A summary and analysis of the play by Sophocles

This document was originally published in The Drama: Its History, Literature and Influence on Civilization, vol. 1. ed. Alfred Bates. London: Historical Publishing Company, 1906. pp. 142-151.

In the tragic fate of Ajax, the bravest of all the Greeks, save only Achilles, the poet teaches that men, though excelling in strength and riches, should never boast or utter impious words against the gods.

All human things
A day lays low, a day lifts up again;
But still the gods love those of ordered soul,
And hate the evil.

In bitter wrath that the Atridæ have decided the contest for the arms of Achilles in favor of Odysseus, Ajax determines to slay all the Argive leaders. One night, when about to enter the tent of Agamemnon for this purpose, Athena afflicts him with madness, and he falls upon the flocks, slaying bulls and rams in the belief that he is taking vengeance on his enemies.

The play opens in the interior of his tent, where he calls on his friends to slay him:

"Never yet has such shame fallen on me, that I, who ever faced the foe fearless in fight, should now have shown my prowess on these poor, harmless beasts. Well may my enemies laugh at me in their delight! Would that I might slay them, then die myself! For I, like to whom Troy has found no other hero, am stricken with dishonor! Can I go home? How can I look Telamon, my father, in the face, if I return without the victor's spoil, when he himself came back with glory's noblest crown? Shall I go alone against the Trojan walls, and there seek death in noble combat? That would but gladden the Atridæ. No; I must seek some perilous enterprise, that my show my father that I am no degenerate scion of his stock. Either noble life or death becomes the brave."

In the following chorus Salaminian sailors sing of the misery that the news of Ajax insanity will cause when related in their island home:

Fair Salamis, the billows' roar
Wanders around thee yet;
And sailors gaze upon thy shore
Firm in the Ocean set.
Thy son is in a foreign clime,
Where Ida feeds her countless flocks,
Far from thy dear remembered rocks,
Worn by the waste of time--
Comfortless, nameless, hopeless--save
In the dark prospect of the yawning grave.
And Ajax, in his deep distress
Allied to our disgrace,
Hath cherished in his loneliness
The bosom friend's embrace.
Frenzy hath seized thy dearest son,
Who from thy shores in glory came
The first in valor and in fame.
The deeds that he hath done
Seem hostile all to hostile eyes;
The sons of Atreus see them and despise.
Woe to the mother, in her close of day,
Woe to her desolate heart, and temples gray,
When she shall hear
Her loved one's story whispered in her ear!
"Woe, woe!" will be the cry--
No quiet murmur like the tremulous wail
Of the lone bird, the querulous nightingale--
But shrieks that fly
Piercing, and wild, and loud, shall mourn the tale;
And she will beat her breast, and rend her hair,
Scattering the silver locks that Time hath left her there.
Oh! when the pride of Græcia's noblest race
Wanders, as now, in darkness and disgrace,
When Reason's day
Sets rayless--joyless--quenched in cold decay,
Better to die, and sleep
The never-waking sleep, than linger on
And dare to live, when the soul's life is gone;
But thou shalt weep,
Thou wretched father, for thy dearest son,
The best beloved, by inward Furies torn,
The deepest, bitterest curse, thine ancient house hath borne!

Tecmessa, his wife, begs Ajax not to leave her unprotected: "With my little son I should be made serve, and must bear the bitter taunt that I--once consort of the bravest--should fall so low. Have some thought for thy poor aged parents, who pray the gods that they may see thee home again. Pity the child, who, if he lose his father, must find unkindly guardians. And, lastly, think of me; for I have nothing but thy love."

Ajax asks for his son, whom, he says, his uncle, Teucer, with his comrades in arms, shall lead back home, to comfort his father and mother in their declining years. He also leaves to him his unconquered shield, desiring that his other arms be buried with him.

Yielding, as he pretends, to the prayers of his wife and the chorus, Ajax departs for the seashore, pretending that he is bound only on a peaceful mission: "And now I go to bathe where the meadows edge the sea; there to cleanse my hand from stain and avert the goddess' wrath. There I will bury deep in the earth my sword, deadly gift which once I had from Hector's hands. Thus I yield to those above, and learn to reverence the Atridæ, and loyally to help my friends."

