Ajax has been regarded by critics to be among the early work in Sophocles career whose source was Homer. The play is assumed to have first been performed about 444 B.C. This is because there is no specific information concerning the play. The story in the play is about a warrior by the name of Ajax who came out as a hero after the events of the Iliad and the Trojan War. In the play, Ajax and Odysseus are portrayed as the great fighters in the battle against Achilles. This is proved when they retrieved Achilles` copse after he died; bring them a lot of honor from the entire society of the Greek. However, Ajax’s rage was cultivated when the commanders voted that Achilles’ armor be provided to Odysseus as a gift.
As the play start, Ajax is seen as being very furious, and decides to commit murder by killing the leaders of Greek, as they had disgraced him by rewarding Odysseus alone. Ajax`s actions are tricks of goddess Athena who made him believe that the destructions taken by the Achaeans, the sheep and cattle were, in fact, the Greek leaders that he intended to kill.Therefore, as a result, he slaughters some of them and carries the rest to his home to torture. He transferred his rage to a ram and tortured it thinking it was his rival Odysseus. It is after completing the slaughter that gets his sanity back and realizes what he has been doing was not right. He, therefore, makes up the decision to get out and purify himself as well as bury the sword he was using in slaughtering the animals. Tecmessa, his wife, tried to convince him not to go away and leave her and the children without protection, but he could not listen to her pleas.
It was after he had left, that a messenger dropped by at his house to give him a warning message from the seer Calchas. The message was to warn Ajax not to leave his house because if he did, he would die that day. His wife Tecmesssa and other soldiers had to leave in search of Ajax. Unfortunately, by the time they got him he had already committed suicide. Ajax had to call for vengeance against the whole Greek army and the sons of Atereus, Menelaus and Agamemnon. The play ends by Odysseus Ajax’s enemy requesting his brothers to allow Ajax’s body to be buried in a proper and honored manner (Sophocles 46).
Theme of the play: Degeneration and rehabilitation of hero
The design of the play varies in point of merit. At the beginning of the play, the preparation for the crisis is admirably contrived. The deception of Ajax’s wife Tecmessa and the chorus and their joy at the hero`s supposed recovery intensifies the effects of the catastrophe which immediately follows. This scene did not last for long as Ajax decided to end his life bringing to a close the tragic interest. The matter of the burial was prolonged very much and this demonstrated their objective of rehabilitating the character of the national hero which had been shown in a dishonorable light at the start of the play, by allowing Teucer a chance to extol his achievements. Ajax’s reputation had been redeemed by the impressive dignity of his final appearance.
In Sophocles play, Ajax became so confused and disgusted by his actions of shame; after he failed to win the armor that he irrationally losses control and become violent with no respect the way he was in the beginning. As a result of shame of his violent actions, he decides to kill himself. Because of the values of the society like culture, Ajax had no alternative but to put his life to an end. The idea that pervades the play, giving it unity and coherence must be such that Ajax’s death can be seen not as a catastrophe after which everything else becomes tame, but rather as a tragic event necessarily leading to the events that follow it. The true climax is achieved only in that decision made to rescue the dead body of Ajax from dishonor making him a hero. Ajax was visited by goddess, Athena, with total madness at the time when he was ready to carry out his vengeance to his enemies. He was standing in the darkness of the night before their tents ready to murder them while sleeping. He was still sane when he organized that bloody revenge against Atreidae and the other chiefs.
After his madness, he regains his sanity and bitterly laments that his plan had been tricked. The award of the arm had been unjust; however, Ajax had succeeded in his murderous plots, the resentment of the Atreidae and of the Greek army. The feeling of the public in the camp the day after that incident would have sustained Agamemnon in visiting him with extreme penalty, with which the usage of that age sanctioned in regard to public enemies. The play took care by letting us know this before the death of Ajax by the mouth of the messenger who brings the warning of Calchas to Teucer. The Greeks surrounding the Teucer threatened to stone him to death, even though he was not guilty but because he was the kinsman of the maniac, who had planned against the army. Before he committed suicide, Ajax forbids that he should not be buried. His only plea was that his body should not be cast out to the dogs and birds. After the fall of Ajax, people were forewarned that anger must inevitably break forth against him, menacing him with a disaster worse than death. The intervention of the Atreidae when it occurred appeared as a necessary consequence of what had happened. For the play to achieve that dramatic conclusion, the intervention of Atreidae and the issues that were raised earlier were necessarily to be decided.
