Places: Philoctetes

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First produced: Philoktētēs, 409 b.c.e.

Type of work: Drama

Type of plot: Tragedy

Time of work: Antiquity

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Lemnos

*Lemnos. PhiloctetesBarren volcanic island in the north Aegean Sea, across from Troy. There, Odysseus abandons Philoctetes after the Greek warrior is bitten on the foot by a snake while preparing to make a sacrifice at the shrine on the island of Chrysa. Philoctetes’ wound never heals, and the smell it emits and Philoctetes’ groans are the reasons Odysseus gives for making him an outcast. The play makes Lemnos appear to be far more isolated from the Greek world than the real Lemnos actually was. The island’s exaggerated isolation strengthens the play’s theme of the difficulty of human survival in nature: Philoctetes lives alone in a cave, a place that reinforces his isolation yet provides him with shelter and some comfort. There, birds and animals constitute his only companions.

When Odysseus returns to Lemnos, he describes the cave in which Philoctetes has been living. Neoptolemus identifies it by the stained bandages he finds drying in the sun, the leaf-stuffed mattress, and a crude wooden cup.


*Euboea. Long, narrow island along the eastern coast of Greece where Chalcedon ruled and to which Philoctetes begs to be taken. The river Spercheius was opposite the island on the Greek mainland. Trachis is a small coastal town across from Euboea near Oeta, a mountain near the coast in the region of Malis. Philoctetes describes the island and its surrounding terrain to show how deeply he yearns to return to civilization.


*Pactolus. River in ancient Lydia (in west central Asia Minor, now Turkey) once famous for the gold found in its sands, a source of wealth for the Lydian kings, mentioned by the Chorus as a place of sustenance.

BibliographyGardiner, Cynthia P. The Sophoclean Chorus: A Study of Character and Function. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1987. Uses Philoctetes to reexamine the undervalued role of the chorus in Greek drama and how Sophocles skillfully uses choral odes for dramatic irony. Discusses the extent to which the chorus participates in the plot of deception.Harsh, Philip Whaley. A Handbook of Classical Drama. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1944. A classic survey of the range of Greek and Roman drama, arguing for the greatness of the achievement and for its influence on modern literature. Skillful thematic reading of Philoctetes and the Sophoclean plays leading up to it.Kitto, H. D. F. Greek Tragedy: A Literary Study. London: Methuen, 1939. An excellent study of Sophocles’ innovations such as his emphasis on character development, especially of Neoptolemus in Philoctetes, which Kitto claims has a wider range than any other character in Greek tragedy.Segal, Charles. Tragedy and Civilization: An Interpretation of Sophocles. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982. Develops the idea of the civilizing power of tragedy and the importance of society, language, and friendship. Discusses the difference between heroic and civilized values and how Sophocles juxtaposes them.Whitman, Cedric H. Sophocles: A Study of Heroic Humanism. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1951. The chapter “The Paradox of Will: Philoctetes” explores tragedy defined by the division between the gods and humans. Presents heroism as that which allows the mortal to transcend environment and assimilate the will of the gods. Explores how Sophocles changed his concept of heroism from those found in his simple sketches to those in his more complex artistic renderings.
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