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c. 496-406 B.C.
Sophocles and His Tragedies
Sophocles: A Study Guide
On-line Plays from the Great Books Index
The career of Sophocles, one of the three great tragic dramatists of ancient Greece, the other two being Aeschylus and Euripides, spanned the period of greatest political and cultural achievement in Athens. According to tradition, Sophocles wrote 123 plays and won 24 victories in the city's annual dramatic contests. Of these, only seven tragedies are preserved in full, but they are sufficient to reveal the playwright's genius. Sophocles' tragedies are usually regarded as the high point of Attic drama.
Sophocles was born in Colonus Hippius (now part of Athens), the son of Sophillus, reportedly a wealthy armor-maker. Sophocles was provided with the best traditional aristocratic education. As a young man, he was chosen to lead the chorus of youths who celebrated the naval victory at Salamís in 480 BC. In 468 BC, at the age of 28, he defeated Aeschylus, whose preeminence as a tragic poet had long been undisputed, in a dramatic competition. The date of the first contest with Euripides is uncertain; in 441 Euripides defeated Sophocles in one of the annual Athenian dramatic competitions. From 468 BC, however, Sophocles won first prize about 20 times and many second prizes. His life, which ended in 406 BC at about the age of 90, coincided with the period of Athenian greatness. He numbered among his friends the historian Herodotus, and he was an associate of the statesman Pericles. He was not politically active or militarily inclined, but the Athenians twice elected him to high military office.
The seven extant plays are Antigone, Oedipus Tyrannus or Oedipus Rex (Oedipus the King), Electra, Ajax, Trachiniae (Maidens of Trachis), Philoctetes, and Oedipus at Colonus (produced posthumously in 401 BC). Also preserved is a large fragment of the Ichneutae (Investigators), a satiric drama discovered on papyrus in Egypt about the turn of the 20th century. Of the surviving tragedies the earliest is thought to be Ajax (c. 451-444 BC). Next probably are Antigone and Trachiniae (after 441). Oedipus Tyrannus and Electra date from 430 to 415 BC. Philoctetes is known to date from 409 BC. All seven extant tragedies are considered outstanding for their powerful, intricate plots and dramatic style, and at least three—-Antigone, Oedipus Tyrannus, and Oedipus at Colonus-—are generally regarded as masterpieces.
Ajax dramatizes the uncompromising nobility, but also the rigidity, of the old heroic ideal. Antigone, an outstanding lyrical drama, develops a main Sophoclean theme, dealing with the pain and suffering caused when an individual, obstinately defying the dictates of divine will or temporal authority, or refusing to yield to destiny and circumstance, instead obeys some inner compulsion that leads to agonizing revelation and, ultimately, to a mysterious vindication of that person's behavior and life. Antigone bestows the rites of burial upon her battle-slain brother Polynices in defiance of the edict of Creon, who was the ruler of Thebes. In so doing she thereby brings about her own death, the death of her lover Haemon, who is Creon's son, and that of Eurydice, Creon's wife. Oedipus Rex is one of the most influential plays ever written. Powerful in its conjunction of character and destiny, its relentless recognition of hidden truth, and its paradoxes of human knowledge and ignorance, it provided Aristotle in the Poetics with his model tragic plot and Sigmund Freud in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900) with a mythic prototype for the Oedipus complex, a central feature of modern psychoanalytic theory. Trachiniae is Sophocles' only surviving play to deal with the violence of sexual passion. Electra, like the Oresteia of Aeschylus, concerns justice and vengeance in the House of Atreus but focuses on the sensitively drawn character of Electra. Its relation to Euripides' Electra (c. 420-413) is still uncertain. Philoctetes and Oedipus at Colonus both deal with exiled, embittered heroes who are ultimately reconciled with society and the gods.
Sophocles' technical innovations made possible the further development of the drama along more realistic lines. According to Aristotle, Sophocles added a third actor, introduced scene painting, and increased the chorus from 12 to 15 members. The third actor allowed for more complex characterizations and a wider range of personal encounters. Aristotle praises Sophocles for his close integration of the chorus into the action.
Presenting a tragic situation in a single play rather than in an Aeschylean connected trilogy, Sophocles poses the questions of divine justice in terms of human character rather than in terms of the cosmic order. In his focus upon a single powerful hero, he originated the form of tragedy that Western literature has most cultivated. His heroes and heroines are towering figures of violent passions, unyielding in their commitment to their ideals, harsh in their judgment of themselves and others. To be a hero in Sophocles is to be the bearer of a destiny that is mysteriously bound up with the divine will, but one that nevertheless must be worked out in the individual's life. The hero's task is to discover and realize that destiny, often at the price of suffering or death, and to remain faithful to the innate nobility of his great nature.
Sophocles' famed "piety" is not synonymous with complacency. His gods, like Apollo in Oedipus Rex, are remote and ambiguous, and their justice often seems unclear or even cruel. Unlike the gods of Aeschylus and Euripides, they rarely intervene directly but are present indirectly through oracles and omens. They embody the ultimate, inexorable realities that humanity must struggle to understand.
Sophocles' plots stress the strong, clear lines of character in a harmonious and economical structure. The style is solemn and lofty, richly poetical in the choral odes, but also graceful and supple, with a wide range of tones. Less exuberant than Aeschylus, Sophocles is grand without being ponderous, dense without seeming rhetorical or artificial.
Sophocles' great dramatic achievement was to reinterpret the ancient myths through a fuller development of individual character and to endow surface detail with deeper symbolic significance. Recent scholarship has stressed Sophocles' mythic imagination and the darker side of his celebrated "classic serenity." These strengths amply explain the powerful effect his plays continue to exert over modern audiences. Sophocles is considered by many modern scholars the greatest of the Greek tragedians and the perfect mean between the titanic symbolism of Aeschylus and the rhetorical realism of Euripides.
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