Who is Sophocles? Information on playwright, dramatist Sophocles biography, life story, works and plays.
Sophocles; (496-406 b.c.), a Greek dramatist, was the second of the three great Athenian tragedians. He was younger than Aeschylus and older than Euripides. Sophocles was interested in the moral problems of human beings subjected to the inscrutable laws of fate or necessity, before which, the Athenians held, even the gods must bow. In his plays, individual character combines with fate in the shaping of man’s destiny, and overweening pride is a sin that brings retribution in this life.
Sophocles presented his doctrine through the legendary characters sanctioned by Greek dramatic convention. But in his works these characters are removed from fable and myth and exposed to the full light of human reality. They have all the qualities and weaknesses of men and women, over whose fortunes fate spins its tragic web, unseen by them but apparent to the spectators in the theater, who watch his heroes and heroines enmesh themselves, step by step, in irrevocable disaster. However, it is never a wholly blind or unjust fate that drags the victim to his doom. Human error or wrongdoing—sometimes remote and forgotten—motivates the workings of destiny.
A superb craftsman as well as a creative genius, Sophocles also gave much thought to the technical improvement of the Attic theater. By adding a third actor to Aeschylus’ two, increasing the chorus from 12 to 15, and improving the stage scenery, he brought a greater flexibility to the drama. Sophocles abandoned the practice of writing interdependent trilogies and tetralogies, making each play stand by itself as an artistic whole. He was also the first to compose plays to suit the talents of individual actors.
Life. Sophocles was born at Colonus, near Athens. He later wrote of Colonus with deep feeling—its olive groves and nightingales and its glades strewn with narcissus and crocus. His father, Sophillus, was a wealthy armorer, whose dependence upon the state for contracts made him cautious and conservative. Young Sophocles was brought up in an atmosphere of domestic and public security. He was handsome, good-natured, and athletic and highly gifted in music. At the age of 16 he was chosen to lead the chorus of boys at a celebration following the victory over the Persians at Salamis. His beauty and his talented performance attracted attention. He wrote a number of songs and paeans, all of which have been lost, and early devoted himself to the composition of tragedies. When he was 28 he defeated Aeschylus in a dramatic contest, winning first prize. Thereafter he often attained first place over Aeschylus and Euripides, never ranking lower than second.
Conservative and civic-minded, Sophocles loved Athens and lived there all of his life, unlike Aeschylus and Euripides, who were attracted by the blandishments of foreign courts. Sophocles seems to have avoided public office, although, like all Athenians of quality, he willingly responded to the call of public duty. He served on one and possibly more foreign embassies. He was appointed to military duty twice with the rank of general, serving with Pericles in the Samian War (440-439 b. c.). After the Athenian naval disaster at Syracuse in 413 b. c., he was appointed one of the 10 probotdoi, or commissioners, who were citizens of high repute placed in temporary charge of Athens’ affairs.
With these exceptions, Sophocles’ life appears to have been devoted to his art and to the furtherance of culture. His poise, moderation, and urbanity, qualities admired above all others by the Athenians and reflected in his work, made him widely popular and the favorite playwright of his fellow citizens. He was nicknamed the Attic Bee, for, it was said, he could extract pure honey from words. The historian Herodotus was one of his close friends. Sophocles died in Athens at about the age of 90. Aristophanes, in The Frogs, first performed one year after Sophocles’ death, says of the great dramatist that one so easygoing among the living would surely be easygoing among the dead. The poet Simmias of Rhodes composed a fitting epitaph for Sophocles:
Wind gently, ivy, o’er the tomb,
Gently, where Sophocles is laid;
Lend thy green tresses for a shade;
Rose-petals all about him bloom:
Twine thy lithe tendrils, gadding vine,
To praise the cunning of his tongue,
The notes in honeyed concert sung
With Graces and the Muses nine.
—Translation by Walter Leaf
Works. Sophocles wrote well over 100 plays, of which 7 are extant in their entirety. A large fragment of a satyr play, Ichneutae, also has survived. Of his seven extant tragedies, the production dates of only three are definitely known: Antigone (442 or 441), Philoctetes (409), and Oedipus at Colonus (posthumously produced, 401). The other tragedies are Ajax, Oedipus the King ( in Latin, Oedipus Rex or Oedipus Tyrannus), Electra, and The Trachinian Women. All are products of his mature years.
Before the action of Antigone begins, the heroine’s brother Polynices has been killed while storming Thebes, the stronghold of another brother, Eteocles, who also died as a result of the conflict. As the play opens, Polynices is refused burial by their uncle Creon, Eteocles’ successor. Antigone disobeys Creon and buries Polynices, believing that the religious obligation to the dead is more powerful than any political edict. Creon orders her death and in so doing initiates a chain reaction of tragedy as his wife and son both commit suicide in their grief at his cruelty.
In Antigone, Sophocles presents the tragic conflict between moral law and pride of family and the binding ordinances of civil law, reflected in the unbending stubbornness of both parties involved and ending in calamity and death. His message seems to be that moral balance is essential to human happiness, a doctrine that naturally found favor with the mercurial Athenians who incessantly praised the happy mean, possibly because they so rarely practiced it.
In Oedipus the King, the hero is a wise and beloved ruler, happily married and seemingly secure in his good fortune. However, Jocasta, his wife and (unknown to both) his mother, has for many years borne the guilty secret of the ordered murder of her infant son (Oedipus), assuming that it was carried out. Oedipus too has forgotten his long-ago accidental slaying of an old man in a fit of youthful arrogance and temper. He does not know that the man was his father. Fate, in weaving the destruction of Oedipus and Jocasta, is punishing him for his arrogance and hot temper, flashes of which persist, and her for her greater crime.
Sophocles was an unsurpassed master of dramatic technique. The manner in which the action proceeds in a steady crescendo—from its calm beginning, through the unraveling of the clues, to the curse that the oracle has placed upon Thebes, and, finally, the discovery of the horror of incest and murder that infests the royal house —engages the audience in suspense. Although the spectators are aware of the plot throughout, they are held in a state of terror and compassion from start to finish.
In Oedipus at Colonus, a quiet play, written in his extreme old age, Sophocles lost none of his power. However, in the character of the blind and disillusioned Oedipus, living in exile, is mirrored Sophocles’ apprehension of the forces of decay that were at work sapping the moral strength of Athens. There is a melancholy warning of permanent value in Oedipus’ words:
Only to gods on high
Not to grow old is given, nor yet to die,
All else is turmoiled by our master, Time.
Decay is in earth’s bloom and manhood’s prime,
Faith dies and Unfaith blossoms like a flower,
And who of men shall find from hour to hour,
Or in loud cities and the marts thereof,
Or silent chambers of his own heart’s love,
One wind blow true for ever?
—Translation by Gilbert Murray
Critical Appraisal. Artistically, Sophocles stands between Aeschylus and Euripides. He never attained the effects of force and magnificence through sheer power of language that make Aeschylus one of the world’s greatest dramatic poets. The liturgical qualities of Aeschylus, the religious reformer, in the sufferings of whose titanic heroes we feel the impact of clashing faiths, are lacking in Sophocles. On the other hand, he never indulged in the theoretical rant-ings of the social propagandist which mar so much that is otherwise beautiful in Euripides. As Matthew Arnold stated, Sophocles “saw life steadily and saw it whole.”
Sophocles’ style reflects the austere reserve and perfect balance characteristic of the Periclean era. He is essentially classic in spirit and form. His choric lyrics are distinguished by exquisite grace and sweetness. Indeed, sweetness, power, balance, and wisdom are the outstanding qualities of this great tragedian.