SOPHOCLES

Sophocles

GREEK DRAMATIST

WRITTEN BY:

Thomas M. Woodard, Oliver Taplin

 

Sophocles

GREEK DRAMATIST

Sophocles, (born c. 496 bce, Colonus, near Athens [Greece]—died 406, Athens), with Aeschylus and Euripides, one of classical Athens’ three great tragic playwrights. The best known of his 123 dramas is Oedipus the King.

Life And Career

Sophocles was the younger contemporary of Aeschylus and the older contemporary of Euripides. He was born at Colonus, a village outside the walls of Athens, where his father, Sophillus, was a wealthy manufacturer of armour. Sophocles himself received a good education. Because of his beauty of physique, his athletic prowess, and his skill in music, he was chosen in 480, when he was 16, to lead the paean (choral chant to a god) celebrating the decisive Greek sea victory over the Persians at the Battle of Salamis. The relatively meagre information about Sophocles’ civic life suggests that he was a popular favourite who participated actively in his community and exercised outstanding artistic talents. In 442 he served as one of the treasurers responsible for receiving and managing tribute money from Athens’ subject-allies in the Delian League. In 440 he was elected one of the 10 stratēgoi (high executive officials who commanded the armed forces) as a junior colleague of Pericles. Sophocles later served as stratēgos perhaps twice again. In 413, then aged about 83, Sophocles was a proboulos, one of 10 advisory commissioners who were granted special powers and were entrusted with organizing Athens’ financial and domestic recovery after its terrible defeat at Syracuse in Sicily. Sophocles’ last recorded act was to lead a chorus in public mourning for his deceased rival, Euripides, before the festival of 406. He died that same year.

These few facts are about all that is known of Sophocles’ life. They imply steady and distinguished attachment to Athens, its government, religion, and social forms. Sophocles was wealthy from birth, highly educated, noted for his grace and charm, on easy terms with the leading families, a personal friend of prominent statesmen, and in many ways fortunate to have died before the final surrender of Athens to Sparta in 404. In one of his last plays, Oedipus at Colonus, he still affectionately praises both his own birthplace and the great city itself.

Sophocles won his first victory at the Dionysian dramatic festival in 468, however, defeating the great Aeschylus in the process. This began a career of unparalleled success and longevity. In total, Sophocles wrote 123 dramas for the festivals. Since each author who was chosen to enter the competition usually presented four plays, this means he must have competed about 30 times. Sophocles won perhaps as many as 24 victories, compared to 13 for Aeschylus and four for Euripides, and indeed he may have never received lower than second place in the competitions he entered.

Dramatic And Literary Achievements

 

Ancient authorities credit Sophocles with several major and minor dramatic innovations. Among the latter is his invention of some type of “scene paintings” or other pictorial prop to establish locale or atmosphere. He also may have increased the size of the chorus from 12 to 15 members. Sophocles’ major innovation was his introduction of a third actor into the dramatic performance. It had previously been permissible for two actors to “double” (i.e., assume other roles during a play), but the addition of a third actor onstage enabled the dramatist both to increase the number of his characters and widen the variety of their interactions. The scope of the dramatic conflict was thereby extended, plots could be more fluid, and situations could be more complex.

The typical Sophoclean drama presents a few characters, impressive in their determination and power and possessing a few strongly drawn qualities or faults that combine with a particular set of circumstances to lead them inevitably to a tragic fate. Sophocles develops his characters’ rush to tragedy with great economy, concentration, and dramatic effectiveness, creating a coherent, suspenseful situation whose sustained and inexorable onrush came to epitomize the tragic form to the classical world. Sophocles emphasizes that most people lack wisdom, and he presents truth in collision with ignorance, delusion, and folly. Many scenes dramatize flaws or failure in thinking (deceptive reports and rumours, false optimism, hasty judgment, madness). The chief character does something involving grave error; this affects others, each of whom reacts in his own way, thereby causing the chief agent to take another step toward ruin—his own and that of others as well. Equally important, those who are to suffer from the tragic error usually are present at the time or belong to the same generation. It was this more complex type of tragedy that demanded a third actor. Sophocles thus abandoned the spacious Aeschylean framework of the connected trilogy and instead comprised the entire action in a single play. From his time onward, “trilogy” usually meant no more than three separate tragedies written by the same author and presented at the same festival.

Sophocles’ language responds flexibly to the dramatic needs of the moment; it can be ponderously weighty or swift-moving, emotionally intense or easygoing, highly decorative or perfectly plain and simple. His mastery of form and diction was highly respected by his contemporaries. Sophocles has also been universally admired for the sympathy and vividness with which he delineates his characters; especially notable are his tragic women, such as Electra and Antigone. Few dramatists have been able to handle situation and plot with more power and certainty; the frequent references in the Poetics to Sophocles’ Oedipus the Kingshow that Aristotle regarded this play as a masterpiece of construction, and few later critics have dissented. Sophocles is also unsurpassed in his moments of high dramatic tension and in his revealing use of tragic irony.