While the chorus is rejoicing at this turn in affairs a messenger brings news of Teucer: "Just now came Teucer, back from Mysia, and as he passed through the middle of the camp the host insulted him, reproaching him for his brother's murderous attempt. They hurled stones at him, and threatening drew their swords forth from their scabbards, so that the counsel of the aged men could scarce restrain them. Therefore have I hastened hither that Ajax may know of this."

On hearing that Ajax has gone Teucer breaks into lament, "for Calchas urged him to keep Ajax in his tent for this one day; since for this day only would Pallas' wrath pursue him. The gods are angry on account of the proud words he spoke when, departing from home, his father warned him ever to seek victory with the gods' help. To this he had replied:

My father, with gods' help a man of naught
Might victory win; but I, I trust, shall grasp
Without their aid that glory for myself.

At another time, when Athena urged him to the fight, he would not be obedient. Yet if he but survive this day he may gain deliverance.

The chorus calls Tecmessa, who hears the messenger's tidings. She hurries forth in great distress to seek her husband, and bids her friends with all haste search every bay of the coast, if so they may save a man who has gone out to seek his death.

The scene changes to a deserted place on the seashore. Ajax enters alone. He sharpens anew his sword, Hector's gift, on a stone, and fixes the hilt in the ground; then, when all is ready for his death, he calls on Zeus:

"To Teucer send swift message, that a brother's hands may raise my corpse, and that my enemies my not find me and cast me forth a prey to dogs and birds. I call on thee, Hermes, to grant me peaceful end; and you, Erinyes, to avenge my death on the Atridæ, that they may fall slain by their dearest kindred; and, lastly, thee I call, bright Heloise, to tell my aged parents of my sorrow and my doom. Bitter cries will my mother raise through all the city. But now is not the time for vain lament, but for speedy act."

Come, and look on me,
O Death, O Death! and yet in yonder world
I shall dwell with thee, speak enough with thee.
And thee I call, thou light of golden day,
Thou sun, who drivest on thy glorious car,
Thee, for this last time, never more again.
O light, O sacred land that was my home;
O Salamis, where stands my father's hearth,
That glorious Athens, with thy kindred race;
Ye streams and rivers here, and Troia's plains,
To you that fed my life I bid farewell;
This last, last word does Ajax speak to you,
All else I speak in Hades to the dead.

He then hurls himself upon his sword.

The chorus enters, seeking him; Tecmessa, too, comes and sees her husband's corpse. Both raise a dirge over the dead. Then Teucer arrives, having heard rumors of his brother's death. He bids them bring the son of Ajax, and laments the ill fate of son and father.

"When I go home our father will upbraid me, that I in coward fashion did abandon thee, my brother, seeking the dead man's heritage and power; and then will he drive me from my native land."

Menelaus then enters, and forbids them to give the body funeral rite or burial: "Let him lie stretched out upon the white sand, a prey to the birds of heaven." In vain the chorus tell him to show some reverence for the dead, and Teucer threatens to give his brother burial in spite of his command. After a fierce argument Menelaus retires.

Tecmessa enters with her son. Teucer bids him as a suppliant embrace his father's body, and then hold in his hand locks of hair cut from the child, his mother and Teucer himself, as offerings to the dead:

"And should one in all that host dare to tear thee from the dead, may he lie unburied, cut off with all his race, just as now I cut off this lock of hair. I go to make a grave for my brother, and none shall hinder me."

The chorus lament:

"Unending is woe in Trojan land! Would that he had vanished in air or sunk into Hades who first taught man the use of arms and war! For he that lays men low gives no garlands, no joy of flowing cup at banquet, no sounds of flute, nor kindly rest at night. Till now has Ajax aye been our shield; but now a hateful doom has taken him, and with him goes all joy. Would that we could flee to Sunium's sea-washed cliffs, and once more greet our holy Athens!"

