On Sophocles’ Ajax

1215021287large Emily Wilson in The Nation:

Ajax was composed by Sophocles probably sometime in the 440s BC–the decade before the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War. In this period, Athens was consolidating its military and economic power in the Greek world, forming new allegiances and breaking old ones. The city was also undergoing cultural and intellectual changes: the sophists (“wisdom-teachers”) were introducing new ideas about science, society, religion and morality into the public and private spheres, which seemed to some citizens to threaten their traditional values and way of life.

Sophocles’ tragedy tells of Ajax–a great hero of the Trojan War, but never the greatest, a warrior associated with old-fashioned valor and physical courage. After the Greek victory over the Trojans, the Greek generals held a contest to decide who should inherit the magical armor of Achilles, which his divine mother, Thetis, had given him. Ajax’s archenemy, Odysseus, wins the competition. In Sophocles’ play, as in Homer’s Iliad, Odysseus seems–at least at first–like the exact opposite of Ajax: he represents brains over brawn; trickery over courage; the new sophistic values of flexibility, cleverness and rhetoric over the old ideal of death before dishonor.

As the play opens, Athena, goddess of wisdom, finds Odysseus, her favorite hero, prowling round Ajax’s tent, like–in Tipton’s translation–a “bloodhound–snout to the ground!” The image introduces the central idea that killing may erase the difference between human and animal. The goddess explains that Ajax, overwhelmed by rage at not getting the prize, tried to kill all the Greek leaders in the night. But the goddess deluded him, and instead, he killed the Greek’s captive animals. The scary, Damien Hirst-like illustration on the cover of Tipton’s translation (a color photo of nearly two dozen bloody heads of decapitated horned sheep) seems to hint that killing animals might be just as brutal as killing people. But Sophocles’ play is not a call for animal rights. It is ironic, in the classic Sophoclean fashion: Ajax’s killing of animals is a mark of insanity–whereas massacring people would have been, supposedly, sane. Throughout the play, Sophocles’ focus is not on animals but on people, and on how little control we have over the consequences of our actions.