BORN: c. 496 bce, near Athens, Greece
DIED: c. 406 bce, Athens, Greece
GENRE: Poetry, drama
Antigone (442 bce)
Oedipus Rex (c. 425 bce)
Electra (c. 425–410 bce)
Philoctetes (409 bce)
Oedipus at Colonus (401 bce)
During the fifth century bce, the Golden Age of Athens, new forms of art and literature were being developed with extraordinary speed and energy. Classical Greek author Sophocles, along with Aeschylus and Euripides, was a primary innovator of the new genre of tragedy, shaping stage conventions that have become central to dramatic art. Sophocles' ability to blend irony and poetry with effective dramatic technique has earned him a reputation as the greatest playwright of world literature.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Early Artistic Ability Sophocles' date of birth is believed to be 497 bce or 496 bce. His father was a wealthy businessman named Sophillus. As such, Sophocles enjoyed a Greek education that included art and music. His musical ability presented him with a solo part that he sang in the victory paean after the battle of Salamis in 480 bce). (This naval battle between Greek city-states and Persia took place in the strait between Piraeus and Salamis Island. The Greeks won handily, preventing Persia from conquering the Peloponnese.)
Prize Winner at the Greater Dionysia When Sophocles completed his education, he competed in the dramatic festival the Greater Dionysia, held every spring for five days. During the time of the festival, all business stopped in Athens, and everyone was invited to participate, even prisoners, who were freed to participate. At the festival of 468 bce, Sophocles defeated Aeschylus, winning first prize. Sophocles went on to win first prize more than twenty times, never receiving anything below second prize, a unique feat among Greek dramatists.
Elite Athenian As a member of the Athenian elite at a time when Athens enjoyed extraordinary cultural and political supremacy, Sophocles held important political positions. He held the post of treasurer (Hellenotamias) in either 443 or 442 bce, and served as general along with Pericles (a prominent Athenian general, statesman, and orator) in the war to suppress a revolution in Samos from 441 to 439 bce. (Samos had been occupied by Athenians in 441 bce.) Sophocles was also made a member of the Athenian senate. In addition to his political appointments, Sophocles showed his devotion to traditional religion by serving as a priest of the healing deity Amynos.
Debatable Dates It is estimated that Sophocles wrote some 123 plays. Titles and fragments of ninety exist, but only seven tragedies survive in their entirety. Of these seven, there is a only one that is firmly dated, Philoctetes, in 409 bce. Oedipus at Colonus is known to have been Sophocles' last creation because it was produced posthumously in 401 bce. There are grounds for placing Antigone close to 441 bce. The date of Women of Trachis, a play whose authenticity has been doubted by a few in the past, is now generally put at sometime before Antigone.
Ajax is also deemed to be relatively early: 450 bce. The date of Oedipus Rex has been endlessly discussed without an agreement being reached; stylistically it seems not far from Electra, whose placing on the chronological table is uncertain as to whether it precedes or follows Euripides' Electra, written in 413 bce. It appears, then, that of the seven surviving plays, the ones deemed to be “early” belong to a time when the poet was already in his fifties; and some of his finest choral writing, in Oedipus at Colonus, belongs to a man of ninety.
Sophocles died c. 406 bce, in Athens, Greece, though the details surrounding his death are vague.
Works in Literary Context
Among Sophocles known influences were Greek mythology as interpreted and shaped by poets such as Homer as well as Aeschylus—the author of such plays as The Persians (472 bce)—who was twenty-eight years older than Sophocles but also Sophocles' rival during his early years as a writer. Like Aeschylus, Sophocles was affected by the flowering of Athenian culture and the related intellectual life. In addition, the military conflicts with the Persians and with Sparta influenced the work of Sophocles.
Technical Innovations The extraordinary dramatic and poetic power of Sophocles' tragedies stems, in part, from certain technical innovations that he introduced into the Athenian theater. Unlike Aeschylus, whose dramatic trilogies provide plot continuity and share characters, Sophocles focuses on individual tragedies. By limiting his narrative scope, he achieved a more concentrated emotional intensity and action. In addition, Sophocles enhanced the usually bare Greek stage with skenographia, or scene painting, and more expressive masks, thereby bringing greater realism to each scene.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Sophocles's famous contemporaries include:
Aeschylus (525?–426? bce): This contemporary ofSophocles is perhaps best known for his play Agamemnon (c. 458 bce).
