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Philoctetes by Sophocles - an excerpt




Dramatis Personae

ODYSSEUS: king of Ithaca, a leading warrior of the Greek army

NEOPTOLEMUS: young son of the great Greek hero Achilles

PHILOCTETES: a Greek warrior abandoned on Lemnos

CHORUS: sailors from Neoptolemus' ship

MERCHANT TRADER: a spy posing as a Merchant

HERCULES: mortal son of Zeus, later made a god.


[The dramatic action takes place on the island of Lemnos, just outside Philoctetes' cave. The opening to the cave is on stage, above the level of the orchestra. Enter into the orchestra Odysseus and Neoptolemus with a sailor attending on Neoptolemus]



So here we are on the shores of Lemnos,

a lonely placeówell off the beaten track,

surrounded by the sea. No one lives here.

This was this place, Neoptolemus,

son of Achilles, bravest and best

of all the Greeks, where, many years ago,

I left Philoctetes, son of Poeas,

a man from Malis. I abandoned him,

acting on orders from our two commanders.

His foot was dripping with infectious sores,                                 10

painful ulcers. He kept screaming all the time.

His strange, wild howling rang throughout the camp.                                              [10]

He cried so much we couldnít pray in peace

or make libations and burnt sacrifice.

But what's the point in talking of that now?

This is no time to tell lengthy stories,

for if he learns Iím here, then my whole scheme,

the one I think will catch him quickly, fails.

Look, your job is to carry out the tasks

we still have left to doóto find a rock                                             20

somewhere round here which has two openings,

so shaped that when itís cool there are two seats

facing the sun, and when itís hot, the breeze

wafts sleep in through the chamber tunnel.

To the left below it you might glimpse                                                                        [20]

a water spring, if itís still functioning.

Climb up there. Keep quiet. Then signal me

if you see those features there or somewhere else.

After that Iíll tell you my entire plan.

Then both of us will carry out my scheme.                                     30


[Neoptolemus begins exploring the rocks, moving up towards the opening of the cave]



Lord Odysseus, that task you mentionedó

I think weíre close. I see a cave up here

quite like the one you mentioned.


Above you?

Or below? I canít see it.

NEOPTOLEMUS [approaching the mouth of the cave]

Itís up here.

High up. I canít hear a soundóno footsteps.


Watch out. He may be there, in bed asleep.                                                             [30]


NEOPTOLEMUS [peering into the cave]

The place is emptyóI donít see anyone.


Anything in there which might indicate

some human lives inside?


Yes, there isó

a bed of leaves pressed down Someoneís stayed here.                 40   


Is it empty otherwise? Nothing else

hidden in the cave?


Thereís a wooden cup,

crudely made, some wretched craftsmanís workó

and kindling, too, set to light a fire.


What you describe must be his possessions.


Look here, thereís something else. Rags left to dryó

[Neoptolemus inspects the rags]


Agh, theyíre full of pus! The stench!


This is the spot.

Obviously our man lives here and is near by. [40]

His foot is crippled with that old disease.

He canít go far. Heís gone to find some food 50

or a remedial herb heís seen somewhere.

Send that man of yours to be our lookout,

in case he stumbles on us unawares.

Heíd rather catch me than any other Greek.

[Neoptolemus comes back down and whispers instructions to his attendant, who then leaves]



Heís on his way. Heíll be our sentry on the path.

If thereís something else you need, just say so.


Son of Achilles, to fulfill your mission,                                                                       [50]

you must be loyal to your ancestryó

thatís more than something merely physical.

If you hear a plan youíve not heard before 60

and it sounds strange, you must obey itó

youíre with me here as my subordinate.


What are your orders?


With Philoctetesó

when you speak to him, tell him a story.

You have to trick him, lead his mind astray.

When he asks you who you are and where youíre from,

say youíre Achillesí sonóno deception there.

But tell him you intend to sail for home.

Youíve left the Achaeansí naval forces

because you truly hate them. And hereís whyó                     70

in their prayers they summoned you from home                                                     [60]

to Troy, since youíre the only hope theyíve got

to take the city. But then they judged you

not good enough to have Achillesí arms,

although you came to claim them as your right.

Instead they gave them to Odysseus.

Say what you like of meópile up the insults,

the worst there are. That wonít injure me.

But if you donít go through with what I say,

youíll hurt the Argives, every one of them.                             80

If we donít get our hands on that manís bow,

youíll never capture Troy successfully,

never destroy the realm of Dardanus.1

Let me tell you why you can talk to him                                                                 [70]

and safely win his trust, while I cannot.

Youíve joined the Trojan expedition freelyó

youíd made no oath to anyone. In fact,

you werenít a member of that first contingent.

But I was, and I canít deny the fact.

If he sees me while he still has his bow,                                     90

Iím lost, and you, as my companion,

will share my fate. Thatís why we need to planó

we need some way you can be the means

to steal his bow, which is invincible.

My boy, I know your nature is not fit

to make up lies or speak deceitful things.                                                                 [80]

But winning victoryís prize is sweet indeed,

so force yourself to do it. After this,

the justice of our actions will be clear.

So now, for one short day, follow my lead,                                100

without a sense of shame. In time to come

theyíll call you the finest man there is.



Son of Laertes, I hate to carry out

an order which it hurts to listen to.

