Philoctetes Summary & Study Guide
SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 40-page guide for “Philoctetes” by Sophocles includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Friendship and The Struggle Between Morality and Deception.
Philoctetes is a Greek tragedy written by Sophocles, which was first performed in ancient Greece during the Peloponnesian War in 409 BC. It was performed at the ancient Greek festival of City Dionysia, where it was awarded first prize. Philoctetes takes place during the final year of the Trojan War and explores themes of friendship, trauma, deception versus morality, fate, and the individual versus the collective. This study guide uses the translation of Sophocles’ play by Peter Meineck.
The play begins as Greek warriors Odysseus and Neoptolemus arrive at the deserted island of Lemnos—the same island where Odysseus once abandoned fellow soldier Philoctetes, who was suffering from a festering wound on his foot. Odysseus wants Neoptolemus to deceive Philoctetes to gain Philoctetes’ trust and, thus, his powerful bow, which the demigod Heracles gave to Philoctetes. It has been prophesied that the bow is necessary for the Greek army to win the Trojan War. Neoptolemus protests the plan because he doesn’t want to lie, but Odysseus persuades him, and Neoptolemus gives in.
Odysseus leaves, telling Neoptolemus that he’ll send a sentry disguised as a trader if he takes too long; Neoptolemus waits for Philoctetes. A chorus of warriors arrives to help Neoptolemus, and Philoctetes soon enters. Neoptolemus pretends not to know who Philoctetes is, and Philoctetes explains how he has been left on Lemnos for 10 years, starving and in pain. He is also still angry with Odysseus and the other soldiers for deserting him. Neoptolemus deceives Philoctetes by saying that he is also mad at Odysseus and does not plan to return to Troy, earning Philoctetes’ trust.
Neoptolemus is preparing to sail home, and Philoctetes begs to join him. Just as the two prepare to leave, the “trader” sent by Odysseus arrives. The trader tells Neoptolemus that the King of Athens and other Greeks are searching for him, and that Odysseus is searching for Philoctetes. The trader explains the prophecy to Philoctetes. Philoctetes refutes the idea that Odysseus could persuade him and wants to leave with Neoptolemus immediately. However, Philoctetes must first get the arrows for his bow. Neoptolemus asks if he could hold the bow, and Philoctetes agrees because of the kindness Neoptolemus has shown him. Philoctetes is soon struck with pain from his foot wound and gives Neoptolemus his bow while he tries to sleep off the pain, first making him promise to return the bow and let no one else hold it. The chorus tries to convince Neoptolemus that they should leave with the bow while Philoctetes sleeps, but Neoptolemus refuses.
When Philoctetes wakes up, Neoptolemus, wrecked with torment, confesses to Philoctetes that he’s been deceitful and is planning to take him to Troy. Philoctetes lashes out in anger, and as they argue, Odysseus arrives and tells Philoctetes that Neoptolemus will not return the bow. Philoctetes and Odysseus argue about the need for him to go to Troy, and Philoctetes threatens to kill himself. If Philoctetes will not go to Troy, Odysseus will take the bow and go without him. Odysseus and Neoptolemus leave, but Neoptolemus lets the chorus stay with Philoctetes until they’re called to sail away. The chorus tells Philoctetes that he should have gone to Troy and has cursed himself by not doing so.
Neoptolemus reenters with Odysseus, and Neoptolemus says that his guilt has made him decide to return the bow to Philoctetes. Odysseus protests and threatens to send the Greek army to fight Neoptolemus in response. Neoptolemus presses on and gives Philoctetes the bow. Neoptolemus tries to convince Philoctetes to go with him to Troy, saying that it will cure his foot pain, but Philoctetes refuses. As they prepare to leave, however, Heracles (who is now a god) appears to them and tells Philoctetes that he will be cured and the Greeks will win the war if Philoctetes goes to Troy. This finally convinces Philoctetes, and the two men prepare to sail to Troy.