Neoptolemus appears, still with the bow and arrows, followed by Odysseus. Neoptolemus says that he must “undo the wrongs” he has done in listening to Odysseus and the Greek army, who have forced him to take the bow using deception. Odysseus tells 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, citing the full force of the Greek army. He is being “foolish,” Odysseus says, but Neoptolemus says he would rather be “right than wise.”
Neoptolemus’s claims that he must “undo the wrongs” of the Greek army because he would rather be “right than wise” again implies that military service forces otherwise moral men into acting in ways that are unethical. Neoptolemus is so dedicated to doing the right thing, he can’t even be persuaded by the force of the entire army. Of course, Neoptolemus is acting on behalf of his own desires and is completely ignoring the needs of the Greeks, which is to get Philoctetes to Troy to end the war. Again, it’s unclear exactly what “right” means, which underscores how hard the decision that Neoptolemus has to make is.
Neoptolemus yells to Philoctetes to come out of his cave. He tells Philoctetes that he has “change[d] his mind,” but wants to know why he refuses to come to Troy. Philoctetes again says he won’t be persuaded, and Neoptolemus agrees to stop trying. He tells Philoctetes that he has come to return the bow and arrows, but Philoctetes is dubious. “My actions will prove me true,” Neoptolemus says. “Put out your hand.”
This passage again reflects the idea of actions verses words, which are often deceptive in Sophocles’s plays. Neoptolemus’s words in previous scenes were mostly lies, but the act of returning the bow and arrows reflects his true nature, which is to respect Philoctetes and not lie to him. Neoptolemus has “changed his mind” because he will no longer deceive Philoctetes on behalf of the Greek army.
Odysseus appears and forbids Neoptolemus to give Philoctetes the bow and arrows. He says he will force Philoctetes to go to Troy regardless of what Neoptolemus says. Philoctetes takes the bow and draws back an arrow. Neoptolemus tells him not to shoot and grabs his hand, and Odysseus runs back to the ship. Philoctetes tells Neoptolemus that the Greeks talk a big game, but they are really cowards. Neoptolemus, however, is not “a cheat like Sisyphus.” Like his father, Achilles, Neoptolemus is a hero, Philoctetes says.
Odysseus runs back to the ship several times during the play, an action that suggests he is truly a coward, which is at odds with the tough words he speaks. Neoptolemus’s attempt to stop Philoctetes from killing Odysseus again reflects Neoptolemus’s firm sense of morality, and Philoctetes’s claim that Neoptolemus is not “a cheat like Sisyphus” suggests that Odysseus is a cheat, since Sisyphus is allegedly Odysseus’s biological father.
Neoptolemus is glad to hear that Philoctetes has forgiven him, but he tells Philoctetes that if he continues to hold fast to his grudge against the Greeks and stay on Lemnos, he doesn’t deserve any sympathy. Philoctetes’s wound and pain are sent by the gods, Neoptolemus says. Philoctetes had unwittingly disturbed Chryse’s shrine, and he will never find relief unless he goes to Troy and sees Asclepius, the only one who can cure his wound.
Neoptolemus’s claim that Philoctetes doesn’t deserve any sympathy if he stays on Lemnos to the detriment of the Greeks seems to be Sophocles’s primary argument. While Sophocles does argue that the discrimination faced by Philoctetes is tragic and unjust, he also implies that it would be nobler if Philoctetes sacrificed his desire to hold a grudge for the greater good of the Greeks.
Helenus, the prophet, has prophesized that Philoctetes and Neoptolemus will bring down Troy and be hailed as heroes. There is more to gain by going to Troy, Neoptolemus tells Philoctetes, than by staying in Lemnos, but Philoctetes still refuses. Neoptolemus shouldn’t want to help the Greeks either, Philoctetes says, since Atreus’s sons won’t give him Achilles’s armor. Neoptolemus should return to Scyros and “leave those rotten men to a rotten death.”
Philoctetes’s comment that Neoptolemus should leave the Greek army to “rotten deaths” echoes Philoctetes’s claim that they left him “to rot” on the island. Of course, Achilles’s armor is not really being withheld from Neoptolemus and is just another part of Odysseus’s elaborate lie.
Philoctetes reminds Neoptolemus that he promised to take him home, and he asks him again to make good on his promise. Neoptolemus finally agrees, even though he knows that the Greeks will kill him for it. Philoctetes tells Neoptolemus not to worry as long as they have the bow and arrows, and they head toward the ship.
Ultimately, both Philoctetes and Neoptolemus decide to act on behalf of their own desires rather than the greater good of the Greeks. Neoptolemus acts on behalf of his morals, and Philoctetes acts according to his grudge.