Sophocles’s tragic play Philoctetes examines the myth of Philoctetes, a celebrated Greek hero and archer. Philoctetes led seven ships to Troy to fight the Trojan War—a battle between the Greeks and Trojans sparked after the wife of the king of Sparta ran off with Paris, a Trojan prince—but after stopping on the island Chryse, Philoctetes was bitten on the foot by a poisonous snake. Philoctetes’s wound festered and refused to heal, resulting in unbearable pain and a putrid odor. Viewing Philoctetes’s disability as a burden, the ship’s crew, under the direction of Odysseus, the king of Ithaca and a respected Greek warrior, marooned Philoctetes on Lemnos, a deserted island off the coast of Troy. Sophocles’s play begins nine years after Philoctetes is abandoned on Lemnos, and his wound continues to plague him without end. In addition to Philoctetes’s physical suffering, he is constantly discriminated against by the Greeks who happen upon the island. Philoctetes is sidelined, disregarded, and treated with disgust; however, prophesy states that the Greeks will need Philoctetes if they want to win the war against the Trojans, which continues to rage on. Through the portrayal of Philoctetes’s disability and the discrimination that he is forced to endure, Sophocles at once condemns discrimination of the disabled and effectively argues that those with disabilities are valuable to society, too.
Philoctetes is wholly rejected by Greek society and left to “rot on [his] own” on the island of Lemnos simply because his disability and subsequent suffering inconvenience others and make them uncomfortable. Odysseus claims that the fleet left Philoctetes on the island because Philoctetes’s cries of pain disturbed their prayers and offerings to the gods. Philoctetes’s “animal shouts and yells” filled their camp “with sounds of ill omen,” so they left him on the island. In short, Philoctetes’s disability bothered the Greeks; thus, they selfishly abandoned him. When Odysseus and his men, Neoptolemus and the chorus of Greek sailors, return to the island, Philoctetes tells Neoptolemus and the chorus that other Greeks have come to the island over the years. These other Greeks expressed their sympathy for Philoctetes, and even gave him food and clothing, but they refused to bring him home. Philoctetes’s disability made these Greeks uncomfortable, and they wouldn’t share a boat with him. When the chorus, who is sympathetic to Philoctetes’s suffering, begs Neoptolemus to bring Philoctetes home, Neoptolemus warns them against it. The men may be sympathetic now, Neoptolemus says, but they will “change [their] tune” once they are forced to live with Philoctetes and his wound aboard the ship. They may find Philoctetes “too much,” Neoptolemus says. Like Philoctetes’s fleet and the visitors to Lemnos, Neoptolemus finds Philoctetes’s disability off-putting and he thus tries to distance himself from the man as much as possible because of his discomfort.
In addition to marooning Philoctetes on Lemnos, the Greeks treat Philoctetes with little respect, which further underscores discrimination against the disabled in Greek society. When Neoptolemus first comes across the cave Philoctetes lives in, he is sickened when he discovers Philoctetes’s soiled bandages drying in the sun. The bandages are “stained with revolting puss,” and Neoptolemus announces this loudly to the men. Instead of reacting with sympathy and concern, Neoptolemus first receives Philoctetes with utter disgust and disrespect. Over the years, Philoctetes has asked the Greeks who happen across the island to take word to his father, Poeas, of his whereabouts so that Poeas might sail to Lemnos to rescue him. The Greeks, however, never deliver the messages to Poeas. “[M]y messengers couldn’t / Be bothered with me,” Philoctetes says. Delivering a message to Philoctetes’s father seems like a simple request—it doesn’t require the Greeks to share a boat with Philoctetes, get “too close” to his wound, or listen to his cries of pain. And yet, the Greeks still refuse to help, highlighting how deeply they devalue Philoctetes. Their discomfort with the man’s disability leads them to avoid having anything to do with him, even though he was once highly respected. Even Philoctetes himself is often self-deprecating and expects others to be repulsed by him. When Neoptolemus arrives on the island, Philoctetes begs him to take him home. “Find me a corner somehow,” Philoctetes pleads. “I won’t be an easy / Cargo to have on board, I know. But still, / Put up with me, please!” As Greek society has largely rejected and treated Philoctetes with contempt, Philoctetes, too, believes that he deserves little respect because of his disability.
Despite having excluded him and slighted him because of his disability, the Greeks need Philoctetes if they are to finally defeat the Trojans and end the war, which has been raging on for nearly 10 years. According to the prophet Helenus, Troy can only be taken by Neoptolemus and Philoctetes with his unerring bow and arrows, a gift from the Greek god Heracles. Without Philoctetes and his bow and arrows, the war will continue, resulting in further loss and hardship for the Greek people. Not only is Philoctetes still useful to Greek society, he is absolutely crucial to their peaceful future. By highlighting how much the Greeks need Philoctetes, Sophocles argues that those with disabilities are not only deserving of respect but have as much to offer society as any able-bodied person.
Disability and Discrimination ThemeTracker
Disability and Discrimination 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.
No, either bring me safely as far as your home
In Scyros, or else to Calchodon’s place in Euboea.
From there it’s only an easy crossing to Oeta,
To Trachis’ heights and Spercheiis’ beautiful stream.
And so you can show me again to my own dear father—
Though I’ve been long afraid I shall find him gone.
When people arrived, I often used to send him
Imploring messages, hoping he might be able
To come in a ship of his own and fetch me home.
But either he’s dead, or else my messengers couldn’t
Be bothered with me—it was natural enough, I suppose—
And wanted to hurry on with their homeward voyage.
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.
You’ll go with Neoptolemus to Troy,
Where first your painful wound will soon be healed.
Then, chosen for your prowess from the host,
You’ll use my bow and arrows to bring down
Paris, the cause of all this bitter strife.
When you’ve sacked Troy, the army will present
You with the prize of valour, and you’ll bear
Your spoils back to your home on Oeta’s heights
To show your father Poeas. Do not fail,
Whatever spoils the army grants to you,
To lay a portion on my pyre in tribute
To my bow.