The tension between civilization and savagery lies at the heart of this play. Each character experiences the competing impulses that exist within all human beings: the instinct to live morally, act peacefully, follow the true and the good or the instinct to satisfy one's immediate desires, act violently and enforce one's will. Philoctetes, "the wild man", cut off from civilisation on Lemnos proves, paradoxically, to be, arguably, the most civilised: he is the recipient of the theophany, who alone sees the god and to whom the god's words are addressed. He is also the character who has the greatest appreciation of the gods that are the basis of civilised life. The conflict between civilisation and savagery is portrayed throughout the play by its setting, language and imagery. .
In the opening lines of the play, we are first introduced to the setting: Lemnos, a large island west of Troy. The scenery of this island reflects the theme of savagery. Sophocles expresses this savagery with the opening image of "sea girt Lemnos1". Island of Lemnos which the sea cuts of Philoctetes off from the rest world forces him into savagery. As the Greeks, to be civilised is to be a human living in the city or in the polis. The rocks, the savage sea, storms and rough winds encircle Philoctetes in his solitude struggling for survival. Odysseus describes Lemnos as completely uninhabited, a place that no one even visits, "not a creature2". Philoctetes is completely deprived of communication, isolated and abandoned in this prison. He is physically separated from his fellow comrades in arms and does not have the ability to speak with any other human beings. He does not have the comfort of the gods, insofar as his treading on the sacred ground of Chryse and the snake which she sends to bite him causing his agonising wound, leaving him in constant pain and emanating a sickening smell.