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Sophocles Biography
Information about Sophocles' life is at best sketchy and incomplete, but some important details
survive. Most of what scholars know about the playwright comes from two sources: the Suda
Lexicon, a tenth-century Greek dictionary, and the anonymous Sophocles: His Life and Works,
an undated manuscript found in the thirteenth century.
Sophocles was born about 496 B.C. at Colonus, a village just outside Athens, Greece. His father,
Sophillus, was a wealthy weapons-maker and a leading citizen. Both birth and wealth, then, set
Sophocles apart as someone likely to play an important role in Athenian society.
Like other Greek boys from wealthy families, Sophocles studied poetry, music, dancing, and
gymnastics — subjects regarded as the basis of a well-rounded education for a citizen. His early
schooling prepared him to serve as a leader in all aspects of public life, including the military,
foreign policy, and the arts.
The young Sophocles showed great skill at music and dancing. In fact, at age 15, he won the
great honor of leading the boys' chorus in the victory paean (joyful song) celebrating the
Athenian naval victory over the Persians at the battle of Salamis. This achievement
foreshadowed the leadership role Sophocles would have in society, both as an active member of
the government and as an influence on Greek arts.
Sophocles lived during the Classical Period (500 to 400 B.C.), a time of transition for Greece,
when political and cultural events were changing and shaping Athenian culture. As a dramatist,
Sophocles played an important part in this creation of a civilization, which included looking
backward to ancient traditions and the first epic poetry of Greece, written by Homer. His great
Greek epics The Odyssey and The Iliad profoundly influenced Sophocles. An anonymous
biographer of the time called him "the pupil of Homer" — suggesting that Sophocles' great
power came to him from the greatest of Greek poets.
Sophocles probably also studied under the Greek playwright Aeschylus. If so, then Sophocles'
first dramatic success had a very personal significance. In 468 B.C., his play Triptolemus took
first prize for tragedy, while Aeschylus' play came in second.
Public Service
Over many years, Sophocles actively participated in Athenian political and cultural life, often in
positions of great responsibility. Besides his contributions as playwright, Sophocles served as a
diplomat, general, and even a priest of Alscepius, a minor god of healing. While some of his
public service may seem beyond his professional experience as a dramatist, Athenian democracy
nevertheless demanded that its citizens take part in all aspects of government.
In 443 B.C., the great Athenian leader Pericles chose Sophocles to be treasurer of the Delian
Confederation. As Hellenotamias — his official title — Sophocles collected taxes from the states
under the control of Athens. In effect, he represented the power of the entire Athenian empire in
his office, and the funds he collected bolstered Athenian glory at home and around the
In 440 B.C., Sophocles served as a general in the siege of Samos, an island that challenged the
authority of Athens. He may have served another term as a general in either 426 B.C. or 415
B.C., and he later took part in a special commission to investigate the Athenian military defeat in
Sicily in 413 B.C. During the crucial Peloponnesian War, Sophocles conducted negotiations with
Athenian allies.
Despite all his public service, though, Sophocles remained first and last a dramatist. His death in
406 B.C. inspired a national cult that worshipped him as a cultural hero at a shrine dedicated to
his memory.
Literary Writing
Athens in the fifth century B.C. was a golden age of drama for Greece and the world. For
Sophocles to emerge as the most popular playwright among his contemporaries — the older
Aeschylus and the younger Euripides — attests to his genius for moving audiences with
powerful poetry and stagecraft.
Sophocles wrote more than 120 plays, but only seven complete tragedies survive. Of the rest,
only some titles and fragments remain. As late as 1907, a papyrus with several hundred lines of a
Sophoclean play called The Ichneutae turned up in Egypt.
Perhaps someday other lost plays will come to light, although the prospect seems unlikely. But
for now, Sophocles' modern reputation rests on the seven surviving plays: Ajax, Antigone,
Electra, Oedipus the King, The Trachinae, Philoctetes, and Oedipus at Colonus.
Originally produced around 445 B.C., Ajax tells the story of the legendary Trojan War hero who
is driven mad by the vengeful goddess Athena. In Antigone (440 B.C.), Sophocles dramatizes a
tragic conflict between human and divine law in the story of Oedipus' daughter and King Creon.
Electra (440 B.C.) takes for its subject the revenge of Agamemnon's children on their father's
Oedipus the King (430 B.C.), generally regarded as Sophocles' masterpiece, presents the myth of
Oedipus, the man fated to kill his father and marry his mother. Sophocles dramatizes the story of
the death of Hercules in The Trachinae (413 B.C.) and returns to the subject of the Trojan War in
Philoctetes (410 B.C.). Sophocles' last work, Oedipus at Colonus, presents the death of Oedipus;
it was produced in 401 B.C., five years after the playwright's own death.
Of all the surviving plays, the tragedies of the Oedipus Trilogy — Oedipus the King, Oedipus at
Colonus, and Antigone — are the best known and most often produced. Although all three plays
are part of the same story, Sophocles did not create them to be performed as a single theatrical
production. Instead, the three tragedies represent separate dramas on related subjects.
