En route to the way to the Trojan War, warrior Philoctetes, wielder of the bow of Heracles, is bitten by a poisonous snake at the shrine of the goddess Chryse. The infected wound becomes so painful that Philoctetes’s screams of agony repel the Greek commanders, who order Odysseus to leave him on the island of Lemnos. Ten years later (the time of the play’s opening scene), Odysseus returns to Lemnos with Neoptolemus, son of the now-dead Achilles, to retrieve Philoctetes’s bow. It has been prophesied that only with this bow can Troy be conquered.

Promising him glory and honor, Odysseus convinces Neoptolemus to win Philoctetes’s trust and take the bow. Philoctetes, delighted to see any human and especially another Greek, shares his story with Neoptolemus, begs him to take him back to Greece, and entrusts him with the bow when he is overcome by a spasm of pain.

Deeply moved by witnessing Philoctetes’s misery firsthand, Neoptolemus confesses the truth to him, but tries to persuade Philoctetes to accompany him to Troy. When Odysseus appears, Neoptolemus returns the bow, declaring that only with Philoctetes himself wielding it will the prophesy be fulfilled. He asks forgiveness, and invites Philoctetes to come back with him to be healed and then on to Troy to contribute to the battle. The only thing that ends Philoctetes’s refusal is the sudden appearance of Heracles, who announces that Philoctetes and Neoptolemus must join together to take Troy.


This classic drama is a compelling study of disability and suffering as experiences of the social body. Philoctetes’s monologues articulate suffering as a physical, psychological, social, and epistemological disruption. The play offers a memorable representation of stigma from inside and out, as Odysseus (here not the hero we see in the Odyssey but an opportunistic man who rationalizes his abandonment and additional deception of Philoctetes with a utilitarian argument) explains to Neoptolemus why he left Philoctetes behind and Philoctetes tries to make sense of why he has been abandoned in pain by his cohort despite a life with no wrong acts in it.

Further, it is engaging as an exploration of how an essentially moral person, Neoptolemus, is persuaded to unethical action--and what moves him to return to a moral framework that has been enlarged by his near-complete betrayal of Philoctetes. Neoptolemus’s argument that while Philoctetes’s misfortune was not his fault, to remain on the island when he has a chance to leave would make him culpable for his misery, articulates one of many perspectives the play offers on the shared responsibility of the helper and the helped to each other. Philoctetes’s pain is multidimensional and convincing on all levels, as a representation of physical agony and the social stigma built on disability.


Translated by Judith Affleck


Cambridge Univ. Press

Place Published

Cambridge, England



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