Pericles (495–429 bce): This popular Greek statesman was a leader during Athens's Golden Age.
Euripides (480–406 bce): This Greek playwright wrote Medea (c. 431 bce) and his own version of Electra (c. 413 bce).
Aristophanes (456–386 bce): Known as the father of comedy, this playwright's best known work is Lysistrata (c. 410 bce).
Perhaps Sophocles' most important innovation was the introduction of the use of a third actor. Traditionally, two actors (all roles were played by male actors), along with the chorus, participated in the epeisodia, or episodes, of the play. The addition of the third actor enabled Sophocles to construct a more complex dialogue, thereby keeping the focus on the characters rather than on the chorus. He increased the chorus from twelve to fifteen members and, while limiting its participation in the action, composed some of his most beautiful poetry for it. Many commentators have praised the imaginative form, striking imagery, and emotional power of Sophocles' choral songs, with particular attention to their poetical and philosophical content.
Sophocles' dramatic style is often described as a divine union of strength and control. In measured, simple, and piercingly direct language, Sophocles' dramas move swiftly, logically, and inexorably toward their seemingly inevitable conclusions. The most painful human situations—utter personal humiliation, the accidental murder of a loved one, a cataclysmic reversal of one's station in life—are presented in a manner that implies compassion for the suffering individual but also places personal misfortune in a universal, cosmic context.
Free Will The hallmark of Sophocles' style is his gift for portraying exceptional characters under stress. His dramas are built around a strong-willed, highly principled character who encounters a seemingly insurmountable ethical or moral difficulty. For Sophocles, the center of interest was the individual human being who will not compromise even when he or she clearly perceives the advantages that compromise would bring. Sophocles creates characters of heroic proportions, yet these heroic qualities often lead to disaster. By creating characters who refuse to compromise, Sophocles sows the seeds of a person's own destruction. At the same time, such a character is plainly the kind that he admires and for whom he seems to invite admiration by others. In this respect, his emphasis is on human free will. The hero has only to change his mind, to adapt to circumstances, and catastrophe will be averted.
Prophecy There is another counter-theme running through six of the seven tragedies: the theme of oracular predictions and the inevitability of their fulfillment. Though the extent of their participation in human affairs remains unclear, the gods are respected and feared in the world of Sophocles' plays. Oracles are consulted and heeded. This tension between human free will and divine predestination presents problems of interpretation. Artistically the interest revolves around a person's own free decision, but the development of the plot leaves no doubt as to the outcome.
Influences Sophocles is regarded as the pinnacle of Greek dramatic art and one of the greatest dramatists in Western literature. The stage conventions that he helped initiate have become central to dramatic art, and he is acknowledged as one of the shapers of the genre. Sophocles' plays and innovations have also profoundly influenced the development of European literature.
Works in Critical Context
Sophocles is considered one of the greatest dramatists in Western literature. His surviving tragedies attest to his consummate craftsmanship in plot construction, characterization, and versification. In fact, critics acknowledge him as one of the shapers of dramatic art. His reputation as a dramatist has been secure ever since his own time. Sophocles' technical skill as a dramatist, unforgettable characters, and haunting, perfectly plotted plays, have secured his standing in world literature.
Oedipus Rex Of all Sophocles' plays, Oedipus Rex—a tragedy denied first prize either because it was ahead of its time or because of the vagaries of the Athenian voting system at the dramatic festival—is at once his least typical play and the one that has left the deepest imprint. Perhaps the most famous play ever written, Oedipus Rex describes the tragic events that lead Oedipus to murder his father and marry his mother, unaware of their true identities. In Poetics (c. 335 bce), Aristotle plainly regarded the play as the greatest masterpiece of the genre, claiming it was a model tragedy, containing Sophoclean elements such as reversal and discovery.