Teucer returns, and soon after Agamemnon enters. Their dispute about the burial of Ajax is interrupted by Odysseus. He blames Agamemnon for refusing burial to such a man, who, if their enemy, was yet one of the best and bravest of the Grecian host. "Most wrong would it be that he should suffer outrage at our hands."

At last Agamemnon unwillingly consents, and Odysseus offers Teucer his aid in burying the hero. Teucer declines his help, as perchance unwelcome to the dead; but he will ever esteem Odysseus for his generous spirit.

The funeral procession starts. Brother and son together bear the dead. "Let all," says Teucer, "who count themselves his friends show it in laboring for him, who in all was good, and none better than he."

The chorus follow, saying:

"Men may know many things on seeing them,
But, ere they come in sight,
No man is prophet of the things that come,
To tell how he shall fare."

Fault has been frequently found with the concluding scenes of the Ajax, and the prolongation of the play after the death of the hero; and it has even been aserted that these scenes destroy the "unity" of the action. But we may compare with this the close of the Iliad, which does not end with the death of Hector, but goes on to describe the funeral rites of Patroclus, the banquets, the dirges and the burial. So in the same way the tragedian could not break off with the death of Ajax; the hero himself expresses a fear that, unless Teucer sets to work at once, his burial will be prevented. In reference to this point Bernhardy well remarks: "The poet could not end the play with the death of the hero. Although he renounces life to escape his shame, yet the feeling of impiety in his act still challenges opposition. The punishing hand can reach beyond the grave; his human judge may still exact vengeance by forbidding burial. This very fact is utilized to mark a turning-point in the drama. The dispute about the burial, which resolves itself into a question of what is just, shows us that the goddess is appeased; from the mouth of her favorite captain the fallen hero receives a eulogy, which brings his services to mind, and affords satisfaction to all."

Self-destruction is of frequent occurrence in the tragic interpretation of mythology, though due for the most part to insanity or to some dire misfortune too heavy for the sufferer to bear; but the self-murder of Ajax is a free act, a deliberate resolve, and deserving of special treatment. It is not the fatal culmination of melancholy, as is often the case in modern times; nor is it the mere disgust of life, grounded on the conviction of its worthlessness, which induced many of the Romans to shorten their days. No unmanly faint-heartedness makes Ajax unfaithful to his rude heroism. His delirium is gone, and it is not till after the most complete return to himself, when he has measured the depth of the abyss into which his pride has plunged him; when he surveys his situation, and finds it to be one of irretrievable ruin; his honor wounded by the loss of the arms of Achilles; the unhappy issue of his vengeful anger missing its aim, and the falling on defenseless herds; himself, after a long and blameless career of heroism, become a diversion to his enemies, to the Greeks an object of scorn and detestation, and of shame to his honored father should he thus return to him; it is only after all this that he resolves to put in practice his favorite maxim, "Live with glory or die with glory," for he feels that only the last resource is left him. Even the deceit, the first perhaps in his life, by which he quits his companions, that he may be able to execute his resolution undisturbed, must be reckoned in him an act of magnanimity. His infant son, the future comfort of his forlorn parents, he commits to the guardianship of Teucer, and dies, like Cato, not before he has set in order the affairs of all who belong to him. Like Antigone in her womanly tenderness, he, too, in his wild fashion seems in his last speech to feel the glory of the sun-light, from which he is departing. His rude courage disdains compassion, and so only excites it the more forcibly. What an awaking from the tumult of madness, when the tent opens, and we see him sitting on the ground wailing in the midst of the slaughtered herds!

Purchase Books on Ajax


  • Sophocles and His Tragedies - Biography of the Greek dramatist and analysis of his poetic qualities.
  • Ajax - An analysis of the play by Sophocles.
  • The Antigone - Summary and analysis of the play by Sophocles.
  • Electra - Summary and analysis of the play by Sophocles.

Back to Sophocles Index

Home · Theatre Links · Script Archive · Bookstore · Email · © 2002 TheatreHistory.com