Enkarterēsō bioton (‘I shall endure life’). So speaks Euripides' Heracles in a moment of crucial decision when he rejects the idea of suicide in spite of the horror he has been through and the subsequent shame he must live with. This moment expresses more than patient resignation; it is a calculated and positive decision to live on, a hard-made decision and perhaps a surprising one. Was Euripides here thinking of that other great hero depicted by Sophocles, Ajax, who had been through a similar experience of madness and had chosen the opposite course in consequence of it, namely to take his own life? Sophocles' Ajax was probably produced in the 440's, Euripides' Heracles about 418. It is scarcely credible that Euripides was not familiar with this great work of Sophocles. There were doubtless other plays on the theme of madness in between but Ajax would surely be particularly memorable as a well-known cult figure in Athens and elsewhere.
The similarities between the two tragedies are considerable. I want first to explore them, then show how the difference in treatment of similar themes, particularly those of aretē, madness and tukhē, make up the unique character of each play. Such a comparison starting from common focal points should serve to set in relief the distinguishing characteristics of each author's treatment.