Philoctetes approaches his cave and the strange sailors, and he immediately asks the chorus and Neoptolemus who they are and why they are there. Lemnos doesn’t have a harbor, he says, nor does anyone live there—other than Philoctetes, that is. He thinks the men are Greeks, and he hopes that they are so he can listen to their language. He tells them not to be scared by his “wild appearance.” He is but a “miserable wretch,” Philoctetes says, without anyone to help him.
Philoctetes’s “wild appearance” is evidence of his miserable and painful life on Lemnos, but it also adds to the discrimination he endures because of his disability. The few Greeks that have stopped on Lemnos have been put off by Philoctetes’s appearance and refused to help him because of it, which only added to Philoctetes’s suffering and misery.
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 that he is the son of Achilles. Neoptolemus and his men have just left Troy, he says, and are headed home to the island of Scyros. Philoctetes is confused; Neoptolemus wasn’t with the initial expedition to Troy. Neoptolemus feigns surprise and asks Philoctetes if he, too, was involved in the Trojan War.
Neoptolemus’s story is, of course, a lie, and it is a key example of deception in Philoctetes. Neoptolemus must pretend that he doesn’t know who Philoctetes is because Philoctetes was a very famous archer before he was marooned on Lemnos, which Sophocles implies most Greeks know about, too; they simply leave him there because he is disabled and ostracized by society.
Philoctetes is distraught. The gods must despise him, Philoctetes says to Neoptolemus and the chorus, if no word or rumors of him have reached the Greeks. Philoctetes tells the men that he has been “cast out” by the same people who have silenced his story “in delight,” all while his wound is worsening. He tells them that he is Philoctetes, the son of Poeas, and the one who owns Heracles’s bow and arrows. He was marooned on Lemnos by Odysseus after he was bitten by a poisonous snake on the island Chryse while en route to Troy. Odysseus and his men left Philoctetes “to rot” on the very next island, which was Lemnos. As Philoctetes slept, the men carried him to the cave and left him with “a few beggarly rags” and a little food.
Philoctetes’s treatment by Odysseus and the Greek sailors is reprehensible, and it underscores the poor treatment of disabled people in Greek society. Philoctetes is a respected warrior and hero, yet he is easily rejected by the army and society at large after he is injured on his way to fight on behalf of Greece in the Trojan War. Philoctetes’s sacrifice to his country alone warrants him more respect, but he is repeatedly mistreated by everyone he encounters, including, at times, Neoptolemus and the chorus.
When Philoctetes woke and found himself alone on Lemnos, he tells Neoptolemus and the chorus, he was devastated. He had cried when he saw the Greek ship sailing away toward Troy because he knew that the island was deserted. There would be no one to comfort or care for him and his wound. Philoctetes’s life is only “pain and distress” on Lemnos. The cave offers him shelter and his bow and arrows ensure food; however, Philoctetes is merely surviving, and there is no “cure for [his] sickness.”
Philoctetes’s wound never heals, and there is no “cure” for it, which makes his suffering on Lemnos all the more miserable. Philoctetes’s wound, though physical, is also symbolic of the emotional pain and isolation he feels on the deserted island. Furthermore, his recounting of his abandonment underscores his marginalization within Greek society because of his disability.
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 a few people over the years, and they always “say” they feel badly for Philoctetes (they even give him food and clothing), but no one will bring him home to Greece. He has “been rotting away” on Lemnos for nine years now, all because of Atreus’s sons and Odysseus.
Philoctetes again claims he has been left on the island to “rot” because of his disability. Notably, Neoptolemus is actually an example of the very kind of visitor that Philoctetes describes ehre. He has been “forced” to come to Lemnos against his will, since Odysseus and Atreus’s sons have ordered him to go. And like the other Greeks, Neoptolemus initially “says” he feels badly for Philoctetes but is really attempting to deceive him.
Neoptolemus tells Philoctetes that he knows all about how terrible Atreus’s sons and Odysseus are, as they have offended him, too. Odysseus had come to Scyros and told Neoptolemus that it had been prophesized that the city of Troy could not be captured without Neoptolemus. Neoptolemus immediately agreed to sail for Troy, but when he got there, Atreus’s sons refused to give him Achilles’s arms. Achilles’s armor belongs to Odysseus now, Atreus’s sons said.
Obviously, Neoptolemus’s story is part of Odysseus’s elaborate lie, and it is meant to gain Philoctetes’s trust through a common hatred for Atreus’s sons and Odysseus. Ironically, Neoptolemus really does have cause to despise Atreus’s sons and Odysseus, since they are the ones who have forced Neoptolemus to go to Troy and lie to Philoctetes; the lie contains a bit of truth, and Sophocles implies that simply telling that truth might have been a nobler and more effective way to win Philoctetes over and serve the Greek army.
Philoctetes tells Neoptolemus that their shared anger with Atreus’s sons and Odysseus must mean that he can trust him. Philoctetes knows that Odysseus will do or say anything to serve his selfish means, so he isn’t surprised to hear he treated Neoptolemus so badly. He is, however, surprised to hear that Ajax allowed such an atrocity. Neoptolemus claims that Ajax died in battle beforehand and was not there to protest. “I’m sorry,” Philoctetes says of Ajax’s death. “But Diomedes and Sisyphus’ / Spawn, whom Laertes bought, will never / Die. They should not have been born!”
Laertes is Odysseus’s father, but Philoctetes implies here that Sisyphus, who represents deception in Sophocles’s play, is Odysseus’s real father. According to myth, Sisyphus seduced Odysseus’s mother before Laertes paid her dowry, and Philoctetes therefore suggests that Laertes “bought” Odysseus, too. Diomedes is a close friend of Odysseus’s, and in many versions of the myth of Philoctetes, Diomedes accompanies Odysseus to bring Philoctetes to Troy instead of Neoptolemus.