Itís not my nature to do anything

based on deceit. My father, so they say,

was just the same. But I am prepared [90]

to take the man by force, no trickery.

Heís just one man on foot. Heíll never win

against so many of us in a fight. 110

Since I was ordered here to work with you,

Iím not anxious to be called disloyal.

Still, my lord, Iíd much prefer to fail

in something honourable, than to win out

with treachery.


You noble fatherís son,

when I was young, I, too, had a quiet tongue.

I let my active hands speak up for me.

But now Iíve gone out into adult life,

faced all its trials, I see with mortal men

the tongue, not action, rules in everything.                             120


What are your orders, then, apart from lying?                                                         [100]



Iím ordering you to use deceitful means

to seize Philoctetes.


But why deceit?

Why not persuade him?


The man wonít listen.

And heís not someone you can take by force.


Is he that confident, that powerful?


Indeed, he is. His arrows never miss.

Every shot brings death.


Iíve no chance at all

if I move out to challenge him?


None whatsoever, unless, as Iíve said,                                     130

you use some trick to grab him.


So you donít think

thereís any shame in saying something false?


Noónot if the falsehood will save us all.


But how can anyone control his face                                                                        [110]

when he dares speak such lies?


When what you do

brings benefits, you shouldnít hesitate.


If that man comes to Troy, how do I benefit?


The only way the city can be captured

is with his bow and arrows.


So Iím not the one

whoíll take that city, as you told me?                         140


Yes, but you need them, and they need you.


If thatís true, we must track them down, it seems.


By doing this work, youíll garner two rewards.


How? If I knew that, Iíd not refuse it.


In this one act, youíll get yourself a name

for shrewdness and nobility.


All right, [120]

Iíll do it. Iíll set all shame aside.


That story I sketched out for you just nowó

do you recall it?


You can be sure of that,

since Iíve at last agreed to do it.                                         150


Then, right now you stay here and wait for him.

Iíll move off, so Iím not seen around you.

And Iíll return our lookout to his ship.

Now, if I think youíre taking too much time,

Iíll send that same sailor here againó

but Iíll disguise his actions and his clothes,

to make him captain of some merchant ship,

beyond all recognition. Then, my boy,                                                 [130]

when he tells you some fancy tale, you listen,

taking from it anything that helps you.                                 160

Now Iím going to my ship. Itís up to you.

May Hermes, who guides men through deceptions,

lead us through this, and with Athena, too,

goddess of victory, our cityís patron

and the one who always rescues me.

[Exit Odysseus. Enter the Chorus, members of Neoptolemusí crew]



My lord, tell me what I must conceal

and what I should say to this Philoctetes.

Heís bound to be full of suspicion.

For Iím a stranger in a foreign place.

The art and judgment of the man 170

who rules with Zeusí godlike sceptre                                                     [140]

exceed the skills of ordinary men.

That age-old authority of kings

has now come down to you, my son.

So tell me what I need to do to serve you.


Right now perhaps youíre eager to inspect

the place here on the shore in which he lives.

You can look through itóthereís no need to fearó

that dangerous man has left his cave for now.

When he gets back, stand ready to come out 180

when I give the signal. Try to help meó

give whatever aid I may then require.


My lord, this help you talk about                                                                 [150]

has long been my chief concernó

always to keep my eyes alert

above all to whatís best for you.

Tell me about this man,

the kind of shelter where he lives,

and where he might be now.

Thatís something I should know,                                         190

in case he comes at me somewhere

when Iím not ready for him.

Whereís he gone off to?

Is he at home in there,

in that cave, or here outside?


Hereís his dwelling with two entrances,

a den carved in the rock.                                                                                           [160]


The man who lives hereó

whereís the poor wretch gone?


I think thatís clear.

Heís dragging his foot along some place nearby,

looking for things to eat. Iíve heard it said                            200

that thatís the way he usually livesó

in his wretched state it takes all he has

to shoot his feathered arrows at his prey,

and no one ever ventures close enough

to help him cure his sad condition.



Well, I pity him for tható

with no human to look after him, [170]

and no companionís face to see,

he lives a miserable life,

alone, always alone, 210

infected with a cruel disease,

confused about what he should do

to cope with every pressing needó

how does he bear a fate so grim?

Itís the workings of the gods.

What a wretched race of men they are

whose life exceeds due measure.

This man Philoctetes, [180]

for all we know, is just as good

as any member of the finest clan. 220

But here he lies all by himself,

apart from other human beings,

with shaggy goats and spotted deer,

suffering from hunger pangs

and from his painful wound.

Itís pitifulóhe has to bear

an agony that has no cure,

and as he cries in bitter pain,

the only answer comes from Echo,

a distant, senseless babble.                                            230                                     [190]



Well, nothing in all this surprises me.

Let me explain just how I understand it.

This manís sufferings come from the gods,

both those afflicting him from savage Chryse

and those he suffers now without a cure.1

The gods are planning that Philoctetes

wonít aim his bow at Troy and shoot his shafts,

those all-conquering arrows from the gods,

until the time is right, when, people say,

those weapons take the cityóthatís Troyís fate.



1When Achilles, Neoptolemusí father, was killed, the Greek army awarded his weapons

to Odysseus. Dardanus was a son of Zeus and the legendary founder of Troy.


2 Chryse: This name refers to the nymph who punished Philoctetes with the snake bite for desecrating her shrine. It is also the name of a small island close to Troy.

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