36 pages 1 hour read



Fiction | Play | Adult | BCE

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Summary and Study Guide


Ajax is an ancient Athenian tragedy by Sophocles. Its production date, the festival at which it was first presented, and the other tragedies performed alongside it remain unknown, but it is believed to be among Sophocles’s earlier plays, possibly from the 440s BC. The narrative retells a story from Trojan war mythology concerning the suicide of the hero Ajax and its aftermath, exploring the hero’s excesses, reversals of fortune, and social bonds.

This study guide refers to the 2007 Hackett Classics edition that appears in Four Tragedies: Ajax, Women of Trachis, Electra, Philoctetes translated by Peter Meineck and Paul Woodruff.

Plot Summary

Set during the ninth year of the Trojan war, the play opens in front of the tent of Ajax, who is inside. He believes that he has slaughtered his fellow Greeks after they denied him the prize of Achilles’s arms, awarding them to Odysseus instead, but Athena deluded him. To save the Greeks, she caused Ajax to believe the army’s herds were its people. She recites the opening monologue, addressed to Odysseus, noting that she always watches over him, who always seeks her wisdom and guiding hand. Athena calls Ajax out of his tent so that Odysseus can see his madness, and Odysseus feels pity for his former enemy. Athena instructs Odysseus to remember what he has seen, not boast before the gods, and practice temperance.

The Chorus enters singing of the rumors they have heard about Ajax. Tecmessa, Ajax’s spear-bride, enters and reveals that the rumors are true. Ajax is now so distraught that he is refusing food and drink. Coming onstage, he asks the Chorus to kill him. Tecmessa and the Chorus urge Ajax to come to his senses and leave the past behind, but he can think only of getting revenge against Agamemnon and Menelaus. To return home to his father so dishonored is unthinkable for Ajax. Tecmessa reminds him that fate can be cruel. She was once a noblewoman and is now his slave, then reminds him of his responsibility to her and their son, Eurysaces, who she fears will be enslaved without his protection. Ajax asks for Eurysaces to be brought to him, gives the boy his shield, and says that his half-brother, Teucer, will protect the child and bring him to Ajax’s parents. He turns the child over to Tecmessa and instructs her not to mourn. She begs him not to betray her, but he ignores her.

The Chorus sings of the disastrous fallout that will follow Ajax’s death for everyone associated with him. Ajax returns with Tecmessa, claiming that her words have softened his heart, and sends her to comfort his comrades with this news. The Chorus celebrates in song.

A messenger arrives to report that the Greek are threatening Teucer, who has issued strict orders that Ajax not be left alone, following a prophecy by Calchas that it is the only way to keep Ajax safe. Hearing the messenger, Tecmessa sends the Chorus out to find Ajax. After they disperse, Ajax enters with his sword. After praying to Zeus, Hermes, the Furies, and Helios on behalf of himself and his survivors, Ajax falls on his sword and is taken off stage. Tecmessa and the Chorus reconvene on stage, and Tecmessa reveals that Ajax has been found dead. The Chorus sings that his inflexibility has led to the fulfillment of his fate. Tecmessa worries what will become of her and Eurysaces. Grieving Teucer arrives to protect Eurysaces before he falls into the Greeks’ hands. Teucer does not anticipate being welcomed home since he failed his brother, though the gods’ schemes engineered his brother’s downfall.

Menelaus enters to order that Ajax remain unburied, since his intention was to murder the Greeks. Teucer rejects his authority, insisting that he will bury his brother. The argument escalates, against the Chorus’ attempts to smooth things over, until Menelaus leaves, promising to use force, if necessary. The Chorus urges Teucer to bury Ajax quickly. Tecmessa and Eurysaces enter, and Teucer stations the boy at his father’s body, in the position of a suppliant, ordering him not to let go of the body, then leaves to attend to Ajax’s grave.

After the Chorus sings of their troubles and desire to return home, Teucer returns with Agamemnon on his heels, and the two argue. Teucer accuses Agamemnon of having dishonored a man who fought tirelessly for him, and Agamemnon retorts that Teucer is nothing more than a slave. Odysseus arrives and debates Agamemnon in favor of allowing Ajax to be buried. Agamemnon worries about appearing weak before the Greeks. Odysseus replies that his concern is to appear just; it would be contrary to the laws of the gods to allow a brave warrior to remain unburied. Agamemnon relents, on the condition that the decision be credited to Odysseus, then leaves.

Odysseus offers to help Teucer perform the burial rites, but he declines out of concern not to offend the dead. As Teucer and Eurysaces begin their preparations, the Chorus sings of the unpredictability of the future.