Sophocles’s play Philoctetes focuses on the deep, endless pain that Philoctetes endures. Abandoned on the island Lemnos, Philoctetes is plagued by severe attacks of pain following a snake bite, but the physical discomfort of Philoctetes’s wound pales in comparison to the profound loneliness he feels on the deserted island. Sophocles wanted to draw attention to Philoctetes’s isolation, and this is reflected in the subtle changes Sophocles makes to the classic myth. During Sophocles’s day, contemporary tragedians Aeschylus and Euripides both staged popular plays involving the legend of Philoctetes, and while neither has survived antiquity, it is known that both Aeschylus and Euripides’s plays included a chorus made up of native Lemnians. Sophocles’s chorus, on the other hand, is made up of Greek sailors, which allowed Sophocles to portray Lemnos as completely uninhabited—except for Philoctetes, that is. With the depiction of Philoctetes’s pain and suffering, both physical and psychological, Sophocles effectively argues that loneliness is the ultimate cause of human suffering, and he therefore implies that humankind cannot live indefinitely in isolation.
Once Philoctetes is marooned on Lemnos by the Greeks, he is wholly isolated, with the exception of a rare sailor here and there. Sophocles’s chorus of Greek sailors “pity” Philoctetes and his existence on the deserted island. “No one there to look after him,” they claim, “No companion with kindly eyes, / Wretched, always so lonely.” Philoctetes’s painful plight is made worse by his isolation. With no one to share his misery, Philoctetes is left to bear the full brunt of his suffering. According to Philoctetes, sailors rarely come to the island of their own volition. There is no port on the island and nowhere to anchor a ship. Thus, trade is not conducted on the island and sailors have no reason to visit, leaving Philoctetes utterly alone. “No sensible man would steer a course for this place,” Philoctetes claims, unless “he is forced to,” either by weather or a heartless crew. “It happens now and again in a long lifetime,” Philoctetes says, but such sailors leave as soon as they are able, with few words to Philoctetes, which makes him feel even more isolated and alone.
Once Neoptolemus arrives on the island to trick Philoctetes into going to Troy with the Greeks to sack the city and win the war, Philoctetes repeatedly begs Neoptolemus not to leave him. Philoctetes’s constant and mournful lamentations and requests underscore his psychological anguish related to his isolation and his desire for human companionship. “I humbly / Implore you,” Philoctetes says to Neoptolemus, “please don’t leave me here on by own, / Abandoned like this, living in all these horrors.” Despite Philoctetes’s severe physical pain, his first complaint to another man is that of loneliness, not of physical discomfort. After an acute attack of pain in his foot, Philoctetes immediately worries that Neoptolemus will abandon him like the other Greeks because of his extreme pain. “Don’t leave me because you are frightened,” Philoctetes says, “The torturer comes and goes and will let me alone, / Perhaps, when he’s done his worst.” Philoctetes is so worried that his pain will scare Neoptolemus away that Philoctetes is more concerned with Neoptolemus’s comfort than his own. Philoctetes claims he is “wretched.” He is “crushed and broken by toil and pain” with “no one ever to share [his] home.” While his physical ailment is certainly a major cause of his discomfort, Philoctetes seems more affected by his complete and total isolation living on the deserted island.
Notably, after Philoctetes falls into his last acute attack of pain and wakes up to find Neoptolemus still at his side, Philoctetes’s physical pain seems to be largely resolved. From the unwelcome visit of Odysseus to the appearance of Heracles, Philoctetes is concerned only with making it back to Greece and off the island Lemnos. Philoctetes’s weeping wound, which is front and center for most of the play, fades to the background once Philoctetes begins to believe that Neoptolemus won’t leave him. Sophocles thus suggests that Philoctetes’s pain, both physical and emotional, is quelled with the presence of a trusted friend, which further underscores Sophocles’s overreaching argument that human beings are not cut out to live in isolation.
Suffering and Isolation ThemeTracker
Suffering and Isolation Quotes in Philoctetes
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.
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!
You only have yourself to blame, unhappy man.
Nothing has struck you with force irresistible.
Where was your better judgement?
Fate would have been kinder, but you
Chose to accept a worse life.
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.