of Mount Olympus..|..Greek
Michael J. Cummings © 2000.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
of Classical Mythology....Browse
for Classical Greek and Roman Drama
and Heroes of Ancient Greece: Illustrated Wall Chart
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.
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.
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.' "
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.
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.