|Sophocles (496 - 406 B.C.)|
|One of the
three great tragic dramatists of ancient Athens, the other two being Aeschylus
Sophocles was born about 496 BC 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.
Sophocles composed more than 100 plays, of which 7 complete tragedies and fragments of 80 or 90 others are preserved. 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 (circa 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. 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.
Ajax, Electra, Philoctetes, and Trachiniae in varying forms repeat the themes of Antigone. Oedipus Tyrannus, which is justly famed for its flawless construction, its dramatic power, and its effective dramatic irony, was considered by Aristotle in his well-known treatise the Poetics the most typical and in many respects the most perfect of the Greek tragedies. The plot turns on the gradual revelation to the mythological hero Oedipus of the dreadful truth that he has become ruler of Thebes by first unwittingly slaying his father and then marrying his mother, the queen Jocasta. Oedipus at Colonus is a powerful play depicting the reconciliation of the blind and aged Oedipus with destiny and his sublime and mysterious death at Colonus, after years of wandering as an exile, sustained by the loving care of his daughter Antigone.
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. The contributions made by Sophocles to dramatic technique were numerous, and two of his innovations were especially important. He increased the number of actors from two to three, thus lessening the influence of the chorus and making possible greater complication of the plot and the more effective portrayal of character by contrast and juxtaposition; and he changed the Aeschylean fashion of composing plays in groups of three, each of them part of a central myth or theme, and made each play an independent psychological and dramatic unity. Sophocles also effected a transformation in the spirit and significance of a tragedy; thereafter, although problems of religion and morality still provided the themes, the nature of man, his problems, and his struggles became the chief interest of Greek tragedy.