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From the start of the play, Ajax has been portrayed in the deepest humiliation as a person whom Athena demonstrates with fatuous boasting and his frantic laughter for the admonition of his successful rival. Yet it is the same Ajax whom the Athenian spectators, just as their fathers before them, had been educated to pay divine honors. Also it was Ajax statue that people were used in seeing at the market places to be among those of the ten heroes from whom the tribes got their names and his renown being further commemorated by special distinctions that the tribe of Aintis liked. These were ancestors of two families with which the most illustrious Athenians were very proud to connect to. The mighty champion who was believed to have been present with the Greeks at Salamis and who in the thanks offerings awarded after the victory, was associated with Athena and Poseidon.
Therefore, following the proceedings of the play, it would be hard for Athenians to think of Ajax merely as a great warrior, whose honor had been restored by his decision to commit suicide. They would also necessarily view him as a sacred hero in the religious contest of that word. His restoration of honor would not be complete in their view unless at the end, he appeared as a fitting recipient of the worship which they paid to him. But for such an end, it was indispensable that he should receive funeral rites. The cult of a hero meant the worship of the spirit of a person who had died and was a prominent or known to have great qualities to look up to. When the Athenian audience the information that Atreidae insisted Ajax’s copse is fed to birds by the sea, and Teucer insisting that it should be buried, the interest of the disagreement to them did not depend merely on the importance of burial as a condition of peace for any departed spirit. The disagreement involved much more that, the entire claim of Ajax to the sanctity of a hero one with which so many traditions of the Athens were bound up.
The dramatic unity of Ajax rests on the grounds that the veto upon his burial is an inevitable consequence because of his actions .One for which the spectators has been prepared, so that the latter part of the play is not an arbitrary addition, but a natural and indeed a very vital part for its development. Another thing raised is the issues whether Ajax is to attain the sanctity of a hero or not. And the true climax of this play is not Ajax’s death, but the decision that he shall be buried. Consecration as a hero is the main objective that Sophocles brings Ajax, and this is to be remembered in tracing the mental phases through which he passes. For instance, on recovering his sanity, he gives utterance to painful lamentation, deploring the triumph of his foes and his disgrace and praying for death. This is then followed by the decision to commit suicide; which he takes after full deliberation of possible choices. He ends his life bidding farewell to his child with a strong tenderness both for him and for his wife Tecmessa.
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The playwright wrote this play with intention of educating people on the issues experienced during wars and how to solve such issues. For instance, in this play Ajax by Sophocles, we learn the need to help our friends just like Athena helped Odysseus by punishing Ajax for his evil plot to murder him. Another lesson is that whatever you do to others might as well happen to you. When Ajax thought that he was serious torturing Odysseus by whipping the ram, Athena takes the same punishment to him through madness.
The usual time in which the play Ajax was written is unknown though it’s among the earliest plays done by Sophocles. Ajax, the hero of the play demonstrates the uncompromising nature of the great warriors at the same time he illustrates the failing of too much pride. Ajax believed that he was the one who deserved to be awarded the armor of Achilles, which explains why he is not ready to accept the fact the armor had been given to another warrior who was chosen by the Greek commanders as the best and worthy of the reward. Because of too much pride, he is not permitted to accept the view that Odysseus is stronger than him and that he has limitations. In this play, Ajax is illustrated as the real hero though rigidly referred to as the old-fashioned hero who is uncompromising and not willing to recognize that he has his limitations. His pride made him to reject the help of goddess Athena, thus setting up the stage for this whole tragedy. Athena’s harsh punishment to Ajax portrays the gods as being less favorable and less merciful and very vengeful to those who cannot compromise.