Ajax: The Parodos and First Episode
Athena’s parting words are to remind Odysseus and the audience that “The Gods love the sophrones and hate the kakoi. These are two key words for Greek morality and are rather more opposed than the English words “prudent” and “bad.” The man who is sophron, is he whose thinking abilities (the phrenes) are sound, who can judge the future by the past, who keeps his strong feelings under control. Sophrosyne, the great Aristotelian virtue, is a distillation of the Greek folk wisdom exemplified in the Delphic proverbs, "Nothing in excess," "Measure is best," and "know thyself," which is to say, "always bear in mind that you are mortal and fallible." Sartre says somewhere--with uncharacteristic insight--that cultures tend to prize the values they find most difficult. He gives, as I recall, the Greek celebration of moderation and self-restraint, and the modern (thatdf is, post WW II) obsession with freedom. The Greek temperament--and the classical temperament ever since--is a like a finely strung bow, holding in tension opposed forces of extreme self-assertion with extreme restraint. Heraclitus uses a similar metaphor to express the principle of world-order he called the Logos, a word with a history that takes us through the Stoics to John the Beloved Disciple.
He who is kakos, is not simply imprudent but base, cowardly, and therefore wicked. Is Odysseus sophron? Yes. But, is Ajax kakos? Hardly.
Athena leaves the stage and the chorus of Salaminian sailors marches in to the usual anapestic dimeters:
uu-uu- - - uu-. The anapest is the reverse of the dactyl and as in most dactylic meters, one long syllable can be substituted for two shorts. For a sense of what anapests sound like in English, try on this bit of Tennyson from “Maud”
For a breeze of morning moves,
And the planet of Love is on high,
Beginning to faint in the light that she loves
In a bed of daffodil sky,
To faint in the light of the sun she loves,
To faint in his light, and to die.
Line 2 is anapestic thought it is catalectic (cut short at the end). Since English is a stressed language, Tennyson is free to alter the number of unstressed syllables.
The chorus loyally declares that their own happiness depends on the happiness of their king—an ancient and deep conception—and whether Ajax suffers from a divine intervention or the slanders of his fellow-fighters, they feel it. They blame Odysseus for spreading the rumor but say his listeners are even more thrilled. It is great men whom the little people attack, not realizing how essential are the great ones to their own safety. This is not exactly democratic thought, and it would resonate with supporters of the Philaid leadership, descendants of Ajax: Miltiades, Cimon, and Thucydides son of Melesias.
At first 72, their entry-march is finished, and they take up their position on the orchestra to perform the lyric part of the parados.
Many scholars have concluded, on the basis of certain technicalities of construction--the fact that the play falls into two parts that may or may not be successfully integrated--and style/meter--the lower incidence of resolution (substitution of two short syllables for one long in iambics)--that the Ajax is a comparatively early play. I have doubts about this line of analysis, and Lloyd-Jones, for other reasons, would date the play later.
Ajax parodousAjaxSetting aside the question of dating, though, I would point out that the lyric song of the parades is remarkably dramatic as opposed to being purely lyrical. Ajax's sailors are agitated and involved in the drama. In their dialogue with Tecmessa they function as much as a character as a chorus. They are in an awe that borders on fear of Ajax. They earnestly hope that he will recover from his furious madness, but Tecmessa points out a reality that is by no means obvious to them or to most people today, namely, that Ajax may be better off mad. In the present circumstances, all his friends--those who love him and are attached to him--are suffering while he is happy in his ignorance, but in recovering, he will only aggravate the unhappiness of those who care for him.
Tecmessa gives a more detailed account of Ajax' fury. Why? Because a tragedy consists, in addition to dialogue, largely narrates in song and speech. Such a speech--like messenger speeches--are meant to convey the horror without depicting it. To depict such irrational misery would be something like depicting extreme evil or baseness, a degradation of the citizens playing the part, the audience, and the festival.
In coming to his senses, Ajax has lost none of his extreme sense of his own honor. A modern feminist would be horrified by his abrupt, rude dismissal of Tecmessa to other pastures, but his desire to be left alone is what many loving husbands must occasionally feel, when they are being unseasonably comforted by the woman they love.
I'll pause here at line 450 and let readers advance the discussion by commenting and questioning, before we take up Ajax' exchange with Tecmessa.