Philoctetes

by

Sophocles

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Philoctetes Character Analysis

Philoctetes is a famous Greek archer, Poeas’s son, and the protagonist of Sophocles’s Philoctetes. According to myth, Philoctetes led seven ships to Troy on the first expedition to fight in the Trojan War but was bitten by a snake after inadvertently disturbing the shrine of Chryse on the island of the same name. The bite festered and developed into a painful wound that drained “revolting pus” and refused to heal. Philoctetes’s cries of agony interrupted the prayers of the other Greeks, so they marooned him on the deserted island of Lemnos. Nine years later, Philoctetes is still suffering alone on the island, but Helenus’s prophecy claims the Trojan War cannot be won without Philoctetes and his unerring bow and arrows, which were a gift from the god Heracles. Odysseus brings Neoptolemus and the chorus of Greek sailors to Lemnos to steal Philoctetes’s bow and arrows and take him back to Troy. Philoctetes refuses to help Odysseus and Atreus’ sons, the leaders of the attack on Troy, as they were the same men who abandoned him. Philoctetes’s hateful grudge is stronger than his love for his country or his desire to be cured of his wound. Just as Philoctetes convinces Neoptolemus to sail him home to Greece, Heracles appears from the sky and speaks the word of Zeus. Philoctetes must go to Troy, where he and Neoptolemus will sack the city. Heracles also says that Philoctetes will shoot and kill Paris, the prince of Troy, effectively ending the war and saving untold Greek lives. Philoctetes immediately agrees to go to Troy upon Heracles’s command, where, according to myth, he is healed of his wound and hailed as a hero. The character of Philoctetes highlights the discrimination against disabled people in Greek society. After Philoctetes’s snake bite and crippling wound, the army throws him away with little thought. His disability means he isn’t useful to them anymore, and his suffering makes them uncomfortable. However, Sophocles indicates that Philoctetes and other disabled people are still valuable and should be treated with respect; in fact, since Philoctetes is needed to end the war, he is absolutely crucial to Greek society.

Philoctetes Quotes in Philoctetes

The Philoctetes quotes below are all either spoken by Philoctetes or refer to Philoctetes. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Disability and Discrimination Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Penguin edition of Philoctetes published in 2008.
Scene 1 (Lines 1 – 134) Quotes

Now, Neoptolemus, true-born son of Achilles,
Greatest of all the Greeks, it was here that I once
Put ashore the Malian, Poeas’ son, Philoctetes,
Acting upon the orders of my superiors.
The gnawing wound in his foot was oozing with pus.
We couldn’t pour a libation or offer sacrifice
Undisturbed. His animal shouts and yells
Were constantly filling the camp with sounds of ill omen.
That story needn’t detain us now, however.
This isn’t the moment for long discussion.

Related Characters: Odysseus (speaker), Philoctetes, Neoptolemus, Achilles, Poeas
Related Symbols: Philoctetes’s Wound 
Page Number: 203
Explanation and Analysis:

Now let me explain why you can safely meet
This man and secure his trust, when I can not.
You didn’t sail with the main expedition. You weren’t
Committed by oath or forced into taking part.
But every one of these charges applies to me.
If he sights me while the bow’s in his own possession,
I’m finished and you’ll be finished for being with me.
Those weapons can’t be resisted. Our task must be
To contrive a way for you to steal them from him.

Related Characters: Odysseus (speaker), Philoctetes, Neoptolemus
Page Number: 205
Explanation and Analysis:

I know, my boy, it isn’t part of your nature
To tell untruths or resort to double-dealing.
But victory’s a prize worth gaining. Bring yourself
To do it. We’ll prove our honesty later on.
Now, for a few hours, put yourself in my hands
And forgo your scruples. Then, for the rest of time,
Be called the most god-fearing man in the world!

