Sophocles: Extract from "Philoctetes" |
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Ancient Greece

Sophocles: Extract from “Philoctetes”


“Philoctetes” is one of Sophocles latest plays. It is unusual in several respects, with a small all-male cast and without a tragic ending. The text of this extract is taken from “A Greek Anthology”, JACT, Cambridge University Press, 2002. The prologue and epilogue to this extract are also repeated here.


Philoctetes joined the Greek expedition to Troy. During a halt to offer sacrifice at the island of Chryse he was bitten by a snake. The wound festered, and the stench and his cries so disturbed his comrades that they abandoned him on the neighbouring island of Lemnos. Ten years later the captive Trojan seer Helenus revealed that Troy could only be taken with the help of Philoctetes and the bow he had inherited from Heracles. The wily Odysseus has come to Lemnos with Neoptolemus, son of Achilles, who reluctantly tricks his way into the confidence of Philoctetes with a false story that he has quarrelled with the Greeks whom Philoctetes now hates. Philoctetes implores Neoptolemus to take him home, and Neoptolemus pretends to agree. But when Philoctetes is struck by an attack of pain and hands over his bow, Neoptolemus is overcome by remorse and reveals the truth. He is about to hand back the bow when Odysseus intervenes to prevent him. After a choral song, Neoptolemus makes a second attempt to restore the bow to its owner.

Lines 1261-1347. Neoptolemus tries to persuade Philoctetes.

(Neoptolemus approaches the entrance to Philoctetes’ cave.)

Neoptolemus: But you, o son of Poeas, I am am referring to Philoctetes, come out and leave (lit. leaving) this rocky dwelling.

(Enter Philoctetes.)

Philoctetes: What sound of shouting arise once more beside my cave? Why do you summon me? What do you want (from me), strangers? (He sees Neoptolemus.) Alas, this business will bring evil. Surely you are not here bringing me some big evil in addition to my (existing) evils.

Ne: Take courage! And listen to the words which I have come to bring.

Phi: I am afraid. For previously I fared badly from your beautiful words, having believed in your promises.

Ne: Is it not possible to change your mind again?

Phi: You were just like this in your words when stealing my bow, (apparently) trustworthy (but) secretly destructive.

Ne: But certainly (I am) not at all (like that) now. But I do wish to ascertain from you whether you have decided (lit. it has seemed good to you) to persist in remaining (here), or to sail with us.

Phi: Stop! Do not speak further! For everything, whatever things you say, will be said in vain.

Ne: Have you decided (has it seemed good [to you]) thus?

Phi: Know (it) further than I can say it?

Ne: But I could have wished that you had believed my words; but if I do not happen to have said anything opportunely, I am finished.

Phi: (Yes), for you will say everything in vain; for you will not ever obtain my mind well-disposed, you, who taking my livelihood by trickery, have robbed (me of it). And then you come (here) to admonish (lit. then coming [here] you admonish) me, (you) hateful offspring of a noble father. May you (all) perish, especially the sons of Atreus (i.e. Agamemnon and Menelaus), and then the son of Laertes (i.e. Odysseus) and you!

Ne: Do not curse (any) further! But receive this weapon from my hand.

Phi: What did you say (lit. how did you speak)? Am I being ensnared a second time?

Ne: I deny (it) on oath, by the sacred majesty of the most high Zeus.

Phi: Oh, you are speaking welcome things, if you are speaking true things.

Ne: The plain deed will be at hand. But stretch out your right hand and become master of your weapon.

(Odysseus suddenly enters.)

Odysseus: I forbid (this), as the gods (are) my witnesses, on behalf of both sons of Atreus and the entire army.

Phi: Child, whose voice (is that)? Did I not hear Odysseus?

Od: It certainly is (lit. know [it] clearly); and you see nearby (you) (the man) who will send you by force to the plains of Troy, whether the son of Achilles is willing and whether (he is) not.

(Philoctetes puts an arrow to his bow and levels it at Odysseus.)

Phi: But you will not rejoice in any way, if this weapon is aimed straight.

Ne: Ah, in no way, (do) not (do it), in the name of the gods, do not shoot that arrow!

Phi: In the name of the gods, let go of my hand, dearest child!

Ne: I cannot let go.

(Odysseus escapes.)

Phi: Alas, why have you prevented me from killing that hateful hostile man with my bow?

Ne: But that is right neither for me nor for you.

Phi: May you know so much at least, that the chiefs of the army and the false heralds of the Achaeans are bold in their words, (but) cowards in battle.

Ne: Well, so be it! You have your bow, and there is not (anything) of which you should have cause for anger or complaint against me.

Phi: I agree; O child, you show the nature from which you were sprung, not from Sisyphus (as) a father, but from Achilles, who was known (lit. heard himself spoken of) as the noblest when he was among the living, and now among the dead.

Ne: I have taken pleasure in you praising my father and myself as well (lit. me myself). But listen to what I want to get from you. For it is necessary for men to endure the fortunes given (to them) by the gods. But all those who are involved in self-inflicted miseries, like you, it is neither just to hold out pardon to them, nor to pity such a man. You have become wild and you do not welcome an adviser, and, if someone, speaking with good will, admonishes you, you hate (him), considering (him) hostile and ill-disposed (towards you). Nevertheless, I shall speak (to you); and I shall call Zeus (as) a witness; and you must remember these (words) and write (them) within your mind. For you are suffering this affliction from divine fate, having encountered (lit. come near to) the sentinel of Chryse, the serpent, which, keeping watch secretly, guards her roofless shrine. Know that you cannot ever gain relief from this grave sickness, so long as the same sun rises here on the one hand, (i.e. in the east) and on the other hand can set back there (i.e. in the west) again, until you yourself come willingly to the plains of Troy, and, finding the sons of Asclepius among us, you are relieved of this illness, and you are shown to have laid low its citadel with this bow and in company with me. How I know these things will happen in this way, I shall tell (you). There is among us a man, a prisoner from Troy, Helenus, a foremost seer, who says plainly that it is necessary for these things to come to pass; and in addition to this still that it is necessary, this summer being here, for the whole of Troy to be captured. Otherwise, he gives himself willingly to be killed (lit. for killing), if in saying this he proves false. So, since you know this now, give way graciously. For the additional gain (is) glorious, in respect of one man having been judged the best of the Greeks, firstly (by) coming into healing hands, and then (by) taking Troy, rich in tears, (and so) winning the highest renown.


Philoctetes now hesitates. he does not want to refuse his new-found friend; yet he cannot bring himself to go near the Atreidae. When he asks to be taken home as he was originally promised, Neoptolemus agrees. But then events are taken out of their hands: Heracles appears above them to declare the will of Zeus, that Philoctetes must go to Troy where he will find health and fame.

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