All the same, although he despises me,In the first scene of Sophocles' "Ajax," the goddess Athena reveals to Odysseus that she has beclouded the mind of the warrior Ajax, who was set upon the murders of Menelaus, Agamemnon and Odysseus in the encampment on the beaches of Troy. Rather than allow Ajax to kill these three Greeks whom he believes have cheated him of the honor of receiving Achilles' armor after Achilles' death, Athena has sent Ajax into the fields to butcher and torture the army's cattle and sheep; she has deluded him into thinking that these harmless herd animals are his enemies. Athena takes Odysseus to Ajax' tent and calls Ajax forth. When the tent opens, a horrific spectacle is revealed, of blood and gore and slaughtered animals, of sheep tied to tent poles with their skins flayed, of Ajax covered in the blood of his innocent victims. Ajax, mad as a hatter, is quite pleased with himself. Odysseus, made invisible to Ajax' eyes by Athena, is horrified. Athena expects Odysseus to laugh with glee at the mad Ajax. Instead, Odysseus is shaken and speaks the lines quoted above. He sees in Ajax, perhaps, a reflection of his own tendency to pridefulness, and this gives him something to think about.
I pity his misfortune under that yoke
of catastrophic madness. It makes me think
not just of his fate but my own as well.
I see that in our lives we are no more
than phantoms, insubstantial shadows.
Ajax, when he comes out of the Athena-inspired fog, realizes that he has murdered scores of animals and committed acts of obscene violence upon the harmless beasts. He also realizes that the whole Greek camp has by now heard of this, and his humiliation is now such that he cannot face life. He announces his intention to kill himself rather than face life as a caricature of a mighty hero. "I was the greatest warrior that ever lived," he tells himself, and all who will listen, over and over and over again. The fantasy world of Ajax, wherein he is the only Greek that matters, the only real man, is a poor fit for the real world in which he finds himself, where treasures go to those more clever than he, where he is a soldier in an army commanded by another, where his own insane actions have made him the laughingstock of those who he sees as his inferiors. His tremendous pride will not allow him to live in such a world. He will take the sword of Hector, his enemy, and he will kill himself. His death, at least, will be honorable. This final act, he thinks, will stifle the laughter of his enemies.
Ajax is wrong, of course. The scorn continues to be heaped upon him after his body is discovered on the beach. Teucer, half brother of Ajax, sets about burying the corpse. Menelaus arrives on the beach and forbids the burial, calling Ajax unworthy of the rites of the dead. Menelaus is big and dumb, and Teucer spars with him verbally, outwitting him in petty argument. Menelaus, who has no authority over Teucer or the burial of Ajax, runs to fetch his brother Agamemnon, who is general of the Greek forces. This scene of squabbling on the beach over the corpse of Ajax, is quite good. Each of these men--Teucer, Menelaus and Agamemnon--is a version of Ajax: prideful, stubborn, and unwilling to see the world in terms of anything but the expression of his own vanity. Ad hominems fly, the argument digresses into more pettiness, the question of who is a true hero becomes more important than the obligations men have to the gods upon the death of a warrior. It is Odysseus, coming to the beach upon hearing of Ajax' death, who reminds Agamemnon that the question of Ajax' character is not the primary concern at this time. "I hated him while it was honorable to do so," Odysseus says of Ajax, but now is the time to bury our dead rather than to prop up our self esteem. Odysseus has seen the madness of Ajax when Athena pulled back the tent flaps and displayed her works. Odysseus remembers that men are "insubstantial shadow." Odysseus urges Agamemnon to allow the burial:
For I myself will also come to this.By "this" Odysseus means dead, surely, and he reminds Agamemnon that one day he too will need to be buried. But he might also mean something larger, perhaps his own possible evil fate at the whim of the gods, perhaps ignoble death at the feet of his enemies, perhaps after first having been driven mad by Athena for some slight. It is best all around, Odysseus says, to remember that we have no idea what will happen and no possible good can come from victory over a corpse. Athena has shown Odysseus what can happen to prideful men; Odysseus is shaken and though he can't tell Agamemnon that Ajax was driven mad by the goddess, he can caution him to set aside hubris lest he repeat Ajax' mistake.
The actions of Ajax, Athena, Menelaus, Teucer and Agamemnon are actions against which Odysseus reacts; they are not the point of the play. Odysseus is not any sort of hero in "Ajax," but he is the character who receives the warning, who sees the forces behind the scenes, and he is--as always--cautious.