Odysseus arrives on the island of Lemnos with Neoptolemus, the son of the late hero Achilles. The island is deserted, and there are no houses or ships to be found. This is the same island where Odysseus and a fleet of Greek sailors abandoned Philoctetes, the famous Greek archer and son of Poeas, nine years earlier on their way to Troy to fight the Trojan War. Philoctetes’s wound had been “oozing with pus,” Odysseus says, and his cries of pain disrupted the crew’s prayers and sacrifices to the gods, so they left him on the island. But there is no time now for long stories, Odysseus tells Neoptolemus, and he needs Neoptolemus’s help. It is time for Neoptolemus to “prove his worth” and assist the Greeks by tricking Philoctetes. Odysseus orders Neoptolemus to find Philoctetes and tell him that the Greeks had convinced him to go to Troy to fight, but he left angrily after Atreus’s sons gave Achilles’s arms to Odysseus. Neoptolemus must convince Philoctetes he is telling the truth, Odysseus says, or all of Greece will suffer. Without Philoctetes and his bow and arrows, given to him by the god Heracles, Neoptolemus will not be able to conquer Troy. Only Neoptolemus can win Philoctetes’s trust, Odysseus says, because he was not part of the initial expedition to Troy that abandoned Philoctetes on the island.
Odysseus tells Neoptolemus that he must find a way to steal Philoctetes’s bow and arrows and convince him to come to Troy, but Neoptolemus’s moral compass won’t allow him to behave in deceitful ways. He would rather take Philoctetes’s bow by force, but Odysseus claims that won’t be possible. Philoctetes’s arrows never miss their mark, and he will kill Neoptolemus instantly. Deception is the only way, Odysseus says, and he reminds Neoptolemus that all of Greece will regard him as a cunning hero if he manages to convince Philoctetes to come to Troy. Neoptolemus agrees against his better judgement, and Odysseus tells him he will soon send a sailor disguised as a merchant to further their plot, but otherwise, Neoptolemus is on his own. Odysseus heads back to the ship to keep hidden from Philoctetes, and the chorus, made up of a group of Greek sailors, asks Neoptolemus what they can do to help and lament the terrible pain Philoctetes is forced to live in. The gods have ordered Philoctetes’s suffering, Neoptolemus says. Philoctetes angered the goddess Chryse when he trespassed on her shrine, and he will not agree to go to Troy with his bow and arrows until the gods decide it is time.
The men can hear the sounds of crying, and Philoctetes approaches. He asks the men who they are and what they are doing on Lemnos. No one comes to the island unless they are forced, Philoctetes says, and he begs the men not to be scared by his “wild appearance,” as he is but a “miserable wretch” with no one to look after him. Neoptolemus recounts the story Odysseus has ordered him to tell, and Philoctetes in turn tells Neoptolemus that he was marooned on Lemnos by Odysseus and his men after he was bitten by a snake on the island of Chryse. They left him with little to keep him alive, Philoctetes says, and he is sure that their shared hatred for Odysseus means that he can trust Neoptolemus. Philoctetes begs Neoptolemus not to leave him alone on the island, just as the sailor disguised as the merchant approaches. He claims to be a wine trader on his way back from Troy, and he has heard word concerning Neoptolemus. Odysseus has ordered a ship to retrieve Neoptolemus and bring him back to Troy, because the prophet Helenus has claimed that the war cannot be won without him. Odysseus and Diomedes have boarded another ship for Lemnos, because Helenus said the war can’t be won without Philoctetes either. Philoctetes refuses to go to Troy for Odysseus, and he convinces Neoptolemus to take him home to Greece instead. Philoctetes is thankful and claims he now considers Neoptolemus a friend, so he invites him into his cave. With his painful wound, he wants Neoptolemus to stay nearby.
Inside the cave, Philoctetes falls to the ground. He can no longer keep the pain of his wound hidden, and he begs Neoptolemus to cut off his foot with his sword. Neoptolemus refuses but asks Philoctetes what he can reasonably do to help him. Philoctetes asks Neoptolemus to stay with him until his pain subsides. Neoptolemus agrees, and Philoctetes hands him the bow and arrows. He asks Neoptolemus to keep the bow and arrows safe until his acute attack of pain passes, but Neoptolemus must agree not to give them to Odysseus if he arrives while Philoctetes is delirious with pain. Neoptolemus takes the bow and arrows and promises not to let another soul touch them. A river of “murky” blood flows from the wound on Philoctetes’s foot as he passes out. When Philoctetes wakes later, he is shocked that Neoptolemus has really stayed by his side. He thanks him profusely, and Neoptolemus begins to cry. He has gone against his “true nature,” Neoptolemus says, and Philoctetes begins to worry that he won’t really be going on Neoptolemus’s ship. Neoptolemus reassures him that he will let Philoctetes on the ship, only Philoctetes won’t like where they are headed. Suddenly, Odysseus appears and tells Philoctetes that he is going to Troy, like it or not. Neoptolemus orders the chorus to stay with Philoctetes as he goes with Odysseus back to the ship—still holding Philoctetes’s bow and arrows.
Neoptolemus tells Odysseus that he must “undo the wrongs” he committed in listening to Odysseus and the Greek army and says he must give the bow and arrows back to Philoctetes. Odysseus tells Neoptolemus that he is mad and reminds him that the entire Greek army will come after him if he betrays them. Neoptolemus can’t be swayed, however, and Odysseus places his hand on his sword. Neoptolemus draws his own sword, but instead of fighting him, Odysseus goes back to tell the army of Neoptolemus’s traitorous decision. Neoptolemus calls to Philoctetes and tells him to come out of his cave. He gives him back his bow and arrows, and Odysseus reappears and again tells Philoctetes he will be going to Troy. Philoctetes draw back the bow, but Neoptolemus begs him not to shoot. Odysseus again runs away, and Philoctetes tells Neoptolemus that he is a good man. Neoptolemus tries to convince Philoctetes to go to Troy anyway and tells him his wound will be healed there, but Philoctetes still refuses. Besides, Neoptolemus promised to take him home, and he asks again that Neoptolemus fulfill his promise. Neoptolemus says that the Greeks will kill him if he does, but Philoctetes promises to keep him safe with his unerring bow and arrows, so Neoptolemus agrees to sail Philoctetes home to Greece.
Suddenly, Heracles appears from the sky, bearing a message from Zeus. Neoptolemus cannot take Philoctetes home to Greece, as both men are needed to win the war in Troy. Once in Troy, Philoctetes will be cured of his painful wound, and he will kill Paris with his bow and arrows, bringing an end to the Trojan War. Both Neoptolemus and Philoctetes agree to go to Troy, and Heracles disappears. Philoctetes bids Lemnos goodbye, and the chorus prays for their safe passage to Troy.