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The Character of Philoctetes

Exordium

Oh, how he rages locked on his island. “I’ll be my own Troy” (Heaney 63) he cries in arrogance, not knowing that he, like the city, is destined to fall. Philoctetes has lost everything, and now only blind hatred guides him, the ghosts of the past howl at his back and the stubbornness which knows no bounds consumes him.

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Narratio

He plays the role of the betrayed, of the broken. Left for dead by Odysseys so long ago, Philoctetes has lost his humanity. His is the part of a feral beast in dire need of healing and consolation. He has a perfectly good reason for his rage. His own people left him to die, and now return seeking his help. Thus, the hero locks himself in the past and refuses his own future saying: “The past is bearable, / The past’s only a scar, but the future – / Never”(Heaney 73). Philoctetes is a key figure in the play. He is the one who needs the titular cure. His wretched fate makes Neoptolemus stand his ground despite the instructions from Odysseys. Without him, Troy would have stood eternal.

Divisio

And still, Philoctetes is a man stripped of all dignity. He is feral. He has lost all wisdom of a true Achaean, and his stubbornness is not that of a man defending his liberty but that of a man completely oppressed by his past, unable to turn his gaze to the future. He is a man so deeply wounded and scarred he has none but vice in him. His speeches are no more than ravings of a madman until the son of Achilles manages to bandage those old wounds.

Confirmatio

What could redeem the old betrayed hero in the eyes of the public? Maybe, he is wise to stay away from the people who betrayed him? That is clearly false, for wisdom dictates to seek help in a dire situation. The Achaeans have left him to die, and crafty Odysseys himself is trying to still from him, but still accepting help is the only way to leave the isle, to see his family and comrades once more. Philoctetes shuns it and refuses his fortune. He is not wise. He is oppressed by the past and bound to the fruitless Lemnos by it.

Maybe, he is courageous, facing the endless isolation without a doubt? That cannot be true. How can a man too afraid to look ahead be courageous? He was courageous once, as we know from the mythos. Now, even young Neoptolemus notices: “Your courage has gone wild, you’re like a brute” (Heaney 72). Philoctetes no longer can trust people. No longer can he shrug off the chains of hate and suspicion. He is miserable in his claim to be his own Troy, for readers know that he is destined to strike that city down. That proclamation is nothing more than a demonstration of his pitiful cowardice in the face of Fate.

If he is not courageous or wise, maybe Philoctetes retains, at least, his liberty and self-control? He seems to stand on his own no matter what. He may be misguided, but he seems to defend his own way of living. Sadly, that is also not the case. The old archer is in a snare, and his old memories are ropes. “Every time the crater on Lemnos Island / Starts to erupt, what Philoctetes sees / Is a blaze he started years and years ago / Under Hercules’s funeral pyre” (Heaney 2). Memories even older than the betrayal at the start of the Trojan War still haunt him. Decades have passed, and still he returns to the funeral pyre he once had to light. He cannot accept the role he had to play once and dreads the role he will have to play if he leaves for Troy. He is a slave to his past so used to his position that he cannot even question it.

Confutatio

Some might argue that Philoctetes is not so deprived of virtue. One might claim that there is a truly courageous and free side to his character. He does, after all, leave for Troy to fulfill his destiny. But those are not his own virtues. What sparks the past decency in a man long lost to rage and paranoia is the honesty of Neoptolemus. The son of Achilles chooses wisely to show dignity. He refuses the Odysseus’ craft and acts boldly, returning the stolen bow and shaming the archer for the vices he has succumbed to. He reminds him that other Achaeans are still his friends: “But when your friends try, all you do is snarl / Like some animal protecting cubs” (Heaney 72). And the young warrior manages all of that with eloquence and wisdom long forgotten by the brooding old archer. All of the virtues one may see return were nothing more than reflections of the Neoptolemus, who has worked so hard to return just a shadow of the Philoctetes’ former self. Maybe, it fully returned some other day, but in this play, he is a wretch unfit to be called a man.

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Peroratio

The character of Philoctetes portrays the degradation caused by betrayal and abandonment. He is a man who has lost himself and degraded to a wild beast after he was left to die by his comrades. Even the virtues he displays at the end of the play are not his, but Neoptolemus’, borrowed to him by a caring young man who decided to follow the way of honor and dignity. Thus, the image of Philoctetes shows us what vice and degradation betrayal brings into this world and how hard it can be to redeem the bitter wrongs of old.

Works Cited

Heaney, Seamus. The Cure at Troy. London, UK: Faber & Faber, 1990. Print.

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