The Act of Interpretation in Sophokles’ Philoktetes

Kevin Hawthorne

Baylor University

Scholars of Sophokles’ Philoktetes have discussed in much detail the content and meaning of Helenos’ oracle. Two questions have usually been raised. First, does the oracle require that the Greeks at Troy bring back Philoktetes himself or only his bow? Secondly, if Philoktetes, then is he required to come willingly? While these substantive questions are appropriate and are raised in the play itself (and given no certain answers), they presume that we know in what sense the oracle “requires” anything at all. We can identify in Sophokles’ plays oracles that are prescriptive, predictive, and conditional. Which kind is the oracle in Philoktetes? That is, does it give divine instruction or command (prescriptive), announce an inevitable future (predictive), or reveal a contingent future (conditional)? These alternatives are essential to the argumentative claims made by all three major characters, as well as the Chorus.

Before Philoktetes comes on stage, Neoptolemos takes the oracle as predictive, in order to distance himself emotionally from the man whom he intends to deceive (191-200). After the bow is stolen, the Chorus takes this earlier cue from Neoptolemos and reads Philoktetes’ situation as so bound up in fate that they can claim a complete freedom from responsibility for the deception plot in which they have just participated (1116-21). Later, deliberating about whether to run off with the bow, Neoptolemos invokes a prescriptive interpretation in strikingly “oracular” hexameters to justify his hesitation (839-42). The Chorus, however, deflates his pronouncement with a predictive interpretation of their own (843). In the opening scene, Odysseus suggests a conditional oracle: if Neoptolemos wants his own glory at Troy, then he must participate in Odysseus’ plan (115). After returning to the stage later, however, Odysseus invokes a prescriptive reading in order to call himself the agent of Zeus (989-90). Philoktetes, however, will accept the oracle only as conditional; accordingly, he can believe that the gods have left to him individual agency, if little else (991-2, 1035-9).

In the final scene, Herakles appears and commands Philoktetes to go to Troy. He makes no mention of the previous oracle, however, and his discourse—described as authoritative muthos—contains nothing like explanation or rationale. Thus, even in the end, no interpretation of Helenos’ oracle receives external, divine vindication. Even if we did have such a pronouncement, it would not retroactively free the characters earlier in the play from the necessity and responsibility of interpretation. Sophokles has denied his audience a direct quotation of the oracle in order to free us from judging the characters’ actions by some standard of objective truth. Instead, we are invited to judge the act of interpretation by the motives of the interpreters. The tragedy has been shown to move through three stages, corresponding to three potential modes for interacting with other human beings: deception, force, and persuasion. The oracle can be seen to play a counterpoint to this dramatic movement: the act of interpreting information is also a part of how individuals and societies choose to structure their inter-personal relationships.


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