However, when put under the microscope, critics have noted that Oedipus Rex is teeming with every kind of illogicality and inconsistency. Some of these problems were mercilessly pointed out by Voltaire in the preface to his own Oedipe (1718). Oedipus begins with a city stricken by a plague, but as the play progresses the plague is forgotten, and the emphasis shifts completely from the question “Who killed Laius, King of Thebes?” to “Who is Oedipus and what is his relationship with the last royal house?”
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Sophocles's plays sometimes feature a “deus ex machina” (literally, “god from the machine”), an improbable and sudden solution to the conflict at hand. Though literary critics frown on the deus ex machina as an easy way out of a plotting problem, it has been used countless times in literature and film. A few other works that employ this device:
Alcestis (438 bce), a play by Euripides. In this play, the title character, who has sentenced herself to death, is revived at the last minute by the hero Heracles.
The Winter's Tale (1623), a play by William Shakespeare. At the end of this play, a statue magically comes to life and reveals itself as the previously dead character Hermione.
The War of the Worlds (1898), a novel by H. G. Wells. The terrible alien invasion in this novel ends abruptly when the Martians all catch a cold and die.
Donnie Darko (2001), a film by Richard Kelly. In this movie, the title character's problems appear to be solved when a plane crashes into his bedroom.
Despite such problems, Oedipus Rex has received considerable attention in modern times, partly due to the father of modern psychiatry, Sigmund Freud. Freud was tremendously moved by the play and popularized the notion of the Oedipus Complex. While critics still agree that the play is a gripping exploration of the role of the gods in a man's life and a warning to man to avoid becoming too proud, some critics have focused their attention on the play's themes, the playwright's use of irony, the function of the chorus, and the Freudian interpretation, among other issues.
Writing about Oedipus Rex in 1953, F. J. H. Letters wrote in The Life and Work of Sophocles, “The Oedipus tyrannus (King Oedipus) is the best-known and best-built of classical tragedies. Yet in its treatment of inherent improbabilities …it is also the best illustration of the difference between ancient and modern views as to the limits of dramatic license. Sophocles' originality shows itself less in the making than in the shaping of the plot.”
Responses to Literature
- Using a Venn diagram, compare and contrast Electra with her sister Chrysothemis and their actions and motivations in the play Electra.
- In a group discussion, explain the roles of fate and free will in Sophocles' plays.
- Write a brief report explaining why you think Oedipus Rex is considered Sophocles' masterpiece.
- Research Sigmund Freud's Oedipus and Electra complexes. Are these terms fair to Sophocles' characters? Write an essay about your conclusions.
- In small groups, create alternative ways in which you could solve Antigone's problems without using a deus ex machina.
Bowra, C. M. Sophoclean Tragedy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1944.
Dawe, R. D., ed. Sophocles, the Classical Heritage. New York: Garland, 1996.
Jebb, R. C. Oedipus Tyrannus. 3rd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1893.
———. Trachiniae. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1892.
Kirkwood, G. M., A Study of Sophoclean Drama. Ithaca, N. Y.: Cornell University Press, 1958.
Knox, B. M. W. The Heroic Temper: Studies in Sophoclean Tragedy. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1964.
Letters, F. J. H. “The Oedipus Tyrannus.” In The Life and Work of Sophocles. London: Sheed and Ward, 1953.
Waldock, A. J. A. Sophocles, the Dramatist. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1951.
Winnington-Ingram, R. P. Sophocles: An Interpretation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980.
The Greek tragedian Sophocles (496-406 B.C.) ranks foremost among Greek classical dramatists and has been called the poet of Greek humanism par excellence.
The son of Sophilus, a well-to-do industrialist, Sophocles was born in Colonus near Athens and grew up in the most brilliant intellectual period of Athens. Nothing concrete is known about his education, though it is known that he had a reputation for learning and esthetic taste. He was well versed in Homer and the Greek lyric poets, and because of his industriousness he was known as the "Attic Bee." His music teacher was a great man of the old school, Lamprus. Tradition says that because of his beauty and talent Sophocles was chosen to lead the male chorus at the celebration of the Greek victory at Salamis.
