I read Ajax from my copy of Electra and Other Plays after being reminded of his tragic story by Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles. It is a short play, an easy read, but like so many of the greatest ancient Greek works, very sad.
Ajax was one of the great Greek heroes of the Trojan War. Indeed, Miller says several times in her book (in the voice of Patroclus) that he would have been The Greatest if it weren’t for Achilles – kind of a poignant thought. He’s like the Jan Ullrich of the Trojan War. This play by Sophocles dramatizes the action following Achilles’s death, as known to myth. The background: Achilles quarrels with Agamemnon and boycotts the war; Greeks are dying; Patroclus goes to battle disguised as Achilles to get everybody going again; Hector (the great Trojan hero) kills Patroclus. Achilles is enraged, takes the battlefield, and in turn kills Hector, thus putting into action the prophecy that Achilles himself will die shortly thereafter. He does: killed by an arrow fired by Paris, who started all this nonsense in the first place.
With the Greeks’ hero Achilles dead, it is time for Ajax to shine. But Agamemnon chooses to award Achilles’s trophies of war, not to Ajax, but to Odysseus. Ajax is furious. And now begins the play…
Ajax has determined to kills the sons of Atreus (Agamemnon and Menelaus), Odysseus, and all the Greeks who have failed to honor him as he feels he deserves. He goes on a killing spree overnight. But Athena, good friend especially to Odysseus, tricks his eyes so that he ends up killing a bunch of livestock and no human Greeks. As the play begins, she is explaining this to Odysseus, offering him the view of Ajax, mad, blind, confused, killing sheep and calling them Greek names. Odysseus balks, but we end up seeing the scene. Ajax comes to his senses, sees how he has been shamed, and immediately begins planning his suicide. The Chorus (that tool of Greek drama, the group of citizens that comments on the action) and Ajax’s wife Tecmessa try to talk him out of it, reminding him of the pain his parents would feel, and the dubious fate of Tecmessa and their son if left without husband/father. He seems to change his mind, and goes offstage. But then his brother shows up, distraught, citing a prophecy that Ajax will die today. The scene shifts to watch Ajax bury the hilt of his sword, make a short speech, and throw himself upon it.
Tecmessa and the Chorus mourn; Ajax’s brother, Teucer, mourns, and plans to bury the body. Agamemnon shows up and makes disparaging remarks, commanding that the body of Ajax not be buried at all. Now, I’ve read these things before, and (ahem Antigone) you’d think these characters would have learned by now: you have to bury the dead! The gods are mightily displeased if you do not. This is an important tenet of custom and piety. Luckily, Odysseus next arrives on the scene. He had been insulting Ajax earlier, declared him an enemy, but here he lives up to his reputation for wisdom: Odysseus talks Agamemnon into allowing a reverent burial, and the grief-stricken family of Ajax carries on with their ritual. It seems that Teucer will take care of Tecmessa and her son.
I find this to be a moving story, despite the removal of centuries and the difference of cultures… I guess I’ve read enough related myth that I have learned to identify with it. I love the stories of gods and heroes, how they’re all interrelated and how the actions of one generation can effect so many generations to come. (See the above reference to the House of Atreus. That man’s impious mistake will continue to cost his offspring – just watch what happens to Agamemnon when he gets home from war.) And I mainly read Sophocles (et al) for the stories… so I had to remind myself to slow down and appreciate the language, too. I think I prefer the poetry of Homer, but I can just imagine actually seeing this performed… that would be a treat.