Philoctetes begs Neoptolemus not to leave him on Lemnos all alone and asks if he might find passage on their ship. He only needs a small corner of the ship, Philoctetes says. He knows that it will be difficult to travel with him, but he begs Neoptolemus to agree to take him anyway. Even if Neoptolemus only agrees to bring Philoctetes to Scyros, he will surely be able to get word to Poeas, if he is still alive, to come get him. Philoctetes has already sent word to Poeas through others who have come to Lemnos, but Poeas has not come. He may be dead, Philoctetes says, “or else my messengers couldn’t / Be bothered with me.”
It is later revealed that Poeas is not dead, which implies that the other Greeks simply couldn’t be “bothered” to help Philoctetes because they were so put off by his disability. Philoctetes’s willingness to be relegated to a corner of Neoptolemus’s ship suggests that Philoctetes, too, considers himself repulsive because of his disability and his festering wound, which further underscores the prejudice against those with disabilities in Greek society.
The chorus implores Neoptolemus to agree to take Philoctetes and not leave him alone on Lemnos. Neoptolemus tells the men that they are eager to help now, but when they are forced to live with Philoctetes onboard the ship they may “change [their] tune.” The chorus wants to help Philoctetes anyway and Neoptolemus agrees. Philoctetes is overjoyed. He has waited for this day for so long, but he would first like to tell the island goodbye. Suddenly, they are approached by two Greek sailors, and one is disguised as a merchant.
Neoptolemus’s comment that the men will change their minds once they are forced to live with Philoctetes again highlights prejudice against the disabled in Greek society. Philoctetes’s wound drains foul, putrid pus, which means that no one wants to live in close quarters with him and are willing to leave him “rotting” on the island just to avoid it. Sophocles’s language, that the men will “change [their] tune,” also reflects the musical nature of the chorus, whose lines are often meant to be sung.
The merchant tells Neoptolemus that he is a trader of wine headed from Troy to his home, the island of Peparethos, and when he discovered Neoptolemus’s ship nearby, he knew he had to stop and warn him. The Greeks have a new plan that concerns Neoptolemus, the merchant says, and it is already in motion. A ship has sailed from Troy to find Neoptolemus and bring him back, and Odysseus and Diomedes have left on anther ship to find someone else. Neoptolemus asks who this other person is, but instead of answering, the merchant points to Philoctetes and asks who he is.
The merchant means to imply that Odysseus and Diomedes are en route to Lemnos to bring Philoctetes to Troy, which again alludes to other versions of the same myth in which it is Diomedes, not Neoptolemus, who accompanies Odysseus to Lemnos. The merchant, of course, knows full well who Philoctetes is; he is simply advancing Odysseus’s deceptive plot to trick Philoctetes into going to Troy.
Neoptolemus tells the merchant that the man is Philoctetes, the famous archer, and the merchant tells Neoptolemus he must leave Lemnos immediately. Odysseus and Diomedes are en route to retrieve Philoctetes at this very moment, the merchant says, and have vowed to bring him to Troy by either force or persuasion. Neoptolemus asks the merchant what Atreus’s sons could possibly want with Philoctetes now, since they ordered him marooned here so many years ago.
Neoptolemus’s question again underscores prejudice against disabled people in Greek society. Atreus’s sons ordered Philoctetes to be abandoned on the island because his disability disrupted the Greek army and made them uncomfortable, but they are willing to take him back now that he is valuable to them. Sophocles implies here that Philoctetes has been valuable all along, and that his poor treatment is a gross injustice.
The merchant tells Neoptolemus and Philoctetes that the Greeks had recently captured Helenus, the prophet and son of Priam, and he claimed that Troy would never be conquered without Philoctetes. Upon hearing this, Odysseus immediately left for Lemnos. Philoctetes claims he will never return to Troy with Odysseus, saying that Odysseus would have an easier time persuading Philoctetes to abandon the underworld and return to life like Odysseus’s “cheat of a father.” Philoctetes would rather obey the snake that bit him, he maintains, and there is nothing Odysseus can do or say to make him return to Troy. The merchant exits, wishing both men luck.
Sisyphus, who Philoctetes implies is Odysseus’s real father, is known for his deception in Greek mythology. As the story goes, Sisyphus told his wife to throw his body in the street after death as a test of her love and respect (if she refused to do such a disrespectful thing, he would consider her a good wife). She indeed threw his body in the street, and so Sisyphus convinced Persephone, the goddess of the underworld, to let him return to earth to haunt his wife, thereby cheating death and the underworld.
Neoptolemus tells Philoctetes and the chorus that they must sail at once, and Philoctetes goes to his cave to fetch his extra arrows and the herb he uses to quell the pain of his wound. Neoptolemus asks Philoctetes if the bow in his hands is the famous bow of Heracles, and Philoctetes confirms it is. Neoptolemus asks if he may hold the bow, and Philoctetes agrees. He now considers Neoptolemus a friend, and therefore trusts him with the bow. Philoctetes invites Neoptolemus into his cave. With his wound still so painful, he wants Neoptolemus close by.
Philoctetes’s willingness to let Neoptolemus hold his bow is evidence that he is beginning to trust Neoptolemus and believe his deceptive story. Sophocles suggests that the pain of Philoctetes’s wound is made worse by his isolation and loneliness; thus, Philoctetes wants Neoptolemus to remain near him, especially since he is gearing up for an acute episode of pain.