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N.S. Gill

The Difficult Patient: Philoctetes

By March 7, 2007

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In the New York Times' article The Difficult Patient, a Problem Old as History (or Older), by Abigail Zuger, medical students listen to symptoms of an ancient patient in order to try to diagnose him. The symptoms listed were part of a reading, by classicist Bryan Doerries, of Sophocles' tragedy Philoctetes. Philoctetes was on the road to Troy with the rest of the Greeks when he was injured and his wound festered. He was abandoned on the island of Lemnos because he stank so badly that no one could stand him. Unfortunately, the Greeks needed him to win the war.

Sophocles' Philoctetes
Philoctetes, a Greek hero, owns the bow of Heracles (a gift to the demi-god from the god Apollo) that the Greeks have been told by an oracle they need to win the Trojan War. It isn't entirely clear from the oracle whether Philoctetes is needed to wield the bow. Philoctetes blames Odysseus and the sons of Atreus (Agamemnon and Menelaus) for his ill-treatment. Like Achilles, he is willing to nurse his grudge although it hurts even the blameless Greeks. Left isolated, Philoctetes has been using the special weapon for the undignified task of killing his own food. Heracles comes in at the end as a deus ex machina to make Philoctetes do the right thing.
See "The Role of the Bow in the Philoctetes of Sophocles," by Philip Whaley Harsh.The American Journal of Philology, Vol. 81, No. 4. (Oct., 1960), pp. 408-414.
"Neoptolemos' Story in the Philoctetes," by Richard Hamilton. The American Journal of Philology, Vol. 96, No. 2. (Summer, 1975), pp. 131-137.

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