revised 7 February 2002
Aias is the Greek name for the Latin name Ajax, which became the better known name because Roman culture kept the Greek stories alive for so long. Early in Sophocles' drama, the hero connects his name to a Greek lament, aiai, and so it is more appropriate to use the transliteration of his name.
Aias is the earliest (maybe) Sophoclean play still in existence. He allegedly said that during this period he was trying to write like Aeschylus. Do you see anything particularly Aeschylean about this drama? (Of course, if you read this play before the Oresteia, this question will not mean very much!)
The subject is taken from a lost epic poem, but is alluded to in Homer's Odyssey. After the death of Achilles, the greatest Greek warrior, there was a struggle between Odysseus and Aias over who should get his armour, which the god Hephaestus made; the recipient would thus receive recognition as the greatest after Achilles. The Greeks had the Trojan captives decide this, by voting on which warrior they thought did the most damage. The goddess Athena, protector of Odysseus, is said to have bribed the Trojans to vote for her favorite. Aias, unable to bear the slight to his honor, decides to try to kill the Greek leaders. The drama opens after Athena has prevented this.
Odysseus is traditionally renowned for his cleverness and willingness to use any means to achieve his goals. This stands in sharp contrast to warriors such as Aias and Achilles, who value above all honesty, bravery and physical prowess. Does Aias come across as stupid at all?
Staging of prologue: is Athena in the orchestra or above the skene? How does each position affect the way we conceive of the action?
Look out for clues as to why Athena hates Aias so much. Is what happens to Aias an inevitable outcome of his character? Is the Athena here consistent with the one in Aeschylus?
If losing the armour and finding he has killed defenseless animals drives Aias to suicide, then what does this say about the value systems to which Aias, and other warriors, adheres?
What do you make of the way he treats Tekmessa? Be careful not to sentimentalize too much his concern for his family. The extended scene with Tekmessa and Eurysakes is modelled on one in Iliad 6. Read the Iliadic model
At one point Aias talks about the meaning of his name. Watch out for it; we will discuss it. Hint: the significance of his name is parallel to Oedipus' and Pentheus'.
Aias's speech on time (645ff) is the emotional and intellectual center of the play. Think about it. Has he decided to die here, and is he thus lying to his wife? Think about what lying would mean for his character.
After the announcment of Calchas' prophecy, all leave the orchestra. What effect would this empty orchestra have on the audience?
There is an image of Tekmessa discovering the corpse of Aias
The hero commits suicide half-way through the action, leaving a debate about his burial to fill the rest.Does this strike you as strange? Why the stress on his burial? What do you think Sophocles intended by this structure? Aias began as a horrifying figure; what do you feel for him now? Where do you think he commits sucide in view of the audience; make up your own mind about this. Does he even commit suicide in the center of the orchestra? His corpse remains on stage through the play's end.
Throughout the play, note the looming, threatening image of Aias and Teukros' father, Telamon. Is Aias any different as a father? Teucer is is half-brother, born of a slave, just like Aias's son.
Note that Tekmessa re-enters the acting area but remains mute (remember the 3 actor rule). If you are reading this on a computer that is part of a university network, you can read an excellent article by Kirk Ormand (pdf), Silent by Convention? Sophocles' Tekmessa
Compare the depiction of the Atreids here with Aeschylus or Homer. What has changed?
How does Odysseus convince the leaders to allow Aias's burial? Why is heroic burial so important? Consider it in light of his speech on time.
General: Aias, a toweringly individual figure from the heroic, mythical past, is viewed by an audience of people who value democracy and cooperation. Consider the function of such a character on stage and his possible relation to political and moral life in Athens. Goldhill has some good comments on this in his essay on the Great Dionysia.