I am reading James Scully's translation of Philoktetes (also known as Philoctetes), in The Complete Plays of Sophocles, translated by Robert Bagg & James Scully. At one point, after getting Herakles' bow, Odysseus declares that he's leaving without Philoktetes:

(to the Sailors holding PHILOKTETES)
Yes! Let him go! Don't touch him. Let him
stay here. We've got your bow, we don't need you.
We have Teukros, an expert archer.
And me. I can handle the bow as well as you
and damn well aim it, too. Who needs you?

He then does leave, Neoptolemos and the bow in tow. But the prophecy clearly states that Philoktetes himself is required:

Whatever they asked, Helenos had
a prophecy for. He said they'd never sack Troy
with its towers—unless they could persuade
this man to leave this island here and
bring him back.

Or, since that is the "MERCHANT" sent by Odysseus, here from the introduction to the play:

they've learned they can't take Troy without Philoktetes

And throughout the play Odysseus tries his darndest to fulfil the prophecy. He's already collected Neoptolemos (that's the easy part) and now is sending the boy to collect the bow (also in the prophecy). Why, then, is he so willing to settle for two out of three of the requirements for victory? Why does he willingly leave Philoktetes behind?

1 Answer 1


The most natural way to read this passage is that Odysseus concedes defeat for the moment, but only in order to plan another stratagem. Odysseus is renowned for his trickery, and earlier in the play indicated that he finds lying acceptable in pursuit of this cause (79–85), so why should we believe him here? Now that Philoktetes has given up the bow of Herakles, he can no longer defend himself with “shafts inevitable, escorts of death” (105) and so Odysseus may be able to seize him when Neoptolemus and his scruples are not there to object.

At v. 1055 Odysseus declares his willingness to leave Philoctetes in Lemnos. It is enough that the bow has been captured. But the oracle had expressly said that Philoctetes himself must be brought (841). Indeed, the difficulty of securing him is the basis of the whole story. Therefore, in 1055 ff., Odysseus must be conceived as merely using a last threat, which, he hopes, may cause Philoctetes to yield. The alternative in the mind of Odysseus—we must suppose—was to carry him aboard by force. In vv. 1075 ff. Neoptolemus directs the Chorus to stay with Philoctetes—on the chance of his relenting—until the ship is ready, and then to come quickly, when called. It would certainly seem from this that Neoptolemus understood his chief as seriously intending to leave Philoctetes behind. And the words of the Chorus at v. 1218 suggest the same thing. But it does not follow that they had penetrated the real purpose of their crafty leader.

Richard C. Jebb (1885). Philoctetes, pp. xxvi–xxvii. Cambridge University Press.

The alternatives, that Odysseus has genuinely given up trying to fulfil the prophecy, or thinks that he might be able fulfil the prophecy without the presence of Philoktetes through some ambiguity of wording, seem less plausible and less satisfying.

The difficulty arises because in this play Sophocles is not much concerned with showing us the psychology of Odysseus: he doesn’t get an ode, nor reveal his thoughts in dialogue with the chorus. The presence of Odysseus is necessary for the dramatic situation, but the main psychological interest of the play is in the moral conflict between Neoptolemus and Philoktetes, and the reader or playgoer is left to make their own deductions about Odysseus’ state of mind.

Painting showing three men on a rocky landscape with a cave on the right and a ancient Greek galley moored at the left. Odysseus, the left of the three, has a beard, a helmet and a red cloak, and points toward the ship. He holds the wrist of Neoptolemus, in the middle, who is beardless, wears a plumed helmet and a white tunic, and carries a bow and a quiver of arrows. Philoktetes, on the right, is dressed in blue-black rags and has a bandage on his left foot. He holds out both arms towards the other two as if pleading.

François-Xavier Fabre (1800). ‘Odysseus and Neoptolemus taking the bow and arrows of Herakles from Philoktetes’. In the Musée Fabre, Montpellier. Photo by Sailko. Licensed under CC-BY-SA 3.0.

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