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"To Laugh at One's Enemies:" Vengeance by Humiliation and the Tyranny of the Stronger in Sophocles' Ajax

J. LaRae Ferguson

In the past fifty years and more, when studying and writing about Sophocles’ Ajax, classical scholars have focused much of their attention on drawing out some coherent understanding of justice propounded by the author in his drama of anger, vengeance, and suicide.  While Sophocles undeniably allows his remarkably humane Odysseus and eloquent Tecmessa to embody a new code of justice based on empathy and compassion, more central to his purposes, I argue, is his penetrating critique of the traditional heroic understanding of justice based on revenge and of the comfortable assumptions of his contemporary Athenian audience concerning their own city’s role as the moderate and just arbiter of the Hellenic world.  By paralleling in his characters Athena and Ajax their insulted statuses and consequent desire to humiliate their offenders, Sophocles highlights the terrifying consequences of an “eye for an eye” system of justice, which leaves the weaker (in this case, mortals) utterly at the mercy of the stronger (here, immortals).  Yet in this drama, mercy is just what neither goddess nor hero can understand.  By twice refusing her aid, Ajax gains the implacable hatred of the insulted Athena, just as the sons of Atreus gain that of Ajax by denying him the arms of Achilles.  Both goddess and hero view themselves as victims of the hubris of their offenders, and each is consumed throughout the play by a lust for vengeance, for the power to laugh at his humiliated enemy.  Ajax commits his tragic suicide, however, upon his own recognition of his utter helplessness as a mere mortal attempting to defy the power of an avenging deity.  His only recourse lies in the denial of the goodness of life itself, in the one absolute power reserved to a man: his own death.  Dramatically engendered by the ancient code of justice by vengeance, the terrifying conflict between Athens’ two central mythic patrons demanded that Sophocles’ Athenian audience reevaluate their own city’s ability to remain untainted by the tyranny of power into which such a moral code must inevitably degenerate.

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The Next Generation: Papers by Undergraduate Classics Students

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