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Philoctetes on Lemnos, 1788, Jean-Germain Drouais (1763 - 1788), (1.76 m x 2.25 m) Chartres, Musée des Beaux-Arts

Philoctetes is a play by Sophocles. It was first performed at the Festival of Dionysus in 409 BC, where it won first prize. The story takes place during the Trojan War (after the events of the Iliad, and before the Trojan Horse). It describes the attempt by Neoptolemus and Odysseus to bring the crippled Philoctetes into coming with them to Troy.


When Heracles was near death (the subject of another play by Sophocles - The Trachiniae), he wished to be burned on a funeral pyre while still alive. No one but Philoctetes would light the fire, and in return for this favor Heracles gives him his bow. Philoctetes leaves with the others to participate in the Trojan War, but gets bit on the foot by a snake. The bite leaves him in constant agony, and emits a horrible smell. For this he is left by Odysseus on the desert island Lemnos.

Ten years pass, and the Greeks capture the Trojan seer Helenus, son of Priam. He foretells that they will require Philoctetes and the bow of Heracles in order to win the war. So Odysseus sails back to Lemnos with Neoptolemus (a late arriver to the Trojan War and son of Achilles) in order to get him. The task will not be easy, as Philoctetes bitterly hates Odysseus and the Greeks for leaving him there.


Philoctetes begins with their arrival on the island. Odysseus explains to Neoptolemus that he is to take Philoctetes by tricking him with a false story while Odysseus hides. Neoptolemus is portrayed as a man of honor, and so it takes some persuading in order for him to play this part. In order to gain Philoctetes's trust, he tricks him into thinking he hates Odysseus as well. Odysseus has his father's armor. He tells Philoctetes that this armor was his right by birth, and Odysseus would not give it up to him. After gaining his trust and offering him a ride home, he is allowed to look at the bow of Heracles.

Neoptolemus holds the bow while Philoctetes is going into an unbearable fit of pain in his foot. Feeling ashamed, Neoptolemus debates giving it back to him. Odysseus appears, and a series of arguments ensue. Eventually Neoptolemus's conscience gets to him, and he returns the bow. After many threats made on both sides, Odysseus flees. Neoptolemus then tries to talk Philoctetes into coming to Troy by his own free will, but to no avail, and in the end Neoptolemus consents to take Philoctetes back to Greece, even though that means that he will be exposed to the anger of the army. This appears to be the conclusion of the play: but as they are leaving, Heracles (now a deity) appears above them and commands Philoctetes to go to Troy and be cured. Philoctetes willingly obeys him.

The play ends here. When Philoctetes later fights in Troy, his foot gets healed, and he wins glory killing many Trojans (including Paris).


  • Thomas Francklin, 1759 - verse: full text
  • Richard C. Jebb, 1904 - prose: full text
  • Francis Storr, 1912 - verse
  • David Green, 1957 - verse
  • Gregory McNamee, 1986 - prose: full text

Plays by Sophocles

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