The Madness of Ajax

Ajax is one of Sophocles’ great plays, written in about 442 BC just as Athens was about to launch a war against Sparta that would result in defeat in 404 BC, the year after Sophocles died. He, himself, fought in a war and understood the values of a soldier. Sophocles shows his characters struggling to right the wrongs they perceive in the world about them. He is the playwright who celebrates heroism.

Ajax is a hero in the full sense of the word, the brave soldier who fights every war. However, he is not given the recognition he deserves and is swept away into madness. This is a play for our time. How do we deal with vets who return from wars who suffer from being physically disabled or psychologically damaged? Who should be our hero, the warrior or the politician? A soldier needs to be recognized for serving his country well, and a politician should follow justice and serve his fellow man.

This tale unfolds against the backdrop of the Trojan War. Achilles, its greatest hero, has died, but his arms are not awarded to the next-best hero, Ajax, but the politician Odysseus, whose stratagem of the Trojan Horse eventually won the war. Ajax is driven mad by the gods to prevent his attack on the Greeks’ own leaders. Will he survive the shame of his madness when he returns to sanity and the knowledge of what he did? How will the leaders of the army treat his lapse? Can Odysseus save the day with compromise? Sophocles’ play is one of the greatest plays ever written about war, and continues to comment on the challenges we Americans must face today. Ajax was celebrated by later generations of Greeks, and has continued to be an example of a man who will not compromise his honor.

Pericles said in his Funeral Oration over the Athenian war dead (Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War Book 2): “Your sense of honor is the only thing that does not grow old, and the last pleasure, when you are worn out with age, is not making money, but having the respect of your fellow man.”

As Ajax said: “What pleasure is there in piling up day after day, slowly creeping back and forth on the path to death? I don’t value the man who warms himself at the fire of empty hopes. A brave man must either live with honor, or die with it.”

Ajax was driven mad by Athena, a goddess symbolic of all the forces in charge, the mad leader who orders people to die simply to carry out a plan of vengeance. Ajax murders innocents when he is seized by this war madness.

We see how this madness infects people every day, beginning with the attack on a country supposedly possessing weapons of mass destruction, weapons that turn out to be a figment of the imagination. We are told that we must avenge the disaster of 9/11, even if the country one attacks shunned Al-Qaeda and the people who were actually responsible. Isn’t this madness?

Soldiers who fightsa war are not to blame (unless they go mad). It is usually the leader who asks them to commit mad acts.
Torture? Aren’t there parallels between what happened at Abu Ghraib and Ajax’s attack on the defenseless? The difference is that Ajax had a sense of shame afterwards. What about hidden prisons, and “rendition,” exporting people to countries where they can be tortured more efficiently and there will be fewer repercussions from a public that might ask for accountability?

In Ajax we have the petty politicians Menelaus and Agamemnon forbidding a body to be buried when common decency requires it. They are out for vengeance and blood. Menelaus says: “It’s a bad citizen who does not obey those in authority; laws never function well in a city without fear.”

So, following a similar philosophy, we have a Patriot act that ensures that even patriots are in fear, all to consolidate those in authority, who will break laws to consolidate their power.

What Sophocles urges is some compromise between authority and civil liberties. He admires the hero, but condemns the mad excess that sometimes infects individuals and armies in wartime.

As usual, the Greeks urge “Nothing in Excess”: compromise, and negotiation that entails keeping both one’s honor AND the respect of one’s fellow man.

They seemed to ask more of their citizens than we do today in America: they asked them to have a conscience and be accountable for their actions.

MARIANNE McDONALD is Professor of Theatre and Classics in the Department of Theatre at the University of California, San Diego. Among her many books and plays are: Amid Our Troubles: Irish Versions of Greek Tragedies; The Living Art of Greek Tragedy; translations: Sophocles’ Antigone; Euripides’ Children of Heracles; Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus and Oedipus at Colonus; Euripides’ Hecuba; versions: The Trojan Women; Medea, Queen of Colchester, The Ally Way (after Alcestis), besides and then he met a woodcutter (after Noh). She can be reached at:

“Ajax”, in her translation, is playing at the 6that Penn theater, 3704 Sixth Avenue, San Diego, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays; through Feb. 5. Info: (619) 688-9210