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.
Critics have proposed various answers to this question. Some suggest it has merely been added on to make the play long enough (cited but refuted in Reinhardt, 1979: 30), in which case it would definitely weaken the impact. The conventions of Greek drama can indeed cause a play’s dramatic momentum to run out well before its end (Waldock, 1966: 59), simply because Aristotle’s (1996) three unities prohibit subplots, changes of scene, or action that takes place over a period longer than 24 hours. But as Waldock (1966: 65) points out, this need not have been a problem in Ajax, where the myth has ample material for a full-length play to finish with the hero’s suicide. Rather than beginning with the aftermath of slaughtering the livestock, for example, Sophocles could have chosen a more conventional beginning and taken us back to before this deed was carried out. Waldock (1966: 66) argues that we shall “never know the answer” to why Sophocles chose a diptych structure.
In defence of the second half, it is often mentioned that burial rites may have been more interesting and important to the ancient Greeks than they are to a modern audience (see, for example, Moore, 1957: 5; Reinhardt, 1979: 30), while Musurillo (1967: 8) states the debate over Ajax’s body is traditional and occurs in other works of art and literature which concern Ajax. Buxton (1984: 12-13) argues that it makes sense to view Sophocles’ plays as focusing on a sequence of events rather than a “hero”; in the case of Ajax, this would be the events that unfold as a result of Ajax’s attempt to kill Odysseus and the Greek army, including the consequences on the fate of his body. However, by far the most common argument is that the second half of the play reveals Ajax as a true hero, despite his madness, degradation and suicide in the first half. Musurillo (1967: 22) sums up the problem: “How could a warrior so stubborn, manic, and self-willed – and, in short, a suicide – become a hero worthy of cult?” According to Gardiner (1987: 51), Odysseus’ decision to grant Ajax a proper burial, even though Ajax had tried to kill him, shows the extent to which Ajax is respected by his enemies and therefore his heroic greatness. Reinhardt (1979: 30) argues Ajax’s admirable qualities are highlighted by their contrast with the petty quarrels of his enemies Menelaus and Agamemnon, while Segal (1995: 17) points out that Teucer’s eulogy gives further details of Ajax’s life, such as his great achievements before and during the Trojan War. The audience thus gains a new perspective on Ajax, which is given extra emotional impact by the fact that it takes place in view of his corpse (ibid.: 18). The play is only complete when the audience has arrived at this revised opinion, and therefore it needs the ending it has (Moore, 1957: 2).
Waldock (1966: 61) disagrees with this viewpoint, maintaining that although the second half may perform this function, it is not necessary because Ajax has already been established as a hero in the first half of the play: “No man could have suffered as we see Ajax suffer – no man, after disgrace, could have acted as Ajax acted – without possessing intrinsic greatness of soul”. He states that the play’s second half does not add anything to this perspective, or tell us anything we do not already know (ibid.: 62); in this case, the argument of Gardiner, Reinhardt, Moore and others would fail. However, I would argue that the second half of the play does not reveal Ajax as a hero for a different reason: his conduct in the first half and as revealed by the other characters is far from heroic. Many critics, such as Kiso (1984: 2) and Reinhardt (1979: 9), describe Ajax as a victim of Athena’s plotting, who was undone only by her vicious cruelty. Yet while she does spitefully call him out of his tent and make a fool of him in front of his enemy Odysseus, it is clearly stated that she drives him mad in the first place to save Odysseus’ life. He intends to kill Odysseus and the Greek army; she diverts his murderous acts onto cattle and sheep instead. This is not just a claim made by Athena, but is confirmed by Ajax:
“the fierce-eyed, overpowering
Daughter of Zeus, just then as I was readying
My hand and plot against them, set me sprawling,
Distraught and frenzied, and I dipped my hands
In the blood of beasts like these.” (Sophocles, 1957: 24)
