At the center of Philoctetes is the wound Philoctetes suffers due to a snake bite on the island Chryse, and it is symbolic of Philoctetes’s pain and isolation. Additionally, Philoctetes’s wound symbolizes the deep hate and resentment he feels toward Atreus’s sons and Odysseus. Odysseus was ordered to abandon Philoctetes on the island Lemnos by Atreus’s sons, the commanders of the Greek forces, because the foul odor of the wound and Philoctetes’s constant cries of suffering made the crew uncomfortable and disrupted their prayers and sacrifices to the gods. Alone on the deserted island, Philoctetes’s wound makes his existence nearly unbearable, and his pain is compounded by his isolation and loneliness. According to the prophet Helenus, Philoctetes’s wound will be healed if he goes to Troy to fight, thereby ending the Trojan War, but Philoctetes can’t bring himself to fight on behalf of the same men who rejected him and treated him so badly. He is willing to continue suffering with his wound simply to punish those who punished him. Sophocles wrote Philoctetes in 409 BCE during the Peloponnesian War, which consumed much of the latter part of his life. Sophocles undoubtedly watched many men go to war and sustain deep and lasting injuries, just as Philoctetes does on the initial expedition to Troy. In nine years, Philoctetes’s wound shows no signs of healing, and it will not resolve until healed by the god, Asclepius. In this way, Sophocles suggests through Philoctetes’s wound that wounds sustained during war last a lifetime and never heal. Notably, however, Philoctetes hardly mentions the wound in the later part of the play, after he realizes that Neoptolemus is not going to abandon him. Though the wound still isn’t healed, it seems to cause Philoctetes much less physical pain once his emotional isolation is over, which again underscores the devastating consequences of isolation.
Philoctetes’s Wound Quotes in Philoctetes
Now, Neoptolemus, true-born son of Achilles,
Greatest of all the Greeks, it was here that I once
Put ashore the Malian, Poeas’ son, Philoctetes,
Acting upon the orders of my superiors.
The gnawing wound in his foot was oozing with pus.
We couldn’t pour a libation or offer sacrifice
Undisturbed. His animal shouts and yells
Were constantly filling the camp with sounds of ill omen.
That story needn’t detain us now, however.
This isn’t the moment for long discussion.
His dreadful fate’s no wonder to me.
If I have an inkling, his sufferings first
Were sent by the gods, when he entered the shrine
Of cruel Chryse, who dealt him his wound.
So what he endures now, far from his friends.
Must also be due to the will of some god:
He may not aim those god-given shafts,
Which none can resist, at the towers of Troy,
Till the time has come when the prophet declares
Those arrows will prove her destruction.
I’m here because the two Greek generals, backed
By Odysseus, shamefully flung me ashore, alone
And abandoned, to waste away with a raging wound.
Struck down by the savage bite of a deadly snake.
With that for company, son, they marooned me here
And left me to rot on my own. (The fleet had sailed
From the isle of Chryse, and this was their first port of call.)
Then once, to their joy, they’d seen me asleep on the shore
After a stormy passage, they laid me inside
A rocky cave and left, tossing me out
A few beggarly rags, with a small amount of available
Food to keep me alive and avoid pollution.
Now, my boy, let me tell you about the island.
No sailor will ever land here, if he can help it.
There’s nowhere safe he can anchor his ship, no port
In which he can trade for profit or find a welcome.
No sensible man would steer a course for this place.
He might, perhaps, put in because he is forced to—
It happens now and again in a long lifetime.
Such people, when they arrive, my boy, will say
They’re sorry for me. They might feel sorry enough
To give me a scrap of food or something to wear.
But when I raise the question of taking me home,
Nobody wants to do it.
Neoptolemus: What new attack is this?
What’s making you groan and howl so loudly?
Philoctetes: You know, my boy!
Neoptolemus: What is it?
Philoctetes: You know, my son!
Neoptolemus: I don’t. Tell me!
Philoctetes: You must know! [Another howl of pain.]
Neoptolemus: Yes, your wound—it’s a terrible load to carry.
Philoctetes: It can’t be described. Still, you can show me pity.
Neoptolemus: What can I do?
Philoctetes: Don’t leave me because you are frightened.
The torturer comes and goes and will let me alone,
Perhaps, when he’s done his worst.
Death, death, I call on you to my aid
Like this every day. Why can you never come?
My boy, you are nobly born. Seize my body
And burn me in the volcano, the holy fire
Of Lemnos. Be true to your nature. I brought myself
To do the same for Heracles, son of Zeus,
The hero who gave me the arms you now are guarding.
What do you say, my son? Oh, speak!
Why are you dumb? You seem to be lost, boy!
So why are you taking me now and carting me off?
What for? I’m nothing to you. I’ve long been dead.
How, you bane of the gods, am I no longer
A stinking cripple? How, if I come on board,
Will you burn your victims or go on pouring libations?
That was your specious pretext for throwing me out.
Perish the lot of you! Perish you surely will
For the injuries done to me, if the gods have any
Concern for justice. I know they have. You’d never
Have crossed the sea in quest of a mouldering wretch,
Unless some spur from heaven were goading you on.
All men are bound to endure with patience
The various chances of life which heaven brings.
But if they cling to trouble that’s self-inflicted,
As you are doing, they don’t deserve any pity
Or understanding. You’ve grown too brutal. You won’t
Accept advice, and if somebody out of kindness
Makes a suggestion, you hate him as though he were
Your implacable foe. But still. I’m going to speak,
And I call on Zeus, god of oaths, to bear me witness.
Mark what I say, and carefully take it to heart.
Now that you know this, surely you must agree,
And gladly. You have so much to gain. First,
To come into healing hands, and then to be judged
The foremost hero of Greece, by taking Troy,
The city of sorrows, and winning the highest glory.
My words concern you too. You’ll not take Troy
Without his aid, nor he without your help.
No, each one guard the other, like two lions
Prowling the bush together. [to Philoctetes:] I shall send
Asclepius to heal your wounds in Troy.
The citadel must be captured by my bow
A second time. But when you lay the land
To waste, remember this: show piety
Towards the gods, since nothing ranks so high
With Zeus. For piety does not die with men.
Men live or die, but piety cannot perish.