McAfee SECURE sites help keep you safe from identity theft, credit card fraud, spyware, spam, viruses and online scams

The death of the play’s principle character mid-way through the play undermines the dramatic significance of Sophocles’ Ajax

Sophocles' tragic drama Ajax is 1420 lines long, yet the eponymous main character is dead by line 866, just over halfway through the play. After the dramatic chain of events which lead up to his suicide, the audience is left with a lengthy argument between Teucer and the Atridae as to what should be done with his body; does he deserve a proper burial, or should he be cast into the sea? Critics are divided as to whether this final section weakens the play, or whether it plays a crucial role, either in restoring Ajax's heroism and virtue or for other reasons. However, even many of those in the latter camp acknowledge that the second half of the play generates "a sense of diminished tragic feeling" (Moore, 1957: 5) and that most of Ajax's interest is in the first half (Gardiner, 1987: 51). In this essay I shall discuss the extent to which Ajax's death midway through the play undermines its dramatic significance, focusing on the possible roles the second half of the tragedy may play and how these interpretations affect the impact of the drama.

To a modern reader, Ajax's structure seems very unconventional. Indeed, even among its contemporaries, it is the only Attic tragedy of its kind (Reinhardt, 1979: 9). It starts in medias res, with Ajax having already been driven mad by the goddess Athena and having slaughtered and captured livestock, believing them to be the Greek army. The dramatic tension grows as Ajax comes to his senses, is horrified by what he has done, and concludes that suicide is the only possible course of action. His wife and the chorus plead with him to change his mind. He appears to do so, giving the audience a brief respite from the tension, but no sooner has he left his tent to purify himself than it is cranked up again when a messenger arrives, prophesying that if Ajax goes out today he will die. We witness Tecmessa and the chorus' frantic attempts to find Ajax, then his final speech and suicide, as he impales himself on his own sword, with his family reaching him just too late. So far, so conventional, apart from perhaps the immediacy of the opening. But then once the play has reached this dramatic climax, rather than coming to a swift conclusion, it winds down very gradually, as Ajax's brother Teucer finds the body and argues first with Menelaus, then Agamemnon, and finally speaks to Odysseus about Ajax's final resting place. As one critic states, it would be miraculous if the play's interest and tension did not peter out to some extent in this section (Waldock, 1966: 51). And as stated above, even those who believe the second half has an important role to play agree; for example, Moore (1957: 5) feels the set debate lowers the tone calamitously, seeming overlong and undignified. With the reduction in tension and excitement largely undisputed, we can hardly fail to acknowledge that the play is somewhat weakened. But the question of to what extent Ajax's early death undermines its dramatic significance hinges on how we interpret this second half, and what we believe its role to be.

In addition, the second half of Ajax becomes the moving story of Teucer's and Tecmessa's grief and their quest to give their brother and husband a decent burial. The play's first half has aroused considerable sympathy for Tecmessa. She is distraught while Ajax is triumphant in his madness, and has to hide her son for fear he will be killed. When he regains his sanity, Ajax fears he will be killed by the Greek army, and would not be able to bear his father's disappointment if he flees; Tecmessa, too, faces a similar fate: "that same day / Will see me outraged too, forcibly dragged / By the Greeks, together with your boy, to lead a slave's life" (Sophocles, 1957: 26). Yet in her case, unlike her husband, she has done nothing to bring this on herself; in her own words she is subject to "the will of your [Ajax's] strong hand" (ibid.: 25). She begs her husband not to take his own life, only to be told that she is prying, growing tedious, and it would be more becoming to be submissive. She is quite possibly tricked by Ajax into a false sense of security, when he leaves supposedly to make amends, and then when she hears of the prophecy, her frantic attempts to find him are tragically just too late. This theme of Tecmessa's plight is therefore consistent throughout the play, coupled in the second half with Teucer's (and, implicitly, Eurysaces') grief. Musurillo (1967: 20) argues that those who criticise this part of the play must have forgotten the "utterly touching" scene where Teucer has Eurysaces embrace his father's corpse. Therefore, the second half does have a role to play.

The question is, to what extent do these factors - the portrayal of Teucer's and Tecmessa's grief, and the contrast between Ajax and Odysseus - mitigate for the tension that is inevitably lost after the series of compelling events that culminate in Ajax's suicide? They cannot entirely. The first half of the play is gripping and nerve-racking, while the second has a slower pace and a more reflective tone. Sophocles could have greatly condensed the play's ending, still conveying the impact on Ajax's family, the harshness of Agamemnon or Menelaus and Odysseus' kindness, without making this such a large part of the drama. Even if one agrees that something is needed to elevate Ajax back to the status of hero (or hero of the old order) after his suicide, the lengthiness of this section is excessive (Waldock, 1966: 66), and the play loses momentum. Interestingly, some critics, such as Kiso (1984) do not mention the post-suicide part of the play at all, and write as though it did not exist; it is either that problematic or that unmemorable. Taken on its own, the final section is a moving, if slow-paced, depiction of grief, adversity and compassion, yet it jars with the rest of the play, as two halves which do not quite fit together. Therefore I would conclude that while the portion of the play after Ajax's suicide does have some dramatic significance, on the whole, the position of his death within the play undermines Ajax's tragic power, lessening its impact as a great work of Greek drama.

Related Links
To Top