In 468 B.C., at age 28, Sophocles defeated Aeschylus in one of the drama contests that were then fashionable. During the remainder of his career he never won less than second prize and gained first prize more than any other Greek tragedian. He was also known for his amiability and sociability which epitomized the ideal Athenian gentleman (kaloskagathos). In public life he distinguished himself as a man of affairs. In 443-442 he held the post of Hellenotamias, or imperial treasurer, and was elected general at least twice. His religious activities included service as priest of the healing divinity, and he turned over his house for the worship of Asclepius until a proper temple could be built. For this he was honored with the title Dexion as a hero after his death. He is reported to have written a paean in honor of Asclepius. Sophocles had two sons, lophon and Sophocles, by his first wife, Nicostrata, and he had a third son, Ariston, by his second wife, Theoris.
Style and Contributions to Theater
Of approximately 125 tragedies that Sophocles is said to have written, only 7 have survived. Since we have but a fraction of the plays he wrote, general comments on Sophoclean drama are based on the extant plays. However, Plutarch tells us that there were three periods in Sophocles's literary development: imitation of the grand style of Aeschylus, use of artificial and incisive style, and use of the best style and that which is most expressive of character. It is only from the third period that we have examples.
It is often asserted that Sophocles found tragedy up in the clouds and brought it down to earth. For Aeschylus, myth was an important vehicle for ideas, for highlighting man's relation to the gods. Sophocles dealt with men and showed how a character reacts under stress. The tragedy of Sophocles has been described as a tragedy of character as contrasted to Aeschylus's tragedy of situation. Sophocles's principal subject is man, and his hero is suffering man. The protagonist is subjected to a series of tests which he usually surmounts.
It was Sophocles who raised the number of the chorus from 12 to 15 members and initiated other technical improvements, such as scene painting and better tragic masks. He abandoned the tetralogy and presented three plays on different subjects and a satyr play. A supreme master in the delineation of character, he is credited with the invention of the heroic maiden (Antigone, Electra) and the ingenuous young man (Haemon). Sophocles's choral songs are excellent and structurally, as well as situationally, beautiful.
The dates of the seven extant plays of Sophocles are not all certain. Three are known: Antigone, 442/441; Philoctetes, 409; and Oedipus at Colonus, 401 (posthumously). C. H. Whitman has argued for 447 for the Ajax, about 437-432 for the Trachiniae, about 429 for the Oedipus Rex, and 418-414 for the Electra.
In the Ajax, the hero, whom the Iliad describes as second only to Achilles, is humiliated by Agamemnon and Menelaus when they award the arms of Achilles to Odysseus through intrigue. He vows vengeance on the Greek commanders as well as on Odysseus, but the goddess Athena makes him believe that he is attacking the Greeks when he is in fact attacking sheep. When he realizes his folly, he is so appalled that he commits suicide. Menelaus and Agamemnon try to prevent a proper burial, but Odysseus intercedes to make it possible. In the Ajax, Sophocles is pointing up the tragedy that may result from an insult to a man's arete (Homeric recognition of a man's excellence).
The Antigone is one of three plays on the Oedipus theme written over a period of some 40 years. Antigone is the young princess who pits herself against her uncle, King Creon. She defies his cruel edict forbidding burial of her brother Polyneices who, in attempting to invade Thebes and seize the throne from his brother Eteocles, slew him in mortal combat and, in turn, was slain. Against the pleas of her sister Ismene and fiancé Haemon, Antigone goes to her death holding to her defiance.
The Antigone has been interpreted as depicting the conflict between divine and secular law, between devotion to family and to the state, and between the arete of the heroine and the inadequacy of society represented by an illegal tyrant.
In the Trachiniae, Heracles's wife, Deianira, worries about the 15-month absence of her husband, who has acquired a new love, Princess Iole, and is bringing her home. In her sincere attempt to regain her husband's love, Deianira sends him a poisoned robe which she falsely believes has magical powers to restore lost love. Her son Hyllus and her husband, before dying, denounce Deianira, who commits suicide.
In this play Sophocles poignantly raises the question, "Why can knowledge hurt?" He stresses the dilemma of the person who unintentionally hurts those whom he loves. The question of the role of knowledge in human affairs prepares us for the Oedipus, his greatest play and the work that Aristotle considered the perfect Greek play and many have considered the greatest play of all time.
