Classics Sophocles’ Philoctetes
P. J. Finglass
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0288


Philoctetes was first performed in 409, when Sophocles was in his early eighties and had fewer than five years to live. But there is no indication here of any diminution in his powers as a dramatist; indeed, people familiar with Sophocles’ extant oeuvre often prefer Philoctetes to his six other surviving plays. The drama is centered on the title character, who was abandoned on the island of Lemnos by the Greeks on their way to Troy, after a snakebite to his foot made his company unbearable; ten years later, Odysseus and Neoptolemus have come to return him to the army, since both he and his bow—originally the weapon of the mighty Heracles—are needed for the conquest of Troy. Under Odysseus’s instructions, Neoptolemus falsely tells Philoctetes that he would like to bring him to his home; the deceit is working, but Neoptolemus cannot in the end go through with it, and reveals the truth to the enraged Philoctetes. The play has several more surprise twists before the dramatic conclusion, in which Heracles, Philoctetes’ old friend, manifests himself and directs Philoctetes to go with Neoptolemus to Troy, there to receive healing for his wound and to assist in the capture of the city. The myth was also treated by Aeschylus and Euripides in lost plays, but a summary by Dio Chrysostom allows us to discern the originality of Sophocles’ account.

Editions and Commentaries

The most commonly used edition, Lloyd-Jones and Wilson 1992, provides a generally acceptable text, although with many questionable decisions; readers must (as with any edition) keep a close eye on the apparatus criticus. Their text is generally preferable to that of the other major modern critical edition, Dawe 1996, which nevertheless should always be consulted on important points; Dain 1960 is too conservative to be useful. Lloyd-Jones 1998 provides a translation to accompany an almost exact replica of the text of Lloyd-Jones and Wilson 1992, though with a much reduced apparatus. In terms of commentaries, Manuwald 2017 is the most recent, Schein 2013 generally the most useful, though Jebb 1898 retains its value and deserves continued consultation; Kamerbeek 1980 (the only one of these commentaries without a text) provides much less help. For the fragmentary Euripidean Philoctetes, Collard 2004 is a most helpful guide.

  • Collard, C. 2004. Philoctetes. In Euripides: Selected fragmentary plays. Vol. 2. Edited by C. Collard, M. J. Cropp, and J. Gilbert, 15–25. Oxford: Aris & Phillips.

    Account of Euripides’ fragmentary Philoctetes, comparing it with Sophocles’ play, and Aeschylus’ too.

  • Dain, A. 1960. Sophocle. Tome III. Philoctète – Oedipe à Colone. Texte établi par Alphonse Dain et traduit par Paul Mazon. Paris: Société d’édition “Les Belles Lettres.”

    Edition of the Greek unhelpfully conservative; translation much better.

  • Dawe, R. D. 1996. Sophoclis Philoctetes. Stuttgart and Leipzig: Teubner.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-3-663-12368-2

    Important critical edition but excessively fond of aggressive textual intervention.

  • Jebb, R. C. 1898. Sophocles: The plays and fragments. Part IV. The Philoctetes. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    A classic commentary which despite its age remains a helpful guide, particularly to the language of the play; no serious student of the play can afford to neglect it. Reprinted as R. C. Jebb, Sophocles. Plays. Philoctetes (London: Bristol Classical Press, 2004), edited by P. E. Easterling, with an introduction by F. Budelmann.

  • Kamerbeek, J. C. 1980. The plays of Sophocles: Commentaries. Part VI. The Philoctetes. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

    A rather pedestrian commentary that rarely gets to grips with the key issues and problems of the drama.

  • Lloyd-Jones, H. 1998. Sophocles: Antigone. The Women of Trachis. Philoctetes. Oedipus at Colonus. Loeb Classical Library 21. Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard Univ. Press.

    Corrected revision of 1994 impression. Text almost the same as Lloyd-Jones and Wilson 1992, but with abbreviated apparatus criticus and a generally helpful (though sometimes rushed) translation.

  • Lloyd-Jones, H., and N. G. Wilson. 1992. Sophoclis Fabulae. Oxford: Clarendon.

    Corrected revision of 1990 impression. The more frequently used of the two modern critical editions; often helpful but with a fair few wild choices too.

  • Manuwald, B. 2017. Sophokles: Philoktetes. Berlin and Boston: De Gruyter.

    Up-to-date German commentary suitable for less experienced readers.

  • Schein, S. L. 2013. Sophocles: Philoctetes. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Good modern commentary suitable for advanced students; a helpful volume to teach from.

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