on 17 June 1999
"Ajax" is probably the earliest extant play of Sophocles. Sophocles is the earliest known playwright to use painted scenery. He also decreased the importance of the chorus, added a third actor, and abandoned the trilogy format (each play is complete by itself). Ajax is the classical Greek tragedy about the downfall of a man who is sinned against and has a tragic flaw; in this case, insolence and pride. Ajax becomes enraged when Achilles' armor is awarded to Odysseus instead of to him. Agamemnon and Menelaus also exhibit insolence when they refuse to bury Ajax after his suicide. But, Odysseus changes their minds. This play is probably the earliest known example of a play containing a scene of violence on the stage instead of offstage. In "The Women of Trachis," considered my many critics to be the poorest of the seven extant plays of Sophocles, the wife of Heracles, Deianira, unknowingly sends a poisoned robe to her husband who has finally completed his labors. She is also concerned that she has allowed a rival for the affections of her husband to enter her household. Hercules has sent the captive Iole to Deianira. As Hercules lies dying, he orders his son Hyllus to marry Iole. Does Hercules truly love Iole? Even when dying, he is concerned for her future. In "Electra," the daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra awaits the return of her brother Orestes so that he can avenge the murder of their father. I think that many scholars have tended to misread this play. It is a play about Electra, not about Orestes or Clytemnestra or Aegisthus. And, it is a tragedy. Should one allow hatred to rule their own lives to such an extent as seen in Electra, even when one is in the right? Finally, "Philoctetes," a member of a group of plays that won first prize in Athens, is concerned with a man who has been left marooned on an island several years earlier (because of his disease) under orders of Agamemnon and Menelaus. But, the two kings later discover that Troy cannot be conquered without Philoctetes and his bow, a bow given to him by Heracles. Odysseus and Neoptolemus (the son of the late Achilles) arrive at the island to persuade or trick Philoctetes to return with them. Neoptolemus wants to be noble in his actions; yet, his commander, Odysseus, wants to use guile. At the end, a deus-ex-machina device is used to resolve the conflict. All four plays should be required reading for any educated person.