Oedipus Rex is a superb example of dramatic irony. It is not a play about sex or murder; it is a play about the inadequacy of human knowledge and man's capacity to survive almost intolerable suffering. The worst of all things happens to Oedipus: unknowingly he kills his own father, Laius, and is given his own mother, Jocasta, in marriage for slaying the Sphinx. When a plague at Thebes compels him to consult the oracle, he finds that he himself is the cause of the affliction.
No summary can do this amazing play justice. Sophocles brings up the question of justice. Why is there irrational evil in the world? Why does the very man who is basically good suffer intolerably? The answer is found in the concept of dikē—balance, order, justice. The world is orderly and follows natural laws. No matter how good or how well intentioned man may be, if he violates a natural law, he will be punished and he will suffer. Human knowledge is limited, but there is nobility in human suffering.
The Electra is Sophocles's only play that can be compared thematically with works of Aeschylus (Libation Bearers) and Euripides (Electra). Again Sophocles concentrates on a character under stress. Described as the most grim of all Greek tragedies, Electra suggests a flaw in the universe. It is less concerned with moral issues than the other two Electra plays. An oppressed and harassed Electra anxiously awaits the return of her avenging brother, Orestes. He returns secretly, first spreading the news that Orestes was killed in a chariot accident. Electra is constantly at the tomb of her father but is warned by her sister, Chrysothemis, about her constant wailing. Clytemnestra, disturbed by an ominous dream, sends Chrysothemis to offer libations at the tomb. A quarrel between Clytemnestra and Electra demonstrates the impossibility of reconciliation between mother and daughter. A messenger announcing the death of Orestes and carrying an urn with his ashes stirs up maternal feelings in Clytemnestra, despair in Chrysothemis, and determination to wreak vengeance on her mother and Aegisthus, her mother's consort, in Electra. The appearance of Orestes rejuvenates Electra, and together they do away with Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. The chorus rejoices that justice has triumphed.
The Electra of Sophocles may have been written as an answer to Euripides's Electra. Matricide and murder are fully justified, Clytemnestra and Aegisthus are completely and utterly evil, and Electra avenges her father's death relentlessly and almost psychopathically.
In the Philoctetes, Odysseus is sent with young Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles, from Troy to the allegedly uninhabited island of Lemnos to bring back Philoctetes with his bow and his arrows to effect the capture of Troy. Urged by Odysseus to do his assignment, Neoptolemus, after gaining Philoctetes's confidence suffers pangs of conscience over the old man and refuses to deceive him. He returns Philoctetes's weapons and promises to take him home. A deus ex machina finally convinces Philoctetes to return to Troy voluntarily. The Philoctetes clearly shows how man and society can come into conflict, how society can discard an individual when it does not need him, and how the individual with technological knowhow can bring society to its knees.
The Oedipus at Colonus, produced posthumously, is the most loosely structured, most lyrical, and longest of Sophoclean dramas. It brings to a conclusion Sophocles's concern with the Oedipus theme. Exiled by Creon, in concurrence with Eteocles and Polyneices, Oedipus becomes a wandering beggar accompanied by his daughter Antigone. He stumbles into a sacred grove of the Eumenides at Colonus, and the chorus of Elders is shocked to discover his identity. Oedipus justifies his past and asks that Theseus be summoned. Theseus arrives and promises him asylum, but Creon, first deceitfully, then by force, tries to remove Oedipus. Theseus comes to the rescue and thwarts Creon. The arrival of his son Polyneices produces thunderous rage in Oedipus, who curses both him and Eteocles. Oedipus soon senses his impending death and allows only Theseus to witness the event by which he is transfigured into a hero and a saint.
"Many are the wonders of the world," says Sophocles in the first stasimon of the Antigone, "but none is more wonderful than man." Sophocles's humanism is nowhere more concisely manifest than in this famous quotation. Man is able to overcome all kinds of obstacles and is able to be remarkably inventive and creative, but he is mortal and hence limited, despite an optimistic, progressive outlook. Suffering is an inherent part of the nature of things, but learning can be gained, and through suffering man can achieve nobility and dignity.
