Odysseus and Neoptolemus arrive on the island of Lemnos. The island is completely deserted and not a house or ship can be seen. Odysseus tells 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 had been “oozing with pus,” and his constant screams of pain disrupted their prayers and offerings to the gods. Philoctetes’s cries had carried with them “sounds of ill omen,” Odysseus says. But, he tells Neoptolemus, they mustn’t be detained by Philoctetes’s story. Now isn’t the time for talking at length, Odysseus says.
Odysseus’s comment that they mustn’t be detained by Philoctetes’s story underscores the discrimination against the disabled in Greek society. Atreus’s sons order Odysseus to abandon Philoctetes on the deserted island of Lemnos because Philoctetes’s wound and suffering—his disability—makes them uncomfortable. Odysseus and his men don’t understand Philoctetes’s suffering and think it a bad omen, and Odysseus’s refusal to acknowledge Philoctetes’s full story is further evidence of Odysseus’s contempt for the disabled Philoctetes.
Odysseus tells Neoptolemus that Philoctetes must not know Odysseus is on the island, which is why Odysseus needs Neoptolemus’s help. He orders Neoptolemus to find the cave that Philoctetes has been living in. It has a double entrance, Odysseus says, and is near a stream. It only takes Neoptolemus a moment to find such a cave. The makeshift shelter has a mattress made of leaves and a crude cup for drinking, and Neoptolemus finds bandages drying in the sun that are soiled with “revolting pus.”
Philoctetes’s meager lodging on the island is evidence of his isolation and the suffering he endures because of it. He is forced to sleep on leaves and lives without many of life’s necessities. Neoptolemus’s comment regarding Philoctetes’s bandages and his “revolting pus” also underscores discrimination against the disabled in Greek society. Neoptolemus speaks of Philoctetes and his wound with disgust and disrespect rather than sympathy or compassion.
The cave must be Philoctetes’s shelter, Odysseus says, and his wound must be as bad as ever. Philoctetes has to be nearby, Odysseus continues, as his “old affliction” won’t allow him to travel far. Odysseus tells Neoptolemus that it is time to “prove [his] worth.” Odysseus’s plan may sound strange to him but Neoptolemus must remember, Odysseus says, that he is “here to serve.” Neoptolemus will “trick” Philoctetes, Odysseus orders, and tell Philoctetes that he, Neoptolemus, has just left the Greek army after a terrible fight with his superiors.
Philoctetes’s “old affliction” refers to the snake bite he endured on the island Chryse, and the wound is symbolic of Philoctetes’s isolation and suffering. Philoctetes’s wound never heals during his long isolation, which suggests that wounds (perhaps both physical and emotional) cannot heal without support from others. Through Odysseus’s orders to Neoptolemus and his comment that Neoptolemus is “here to serve,” Sophocles also implies that serving in the army often requires one to commit dishonest acts that go against one’s moral fiber.
Neoptolemus is to tell Philoctetes that the Greek army approached Neoptolemus and begged him to come to Troy, as the Trojan War can’t be won without him. Odysseus orders Neoptolemus to tell Philoctetes that he agreed to go with them, but when he asked the Greeks for his father, Achilles’s, arms, they refused and instead gave them to Odysseus. “Yes, you can be as rude as you like / About me,” Odysseus tells Neoptolemus. “I shan’t take it amiss.” However, Odysseus says, if Neoptolemus fails to convince Philoctetes that he is telling the truth, it will be bad for the whole of Greece. Neoptolemus will not be able to capture Troy without Philoctetes and his bow and arrows.
Sophocles refers to the prophecy of Helenus several times throughout the play, who claimed that the Trojan War can only be won if both Neoptolemus and Philoctetes go to Troy. While the prophecy is true, Odysseus keeping Achilles’s armor from Neoptolemus is a lie. According to myth, Odysseus and Ajax feuded over Achilles’s armor after his death, which led to Ajax’s suicide. Odysseus then gifted the armor to Neoptolemus. By inventing a conflict between himself and Neoptolemus, however, Odysseus is hoping the fake feud will win Philoctetes’s trust. Philoctetes hates Odysseus for marooning him on Lemnos, so Odysseus reasons that he’ll be more likely to trust Neoptolemus if he thinks that Neoptolemus hates Odysseus too.
Only Neoptolemus will be able to gain Philoctetes’s trust, Odysseus says, because Neoptolemus (unlike Odysseus) was not part of the expedition that abandoned Philoctetes on Lemnos. Neoptolemus must find a way to steal Philoctetes’s bow and arrows. Odysseus knows that it isn’t in Neoptolemus’s nature to be deceptive, but since it will help the Greeks win the Trojan War, it is worth it, Odysseus says. He tells Neoptolemus to forget his morals for just a little while. Afterwards, Neoptolemus can be as moral as he wants.
Here, Neoptolemus is expected to behave deceptively—which goes directly against his moral fiber—on behalf of the Greek army. Odysseus acknowledges that such dishonesty can be challenging, but he takes it lightly, arguing that it’s possible to set aside one’s morals and reclaim them later. As the play goes on, however, Sophocles indicates that true morality requires avoiding deception altogether.
Neoptolemus is hesitant to agree. Odysseus is right, Neoptolemus says: it is not in his nature to 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 “in a noble action than win an ignoble victory.”
Neoptolemus’s comment that he would rather fail “in a noble action than win an ignoble victory” underscores Neoptolemus’s inherent moral nature, but his desire to honor his obligation to the Greek army also highlights Sophocles’s argument that people often struggle between their own desires and what is best for the greater good of society.
“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 to Neoptolemus, Odysseus says, and he cannot be persuaded, either. Neoptolemus asks Odysseus if he believes it is wrong to tell lies. Not if it leads to victory, Odysseus replies. Only Neoptolemus can bring down Troy, Odysseus reminds him, but he can’t do it without Philoctetes and his bow and arrows. All of Greece will hail Neoptolemus as a cunning hero if he is successful, Odysseus says, and Neoptolemus, reluctantly, agrees.
Sophocles often explores deception in his plays and the difference between words and actions, and Odysseus’s comment is evidence of this. Words, compared to deeds or actions, are often deceptive, yet they “shape the course of events.” While Sophocles suggests that it is never ethical to use deception, even in war, he also maintains that sacrifices in morality are often required for the greater good, which results in a constant struggle in human beings that often cannot be reconciled.
Odysseus orders Neoptolemus to remain near Philoctetes’s cave and wait for him to come back. Odysseus will return to the ship, but he will send a sailor disguised as a merchant to tell Neoptolemus and Philoctetes an “elaborate tale.” After the merchant tells his story, Odysseus says, Neoptolemus will be on his own and will have to concoct his own lies to secure the bow and arrows. Odysseus calls to the god Hermes and the goddess Athena to bless their mission, and then he heads back to the ship.
Hermes is the Greek god of deception, which is why Odysseus invokes his name before returning to the ship to execute his deceptive plan. The “elaborate tale” told by the merchant also subtly alludes to the elaborate lie concocted by Orestes to fake his own death in Sophocles’s play Electra, which was written around the same time as Philoctetes and explores many of the same themes.