The horrific acts of torture that he carries out on the animals are no different to what he intended to perform on human beings. Of course, to kill one’s enemies can be a heroic act – but Ajax is part of the army he seeks to assassinate, and he and Odysseus fought on the same side in the Trojan War. The reason for his murderous hatred is simply that Ajax lost to Odysseus in the contest for Achilles’ armour. Although Ajax claims that Odysseus cheated (Johnson, 2009), he may not be a reliable witness, as this version of events is not borne out by other tellings of the story, such as Ovid’s (Delahoyd, 2009). Furthermore, we are told the reason for Athena’s anger is that Ajax is conceited, thinking himself as good as the gods. When Ajax set out for Troy, his father advised him to resolve to win, “but always with God’s help” (Sophocles, 1957: 35). Ajax, however, boasts that anyone can be successful with God’s help, but that he shall triumph without it. He then rejects Athena’s help in battle, again stating that he is mighty enough not to need it, and thus he incurs her wrath. This story, told by the messenger who advises Tecmessa of Calchas’ prophesy, is backed up by the arrogant remarks Ajax makes over the course of the first half, for example describing himself as “Such a man (let me now speak my boast) / As Troy ne’er saw the like of, not in all / The warlike host that hither came from Greece” (ibid.: 23), and claiming that if Achilles’ armour had been given to the bravest fighter then he would have won it. Ajax’s tragedy is inherent in his character, in this fierce hatred and arrogance, yet he cannot see it, believing himself to be the victim of fate and advising his son Eurysaces to “have better luck than your father had, / Be like him in all else” (ibid.: 28).
In my opinion, the most noble depiction of Ajax in Sophocles’ play is the speech where he appears to have changed his mind about suicide, shows pity for his wife, whose worries he had previously scorned, and resolves to seek Athena’s forgiveness. Yet given that he does not then do what he says he will, is this speech genuine, or is he lying to put Tecmessa and the chorus off the scent? Bowra (cited in Johnson, 2009) argues the former, pointing out that as a straight-talking man of action, Ajax would not be skilled at deceiving, and therefore must have changed his mind afterwards. Similarly, Musurillo (1967: 14) claims the speech portrays Ajax’s fragmentary state of mind, and he does not know clearly what he intends to do. However, there is nothing in his later speech, right before he commits suicide, to suggest he has changed his mind in any way, and the only explanation offered in the play is when Tecmessa, hearing of Calchas’ prophecy, declares that Ajax has lied to her. This would seem the most plausible justification, and Reinhardt (1979: 23) says the speech is “obviously uttered to mislead” Tecmessa. Knox (1964) takes a third stance, the “soliloquy” view, believing that the speech is genuine, but that Ajax changes his mind towards the end of it, with his somewhat veiled references unrecognised by Tecmessa, the chorus and perhaps the audience. However, given the uncertainty as to the truthfulness of the speech, it does not seem a brilliant candidate for proof of Ajax’s virtue.
All this, of course, is a modern reading which does not particularly take into account the fact that Greek tragic heroes do not have to be likeable. The concept of heroism has changed over the course of the centuries. But Musurillo (1967: 25) argues that in Sophocles’ time it was already changing. The play can be viewed as highlighting the contrast between Ajax, an old-style hero from the era of “violence and primitive power”, and Odysseus, the more eloquent and enlightened hero of the future (ibid.) While Ajax is bent on destroying Odysseus, calling him the “Filthiest scoundrel of all the army” (Sophocles, 1957: 22), Odysseus feels sorry for Ajax in his madness even at the start of the play, and ultimately talks Agamemnon out of casting his body into the sea, makes peace with Teucer, and even offers to bury Ajax himself. In light of this interpretation, the second half of the play certainly has a role to play, for it reintroduces Odysseus and gives an opportunity for him to be contrasted with Ajax, Menelaus and Agamemnon. Furthermore, his pact with Teucer (previously, the Greek army had tried to kill Teucer in revenge for Ajax’s acts) shows something good coming out of the tragedy, much like the ending of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (Wells & Taylor, 1988) where the Montagues and the Capulets finally stop fighting as a result of the heroes’ suicide.
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.