The bibliography on Sophocles is extensive, and in recent years some very stimulating and imaginative interpretations have appeared. Among the most significant works are C.M. Bowra, Sophoclean Tragedy (1944); Robert F. Goheen, The Imagery of Sophocles' Antigone (1951); Cedric H. Whitman, Sophocles: A Study of Heroic Humanism (1951); Sinclair M. Adams, Sophocles the Playwright (1957); Bernard M.W. Knox, Oedipus at Thebes (1957); George M. Kirkwood, A Study of Sophoclean Drama (1958); H.D.F. Kitto, Sophocles, Dramatist and Philosopher (1958); and Michael J. O'Brien, ed., Twentieth Century Interpretations of Oedipus Rex (1968). □
The Greek playwright Sophocles was responsible for several improvements in the presentation of drama. His tragedies (plays in which characters suffer because of their actions and usually die) rank him among the greatest Greek classical dramatists.
The son of Sophilus, the owner of a successful weapons factory, Sophocles was born c. 496 b.c.e. in Colonus near Athens, Greece. He grew up during the most brilliant intellectual period of Athens. Sophocles won awards while in school for music and wrestling, and because of his constant activity he was known as the "Attic Bee." His music teacher was Lamprus, a famous composer. Tradition says that because of his beauty and talent, Sophocles was chosen to lead the male chorus at the celebration of the Greek victory over the Persians at Salamis.
In 468 b.c.e. Sophocles defeated the famous playwright Aeschylus (525–456 b.c.e.) in one of the drama contests common at the time. He gained first prize more than any other Greek dramatist. He was also known for being friendly and popular. From 443 to 442 b.c.e. he served the Athenian empire as imperial treasurer, and he was elected general at least twice. His religious activities included service as a priest, and he turned over his house for the worship of Asclepius (the Greek god of medicine) until a proper temple could be built. For this he was honored with the title Dexion as a hero after his death. Sophocles had two sons, Iophon and Sophocles, by his first wife, Nicostrata. He had a third son, Ariston, by his second wife, Theoris.
Style and contributions to theater
Of the approximately 125 tragedies that Sophocles is said to have written, only 7 have survived. According to the Greek biographer Plutarch (46–119), there were three periods in Sophocles's development as a writer: imitation of the style of Aeschylus, use of an artificial style, and use of a style that is most expressive of character. The existing plays are from the last period. While the works of Aeschylus deal with the relationship between man and the gods, the works of Sophocles deal with how characters react under stress (mental pressure). Sophocles's heroes are usually subjected to a series of tests that they must overcome.
Sophocles is credited with increasing the number of actors with speaking parts in a play from two to three. He raised the number of chorus members from twelve to fifteen and developed the use of painted scenery. He also abandoned the practice of presenting tragedies as trilogies (series of three works) by instead presenting three plays with different subjects. This led to faster development of characters. Sophocles's songs are also considered to be beautifully structured.
The dates of Sophocles's seven known plays are not all certain. In Ajax (447 b.c.e.) the hero, described as second only to Achilles, is humiliated (reduced to a lower position in the eyes of others) by Agamemnon and Menelaus when they award the arms of Achilles to Odysseus. Ajax vows revenge on the Greek commanders as well as on Odysseus. Except, the goddess Athena makes him believe he is attacking the Greeks when he is in fact attacking sheep. When he realizes what he has done, he is so upset that he commits suicide. He is given a proper burial only after Odysseus steps in to make it possible.
The title character in Antigone (442–441 b.c.e.) is a young princess whose uncle, King Creon, has forbid her to bury her brother Polyneices. Her brother, in attempting to seize the throne from his brother Eteocles, killed Eteocles in a fight and also died himself. Antigone has been interpreted as showing the conflict between devotion to family and devotion to the state. In Trachiniae (437–432 b.c.e.) Heracles's wife, Deianira, worries about the fifteen-month absence of her husband. Deianira sends him a poisoned robe that she believes has magical powers to restore lost love. Her son, Hyllus, and her husband denounce her before dying, and she commits suicide. In this play Sophocles describes the difficult situation of the person who, without meaning to, hurts those whom he or she loves.