Related Characters: Odysseus (speaker), Philoctetes, Neoptolemus
Page Number: 206
Explanation and Analysis:
Entry of the Chorus (Lines 135 – 218) Quotes

His dreadful fate’s no wonder to me.
If I have an inkling, his sufferings first
Were sent by the gods, when he entered the shrine
Of cruel Chryse, who dealt him his wound.
So what he endures now, far from his friends.
Must also be due to the will of some god:
He may not aim those god-given shafts,
Which none can resist, at the towers of Troy,
Till the time has come when the prophet declares
Those arrows will prove her destruction.

Related Characters: Neoptolemus (speaker), Philoctetes, Chorus, Chryse
Page Number: 210
Explanation and Analysis:
Scene 2 (Lines 219 – 675) Quotes

I’m here because the two Greek generals, backed
By Odysseus, shamefully flung me ashore, alone
And abandoned, to waste away with a raging wound.
Struck down by the savage bite of a deadly snake.
With that for company, son, they marooned me here
And left me to rot on my own. (The fleet had sailed
From the isle of Chryse, and this was their first port of call.)
Then once, to their joy, they’d seen me asleep on the shore
After a stormy passage, they laid me inside
A rocky cave and left, tossing me out
A few beggarly rags, with a small amount of available
Food to keep me alive and avoid pollution.

Related Characters: Philoctetes (speaker), Neoptolemus, Odysseus, Atreus’s Sons/The Atridae
Page Number: 212-3
Explanation and Analysis:

Now, my boy, let me tell you about the island.
No sailor will ever land here, if he can help it.
There’s nowhere safe he can anchor his ship, no port
In which he can trade for profit or find a welcome.
No sensible man would steer a course for this place.
He might, perhaps, put in because he is forced to—
It happens now and again in a long lifetime.
Such people, when they arrive, my boy, will say
They’re sorry for me. They might feel sorry enough
To give me a scrap of food or something to wear.
But when I raise the question of taking me home,
Nobody wants to do it.

Related Characters: Philoctetes (speaker), Neoptolemus, Odysseus, Atreus’s Sons/The Atridae
Related Symbols: Philoctetes’s Wound 
Page Number: 213-4
Explanation and Analysis:

No, either bring me safely as far as your home
In Scyros, or else to Calchodon’s place in Euboea.
From there it’s only an easy crossing to Oeta,
To Trachis’ heights and Spercheiis’ beautiful stream.
And so you can show me again to my own dear father—
Though I’ve been long afraid I shall find him gone.
When people arrived, I often used to send him
Imploring messages, hoping he might be able
To come in a ship of his own and fetch me home.
But either he’s dead, or else my messengers couldn’t
Be bothered with me—it was natural enough, I suppose—
And wanted to hurry on with their homeward voyage.

Related Characters: Philoctetes (speaker), Neoptolemus, Poeas
Page Number: 219
Explanation and Analysis:
Scene 3 (Lines 730 – 1080) Quotes

Neoptolemus: What new attack is this?
What’s making you groan and howl so loudly?

Philoctetes: You know, my boy!

Neoptolemus: What is it?

Philoctetes: You know, my son!

Neoptolemus: I don’t. Tell me!

Philoctetes: You must know! [Another howl of pain.]

Neoptolemus: Yes, your wound—it’s a terrible load to carry.

Philoctetes: It can’t be described. Still, you can show me pity.

Neoptolemus: What can I do?

Philoctetes: Don’t leave me because you are frightened.
The torturer comes and goes and will let me alone,
Perhaps, when he’s done his worst.

Related Characters: Philoctetes (speaker), Neoptolemus (speaker)
Related Symbols: Philoctetes’s Wound 
Page Number: 228-9
Explanation and Analysis:

Death, death, I call on you to my aid
Like this every day. Why can you never come?
My boy, you are nobly born. Seize my body
And burn me in the volcano, the holy fire
Of Lemnos. Be true to your nature. I brought myself
To do the same for Heracles, son of Zeus,
The hero who gave me the arms you now are guarding.
What do you say, my son? Oh, speak!
Why are you dumb? You seem to be lost, boy!

Related Characters: Philoctetes (speaker), Neoptolemus, Heracles, Zeus
Page Number: 230
Explanation and Analysis:

You are not bad, I’m sure. But wicked men
Have taught you this base behavior. Leave it to others
And sail. But first return my weapons to me.