 

The criticism has been made that Sophocles was a superb artist and nothing more; he grappled neither with religious problems as Aeschylus had nor with intellectual ones as Euripides had done. He accepted the gods of Greek religion in a spirit of unreflecting orthodoxy, and he contented himself with presenting human characters and human conflicts. But it should be stressed that to Sophocles “the gods” appear to have represented the natural forces of the universe to which human beings are unwittingly or unwillingly subject. To Sophocles, human beings live for the most part in dark ignorance because they are cut off from these permanent, unchanging forces and structures of reality. Yet it is pain, suffering, and the endurance of tragic crisis that can bring people into valid contact with the universal order of things. In the process, a person can become more genuinely human, more genuinely himself.

Only seven of Sophocles’ tragedies survive in their entirety, along with 400 lines of a satyr play, numerous fragments of plays now lost, and 90 titles. All seven of the complete plays are works of Sophocles’ maturity, but only two of them, Philoctetes and Oedipus at Colonus, have fairly certain dates. Ajax is generally regarded as the earliest of the extantplays. Some evidence suggests that Antigone was first performed in 442 or 441 bc. Philoctetes was first performed in 409, when Sophocles was 90 years old, and Oedipus at Colonus was said to have been produced after Sophocles’ death by his grandson.

Ajax

The entire plot of Ajax (Greek Aias mastigophoros) is constructed around Ajax, the mighty hero of the Trojan War whose pride drives him to treachery and finally to his own ruin and suicide some two-thirds of the way through the play. Ajax is deeply offended at the award of the prize of valour (the dead Achilles’ armour) not to himself but to Odysseus. Ajax thereupon attempts to assassinate Odysseus and the contest’s judges, the Greek commanders Agamemnon and Menelaus, but is frustrated by the intervention of the goddess Athena. He cannot bear his humiliation and throws himself on his own sword. Agamemnon and Menelaus order that Ajax’ corpse be left unburied as punishment. But the wise Odysseus persuades the commanders to relent and grant Ajax an honourable burial. In the end Odysseus is the only person who seems truly aware of the changeability of human fortune.

Antigone

Antigone is the daughter of Oedipus, the former king of Thebes. She is willing to face the capital punishment that has been decreed by her uncle Creon, the new king, as the penalty for anyone burying her brother Polyneices. (Polyneices has just been killed attacking Thebes, and it is as posthumous punishment for this attack that Creon has forbidden the burial of his corpse.) Obeying all her instincts of love, loyalty, and humanity, Antigone defies Creon and dutifully buries her brother’s corpse. Creon, from conviction that reasons of state outweigh family ties, refuses to commute Antigone’s death sentence. By the time Creon is finally persuaded by the prophet Tiresias to relent and free Antigone, she has killed herself in her prison cell. Creon’s son, Haemon, kills himself out of love and sympathy for the dead Antigone, and Creon’s wife, Eurydice, then kills herself out of grief over these tragic events. At the play’s end Creon is left desolate and broken in spirit. In his narrow and unduly rigid adherence to his civic duties, Creon has defied the gods through his denial of humanity’s common obligations toward the dead. The play thus concerns the conflicting obligations of civic versus personal loyalties and religious mores.

Trachinian Women

This play centres on the efforts of Deianeira to win back the wandering affections of her husband, Heracles, who is away on one of his heroic missions and who has sent back his latest concubine, Iole, to live with his wife at their home in Trachis. The love charm Deianeira uses on Heracles turns out to be poisonous, and she kills herself upon learning of the agony she has caused her husband. Thus, in Trachinian Women (Greek Trachiniai) Heracles’ insensitivity (in sending his mistress to share his wife’s home) and Deianeira’s ignorance result in domestic tragedy.

Oedipus the King

The plot of Oedipus the King (Greek Oidipous Tyrannos; Latin Oedipus Rex) is a structural marvel that marks the summit of classical Greek drama’s formal achievements. The play’s main character, Oedipus, is the wise, happy, and beloved ruler of Thebes. Though hot-tempered, impatient, and arrogant at times of crisis, he otherwise seems to enjoy every good fortune. But Oedipus mistakenly believes that he is the son of King Polybus of Corinth and his queen. He became the ruler of Thebes because he rescued the city from the Sphinx by answering its riddle correctly, and so was awarded the city’s widowed queen, Jocasta. Before overcoming the Sphinx, Oedipus left Corinth forever because the Delphic oracle had prophesied to him that he would kill his father and marry his mother. While journeying to Thebes from Corinth, Oedipus encountered at a crossroads an old man accompanied by five servants. Oedipus got into an argument with him and in a fit of arrogance and bad temper killed the old man and four of his servants.

Source : Encyclopaedia Britannica

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