Ajax: The Suicide
The Chorus, who have been obtuse throughout the play, have misunderstood Ajax’s parting words as a change of heart instead of a rueful admission that he misjudged the world he has lived in. The drama becomes more intense, when a messenger comes in to report on Teucer’s hostile reception in the Greek camp, and on the instructions he had received from Calchas the prophet NOT to let Ajax out of his hut. He also adds an account we should certainly accept that in his courage and self-reliance, Ajax had informed Athena she should not waste her time helping him in battle, when it was other Greek fighters who need her assistance. This behavior is consistent with his previous condescension in telling her he would obey her in all else but his plans for Odysseus.
Ajax, about to carry out his plans, appears once more but not to kill himself on stage—that would be sacrilegious. He quite correctly anticipates that his body will be dishonored and he asks the messenger to make sure Teucer finds it and does what is proper. Many readers and scholars assume he regards violation of the corpse as an act that will prevent him from finding peace in death. This is certainly a reasonable assumption, but the point is not made here.
Rather many lines have been athetized, that is, marked for deletion as later additions which strike some scholars as inappropriate—his continuing rage against the Atridae, for example. With his last words, he pays tribute to the beauty of Salamis and the glory of Athens, sentiments that would have struck a deeper chord with Athenian spectators than they might with American readers.
The chorus enter, filled with anxieties, and are in time to hear Tecmessa’s cries of grief. They realize their folly in taking seriously what appeared to be his repentance. They say they appreciate her grief, but she tells them that woes that only seem so to them are the complete object of her thoughts. The chorus assume that Odysseus will be delighted to mock the sad death of his enemy, but Tecmessa understands how much the Greeks have lost and makes it a general observation that we fail to appreciate our benefactors until they are gone. I may be off base, but I cannot help thinking of the exile of Ajax’s kinsman Cimon, the greatest of the Athenians of his time, but set aside in favor of the glib (and, one has to admit heroic) Pericles.
Teucer arrives, and his grief, extreme as it is, leaves room for the consideration of his future. What sort of greeting will he receive from Telamon his father? He remembers that the sword with which Ajax has killed himself was a fatal gift from Hector, who now has his revenge—a thought that had previously occurred to his brother. But ultimately, it is the gods who are responsible for this—and for everything significant in human life. Others are free to think otherwise.