Related Characters: Philoctetes (speaker), Neoptolemus, Odysseus, Atreus’s Sons/The Atridae
Page Number: 237
Explanation and Analysis:

So why are you taking me now and carting me off?
What for? I’m nothing to you. I’ve long been dead.
How, you bane of the gods, am I no longer
A stinking cripple? How, if I come on board,
Will you burn your victims or go on pouring libations?
That was your specious pretext for throwing me out.
Perish the lot of you! Perish you surely will
For the injuries done to me, if the gods have any
Concern for justice. I know they have. You’d never
Have crossed the sea in quest of a mouldering wretch,
Unless some spur from heaven were goading you on.

Related Characters: Philoctetes (speaker), Odysseus, Helenus
Related Symbols: Philoctetes’s Wound 
Page Number: 239-40
Explanation and Analysis:
Lament (Lines 1081 – 1218) Quotes

You only have yourself to blame, unhappy man.
Nothing has struck you with force irresistible.
Where was your better judgement?
Fate would have been kinder, but you
Chose to accept a worse life.

Related Characters: Chorus (speaker), Philoctetes
Page Number: 242
Explanation and Analysis:

True men always will plead their causes justly.
Yet once they’ve spoken, they say no more.
Curb their spite and withdraw their sting.
Our young master was chosen.
Under Odysseus’ orders he came.
Helping friends and doing his public duty.

Related Characters: Chorus (speaker), Philoctetes, Neoptolemus, Odysseus
Page Number: 243
Explanation and Analysis:
Scene 4 (Lines 1219 – 1407) Quotes

Odysseus: Please tell me why you’re coming back!
What’s all this frantic haste for, man?

Neoptolemus: To undo the wrongs that I did before.

Odysseus: I don’t understand. What wrong have you done?

Neoptolemus: I listened to you and the whole Greek army.

Odysseus: What wicked action did that entail?

Neoptolemus: Guile and deceit to entrap a man.

Odysseus: For god’s sake, whom? What crazy idea . . .

Neoptolemus: Not crazy at all. To give Philoctetes . . .

Odysseus: What do you mean to do? I’m frightened.

Neoptolemus: To restore this bow I stole to its proper . . .

Odysseus: What! Are you going to give it back?

Neoptolemus: Yes, it was shameful and wrong to take it.

Related Characters: Neoptolemus (speaker), Odysseus (speaker), Philoctetes
Page Number: 246
Explanation and Analysis:

Odysseus: For heaven’s sake, are you joking with me?

Neoptolemus: If telling the truth is a joke, I am.

Odysseus: Look here, Neoptolemus! What do you mean?

Neoptolemus: Have I got to repeat it three times over?

Odysseus: I wish I needn’t have heard it once.

Neoptolemus: Well, it’s all that I have to say.

Odysseus: Be careful! You may quite well be prevented.

Neoptolemus: Tell me, Odysseus, who will prevent me?

Odysseus: The whole Greek army, myself included.

Neoptolemus: A foolish remark for a clever man!

Odysseus: Your words and actions are no less foolish.

Neoptolemus: I’d rather my actions were right than wise.

Related Characters: Neoptolemus (speaker), Odysseus (speaker), Philoctetes
Page Number: 24
Explanation and Analysis:

My actions will prove me true. Put out your hand.
These weapons belong to you. Take hold of them now.

Related Characters: Neoptolemus (speaker), Philoctetes
Page Number: 249
Explanation and Analysis:

All men are bound to endure with patience
The various chances of life which heaven brings.
But if they cling to trouble that’s self-inflicted,
As you are doing, they don’t deserve any pity
Or understanding. You’ve grown too brutal. You won’t
Accept advice, and if somebody out of kindness
Makes a suggestion, you hate him as though he were
Your implacable foe. But still. I’m going to speak,
And I call on Zeus, god of oaths, to bear me witness.
Mark what I say, and carefully take it to heart.

