1.21: Sophocles



Sophocles was an ancient Greek playwright, born in Colonus near Athens, Greece in 496 B.C.E. His father, Sophilus, was a rich member of a small community, the rural ‘Deme’. Sophocles was highly educated. He began his artistic journey in 468 BC, winning a prize for his play and leaving behind Aeschylus in the competition. When he was sixteen he led the ‘paean’ which was a chant for the Gods after the Greek victory over the Persians. He took part in competitions and even won over the two popular playwrights Aeschylus and Euripides. He was the Imperial Treasurer from 443 to 442 B.C.E, helping control the funds of the Delian Confederacy for the Athenian Empire. He was also elected as a member of the Board of Generals more than once. He was very religious. He had given up his house for the worship of a God named Asclepius who was the god of medicine, till a proper temple was not constructed. He was also given the title of ‘Dexion’ for this generosity. Sophocles first wife was Nicostrata with whom he had two sons named Iophon and Sophocles. His second wife was Theoris with whom he had one son who was called Ariston.He is one of three Greek tragedians whose plays have lived on. From the Suda, which is an ancient 10th Century encyclopedia, we know that Sophocles wrote 123 plays out of which we have 7 complete plays. These are AjaxAntigoneThe Women of TrachisOedipus the KingElectra, Philoctetes and Oedipus at Colonus. His most popular plays are the two Oedipus works and Antigone, also known as the ‘Theban Plays’.His plays involved themes such as the relation between man and the Gods and how man reacts in certain problematic situations and the Heroes of his plays had to overcome various obstacles…. [In] [h]is play Electra (418-414 B.C.E), the character Electra is waiting for her brother, Orestes. His play ‘Philoctetus (409 B.C.E) shows the conflict between man and the society and the cruelties of the society when it no longer need the man. His play Oedipus at Colonus (401 B.C.E.) was produced posthumously and it was the longest play written by him. Sophocles was inspired by human nature and its welfare as we can see from his line in Antigone:
‘Many are the wonders of the world,” says Sophocles, ‘but none is more wonderful than man.’

Sophocles died at the age of ninety-one in 406 B.C. He saw in his life many great times and events including the Greek victory in the Persian Wars and the Peloponnesian War. As noted in a eulogy written by a poet in a play called The Muses:

‘Blessed is Sophocles, who had a long life, was a man both happy and talented, and the writer of many good tragedies; and he ended his life well without suffering any misfortune.’

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 King show 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.

Sophocles’ Plays

Throughout all of Sophocles’ plays we are able to see underlying connections to the role of politics in Ancient Athens. In all of Sophocles’ plays, Sophocles tries to emphasize the importance of a democracy rather than a dictatorship. He brings to light the idea that one person does not have the capacity to rule a country by itself. Through his plays, Sophocles tries to show that two minds are better than one; meaning that a democracy would probably make better decisions than a dictator. Sophocles wants to emphasize that a dictator makes decisions for the benefit of himself, usually; whereas, a democracy will usually make a decision for the benefit of the people.

In Antigone, there are political overtones when Creon declares that no one is allowed to mourn Polynices, Antigone’s brother. After Antigone defies this law, even though she is Creon’s niece, she is exiled for defying the law of the land. By making this statement, Sophocles wants to show that the king’s law rules the land, even more than blood. However, the point that Sophocles really wanted to emphasize was that the people are the true ruling force in Athens. When the city is said to be cursed by the Gods, all the people want Creon to free Antigone to save the city. Creon is forced to go against his own declaration to save the city. Even though Creon is the deciding power, the people can influence his decisions for the well-being of the city. This adheres to one of Sophocles main themes that the welfare of the city is above any one person, including the king.

In Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, he is trying to show again that the welfare of the state supercedes any one individual. Oedipus shows that he is a fair and just ruler when he states, “But my spirit grieves for the city, for myself and all of you to learn what I might do or say to save our city” (75-84). Even though Oedipus was a fair and great ruler, revealing the true identity of his past is what will save the city. Once Oedipus realizes he is the plague upon the city, he accepts his own declaration and forces Creon to drive him from the city. Sophocles wants to show that even the greatest rulers have done horrible things in the past that will come back to haunt them. One little mistake can be the demise of any man and that is why no one man should be the loner ruler of any country.

In Oedipus at Colonus, Sophocles tries to show that keeping a promise is just as important as being just. By keeping his promise to protect Oedipus, Theseus is able to save his city from the destruction of the gods. This again shows that Sophocles is showing that the whole city is more important than one person. Also, in this play Sophocles tries to show that war is not the answer. Oedipus states, “Oh dear friend, give my children the binding pledge of your right hand, and children, give him yours. And swear that you will never forsake them, not if you can help it” (380). Sophocles is trying to show the need to keep peace between Thebes and Colonus. He is trying to show that a democracy is less likely to start a war than one ruler because war does nothing for the people except kill them.

From looking at these points, it seems that Sophocles was really trying to state the importance of a democracy…. Sophocles understood that ruling a country is a very hard task for only man to do by himself. He was trying to show people that one person can lose sight of what is really important and just far easier than an assembly or council. But how can a playwright really know the importance of having more than one person to rule a country? Was Sophocles more of a philosopher than a playwright?

Watch the following classic adaptation of Oedipus the King: