ajax acknowledges the will of the gods, praying to the Erinyes the Greek goddesses of chaos and vengeance. The Erinyes are also known as the furies. He recognizes that his madness has been a trick of Athena's. Ajax incites Athena's anger and jealousy when he turns away her aid during battle.

As Ajax realizes that death is the only way he can redeem himself, he sets out to appease the gods. He washes the blood away in an attempt to appease Athena. He prays to Zeus who is the king of Greek deities. He also prays to the god of the sun and prophecy Apollo and the Erinyes.

Ajax's funeral is necessary to allow him passage into the underworld which is why Ajax's friends and supporters fight so hard for his funeral to proceed. These practices are firmly built on a belief in the gods, and they reflect the belief of the ancient Greek citizens.

A Fatal Flaw

Ajax is brought to his doom by his pride which becomes his fatal flaw. Athena warns early in the play while Ajax's madness is raging, "never do thou thyself utter proud words against the gods." This suggests that Ajax's fate has been sealed by his pride. As the story progresses, it is revealed that Ajax's pride causes him to refuse help from Athena which brings her anger upon him.

Ajax shows regret when he awakens from his madness and begins crying. This is a behavior that Tecmessa says is out of character. Ajax has always said that crying is for cowards. Despite this and his attempts to make amends to Athena, he still holds onto his pride and utters to Tecmessa, "I to the gods owe no duty anymore."

When Ajax leaves his tent, the chorus rejoices because they think that he is feeling better and has found a way to "repent his proud feuds." Ajax's true plan is to commit suicide by falling on his sword. His lack of ability to see any resolution that does not end in his death shows that he cannot find a way to be humbled by his experience. Even in death he clings to his pride, refusing to speak to Odysseus in the underworld.

Power vs. Wisdom

In Ajax there are several examples of the conflict between power and wisdom. Wisdom wins each time. As Athena says, "The gods love the wise of heart, the froward they abhor." Ajax is second in strength only to Achilles, yet Odysseus who is known for his wisdom is awarded Achilles's panoply (armor). Odysseus's refusal to mock Ajax in madness or in death also shows his wisdom. He understands that all men are at the mercy of the gods.

Ajax is blinded to the wise words the leader of the chorus of Salaminians gives him. The leader urges him to move forward, reminding him that a second ill will not cure the first but will only augment the misery of the situation. The leader reminds him "never can these things be as though they had not been." Ajax has always relied on his strength and is not able to see a resolution that does not involve using his strength.

When Agamemnon argues with Teucer over the fate of Ajax's body, Teucer reminds Agamemnon of Ajax's great feats. Agamemnon is unimpressed, explaining "tis the wise who are masters everywhere. An ox, however large of rib may yet be kept straight on the road by a little whip." In the end Odysseus remains the wisest of all the characters. He recognizes Ajax's valiance and says that dishonoring him would dishonor heaven. Because of Odysseus's wise words, Ajax's funeral can proceed.

Lineage and Loyalty

Lineage is used as a way to build alliances as well as a tool in the argument. Teucer calls into question Agamemnon's accusation of betrayal in Ajax's attempt to murder him. Greece was made up of several independent city-states at that time. Each city-state had its own king or chief and was self-governed. Separate city-states often had conflicts and wars. Ajax is not the subject of either Agamemnon or his brother Menelaus but a prince of his own state, Salamis. Ajax is honoring an oath as a free man. Teucer uses this fact to argue for Ajax's burial.

Lineage was an important part of Greek culture. A Greek needed to have the right lineage to be given citizen status. Any foreigner captured during war had no rights. When Agamemnon calls to question Teucer's lineage because of his foreign mother, he is questioning Teucer's right to have an opinion. Teucer also questions Agamemnon's lineage. Ajax's son Eurysaces is a child of the foreign princess Tecmessa, yet Ajax loves his son and seeks to protect him. Tecmessa also speaks of Ajax's love for her.

Even as the pure-born son of King Telamon, Ajax seeks to prove himself worthy to his father. After he has gone mad, he struggles to find a way to redeem himself to his father by considering storming Troy and dying in a heroic act. He follows his plan to commit suicide as a way of redeeming himself without supporting Agamemnon and Menelaus.

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