As Neoptolemus enters the cave, Philoctetes begins to moan loudly. Neoptolemus asks if his wound is causing him pain, and Philoctetes confirms it is. He screams and prays to the gods, no longer able to keep his immense pain hidden. He begs Neoptolemus to cut his foot off with his sword and not spare his life. Neoptolemus acknowledges that the pain must be unbearable, and Philoctetes says it is indeed indescribable, but Neoptolemus can still show compassion. “What can I do?” Neoptolemus asks. Philoctetes says he can stay with him until the pain has passed.
Philoctetes sheds valuable light on the way that isolation can exacerbate pain and suffering. Often, there is not much that can be done to ease one’s physical pain, but Neoptolemus’s question “What can I do?” and Philoctetes answer suggests that it is support and companionship that can ease pain and suffering. Neoptolemus may not be able to heal Philoctetes’s wound, but he can offer empathy, and Sophocles suggests that doing so might actually be the most powerful way to diminish Philoctetes’s pain.
Philoctetes hands Neoptolemus the bow and arrows and asks him to keep them safe until his acute attack of pain subsides. Once the attack is over, Philoctetes will fall into a deep sleep. After he wakes, his pain will be better and more manageable. He warns Neoptolemus not to let Odysseus have the bow if he arrives while Philoctetes sleeps. If he does, Odysseus will surely kill them both. Neoptolemus takes the bow and promises to keep it safe. No one else will touch the bow, Neoptolemus tells Philoctetes.
From the moment Neoptolemus promises Philoctetes that he will not let another soul touch his bow and arrows, it is clear that Neoptolemus will not be able to go through with Odysseus’s dishonest plan to steal Philoctetes’s bow. It is against Neoptolemus’s nature to lie, especially since he witnesses the agony Philoctetes is forced to endure alone on the island. But at the same time, Neoptolemus knows that this choice could cause the Greeks to lose the war. Through this example, Sophocles suggests that when it comes to balancing individual morality with the greater good, sometimes there’s no right answer.
Neoptolemus prays to the gods to ease Philoctetes’s pain, but Philoctetes says it is no use. The blood has begun to flow, and it will only get worse. As Philoctetes cries out in pain, he begs Neoptolemus not to leave him and curses Atreus’s sons and Odysseus. Philoctetes calls to death and asks why it never comes. He looks to Neoptolemus and pleads with him to burn him in the volcano on Lemnos, just as Philoctetes did for Heracles.
According to Greek myth, before Heracles was deified, he was a mortal hero who wanted to be placed on his funeral pyre while he was still alive, to end his suffering. However, no one would agree to light the pyre except for Philoctetes, so Heracles gifted Philoctetes his unerring bow and arrows as a reward for this good deed.
Neoptolemus promises Philoctetes that he won’t leave him, just as Philoctetes falls into a delirium. Neoptolemus notices that a river of infected blood has begun to drain from Philoctetes’s wound, and he tells the chorus to leave him to sleep. As Philoctetes sleeps, the chorus asks Neoptolemus what their next move is. Neoptolemus already has the bow and arrows, the men say, and it is the perfect time to flee. Neoptolemus agrees but refuses to leave. If they sail without Philoctetes, taking the bow will mean nothing. The gods have decreed that they must bring both the bow and Philoctetes to Troy. Plus, they have already lied to Philoctetes, Neoptolemus says, and it would be shameful to make it worse by leaving him.
This passage is further evidence of Neoptolemus’s inherent good nature. Neoptolemus won’t leave Philoctetes, even though it would be easy to do so, because it goes against his moral compass to leave a man in distress. This passage also refers to Helenus’s prophecy again. It won’t do the Greeks any good to go to Troy without Philocetes, as he is the one who is destined to kill Paris, the prince of Troy and the one who started the war when he ran off with Menelaus’s wife.
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 opens his eyes and can’t believe that Neoptolemus hasn’t left him. He asks Neoptolemus to help him to his feet and Neoptolemus offers the help of the chorus, but Philoctetes declines. He doesn’t want to offend the men with the terrible smell of his wound, since living on the ship with him will be difficult enough. Neoptolemus helps Philoctetes to his feet and begins to cry.
Neoptolemus begins to cry because he has been forced to deceive Philoctetes against his better judgment. Meanwhile, Philoctetes’s concern that he will offend the men with his wound is further evidence of the prejudice against those with disabilities in Greek society. Contempt for those with disabilities is so widespread that even Philoctetes believes that his wound makes him repulsive.
Neoptolemus tells Philoctetes that he is “torn apart” but cannot tell him why. He is disgusted with himself for acting against his “true nature,” and he is sure that the whole of Greece will consider him awful. Philoctetes is confused. Neoptolemus’s actions have not been awful, but Philoctetes isn’t so sure about his words, and he begins to worry that Neoptolemus doesn’t really plan to take him on the ship. Neoptolemus reassures Philoctetes that he will take him, but Philoctetes will regret going.
Neoptolemus is “torn” between deceiving Philoctetes, as he has been ordered to under his obligation to the army, or honoring his “true nature” to be a decent human being. Sophocles implies that human beings frequently struggle between satisfying their own desires and acting in the interest of the greater good, which is often a lose-lose situation, as something will always be sacrificed.
