Sophocles 
The Man and His Work
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By Michael J. Cummings © 2000
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......Although Sophocles died more than twenty-four centuries ago, he continues to live today in his plays as one of history's greatest writers. Only seven of his one hundred twenty-three dramas survive intact, but they are enough to prompt his admirers to regard him as the equal of Shakespeare, or nearly so. One can only wonder how Sophocles would rank if all of his plays had survived.  
......His themes–justice, pride, obstinacy, flawed humanity, and the struggle between destiny and free will–are as timely today as they were in his own time. Aristotle lauded Sophocles as the supreme dramatist, maintaining that Oedipus the King was a model for all playwrights to imitate. 
......Sophocles was born a mile northwest of Athens in the deme (township) of Colonus between 497 and 495 B.C. Because his father, Sophillus, shared in the profits of a successful family weapons and armor manufactory, Sophocles was a child of advantage, enjoying the comforts of the privileged and receiving an education that undergirded his natural talents. He studied poetry, dance, philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, law, athletics, and military tactics. He also studied music and became accomplished at playing the cithara, a stringed instrument resembling the lyre of the harp family. 
......In spite of his aristocratic background and entitlements, Sophocles was a man of the people: kindly, generous, popular. Fellow Athenians esteemed him highly throughout his life. That he was quite handsome may have helped bolster his popularity.  
......Sophocles earned his entry into the Athenian literary world with a play entitled Triptolemus, which does not survive. He used it in 468 to defeat another outstanding dramatist, Aeschylus, in a writing competition. Competing plays were performed in a theater dedicated to Dionysus, the god of wine and revelry. Sophocles went on to win about two dozen more drama awards against Aeschylus and other extraordinary writers. It is said that he sometimes acted in plays. On one occasion, he reportedly presented a juggling act that dazzled the audience.  
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Sophocles' Innovations 
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......Until Sophocles' time, dramatists wrote tragedies three at a time. The second play continued the action of the first, and the third play continued the action of the second. The entire three-play series of tragedies was called a trilogy. Sophocles broke with tradition by writing single plays that stood alone as dramatic units. Ajax is an example of a stand-alone Sophocles play. The Oedipus series of plays (Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone) is not technically a trilogy (although sometimes referred to as one) because the plays were written years apart as single units.  
......Sophocles also emphasized people more than his predecessors, taking characters in well-known plots from mythology and dressing them up as real human beings with noble but complex personalities vulnerable to pride and flawed judgment. Audiences in ancient Athens did not go to a Sophocles play to be entertained by a plot with a surpise ending. They already knew the ending. They went to a Sophocles play to see how the characters reacted to the forces working for or against them--mostly against. Thus, Sophocles' plays required superb writing and characterization to hold the interest of the audience.  

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......In portraying his characters, Sophocles raised irony to high art, making the characters unwitting victims of fate or their own shortcomings. The irony was both verbal (with characters speaking words laden with meaning uknown to them) and dramatic (with characters ensnaring themselves in predicaments charged with danger that they do not recognize but that the audience well knows will lead to disaster). The audience knew, for example, what Oedipus did not know (until the end of Oedipus the King): that the man he killed and the woman he married were his father and mother. This type of dramatic irony occurs often in Sophocles' plays, allowing the audience to become engrossed with a character's response to a situation rather than the eventual outcome of the situation.  
......Another of Sophocles' innovations was an increase in the number of actors in plays from two to three, presenting more opportunities to contrast characters and create foils. He also introduced painted scenery, enhanced costuming, and fixed the number of persons in the chorus at 15. The chorus also diminished in importance; it was the actors who mattered.  
......"The key to his work was provided by Matthew Arnold in the phrase to the effect that Sophocles possessed an 'even-balanced soul,' " drama critic John Gassner wrote in Masters of the Drama (New York: Random House, 1954, Page 42). "He comprehended both the joy and grief of living, its beauty and ugliness, its moments of peace and its basic uncertainty so concisely expressed by his line 'Human life, even in its utmost splendor and struggle, hangs on the edge of an abyss.' " 
......Sophocles' handling of human tragedy was influenced, in part, by the tragedies of war. During his lifetime he had witnessed the devastating Persian and Peloponnesian wars and even participated in a war when he served as a general with Pericles to quell rebellion on Samos, an Aegean island.  
......Besides military duty, Sophocles served as a city treasurer, helping to control the money of the Delian Confederacy of states. He also served as member of a governing council and as a priest in the service of Asclepius, the god of medicine, to whom he was especially devoted. Well into old age, he remained productive in civic activities and writing. He wrote Oedipus at Colonus, for example, when he was over 90. It was that play which saved him from a charge of mental incompetency brought by his sons. According to ancient accounts by Cicero and Plutarch, when Sophocles appeared in court, he read from Oedipus at Colonus, which he was working on at that time. So impressed were the members of the jury that they acquitted him, apparently realizing that only a man fully in charge of his faculties could write such beautiful words. Sophocles died about 405. He and his wife, Nicostrate, had a son, Iophon, who was also a tragedian. Sophocles and his mistress, Theoris of Sicyon, had a child named Agathon. Agathon was the father of Sophocles the Younger, also a writer.
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The Greek Theater 
Definition and Description of Its Structure
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By Michael J. Cummings
Copyright 2000 
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Definition and Background
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.....The Greek theater was an open-air stone structure with tiered seating, a stage, and a ground-level orchestra. It was an outgrowth of festivals honoring the god Dionysus. In these festivals, called Dioniyia, the Greeks danced and sang hymns called dithyrambs that sometimes told stories. One day, Thespis, a choral director in Athens, used spoken words, or dialogue, to accompany the singing and dancing in imitation of poets who had done so before. Soon, the dialogues of Thespis became plays, and he began staging them in a theater.  
....."A contest of plays in 535 [B.C.] arose when Pisistratus, the ‘tyrant' whom the common people of Athens invested with power, brought a rustic festival into the city [Athens]," drama critic John Gassner writes in Masters of Drama. Such contests became regular features of the festivals, and the theaters in which they were held were specially built to accommodate them.  
 
Major Sections of the Theater
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.....(1) A tiered, horshoe-shaped seating area called a theatron. The theatron faced the east to allow the audience to view plays--usually staged later in the day--without squinting.  
.....(2) A stage called a proscenium. The staged faced the west to allow the midday sun to illuminate the faces of the actors.  
.....(3) An orchestra in front of the proscenium to accommodate the chorus. 
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Other Theater Sections 
 
.....Skene: Building behind the stage. First used as a dressing area for actors (and sometimes an entrance or exit area for actors), the skene eventually became a background showing appropriate scenery.  
.....Paraskenia: Extensions or annexes on the sides of the skene.  
.....Parados: Passage on the left or right through which the chorus entered the orchestra.  
.....Thymele: Altar in the center of the orchestra used to make sacrifices to Dionysus.  
.....Machine: Armlike device on the skene that could lower a "god" onto the stage from the heavens.  
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