Oedipus Rex (429 b.c.e.), which many have considered the greatest play of all time, is not about sex or murder, but man's ability to survive almost unbearable suffering. The worst of all things happens to Oedipus: unknowingly he kills his own father, Laius, and is given his own mother, Jocasta, in marriage after he slays the Sphinx. When a plague (a bacteria-caused disease that spreads quickly and can cause death) at Thebes forces him to consult an oracle (a person through whom a god is believed to speak), he finds that he himself is the cause of the plague. Sophocles brings up the question of justice—why is there evil in the world, and why does the man who is basically good suffer? The answer is found in the idea of dike —balance, order, justice. The world is orderly and follows natural laws. No matter how good or how well-meaning man may be, if he breaks a natural law, he will be punished and he will suffer.
Electra (418–414 b.c.e.) is Sophocles's only play whose theme is similar to those of the works of Aeschylus (Libation Bearers ) and Euripides (484–406 b.c.e.; Electra ). Again Sophocles concentrates on a character under stress: a worried Electra, anxiously awaiting the return of her avenging brother, Orestes. In Philoctetes (409 b.c.e.) Odysseus is sent with young Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles, to the island of Lemnos to bring back Philoctetes with his bow and arrows to help capture Troy. Neoptolemus has second thoughts and refuses to deceive the old man. Philoctetes clearly shows how man and society can come into conflict and how society can toss aside an individual when it does not need him.
Oedipus at Colonus (401 b.c.e.), produced after Sophocles's death, is the longest of his dramas. It brings to a conclusion his concern with the Oedipus theme. Exiled by Creon, Oedipus becomes a wandering beggar accompanied by his daughter Antigone. He stumbles into a sacred grove at Colonus and asks that Theseus be summoned. Theseus arrives and promises him protection, but Creon tries to remove Oedipus. Theseus comes to the rescue and foils Creon. The arrival of his son Polyneices angers Oedipus, who curses him. Oedipus soon senses his impending death and allows only Theseus to witness the event by which he is changed into a hero and a saint.
"Many are the wonders of the world," says Sophocles in Antigone, "but none is more wonderful than man." Sophocles's interest in human welfare is best shown in this famous quotation. Man is able to overcome all kinds of obstacles and is able to be inventive and creative, but he is mortal and therefore limited. Suffering is simply part of the nature of things, but learning can be gained from it, and through suffering man can achieve dignity.
For More Information
Adams, Sinclair M. Sophocles the Playwright. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1957.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Sophocles. New York: Chelsea House, 1990.
Scodel, Ruth. Sophocles. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1984.
c. 496 b.c.e.–c. 405 b.c.e.
Role in Government and Religion.
In his play Oedipus at Colonus, Athens' most prize-winning tragic playwright paid tribute to his native village Colonus, just outside of Athens, where he was born sometime around 496 b.c.e. He was the son of Sophilus and had connections to the most important political figures of his day, from Cimon until his ostracism in 461 b.c.e. and Pericles afterward. Sophocles served as a treasurer of Athens and as a strategos or general, one of the highest elected offices in the state, though his contemporary Ion of Chios reported that he had no particular talent at politics. He was also called upon to serve as a state adviser after the catastrophic Athenian defeat at Syracuse in 413 b.c.e. Ancient sources report that he was a cult priest and worshipper of Asclepius, the son of Apollo and healer, and after his death he was honored with his own hero cult under the name "Dexion."
His career as a tragic poet was long and impressive. He is credited with three important theatrical innovations: the addition of a third actor, painting of the skene, and the increase of the chorus from twelve men to fifteen. He is said to have written over 120 plays, with twenty first-place prizes and no last-place showings in any dramatic competition. He competed for the first time in 468 b.c.e., perhaps against Aeschylus, and won. His last competition was in 406 b.c.e., when he dressed his chorus in mourning for the death of Euripides during the introduction to his trilogy at that year's celebration of the Dionysia. Of his many titles, only seven plays remain, and the dates for most are uncertain. His most famous plays and their probable dates are: Antigone (c. 441 b.c.e.); Oedipus the King (between c. 436–426 b.c.e.); and Oedipus at Colonus (won first prize posthumously in 401 b.c.e.). He is renowned for his three Theban plays about the fortunes of Oedipus and Thebes, but those dramas were not written together in one single trilogy; rather, they were produced in trilogies over the course of forty years.
