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Sophocles (496?-406 B.C.), tragic dramatist, priest, and for a time
one of ten Athenian generals, was among three great ancient
Greek writers of tragedy. (The other two were his
contemporaries: Aeschylus, his senior, and Euripides, his junior.)
Sophocles won his first victory in the Athenian spring drama
competition in 468 B.C., when a tragedy he had written defeated a
tragedy by Aeschylus. He went on to win many prizes, writing
more than 120 plays, of which only seven have survived in their
entirety—Ajax, Antigonê, Oedipus theKing, Electra, Philoctetes,
The Trachinian Women, and Oedipus at Colonus. (Of the lost plays,
about a thousand fragments remain.) In his long life, Sophocles
saw Greece rise to supremacy over the Persian Empire. He
enjoyed the favor of the statesman Pericles, who made peace with
enemy Sparta and ruled Athens during a Golden Age (461-429
B.C.), during which the Parthenon was built and music, art, drama,
and philosophy flourished. The playwright lived on to see his
native city-state in decline, its strength drained by the disastrous
Peloponnesian War. His last play, Oedipus at Colonus, set twenty
years after the events of Oedipus the King, shows the former king
in old age, ragged and blind, cast into exile by his sons, but still
accompanied by his faithful daughter Antigonê. It was written
when Sophocles was nearly ninety. Oedipus the King is believed to
have been first produced in 425 B.C., five years after plague had
broken out in Athens.
Literary Career
Classical Greek drama evolved from religious festivals honoring Dionysus, the god of wine and
fertility. Plays were important civic events and were very well attended; some surviving
amphitheaters hold over fourteen thousand people. Sophocles appeared as a tragic poet in 468 B.C.,
when he competed against Aeschylus, who was twice Sophocles' age and at the height of his fame.
Legend says that during their contest the audience became increasingly excited and eventually
violent. While it is not clear whether or not rioting actually broke out during the competition, one
thing is certain: young Sophocles was the winner. After that first victory, Sophocles enjoyed
continuous success for about sixty years. He usually exhibited every other year, as Aeschylus did. He
almost always won first place. Even when he failed to win first place, he never placed lower than
second. Interestingly, his production of Oedipus the King did not win first place, but placed second to
the tragedies of Aeschylus's nephew, Philocles.
One of the great innovators of the theatre, he was the first to add a third actor. He also abolished the
trilogic form. Aeschylus, for example, had used three tragedies to tell a single story. Sophocles chose
to make each tragedy a complete entity in itself--as a result, he had to pack all of his action into the
shorter form, and this clearly offered greater dramatic possibilities. Many authorities also credit him
with the invention of scene-painting and periaktoi or painted prisms. Of Sophocles' more than 120
plays, only seven have survived in their entirety. Of these, Oedipus the King is generally considered
his greatest work. This tragedy of fate explores the depths of modern psycho-analysis as Oedipus
unwittingly kills his father and marries his mother in an attempt to avoid the very prophecy he
ultimately fulfills. A masterful work of plot and suspense, Oedipus the King is often heralded as a
"perfectly structured" play. And although Oedipus cannot escape his fate, he finally finds peace in the
sequal, Oedipus at Colonus, after enduring the worst the fates had to offer. Another masterpiece,
Antigone, possibly the first of the surviving plays to have been written, is the story of a passionate
young woman who refuses to submit to earthly authority when it forbids a proper burial for her
brother Polyneices. Illustrating the rival claims of the state and the individual conscience, Antigone is
an excellent example for the modern social dramatist.