ca. 496-406 B.C.

Greek tragic dramatist

Sophocles was one of the great dramatists of world literature. His tragedies were extremely popular during his own lifetime, and they have continued to be read and performed for centuries after the playwright’s death. The style of his dramas was so admired that it was adopted as the standard style of tragedy in Western literature.

Sophocles was one of three important tragic dramatists of classical* Athens whose works have survived. The other two are Aeschylus and Euripides, whose careers overlapped that of Sophocles. Of the three, Sophocles was the most popular and successful. He frequently triumphed over his two great rivals in the dramatic competitions of his day. Sophocles was also very productive, with a total of 123 plays to his credit. Seven complete dramas and fragments of two others survive.

* classical in Greek history, refers to the period of great political and cultural achievement from about 500 B.C. to 323 B.C.

Sophocles’ Life and Career. Sophocles was born into a wealthy family in Colonus, near Athens. In addition to his career as a dramatist, he served in both government and the military. He was treasurer of the Athenian empire in 443 B.C. and a general in 441 B.C. In 413 B.C. he served on a commission that was established to investigate the failure of a military expedition during the Peloponnesian War.

In 468 B.C., at the age of 28, Sophocles entered his first dramatic competition. Although he was competing against the great playwright Aeschylus, Sophocles won first place. During the early days of his career in drama, Sophocles acted in his own plays. He soon gave up acting, however, apparently because his voice was not strong enough.

Sophocles wrote dramas and competed in dramatic competitions for more than 60 years. He wrote his last two plays when he was in his 80s, and he entered his last competition in 406 B.C. at the age of 90. During his career, he won at least 20 dramatic competitions, and he never finished lower than second.

Ironically, the man who devoted his career to writing such eloquent tragedy experienced much happiness and good fortune in his own life. Sophocles was a popular man, known to be calm and carefree. He was also a pious man. Sophocles was the priest of a minor healing cult*, and he founded a shrine for the hero* Heracles after dreaming about him. Sophocles even took the sacred snake of the healing god Asclepius into his own home until a sanctuary* for the god could be built.

Classical Athens was a city of tremendous intellectual and artistic activity in which Sophocles played a significant role. He counted among his friends the great statesman Pericles, the philosopher* Socrates, and the historian Herodotus. For his unequaled popularity and success as a dramatist, Sophocles was made a hero after his death and honored as the subject of a religious cult.

* cult group bound together by devotion to a particular person, belief, or god

* hero in mythology, a person of great strength or ability, often descended from a god

* sanctuary place for worship

* philosopher scholar or thinker concerned with the study of ideas, including science

Sophocles' Technique and Style. Sophocles’ plays were popular during his time partly because they were very theatrical. The actors of his day used grand gestures to show the intense emotions of the characters they portrayed. Sophocles was adept at creating dramatic entrances, exits, and other actions for his characters. He even used simple props, such as an urn in Electra, in highly dramatic ways. The urn, which is supposed to contain the ashes of Electra’s dead brother, becomes the focus of intense emotion as Electra clutches it and grieves for the loss of Orestes.

The popularity of Sophocles’ plays also rested on the complex and heroic characters he created. Sophocles once said that he made his characters like ourselves, only nobler. Many of his characters make great sacrifices rather than abandon their principles.

Like other Greek dramatists, Sophocles wrote his plays in verse. He developed a language that was flexible, dignified, and richly poetic but also capable of a wide range of inflections and subtleties of feeling. Ancient critics regarded Sophocles as an example of the “middle style,” midway between the lofty grandeur of Aeschylus and the sharp, witty, self-examining style of Euripides. Sophocles was famous for dramatic irony—situations in which the speaker does not realize the significance of what he or she says, but the audience does. Dramatic irony is especially apparent in Oedipus the King because the audience learns the identity of Oedipus’s parents long before he does.

Although the intervention of the gods plays a role in Sophocles’ plays, Sophocles to a greater degree than Aeschylus focused his plays on the world as seen through the eyes of mortals*. Sophocles expanded the size of the chorus from 12 to 15, and he changed the focus of the audience’s attention to the main characters. He used three characters on stage instead of the traditional one or two, which allowed him to show a greater variety of situations and emotions.

The Tragedies. Sophocles’ seven surviving tragedies are Ajax, Antigone, Electra, Oedipus at Colonus, Oedipus the King, Philoctetes, and Trachinian Women. All were based on well-known Greek myths.

In his most famous play, the Greek hero Oedipus learns that he has unwittingly killed his father and married his mother. The play, Oedipus the King, is recognized as one of the great masterpieces of world literature. The philosopher Aristotle regarded it as the ideal tragedy. The play has a tightly structured plot, the various elements of which are revealed gradually. Suspense builds until the end, when all the elements come together to reveal the terrible truth of Oedipus’s life. Oedipus at Colonus tells the story of the old, blind Oedipus after many years in exile. Helped by his two daughters, he arrives at a sacred grove at Colonus. There he dies mysteriously, swallowed up by the earth. In contrast to Oedipus’s physical helplessness, Sophocles portrayed him as a figure of spiritual and moral authority.

Antigone is also considered one of the masterpieces of Greek drama. Although written before Oedipus the King, in the myth’s sequence the story follows that of Oedipus. Antigone, the daughter of Oedipus, wishes to bury the body of her brother Polyneices after he has been killed while attacking Thebes. As punishment for his crime, Creon, the king of Thebes and Antigone’s uncle, has decreed that Polyneices is to be denied burial. Antigone fights to uphold the sacred laws that demand that she give proper burial to family members. She defies Creon and buries her brother, for which action she is imprisoned and sentenced to die. Faced with a slow death by starvation, she chooses instead to take her own life.

Electra is a story of the revenge of a sister and brother for the murder of their father, Agamemnon, at the hands of their mother, Clytemnestra, and her lover, Aegisthus. As the play opens, Electra longs for the return of her brother, Orestes, whom she has not seen for many years. (Electra had protected Orestes after their father’s murder by sending him away from the palace.) Orestes returns to the palace in disguise, and after an emotionally moving recognition scene between brother and sister, Orestes murders his mother and her lover. Both Aeschylus and Euripides wrote plays concerning this myth, but while they placed the recognition scene between brother and sister early in the drama, Sophocles placed it later in the play, thereby building the suspense and emphasizing Electra’s isolation in her hatred and anguish. Sophocles also showed the wide range of Electra’s emotions, as she swings from hope for Orestes’ arrival to despair at the news of his supposed death and then back to joy when she discovers him actually alive. (See also Drama, Greek; Literature, Greek; Myths, Greek.)

* mortal human being; one who eventually will die


At the time Sophocles wrote Oedipus at Colonus, Greece was near the end of the Peloponnesian War, and Athenian territory was under constant attack and invasion. Sophocles, who lived in Colonus on the outskirts of Athens, combined the traditional story of Oedipus with a local legend that Oedipus had been buried at Colonus. According to that legend, Oedipus's body would bless the land of his final resting place. Two years after Sophocles died, Athens met defeat in the Peloponnesian War. Soon afterward, Sophocles' final play was produced by his grandson. It may have suggested to the audience the paradox of Athens, similar to that of Oedipus—a spiritual greatness in the midst of apparent weakness.

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