Sophoclean heroes can be characterized by an arrogant inflexibility that must be broken before the truth—another vital element to Sophoclean drama—can be found. The characters in Sophocles' plays are also haunted by their responsibilities to the dead: the character Oedipus must uncover the murderer of the former king of Thebes; Antigone must bury her dead brother against the edict of her uncle; Ajax is tortured by his failure to possess the dead Achilles' weapons. Part of Sophocles' particular dramatic flair revolved around his use of a talismanic item or action: the solving of the Sphinx' riddle, the bow of Philoctetes, Deineira's magic potion. Sophocles is also renowned for his use of the theme of dramatic recognition, his characters' exquisitely well-timed entrances and exits, and the naturalistic language he intersperses with high-flown and abstract poetic flourishes. Some of the greatest actors of later periods, such as Polus and Theodorus, often appeared in Sophocles' plays, which were regularly revived. Sophocles died at about age ninety around 405 b.c.e., the same year his younger contemporary Euripides died.
Helene Foley, Female Acts in Greek Tragedy (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001).
Alan H. Somerstein, Greek Drama and Dramatists (London and New York: Routledge, 2002).
Significance. With Sophocles tragedy reached what many in the ancient and modern world have felt to be its highest point. The second of the three surviving Athenian tragedians, he was born in Colonus, just outside Athens, a generation after Aeschylus. It is recorded that in 480 b.c.e. he was chosen to lead a choral celebration of the great victory over the Persians at Salamis, an event which begins his continued involvement with both the artistic and the civic aspect of Athenian life. In 468 b.c.e. he put on his first play and defeated Aeschylus, but the production dates of few of his other works are known. Seven of his approximately 123 plays survive, and two can be dated accurately: Philoctetes was produced in 409 b.c.e. and Oedipus at Colonus posthumously in 401 b.c.e. (There is some reason for thinking that Antigone was produced around 441 b.c.e., but the date cannot be determined exactly.) Besides writing plays with great success (he won 20 competitions), he took part in political office; he was treasurer of the Athenian empire in one year, twice a general, and a member of a special council during the grimmest time of the Second Peloponnesian War (431-404 b.c.e.) against Sparta. He held a priesthood in Athens and was widely known and liked for his easygoing disposition.
Character . Two surviving statements from Sophocles himself about his own work indicate that he was particularly interested in the presentation of character on stage. He distinguished his mature plays from the “grandeur and harshness” of Aeschylus (which he claims to have followed when younger), and contrasts his own style as “most expressive of character”; he also claimed that, while he represented people as they should be, Euripides represented them as they were. As one critic put it, his protagonists are often people fiercely determined beyond argument, even with themselves; the minor characters serve their main purpose in providing a contrast with the play’s hero (for example, Chrysothemis in Electro, and Ismene in Antigone). Through the isolation and moral certainty that his great figures like Antigone, Oedipus, and Ajax experience, Sophocles brings us closer to Homer than he does to his predecessor Aeschylus, whose plays are built on family relationships as worked out through several generations and on ethical crises: his Orestes, in stark contrast to Sophocles’, is wracked with uncertainty about the morality of avenging his father’s death on his mother. However, it is interesting to note that in the twilight of his career the older poet could still learn from the younger. Sophocles’ most important technical innovation was the introduction of a third speaking actor, and Aeschylus made use of this breakthrough to present three actors on stage in his surviving trilogy, the Oresteia (458 b.c.e.).
R. D. Dawe, Sophocles, The Classical Heritage (New York & London: Garland, 1996).
G. H. Gellie, Sophocles: A Reading (Carlton, Australia: Melbourne University Press, 1972).
G. M. Kirkwood, A Study of Sophoclean Drama, Cornell Studies in Classical Philology 31 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1958).