Oedipus the King is. of course, by far the best known play of Sophocles. His Antigone is also very well known. But, unfortunately, few people are aware of the tragedy of Philoctetes. In typical Sophoclean fashion, almost all the action has taken place before the playwright chooses to open the play. The mis-step of Philoctetes has occurred almost ten years before when he blundered onto a patch of sacred land. In punishment for his action, a guardian serpent bit him on the leg, infecting him with noxious venom. Back on board ship, the wound began to fester, and its stench and Philoctetes’ cries of pain were so disturbing to the other warriors that Agamemnon, Menelaus’ brother and leader of the army, had to do something. He called upon Odysseus (who is always referred to as the “wily Odysseus”) to come up with a plan. Odysseus had the ship make another landfall (this time at a deserted island), where he lured Philoctetes onto the shore and stranded him, as the rest of the army sailed off to war.
A war, which after almost a decade of bloodshed, still had not been won.
And here is where Sophocles begins his play.
Odysseus has once again been called upon to use his wiles for the benefit of the group. A prophecy has revealed to the Greeks that they can only conquer Troy with the use of the bow and arrows of the god Herakles. Unfortunately for the army, the weapons were gifted by Herakles to Philoctetes. Crippled by his wound and unable to wander far from his cave home, Philoctetes is dependent upon the bow and arrows to secure food. The weaponry has sustained him—that and his undying hatred of the man who deceived him.
Odysseus has taken Achilles’ son, Neoptolemus, to Philoctetes’ island, intending to use him as a cat’s paw, to get the young man to inveigle the weaponry from the grasp of the crippled man. Neoptolemus does succeed in getting his hands on the weapons, but in a fit of conscience and pity gives them back to Philoctetes, who then turns the weapons on the man he most despises, Odysseus.
Disaster looms—averted only by the appearance of a literal deus ex machina: Herakles descends from the heavens. He addresses Philoctetes:
Thou too like me by toils must rise to glory-(translated by Thomas Francklin)
Thou too must suffer, ere thou canst be happy;
Hence . . . to Troy, where honour calls,
Where health awaits thee- where, by virtue raised
To highest rank, and leader of the war,
Paris, its hateful author, shalt thou slay,
Lay waste proud Troy, and send thy trophies home. . . .
My Aesculapius will I send e'en now To heal thy wounds-Then go, and conquer Troy.
Left to himself, Philoctetes would savor his bile and nurse his grievances. But the god’s command to Philoctetes to swallow his hatred for Odysseus and the rest of the Greek leadership overrules him. The gifts of the gods (such as Herakles’ bow and arrows) are not for a private man. They are meant for the community (civilization, if you like). And it is within civilization that the arts and sciences flourish. It is only when Philoctetes is re-integrated into society that he can be healed. There is no art of medicine on a desert island.