Odysseus and Neoptolemus arrive on a near-deserted island for the purpose of bringing Philoctetes back to Troy in hopes of fulfilling a prophecy of victory. Odysseus was one of the men who stranded Philoctetes there, after Philoctetes received an agonizing snake bite on his foot for walking on sacred ground. Odysseus persuades Neoptolemus to trick Philoctetes into coming with them, pretending that he is going home to Greece and also hates Odysseus. Neoptolemus, being mostly honest, rather reluctantly goes along with it and meets up with the pathetic figure of Philoctetes.
Philoctetes is quick to trust him, partially because he knew Achilles, Neoptolemus' father, who was a pretty honest guy. As a fit of pain comes over Philoctetes, Neoptolemus receives his magic bow and he is filled with pity and empathy for the miserable man. Odysseus reappears to force Philoctetes to come to Troy, and Philoctetes turns against Neoptolemus. After a failed attempt at persuading him to come on his own, Neoptolemus decides to go against the wishes of Odysseus and the rest of the army, and promises to take Philoctetes back to Greece. Before this happens the god Herakles (the bow's original owner) appears and informs Philoctetes that he must go to Troy, and that he will be cured there.
Though Euripides and Aeschylus also wrote plays on the character, only Sophocles' version survives.
Philoctetes contains examples of:
- The Aloner: Philoctetes has been left alone on an island for ten years, having to fend for himself despite his injury and only surviving due to his bow.
- Angst: Philoctetes goes through a lot of it.
- Because Destiny Says So: Philoctetes has to go back to Troy, and Neoptolemus has to go there to begin with because a prophecy says that's the only way to take Troy.
- Character Title
- Conscience Makes You Go Back: Neoptolemus helps Odysseus take Philoctetes' bow but decides to come back and return the bow to Philoctetes due to his guilt over tricking him.
- Cynicism Catalyst: Being left to rot on an island by his comrades has left Philoctetes with a very cynical view of people and the Greek army in particular.
- Deserted Island: Philoctetes was stranded far from society, and whenever anybody did dock in they just left him there.
- Deus ex Machina: Herakles solves the problem rather tidily from Olympus.
- Dirty Business: Odysseus and Neoptolemus tricking Philoctetes to go with them in order that the Greeks could finally win the war.
- Everybody's Dead, Dave: Philoctetes asks Neoptolemus about the fate of various Greek soldiers and discovers that everyone he cared for or admired is dead (while the ones who he hates are all still alive)
- Foreshadowing: Herakles warns Neoptolemus that once Troy falls, he should continue to honor the gods. From the story of him killing King Priam at the household altar, he did not do this.
- Guile Hero: Odysseus. In a negative way.
- Honor Before Reason: Neoptolemus' philosophy. As he says, he would rather fail honorably than win by trickery.
- I Did What I Had to Do: Odysseus argues expedience to Neoptolemus both for what they are going to do, and for leaving Philoctetes stranded in the first place.
- MacGuffin: Herakles' bow.
- Parental Substitute: With Achilles out of the picture and Philoctetes having a positive remembrance of him, he starts to become this to Neoptolemus, who needs guidance.
- Pursuing Parental Perils: Neoptolemus goes to Troy after his father Achilles has died there.
- Shoot the Dog: Odysseus. It is pragmatic both to bring Philoctetes to Troy so that the war will end and to trick him to do so because he would never agree of his own will. It's also totally Jerkass under the circumstances.
- Third-Act Misunderstanding: As Neoptolemus begins to contemplate not forcing Philoctetes to go, Odysseus shows up, the lies are revealed and Philoctetes becomes very bitter and angry towards Neoptolemus, who is ultimately an honourable guy.
- Too Good for This Sinful Earth: Philoctetes, reflecting on which people have died in Troy and which people are still alive, says that the gods always spare the worst people and have the good ones die.
- Tragedy: Don't let the happy ending fool you; the play is still a tragedy.
- Wound That Will Not Heal: Philoctetes has a particularly smelly, festering one that he got from a snake for walking on sacred ground. Herakles convinces him to go to Troy partially because it will be healed at some point there.