Sophocles' Ajax - The Destruction of a Greek Hero
Sophocles' Ajax, written around 440 B.C., deals with the destruction of the Greek hero Ajax, who is sometimes considered the greatest warrior of the Trojan War, second only to Achilles. Ajax, driven insane by the goddess Athena, slaughtered the Greek herds of cattle, thinking that they were Greeks, to avenge them for rewarding the armor of Achilles to Odysseus instead of him. Only after coming to his senses, he realized that he was disgraced and he committed suicide. The play moves on, however, to deal with his burial, in which Teucer, Ajax's half-brother, and Odysseus argue with two supreme kings, Agamemnon and Menelaus, that Ajax has the right to burial. Throughout the play until his death, Ajax is the central character, undergoing a grim change from a proud, insane lunatic to a sane, shamed man, whose only hope for honor is suicide.
Opening the play, Ajax himself was a "powerful figure, towering over the others, but limited and essentially selfish" (xii). His madness brought on by Athena had left him utterly helpless, although he falsely believed that Athena had assisted him in slaughtering the Greeks. The mightiest of warriors, even Odysseus commented that he had seen no one who was equal in prowess, power, and bravery to that which Ajax had displayed. However, his eyes darkened with deadly delusions, he was at the hands of the gods, although he was so arrogant that he didn't even realize it. He did not know that, as Odysseus states, he was a "puppet" in their hands:
I pity him, brought down to this,
Caught in the grip of such a grievous fate--
Because I see that every living man
Is but a phantom or an empty shadow.
For one day is enough to tip the scales,
And men succeed or fail. The gods love those
Who show discretion, and hate evil men....(7)
Although his ambition to be a mighty warrior was honorable in itself, it was "so overwhelming that he disdains the...