προσαναγκάζειν τὸν Σωκράτη ὁμολογεῖν αὐτοὺς τοῦ αὐτοῦ ἀνδρὸς εἶναι κωμῳδίαν καὶ τραγῳδίαν ἐπίστασθαι ποιεῖν, καὶ τὸν τέχνῃ τραγῳδοποιὸν ὄντα καὶ κωμῳδοποιὸν εἶναι.
Socrates was compelling them to admit that the same man could have the knowledge required for writing comedy and tragedy—that the fully skilled tragedian could be a comedian as well. Plato, Symposium.
To some it seems impossible that I could still have something left to say about Sophocles' Philoctetes. A friend has delicately suggested that I should make an end. Let's end with the man who wrote it - a man whose work embodies a fusion of thought and feeling. As the late Eduardo Galeano wrote,
My language is a feel-thinking language, feeling and thinking at once, that is why it is a celebration of life, and at once it is a denunciation of everything that is not allowed in life to be real life, its plenitude.Sophocles was about 88 when his Philoctetes was performed, winning first prize. It's an old man's play, a storehouse of an extraordinary life in 5th century Athens.
It's worth noticing that his abandoned character was neither a woman, a poor man, or someone of less than 100% Greek ethnicity. This is not a tale of racism, sexism or classism. Rather, it's a story about what the best are capable of doing to their peers under the intense pressures of life, war, and duty.
Never in dispute is the fact that Philoctetes was most cruelly used by the Atreides and by Odysseus at their bidding. His resulting suffering and alienation are explored in potent speeches. Nothing hides the sordidness of the case, nothing embellishes. The harsh natural world coupled with the mute neglect and indifference of his peers is voiced with the plenitude Galeano speaks of:
Birds my victims, tribes of bright-eyed wild creatures,
tenants of these hills, you need not flee from me or my house.
No more the strength of my hands, of my bow, is mine.
Come! It is a good time to glut yourselves freely on my discolored flesh . . .
ὦ πταναὶ θῆραι χαροπῶν τ᾽ ἔθνη θηρῶν, οὓς ὅδ᾽ ἔχει χῶρος οὐρεσιβώτας, μηκέτ᾽ ἀπ᾽ αὐλίων φυγᾷ 1150πηδᾶτ᾽: οὐ γὰρ ἔχω χεροῖν τὰν πρόσθεν βελέων ἀλκάν, ὦ δύστανος ἐγὼ τανῦν, ἀλλ᾽ ἀνέδην, ὁ δὲ χῶρος ἄρ᾽ οὐκέτι φοβητὸς οὐκέθ᾽ ὑμῖν, 1155ἕρπετε: νῦν καλὸν ἀντίφονον κορέσαι στόμα πρὸς χάριν ἐμᾶς σαρκὸς αἰόλας:But the thrust and climax of the play is not here. His suffering is rendered with naturalistic power, but this is one moment within a larger mythical encounter. (We noted the co-presence of both naturalism and mythic language early on in our reading of this play.)
Sophocles expands the tragic frame to bring in Odysseus, the man of occasion, the crafty illusionist, the resourceful man of words. Odysseus is comedic through and through; his skills are practical, group-oriented, businesslike. He is an agent sent to do a job -- he is there to ensure through winning words a happy end for all.
Odysseus announces at the very start that he has a ruse; he seems confident of its ability to persuade Philoctetes to return to the war. At every point in the play, we are uncertain whether fateful events are unfolding of themselves, or we are audiences to a script authored and directed by Odysseus. The tension is structural: Tragedy's dignity, pathos, and claim to significance are never more at risk than when comedy threatens to puncture the spell.
. . . the fully skilled tragedian could be a comedian as well.Sophocles appears to have fulfilled the high goal of Socrates: he has shown he knows how to produce both genres -- a double-mouthed play. Poised perfectly, the text turns endlessly around this duality, not unlike one of those ambiguous illusions that seem one moment to be one thing, and suddenly quite another thing altogether.
The heightened relation of the comedic and tragic in the Philoctetes differs from earlier works of this playwright. The text holds both masks in tension.
It might be fanciful to see a resemblance here to the tension Socrates speaks of in the Symposium with regard to Eros, but it's hard to resist. At the feast he tells Diotima's tale of the inevitable attraction of Poros and Penia, Resource (or, Contrivance) and Poverty, whose union produces Eros the archer. Poros and Penia are like figures in the tapestry of the Philoctetes: a man in isolation, lacking all, unloved, encounters an artful speaker seeking his seduction.
As Socrates puts it:
Eros is ever poor, and far from tender or beautiful as most suppose him: [203d] rather is he hard and parched, shoeless and homeless; on the bare ground always he lies with no bedding, and takes his rest on doorsteps and waysides in the open air. . .The rhetorical duel of the Philoctetes -- strangely akin to that which Socrates finds within Eros itself -- sets in motion the endgame of the Trojan war and mirrors its beginning. Odysseus woos Philoctetes and takes him off in his ship, much as Paris had seduced Helen. Fortunes are turning. Philoctetes' heel will be made whole, enabling him to wound Paris mortally in the heel. The saddest man on Earth has the Heraclean bow, and he's on his way to Troy.
Eros is . . . always weaving some stratagem; desirous and competent of wisdom, throughout life ensuing the truth; a master of jugglery, witchcraft, [203e] and artful speech.
Farewell, foothold of Lemnos embraced by two seas,  and send me sailing fair to my heart's content there where mighty Fate and the intent of my friends carries me, and the all-taming god who has brought these things to pass.