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Dramatis Personae

ATHENA: goddess of war and wisdom
ODYSSEUS: king of Ithaca, a leader in the Argive forces at Troy
AJAX: king of Salamis
CHORUS: sailors from Salamis
TECMESSA: daughter of the king of Phrygia, concubine of Ajax
MESSENGER: a soldier
TEUCER: a Greek warrior, half-brother of Ajax
MENELAUS: one of the commanders of the Argive forces at Troy
AGAMEMNON: brother of Menelaus, commander of the Greeks EURYSACES: young son of Ajax and Tecmessa.

[The action takes place during the last year of the Trojan War. The scene is one end of the Argive camp beside the sea, outside Ajax’s hut. The hut is a substantial building with main doors facing the audience and some side doors. There are steps leading up to a platform outside the main doors. It is early in the morning, without very much light yet. ODYSSEUS enters slowly, tracking footprints in the sand and trying to look through the partially open door into the hut. The goddess ATHENA appears and speaks to ODYSSEUS.]

      Odysseus, I keep seeing you prowl around,                         
      seeking by stealth to gain the upper hand
      against your enemies. And now, by these huts                           
      at one end of the army, where Ajax
      has his camp beside the ships, for some time
      I’ve been observing as you track him down,
      keeping your eyes fixed on his fresh-made trail,
      to find out whether he’s inside or not.[1]
      Like a keen-nosed Spartan hunting dog
      your path is taking you straight to your goal—                
      the man has just gone in, his head and arms
      dripping with sweat after the butchery                                                
      he’s just carried out with his own sword.
      So you don’t need to peer inside the doors.
      What are you so eager to discover here?
      Why not tell me? You could learn the answer
      from someone who knows.

ODYSSEUS [looking up but he cannot see Athena]  
                                        Ah, Athena’s voice, of the gods
      the one I cherish most. How clear you sound.
      I can’t see you, but I do hear your words—
      my mind can grasp their sense, like the bronze call         
      of an Etruscan trumpet.[2] And you are right.
      You see me circling around, tracking down
      that man who hates me, shield-bearing Ajax.
      I’ve been following his trail a long time now—                         
      just him, no one else. During the night
      he’s done something inconceivable to us,
      if he’s the one who did it. We’re not sure.
      We don’t know anything for certain. 
      So I volunteered to find out what’s gone on.
      We’ve just discovered all our livestock killed—                 
      our plunder butchered by some human hand,
      and with them the men who guard the herd.
      Everyone blames Ajax for the slaughter.
      What’s more, an eyewitness who saw him
      striding by himself across the plain, his sword                           
      dripping with fresh blood, informed me of it
      and told me what he saw. I ran off at once
      to pick up his trail. I’m following the tracks.
      But it’s confusing—sometimes I don’t know
      whose prints they are. So you’ve come just in time,         
      for in the past and in the days to come
      your hand has been and will remain my guide.

      I am aware of that, Odysseus, that’s why
      for some time I’ve been keen to come to you
      as a watchman on your hunt.

                                           Well then, dear lady, 
      will what I’m doing here have good results?

      I’ll tell you this: Ajax did those killings,
      as you suspected.

                                             Why would he do that?                                      
      Why turn his hands to such a senseless act?

      The weapons—that armour from Achilles—                     
      it made him insanely angry.[3]

                                                             But then
      why would he slaughter all the animals?

      He thought he was staining both his hands
      with blood from you.

                         You mean this was his plan
      against the Argives?

                     Yes—and it would have worked,
      if I had not been paying attention.

      How could he have done something so reckless?
      How could his mind have been so rash?

                                                         At night
      in secret he crept out alone after you.

      How close was he? Did he get to his target?                      

      He reached the camp of both commanders—
      he made it right up to their double gates.[4]

      If he was so insanely keen for slaughter,                                               
      how could he prevent his hands from killing?

      I stopped him. I threw down into his eyes
      an overwhelming sense of murderous joy
      and turned his rage against the sheep and cattle
      and those protecting them—the common herd
      which so far has not been divided up.[5]
      He launched his attack against those animals                   
      and kept on chopping down and slaughtering
      the ones with horns by slicing through their spines,
      until they made a circle all around him.
      At one point he thought he was butchering
      both sons of Atreus—he had them in his hands.
      Then he went at some other general
      and then another. As he charged around
      in his sick frenzy, I kept encouraging him,
      kept pushing him into those fatal nets.                                        
      And then, when he took a rest from killing,                      
      he tied up the sheep and cattle still alive
      and led them home, as if he had captured
      human prisoners and not just animals.
      Now he keeps them tied up in his hut
      and tortures them. I’ll let you see his madness—
      in plain view here—so you can witness it
      and then report to all the Argives. Be brave.
      Do not back off or look upon this man
      as any threat to you. I will avert his eyes,
      so he will never see your face.                                                          

[Calling to Ajax inside the hut]

                                                             You in there—                      90
      the one who’s tying up his prisoner’s arms—
      I’m calling you! I’m shouting now for Ajax!
      Come on out here! Outside the hut! In front!

      Athena! What are you doing? Don’t call him!
      Don’t bring him out here!

                                                   Just be patient.
      Don’t run the risk of being called a coward.

      For the gods’ sake, don’t do it! Leave him be!
      Let him stay inside!

                             What’s the matter with you?
      He was just a man before this, wasn’t he?

      Yes, and in the past unfriendly to me,                                  
      and especially now.

                                          But the sweetest laughter
      comes from mocking enemies. Is that not true?

      Still, I’d prefer he stayed inside his hut.                                                

      You hesitate to see before your eyes
      someone in a raving fit?

                                                          Yes, I do—
      if he were fully sane I’d not avoid him
      or hesitate . . .

                                   But he won’t see you now,
      not even if you stand beside him.

      How will that occur, if he still can see
      with his own eyes?

                       His eyes see very well,                                              
      but I will make them dark.

                                                    Well, it is true
      a god’s work can make all things possible.

      Stand here, then, and stay quiet.

                                                                I’d better stay,
      although I’d have preferred to keep my distance.

      You in there, Ajax! I’m calling you again!  
      Why show your ally so much disrespect?                                     



[1]According to Homer, Ajax’s encampment lay at one end of the Argive line, a position more exposed than other parts and hence a mark of Ajax’s courage. Achilles’ encampment was at the other end. The phrase “of the army” has been added to clarify this point.

[2]These lines make clear that Odysseus cannot, at this point, see Athena, either because it is still too dark or because she has concealed herself somewhere (or both). Given what happens in a moment, it is not feasible that Athena is simply a disembodied voice.

[3]When Achilles, the greatest fighter among the Argive leaders, was killed (shortly before the action of this play) his divinely made armour was set up as a prestigious prize among the Argive warriors. Odysseus and Ajax were the main claimants, and as the result of a vote among the Argive leaders, the weapons were awarded to Odysseus, over the strong objections of Ajax, who, according to was considered the finest Argive warrior after Achilles.

[4]The two commanders are Agamemnon and Menelaus, sons of Atreus and the chief leaders of the Argive forces at Troy.

[5]This detail means that Ajax has killed animals belonging to everyone, since all soldiers were to receive some of the cattle or sheep as battle spoils.

 Ajax by Sophocles - an excerpt



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