This is an extract of our Commentary On Sophocles' Ajax document, which we sell as part of our Greek Literature of the 5th Century BC Notes collection written by the top tier of University Of Oxford students.
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Sophocles' Ajax Commentary The madness of Ajax after he fails to win the armour of Achilles is what drives the plot of the play since it is the things he does while in this state which forces his inevitable suicide; inevitable not because of the actions themselves but because of the man that Ajax is. In a frenzy of grief and anger he goes out to slaughter the Greek leaders who have denied him the armour he feels that he deserves and especially Odysseus, both because he was the one who actually won it and he was Ajax's bitterest enemy; he even says later that he will take great joy in slowly torturing him to death. However Athena does not allow him to be successful in this endeavour and corrupts his vision so that he kills animals thinking all along that they are men. This act of killing the sheep, therefore, is not actually an example of his madness since it is imposed by the god. It is a common Homeric technique to say that madness is something sent by the gods, a thing over which men have no control and therefore can rely upon this excuse to absolve them from any blame. For example in book nineteen Agamemnon blames Zeus and other gods for taking his wits from him and Achilles has to accept this excuse. This, however, is not what Sophocles is doing, the true madness comes from within Ajax himself and for this reason he is unable to endure reconciliation with the Greek leaders. The chorus later think that Ajax is still mad at line 600, but by the time he realises the true nature of his deed he becomes sane once again and it is with a sane mind that he contemplates his suicide and comes to the decision that there is no other escape from the situation he has found himself in. Another key factor which contributes to the situation where Ajax can do very little but die is the shame that his killing of the sheep causes; not because he went mad and killed them but because he meant to kill the men but they managed to escape his attack. He complains that his Homeric prowess has been used against nothing but mere beasts and as a result he has been left humiliated: "Do you see that I, the bold, the valiant, the one who never trembled in battle among the enemies, have done mighty deeds among beasts that frightened no one? Ah, the mockery! What an insult I have suffered" (364-7). To emphasise this point he uses two very Homeric epithets of himself, thrasun and eukardion. His shame clearly comes from the loss of prestige his mistake has brought him since he frequently mentions that he feels he is being laughed at; something which is completely intolerable to a hero such as Ajax who has a very high sense of his own self worth. "And they have escaped and are laughing at me; the fault is not mine, but if one of the gods does harm, even the coward may escape the stronger man" (450). A weaker man has already insulted him by winning the armour ahead of him and now this has compounded the situation to a fatal extent. The extent of his shame is clear later in the play when he attempts to project his feelings of it onto the sword which Hector gave him in their dual. This he plants in the ground so that in effect his suicide is an extension of the dual which was stopped due to bad light; this act gives Ajax greater glory than either suicide or simply throwing himself against the walls of Troy in vain, an act which he says would give great pleasure to the sons of Atreus.
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