Ajax 430-595 End of First Episode
In this passage, dialogue between Ajax and Tecmessa, Ajax and the Chorus, Ajax and Eurysaces, the embittered hero sticks to his decision to kill himself, despite the appeals of his “wife”—she may as well be—son, and followers, all of whom depend on him. It is a bit like the Book of Job, except these are Greeks, for whom friendship—which includes kinship—is a primary moral quality.
Ajax begins with a typically Greek play of words on his own name, Aias, which he relates to his opening ejaculation of woe: “Aiai”. Again, typically Greek, he thinks immediately of his father, who had won great renown at an earlier attack on Troy, and whom he is ashamed to face. His shame is worse, because the Atridae have preferred a worthless trickster, Odysseus, to the greatest hero alive in the army, and that trickster will be overjoyed with his enemy’s disgrace, though as we know already, Odysseus is anything but happy.
Ajax, as a Greek hero, must resent deeply the loss of honor and respect, which is, for a man such as he is, the summit of good fortune and happiness. He blames the gods, who have the power to overthrow the better/stronger man and elevate the coward (kakos). He is hated by everyone—the gods, his comrades, and even Troy itself. Since there is no hope of relief—he had hoped to regain his honor by slaughtering the Greek leaders—he has only one choice as a man of honor. The eugenes—(well-born/noble) man must either live well (that is, finely, nobly) or die well—a magnificently pithy expression.
Tecmessa appeals to her lord’s affection and innate kindness. What will become of her after his death? He destroyed her family and country, and she has nothing left but her master. (She is sort of a counterpart to Homer’s Andromache, who has only Hector, because the enemy Achilles has killed everyone in her family.) When pleasure comes to us, we repay kindness with kindness, and if a man fails to keep in mind the kindness he has received, he cannot be accounted well-born/noble. This would seem to be a different definition of eugenes, not simply one who has good blood and maintains the family standards of heroism, but upholds the moral responsibility incurred by receiving a charis (favor, act of kindness). Charis breeds charis—or at least is supposed to. Ajax’s only response is to wish her gone.
Ajax asks to see his son Eurysaces, whose name means broad-shielded, a clear reference to Ajax’ most famous weapon. One might expect that a father would think twice about suicide, if he once considered the future of his son, but Ajax hopes only that his son will grow up to be a warrior as brave as but more fortunate than himself. In fact the boy does grow up to be a hero venerated by Athenians.
Tecmessa makes one more effort, in her hopeless campaign to dissuade Ajax, who ridicules her to some effect. How could she possibly think she was going to change the mind of such a man?
His last words are grim. Translated literally, he tells her: “You seem to/or I think that you have your mind set on foolish things if at this late date (or just now) you think you can educate, that is, bring me up like a boy, my character (ethos). Ajax is a grown man, he is what he is, and he is not about to take elementary school instruction from a woman, no matter how fond he might be of her.
I’ll leave it to you readers to tell us what you think of Ajax after this scene. He is certainly manly, forceful, without a drop of weakness. Though he begins by bitterly resenting his fate, he accepts the consequence like a man, and no considerations of affection or duty will deter him from doing what he believes—he knows—a man must do.