Related Characters: Neoptolemus (speaker), Philoctetes, Zeus
Related Symbols: Philoctetes’s Wound 
Page Number: 251
Explanation and Analysis:

Now that you know this, surely you must agree,
And gladly. You have so much to gain. First,
To come into healing hands, and then to be judged
The foremost hero of Greece, by taking Troy,
The city of sorrows, and winning the highest glory.

Related Characters: Neoptolemus (speaker), Philoctetes, Helenus
Related Symbols: Philoctetes’s Wound 
Page Number: 251
Explanation and Analysis:
Closing Scene (Lines 1408 – 1472) Quotes

You’ll go with Neoptolemus to Troy,
Where first your painful wound will soon be healed.
Then, chosen for your prowess from the host,
You’ll use my bow and arrows to bring down
Paris, the cause of all this bitter strife.
When you’ve sacked Troy, the army will present
You with the prize of valour, and you’ll bear
Your spoils back to your home on Oeta’s heights
To show your father Poeas. Do not fail,
Whatever spoils the army grants to you,
To lay a portion on my pyre in tribute
To my bow.

Related Characters: Heracles (speaker), Philoctetes, Neoptolemus, Poeas, Paris
Page Number: 255
Explanation and Analysis:

Now, Neoptolemus,
My words concern you too. You’ll not take Troy
Without his aid, nor he without your help.
No, each one guard the other, like two lions
Prowling the bush together. [to Philoctetes:] I shall send
Asclepius to heal your wounds in Troy.
The citadel must be captured by my bow
A second time. But when you lay the land
To waste, remember this: show piety
Towards the gods, since nothing ranks so high
With Zeus. For piety does not die with men.
Men live or die, but piety cannot perish.

Related Characters: Heracles (speaker), Philoctetes, Neoptolemus, Zeus, Asclepius, Priam
Page Number: 255
Explanation and Analysis:
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Philoctetes Character Timeline in Philoctetes

