Odyssey & Philoctetes: Compare & Contrast

Odyssey & Philoctetes: Compare & Contrast
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Odysseus or Ulysses appears both in Sophocles Philoctetes and Homer’s Odyssey; however, the character is presented in quite a different way in the two works. The difference between the two can be seen in a variety of ways. The scope, length, and intensity of the task assigned to Odysseus, in the two works, is different in the first place because the genre of the two works is different. A detailed description of numerous romanticized and perilous adventures could not be shown in the limited framework of a play, yet, it was very much possible for an epic to encompass all such incidents conveniently.   They also differ vividly as regards their heroic qualities, and the support they had from the supernatural world.    

The Difference between Scope and Literary Form

A comparison of Sophocles’ Odysseus with that of Homer’s seems quite challenging since the chronological difference between the creation of Homer’s Odyssey (8th century BC) and Sophocles’ Philoctetes (5th century BC) is of about three centuries (Encarta, 2009). It is also challenging because of the difference of forms of the two works; Odyssey is an epic while Philoctetes, a drama. Due to this difference of form Odyssey has a greater scope of lengthy narrations of heroic incidents and detailed descriptions of scenes. Philoctetes, on the other hand, has no scope for narrations and lesser scope for character descriptions due to the limited scope of the genre of drama because, in a play, everything has to be presented mostly through the agency of dialogue.  That is one of the reasons that make Odysseus of Philoctetes indulge in lengthy, painstaking, and romantic adventures; whereas Odysseus of Philoctetes indulges in a lesser number of adventures and consequently has lesser heroic value.  

Greater Heroic Action in Odyssey

Heroic action concerning the protagonist Odysseus in Odyssey is spread through twenty-four books i.e. 12,110 lines (Encarta, 2009).  The description of Odysseus’ encounters with a number of individuals and monsters is detailed, heroic, and romantic. His encounters with Cicones, the one-eyed monster Cyclops, Aeolus, Laestrygones, Circe, and the Sirens, make him a greater heroic figure than that of the Odysseus in Philoctetes. Odysseus in Philoctetes mostly remains in the background and appears to be a greater planner rather than being a great executor of plans. Much of his role seems to be stolen away by the new character Neoptolemus (introduced by Sophocles), who has greater interaction with Philoctetes and has greater involvement in the action of the drama.

The Centrality of Odysseus’ Character

Homer’s Odysseus seems to dominate the tale; all the events and characters seem to revolve around him. Sophocles’ Odysseus, however, has lesser centrality in the story. It is mainly due to a different portrayal of Philoctetes’ character: “Sophocles […] gave a new aspect to the tragedy, by transferring the interest form Odysseus to Philoctetes, and made the character of the latter the basis of the whole plot.” (theatredatabase.com). Sophocles’ Philoctetes seems to be a better individual than Homer’s; He has emotional warmth and is capable of love and sympathy. His moral strength is shown in his hatred for meanness and dishonesty. These added qualities make the audience focus more on Philoctetes than Odysseus.

Romantic Wrappings around Odysseus

Homer’s Odyssey, with its greater variety of adventures and the passion of love and devotion introduced in the persons of Calypso, the sea nymph, and Penelope, appears to be a highly romantic tale of love, deceit, and adventure. Sophocles’ Odysseus, however, does not these characters. The devotion of Calypso, Penelope, and Telemachus for Odysseus is relentless and uncompromising; this makes Odysseus of Odyssey, a more romantically charged hero who escapes many perils and temptations in order to return to his beloved Penelope and win her back from the harassing horde of her suitors.

Supernatural Intervention and Support

               Odysseus’ success, both in Odyssey and Philoctetes, is subject to the intervention of certain supernatural beings. When Sophocles’ Odysseus, along with his comrade Neoptolemus, cannot persuade Philoctetes to go back to Greece, Hercules descends from heaven and makes Philoctetes obey the will of gods saying, “Hence with thy friend to Troy, where honor calls,/Where health awaits thee.” (Sophocles, 2009). Homer’s Odysseus, however, is helped, rescued, and protected several times by gods. Goddess Athena helps Odysseus and his family several times in the play. She goes to Ithaca and encourages Telemachus to go and look for his father; Zeus, on Athena’s request, sends Hermes to Calypso so that she may release Odysseus. Athena also informs Odysseus about the dangerous situation created by the suitors in his palace and warns him to tread carefully. She helps Odysseus in recognizing his father and also helps him establish peace in Ithaca after the trouble created by the suitors. Thus we may say that Sophocles’ Odysseus relies less on the supernatural agency as compared to Homer’s Odysseus which implies that Sophocles’ Odysseus is more self-reliant than Homer’s; he relies more on his cunning and deceitfulness.   

Heroic Values of Odysseus and Neoptolemus

Homer’s Odysseus goes through a greater number of adventures, difficulties, and perils as compared to Sophocles’ Odysseus. Homer’s Odysseus has direct contact with Philoctetes and is more at risk of getting into trouble since Philoctetes could pose aggression against him in case he gets to know the real identity of Odysseus. He appears to be a true hero who has the courage and ability to face and destroy monsters and magicians without losing his confidence. He is resourceful, knowledgeable, and intelligent; all these qualities, together with his dauntless courage and a strong resolve to achieve his goals, make him one of the most befitting heroes of a great epic.

Sophocles’ Odysseus, on the other hand, is intelligent, courageous, and cunning. Moreover, he has the company and assistance of Neoptolemus, which makes his task easier. He is not much scrupulous since he tries to utilize any possible means, right or wrong, to take Philoctetes back to Greece. He advises Neoptolemus to be deceptive in order to trap Philoctetes: “We must deceive this Philoctetes/that will be thy task [….] Give to deceit and me a little portion/Of one short day, and for thy future life/Be called the holiest, worthiest, best of men.” And later in the same scene, he says, “He must be gained by fraud.”  (Sophocles, 2009). This advocacy of deception and fraud to earn a quicker victory shows his unscrupulous and utilitarian nature. His character doesn’t seem to play a pivotal role in the story, since Sophocles has shifted much of the weight of significance towards Neoptolemus and Philoctetes.  Neoptolemus, however, seems to be idealistic and morally sound.  In the end, Neoptolemus’ character seems more heroic than that of Odysseus since he returns the bow to Philoctetes and convinces him not to kill Odysseus.

We may conclude that Odysseus of Philoctetes as compared to Odysseus of Odyssey was less heroic, less romantic, and even less scrupulous. The centrality of his character was marred by the introduction of a new character Neoptolemus and a more sympathetic portrayal of Philoctetes’ character.

ULYSSES: Dost thou not fear the power of Greece?



Nor Greece nor thee, when I am doing right.

                                                           (Sophocles, 2009)

Works Cited:

 “Homer.” Microsoft Encarta. (2008). DVD-ROM. Microsoft Corporation.

 “Philoctetes.” 24 April 2009. <theatredatabase.com/ancient/sophocles_009.html>

Sophocles. Philoctetes. 24 April 2009. <classics.mit.edu/Sophocles/philoct.pl.txt>

 “Sophocles.” Microsoft Encarta. (2008). DVD-ROM. Microsoft Corporation.