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^Philoctetes' Wound Sidney F. Parham For the Greeks, tragedy occurs in public. The polis bears witness and gives meaning to suffering. The isolation of Philoctetes on Lemnos is the major exception. His loneliness is a part of his suffering, and for both himself and the chorus his isolation from community remains a topic of woe and complaint. All critics of the play note this isolation; most see it as the epitome of Knox's definition of the Sophoclean hero as a man alone who "seems unreasonable almost to the point of madness, suicidally bold, impervious to argument... an impossible person whom only time can cure."1 We know from fragments and other sources that his isolation is Sophocles' innovation. Both Euripides and Aeschylus wrote plays about Philoctetes prior to Sophocles' taking up the theme. Two discourses of Dio Chrysostom, a philosopher and orator of the first century a.D., tell us that Aeschylus changes the myth by having Odysseus, rather than Diomedes, come for Philoctetes and provides a chorus of Lemnians. Euripides adds another character and brings Paris on stage to argue that Philoctetes should fight on the side of Troy.2 Sophocles creates Philoctetes ' isolation and introduces Neoptolemus as Odysseus's tool. These changes suggest that both the exile and Neoptolemus's reactions to what happens are central to the play. Thus for Sophocles Philoctetes' wound is then a cause of his exile. In his nine years of loneliness, it has become a sign of his identity. We must see his encounter with the snake who guards Chryse's grove as accident. Neither in the mythological tradition nor in Sophocles' text is there any suggestion that Philoctetes deserves this fate. He has simply wandered into a sacred grove, one unmarked by a temple or other sign, and been bitten by a viper whose poison creates a gangrenous wound that never kills and never heals. The stench of this wound and Philoctetes' cries of pain make him a social outcast. Odysseus clearly says that the decision to maroon Philoctetes was the result of social necessity. We had no peace with him: at the holy festivals, we dared not touch the wine and meat; he screamed Literature and Medicine 9 (1990) 12-20 © 1990 by The Johns Hopkins University Press Sidney F. Parham 13 and groaned so, and those terrible cries of his brought ill luck on our celebrations; all the camp was haunted by him.3 (lines 6-10) Thus Sophocles sets a play that will look at "social necessity" on a deserted island. He uses three physical signs to help us construct his meaning—the wound, the bow, and the island itself. David Seale calls Philoctetes Sophocles' "most spectacular drama," but we need to consider how words and physical objects interact in the Greek theater if we are to understand the importance of the presentation of each of these objects.4 The first of these objects the audience sees is the stage itself, a space that is familiar to it as the exterior or interior of a palace. We have no surviving descriptions of fifth-century stage practices, and what actually happened on stage is the subject of extensive scholarly debate. One side, drawing on Aristotle's assertion that Sophocles invented scene painting, would argue that panels were attached to the skënë, the permanent scene building, and painted to represent specific places. Thus Seale suggests that for this play, the audience might see an island cliff, the center door of the skënë covered by a panel to make it look like a cave mouth, and a platform built in front of the cave mouth to represent the height Neoptolemus must climb and from which Philoctetes threatens to throw himself .5 Such a setting would indeed be strange and cue the audience to expect unusual happenings. The other side of this debate would argue that like Shakespeare's theater, the Greek theater had an unvarying front and that setting was always established by "word picture"; thus, the facade and the stage in front of it provided all the spaces required by the text. Philoctetes' threat to jump accordingly would occur at the edge of the stage above the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6571
Print ISSN
0278-9671
Pages
pp. 12-20
Launched on MUSE
2010-10-13
Open Access
No
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