Neoptolemus tells Philoctetes that he must sail to Troy to help the Greeks win the Trojan War, which is where they will be going when they leave Lemnos. Philoctetes claims that Neoptolemus has deceived him and swears that he will never go to Troy, not after the Greeks have treated him so badly. Neoptolemus tells Philoctetes that he had no choice, but Philoctetes refuses to listen and demands to have his bow and arrows back.
Like Neoptolemus, Philoctetes, too, struggles with the decision to either act on his own desires or in the interest of the greater good. Philoctetes hates the Greek army for marooning him on Lemnos, and Sophocles implies that his grudge is warranted; however, Sophocles also suggests it would be nobler if Philoctetes sacrificed his grudge and went to Troy for the greater good of the Greeks.
Neoptolemus refuses 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, Philoctetes won’t be able to sustain life on Lemnos. He cries to the wild beasts that inhabit the island to hear what dishonorable thing Neoptolemus has done to him. He promised to take Philoctetes home but was deceiving him the entire time. Philoctetes wishes that he had come across Neoptolemus before his wound, saying that then Neoptolemus wouldn’t have had the courage to perpetrate such a “cowardly trick.”
Both Philoctetes and Sophocles suggest that deception is never ethical, not even in war. However, Sophocles also implies that it isn’t right for Philoctetes to condemn the Greeks to further death and suffering through the continuation of the Trojan War just to satisfy his grudge against Odysseus and Atreus’s sons. This is reflected in Neoptolemus’s comment that “right and interest alike demand” he keep the bow, as it is in the best interest of the Greeks that the Trojan War end, which can only be achieved with Philoctetes and his bow. Again, competing versions of what is “right” make it impossible for either man to know exactly what the best choice is.
Philoctetes returns to his cave without the bow and arrows, resolved to die on Lemnos. The chorus looks to Neoptolemus and again asks what they should do, but Neoptolemus doesn’t know. He is torn between his orders and his terrible pity for Philoctetes, and he wishes that he had never left Scyros for Troy. Philoctetes tells Neoptolemus that Neoptolemus isn’t a bad man; he has simply allowed bad men to lead him. He tells Neoptolemus to go home while he still has the chance—he just needs to give Philoctetes the bow and arrows first.
Philoctetes’s claim that Neoptolemus is a good man who has allowed bad men to lead him again implies that the military causes otherwise moral people to behave in immoral ways (such as killing and lying). This passage also reflects the struggle of serving one’s own desires or the greater good, which are often at odds with each other.
Odysseus suddenly appears and tells Philoctetes that he has been on Lemnos all along. In a panic, Philoctetes again begs Neoptolemus to give him the bow and arrows. Odysseus tells Philoctetes that he is not getting the bow, and adds that if he doesn’t come with them to Troy, they will force him. Odysseus says that the gods have determined that Philoctetes must go to Troy and there is nothing to be done about it. Philoctetes again refuses and tries to throw himself from a cliff, but the chorus stops him and holds him down.
As Philoctetes’s arrows never miss their mark, the bow and arrows had to be taken from Philoctetes before he could be forced to go to Troy. Now that Neoptolemus has the bow and arrows, Philoctetes is no longer dangerous. Philoctetes’s attempt to throw himself from the cliff again illustrates the struggle between personal desire and the greater good—Philoctetes wants to die rather than serve the men who betrayed him, but it is better for the Greeks if he goes to Troy and ends the war.
Philoctetes curses Odysseus, but he can see that Neoptolemus is feeling remorseful. Philoctetes asks Odysseus why he must go to Troy. He is, after all, a “stinking cripple” and is sure to disturb their prayers again. Odysseus tells Philoctetes that he likes winning, but he is happy lose in this case. He tells the chorus to let go of Philoctetes and allow him to stay on Lemnos. There are plenty of other Greek marksmen who can shoot the bow and arrows. As Odysseus heads back to the ship, he tells Neoptolemus not let his morals get in the way.
Odysseus and the Greek fleet initially abandoned Philoctetes because his cries of pain disturbed their prayers, which must be conducted in absolute silence. Philoctetes’s reference to himself as a “stinking cripple” again underscores prejudice against the disabled in Greek society. Philoctetes is condemned by himself and others simply because of his disability, which Sophocles implies is a tragic injustice. Here, Odysseus also demonstrates one way of choosing the greater good over self-interest. He likes to win and so would prefer to force Philoctetes to go to Troy, but he nonetheless recognizes that getting away with the bow and arrows is the most important thing
The chorus tells Philoctetes that Odysseus is their superior and they must obey him, but Neoptolemus orders the chorus to stay with Philoctetes anyway. It will take a while to ready the ship and say their prayers and Philoctetes may change his mind in the meantime, Neoptolemus says, as he runs toward the ship with the bow and arrows.
The chorus’s claim that they must obey Odysseus again implies that the military forces people to act directly against their moral compasses. Neoptolemus’s decision to disobey Odysseus is further evidence of Neoptolemus’s inherent morality and further reflects Sophocles’s argument that the decision of whether to act on behalf of one’s own desires or in the best interest of the greater good is a constant struggle.