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The Bow of Hercules

April 6, 2013

The Bow of Hercules is a mythological weapon; the myth tells that it was passed to Philoctetes following Hercules death as he was the only person willing to light the funeral pyre. The bow became vital to the Greek army at Troy. The captured son of King Priam revealed, whilst under interrogation, that he had prophesied in order for the Greek’s to obtain victory over the Trojans the bow and arrows of Hercules needed to be brought to the battle.

Sophocles’ play Philoctetes recounts how Odysseus, King of Ithaca, and Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles, attempt to trick Philoctetes into handing over the bow. Having abandoned Philoctetes whilst on route to Troy, due to a diseased foot, Odysseus believed that trickery was the only option;

‘You must cheat the mind of Philoctetes by means of a story told as you converse with him…Say what you will of me—even the vilest of vile insults. You will not harm me at all by that. But if you fail to do as I say, you will inflict pain on all the Argives, for if that man’s bow is not seized, you can never sack the realm of Dardanus…No, the thing for which we must devise a ruse is just this: how you may steal his invincible weapons. Well I know, my son, that by nature you are not apt to utter or contrive such treachery. Yet knowing that victory is a sweet prize to gain, steel yourself to do it. Our honesty shall be displayed another time.’ (Sophocles Philoctetes 55 – 80)

Odysseus is represented in Sophocles’ play as a rogue, a cheat and a selfish individual. This is contrary to the general representation of Odysseus in, for example, The Iliad; measured, diplomatic and intelligent. It is noteworthy that Sophocles chose to present Odysseus with, in my opinion, no redeeming qualities. It is possible that this may have been undertaken in order to demonstrate that even heroes have character flaws.

Furthermore, I believe the play required the flawed Odysseus and questioning Neoptolemus in order to present Philoctetes with the difficult decision of either abandoning his comrades or rejoining the battle to regain his honour.

I will say no more in order not to spoil the play for those who have not had the chance to read it or see a performance (I once saw a fantastic modernised version in London). These are my personal interpretations of the characterisation; I do not claim them to be right. In reading or watching the play you may interpret them differently. I would, therefore, be interested in what you think.


Sophocles Philoctetes []

From → Greek Tragedy

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