The timeline below shows where the character Philoctetes appears in Philoctetes. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Scene 1 (Lines 1 – 134)
Disability and Discrimination Theme Icon
...Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles, that this island is where Odysseus and his crew marooned Philoctetes, the son of Poeas, at the behest of his superiors. The wound on Philoctetes’s foot... (full context)
Disability and Discrimination Theme Icon
Suffering and Isolation Theme Icon
 Odysseus tells Neoptolemus that Philoctetes must not know Odysseus is on the island, which is why Odysseus needs Neoptolemus’s help.... (full context)
Deception, Ethics, and War Theme Icon
Suffering and Isolation Theme Icon
The cave must be Philoctetes’s shelter, Odysseus says, and his wound must be as bad as ever. Philoctetes has to... (full context)
Deception, Ethics, and War Theme Icon
Neoptolemus is to tell Philoctetes that the Greek army approached Neoptolemus and begged him to come to Troy, as the... (full context)
Deception, Ethics, and War Theme Icon
Decisions, Obligation, and the Greater Good Theme Icon
Only Neoptolemus will be able to gain Philoctetes’s trust, Odysseus says, because Neoptolemus (unlike Odysseus) was not part of the expedition that abandoned... (full context)
Deception, Ethics, and War Theme Icon
Decisions, Obligation, and the Greater Good Theme Icon
...be deceptive. Nor, Neoptolemus reminds Odysseus, was it in Achilles’s nature. Neoptolemus would rather take Philoctetes by force. He wants to follow Odysseus’s orders, Neoptolemus says, but he would rather fail... (full context)
Deception, Ethics, and War Theme Icon
Decisions, Obligation, and the Greater Good Theme Icon
“It’s words, not deeds, that shape the course of events,” Odysseus says to Neoptolemus. Philoctetes’s bow and arrows never miss the mark; therefore, he cannot be forced to give them... (full context)
Deception, Ethics, and War Theme Icon
Odysseus orders Neoptolemus to remain near Philoctetes’s cave and wait for him to come back. Odysseus will return to the ship, but... (full context)
Entry of the Chorus (Lines 135 – 218)
Suffering and Isolation Theme Icon
...Greek sailors, arrives and asks Neoptolemus for their orders. He tells the sailors to inspect Philoctetes’s cave but to keep their eyes peeled for Philoctetes’s return. If Philoctetes sneaks up on... (full context)
Disability and Discrimination Theme Icon
The chorus laments Philoctetes’s miserable plight. Philoctetes is all alone without anyone to care for him, and his infected... (full context)
Disability and Discrimination Theme Icon
Suffering and Isolation Theme Icon
Neoptolemus informs the chorus that Philoctetes’s suffering has been ordered by the gods. Philoctetes was bitten by a poisonous snake after... (full context)
Scene 2 (Lines 219 – 675)
Disability and Discrimination Theme Icon
Suffering and Isolation Theme Icon
 Philoctetes approaches his cave and the strange sailors, and he immediately asks the chorus and Neoptolemus... (full context)
Disability and Discrimination Theme Icon
Deception, Ethics, and War Theme Icon
Neoptolemus confirms that he and the chorus are indeed Greeks, and Philoctetes, excited to hear this, asks them why they have come to Lemnos. Neoptolemus tells Philoctetes... (full context)
Disability and Discrimination Theme Icon
Philoctetes is distraught. The gods must despise him, Philoctetes says to Neoptolemus and the chorus, if... (full context)
Disability and Discrimination Theme Icon
Suffering and Isolation Theme Icon
 When Philoctetes woke and found himself alone on Lemnos, he tells Neoptolemus and the chorus, he was... (full context)
Disability and Discrimination Theme Icon
Deception, Ethics, and War Theme Icon
No one comes to Lemnos because they want to, Philoctetes tells Neoptolemus and the chorus. Only if they are “forced,” he says. There have been... (full context)
Deception, Ethics, and War Theme Icon
Neoptolemus tells Philoctetes that he knows all about how terrible Atreus’s sons and Odysseus are, as they have... (full context)
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Philoctetes tells Neoptolemus that their shared anger with Atreus’s sons and Odysseus must mean that he... (full context)
Disability and Discrimination Theme Icon
Philoctetes begs Neoptolemus not to leave him on Lemnos all alone and asks if he might... (full context)
Disability and Discrimination Theme Icon
The chorus implores Neoptolemus to agree to take Philoctetes and not leave him alone on Lemnos. Neoptolemus tells the men that they are eager... (full context)
Deception, Ethics, and War Theme Icon
...Neoptolemus asks who this other person is, but instead of answering, the merchant points to Philoctetes and asks who he is. (full context)
Disability and Discrimination Theme Icon
Neoptolemus tells the merchant that the man is Philoctetes, the famous archer, and the merchant tells Neoptolemus he must leave Lemnos immediately. Odysseus and... (full context)
Deception, Ethics, and War Theme Icon
The merchant tells Neoptolemus and Philoctetes that the Greeks had recently captured Helenus, the prophet and son of Priam, and he... (full context)
Suffering and Isolation Theme Icon
Neoptolemus tells Philoctetes and the chorus that they must sail at once, and Philoctetes goes to his cave... (full context)
Choral Song (Lines 676 – 728)
Disability and Discrimination Theme Icon
The chorus continues to lament Philoctetes’s plight. He has never hurt a soul and has always lived in peace with his... (full context)
Scene 3 (Lines 730 – 1080)
Suffering and Isolation Theme Icon
As Neoptolemus enters the cave, Philoctetes begins to moan loudly. Neoptolemus asks if his wound is causing him pain, and Philoctetes... (full context)
Deception, Ethics, and War Theme Icon
Suffering and Isolation Theme Icon
Decisions, Obligation, and the Greater Good Theme Icon
Philoctetes hands Neoptolemus the bow and arrows and asks him to keep them safe until his... (full context)
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Neoptolemus prays to the gods to ease Philoctetes’s pain, but Philoctetes says it is no use. The blood has begun to flow, and... (full context)
Deception, Ethics, and War Theme Icon
Decisions, Obligation, and the Greater Good Theme Icon
Neoptolemus promises Philoctetes that he won’t leave him, just as Philoctetes falls into a delirium. Neoptolemus notices that... (full context)
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Deception, Ethics, and War Theme Icon
Decisions, Obligation, and the Greater Good Theme Icon
The chorus again tries to convince Neoptolemus to leave Philoctetes. He refuses and tells the men to keep quiet as Philoctetes begins to wake. Philoctetes... (full context)
Deception, Ethics, and War Theme Icon
Decisions, Obligation, and the Greater Good Theme Icon
Neoptolemus tells Philoctetes that he is “torn apart” but cannot tell him why. He is disgusted with himself... (full context)
Decisions, Obligation, and the Greater Good Theme Icon
Neoptolemus tells Philoctetes that he must sail to Troy to help the Greeks win the Trojan War, which... (full context)
Deception, Ethics, and War Theme Icon
Decisions, Obligation, and the Greater Good Theme Icon
...to return the bow and arrows. “Right and interest alike demand it,” he says to Philoctetes. Philoctetes curses Neoptolemus and asks if he has any shame. Without the bow and arrows,... (full context)
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Decisions, Obligation, and the Greater Good Theme Icon
Philoctetes returns to his cave without the bow and arrows, resolved to die on Lemnos. The... (full context)
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Odysseus suddenly appears and tells Philoctetes that he has been on Lemnos all along. In a panic, Philoctetes again begs Neoptolemus... (full context)
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Deception, Ethics, and War Theme Icon
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Philoctetes curses Odysseus, but he can see that Neoptolemus is feeling remorseful. Philoctetes asks Odysseus why... (full context)
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Decisions, Obligation, and the Greater Good Theme Icon
The chorus tells Philoctetes that Odysseus is their superior and they must obey him, but Neoptolemus orders the chorus... (full context)
Lament (Lines 1081 – 1218)
Decisions, Obligation, and the Greater Good Theme Icon
 Philoctetes cries in his cave. He is not destined to leave Lemnos after all, and since... (full context)
Deception, Ethics, and War Theme Icon
Suffering and Isolation Theme Icon
Decisions, Obligation, and the Greater Good Theme Icon
Philoctetes imagines Neoptolemus mocking him as he holds the bow and arrows, but the chorus says... (full context)
Decisions, Obligation, and the Greater Good Theme Icon
Philoctetes again apologizes to the chorus, but he can never agree to go to Troy and... (full context)
Scene 4 (Lines 1219 – 1407)
Deception, Ethics, and War Theme Icon
Decisions, Obligation, and the Greater Good Theme Icon
...Neoptolemus that his actions are mad, but Neoptolemus says he must return the bow to Philoctetes. It was wrong to take it in the first place. Odysseus tries to stop Neoptolemus,... (full context)
Deception, Ethics, and War Theme Icon
Decisions, Obligation, and the Greater Good Theme Icon
Neoptolemus yells to Philoctetes to come out of his cave. He tells Philoctetes that he has “change[d] his mind,”... (full context)
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Odysseus appears and forbids Neoptolemus to give Philoctetes the bow and arrows. He says he will force Philoctetes to go to Troy regardless... (full context)
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Neoptolemus is glad to hear that Philoctetes has forgiven him, but he tells Philoctetes that if he continues to hold fast to... (full context)
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Helenus, the prophet, has prophesized that Philoctetes and Neoptolemus will bring down Troy and be hailed as heroes. There is more to... (full context)
Decisions, Obligation, and the Greater Good Theme Icon
Philoctetes reminds Neoptolemus that he promised to take him home, and he asks him again to... (full context)
Closing Scene (Lines 1408 – 1472)
Decisions, Obligation, and the Greater Good Theme Icon
Suddenly, Heracles appears from the sky above and tells Philoctetes and Neoptolemus to stop and listen to him. Heracles has brought the word of Zeus,... (full context)
Decisions, Obligation, and the Greater Good Theme Icon
Heracles tells Philoctetes and Neoptolemus that they must go to Troy together to end the Trojan War, and... (full context)