Many people choose to read the plays of the Oedipus Trilogy in the chronological order of the
story — Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone — while others prefer the order in
which Sophocles wrote them — Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus. In any order,
readers will note the unique qualities in each drama, especially the important differences in
character and tone.
In his Poetics, Aristotle writes that the purpose of tragedy is to arouse pity and fear in the
audience, and so create a catharsis — or cleansing of emotions — that will enlighten people
about life and fate. Each of the plays of the Oedipus Trilogy achieves this catharsis that Aristotle
defined as the hallmark of all tragedy.
Honors and Awards
Athens held a dramatic competition every year, at the Festival of Dionysus. At this time, three
playwrights would each present a tetralogy — four tragedies as well as a "satyr play," a kind of
short, rough comedy — on three successive days. At the end of the festival, ten judges would
award first, second, and third prizes for the best drama. The prize itself is not known, although it
was probably money and a symbol of some sort; but the true glory of winning first place was the
approval of the Athenian public.
Sophocles won first prize at the Festival of Dionysus 18 times, frequently over such competitors
as Aeschylus and Euripides. Some of Sophocles' plays won second prize — Oedipus the King,
for example — but none ever came in third. Year after year, Sophocles' tragedies gained
recognition as among the best dramas written at a time when competition was at its highest.
Perhaps Sophocles' greatest achievement is his enduring popularity as a dramatist. The fact that
his works are studied today, approximately 2,400 years after they were written, is a testament to
the power of his words and the impact those stories have on current culture.
Sophocles. "The Oedipus Trilogy: Sophocles Biography ." Get Homework Help with CliffsNotes
Study Guides . John Wiley & Sons, Inc., n.d. Web. 12 Oct. 2012.
Colonus, a village near Athens, was the place of Sophocles' birth, and the date, 495 B.C., thus
making him thirty years younger than Aeschylus and fifteen years older than Euripides. His
father, Sophilus, a man of wealth and excellent repute, gave him the benefit of all the literary
accomplishment of the age. His powers were developed and refined by a careful instruction in
the arts of music and poetry, and to the natural graces of his person further attractions were
added through the exercises of the palæstra. That he was a comely and agile youth is shown by
his selection, at the age of sixteen, to lead with dance and lyre the chorus which celebrated his
country's triumph at Salamis.
In his younger days he appears to have been somewhat over fond of women and wine, and this
he himself admits in one of his sayings recorded by Plato: "I thank old age for delivering me
from the tyranny of my appetites." Yet, even in his later years, the charms of the gentler sex were
at times too strong for the great dramatist. Aristophanes accused him of avarice, though there is
nothing in what is known of Sophocles to substantiate the charge, and this is further disproved by
the utter neglect of his affairs, which brought on him the imputation of lunacy, refuted by reading
to his judges a passage from a newly-written play. The occasional excesses referred to appear to
have been the only blemish on an otherwise blameless and contented life.
Dramatic Career
The commencement of his dramatic career was marked by a victory in competition with
Aeschylus, under exceptional circumstances. The remains of the hero Theseus were being
removed by Cimon from the isle of Scyros to Athens, at the time of a tragic contest which had
excited unusual interest on account of the fame of the older and the popularity of the younger
candidate. Instead of choosing judges by lot, as was the custom, the archon administered the oath
to Cimon and his colleagues, asking them to decide between the rival tragedians. The first prize
was awarded to Sophocles, greatly to the disgust of the veteran dramatist, who soon afterward
departed for Sicily. Yet the decision does not imply want of appreciation for the plays which
Aeschylus presented. The rivalry was not between two works, but between two styles of tragic
art, and the subject chosen by the young poet, together with the desire to encourage his first
attempt, was sufficient to outbalance the reputation of the great antagonist, whose verses lacked
the air of freshness and youth that hung around the poetry of Sophocles.
For more than sixty years after this event Sophocles continued to compose and exhibit tragedies
and satyric dramas. Of the one hundred and eighty plays ascribed to him, probably seventeen
were spurious, and the number of his first prizes is variously stated at from eighteen to twentyfour, with many second prizes, so that in this respect he left both Aeschylus and Euripides far
behind. So far from being dulled with age and toil, his powers seem only to have assumed a
mellower tone, a more touching pathos, a sweeter and gentler mode of thought and expression.
To the improvements which Aeschylus made in tragic exhibition he added others, some of which
the former adopted in his later works, before taking leave of the stage. He introduced a third
actor, further curtailed the choral parts and gave the dialogue its full development. He caused the
scenery to be carefully painted and properly arranged, thus greatly increasing the spectacular
effect. His odes were distinguished by their close connection with the business of the play, the
correctness of their sentiments, and the beauty of their lines. His language, though sometimes
harsh and involved, was for the most part grand and majestic, avoiding the massive phraseology
of Aeschylus and the commonplace diction of Euripides. In the management of his subjects he
was unrivaled, no one understanding so well the artistic development of incident, the secret of
working on the feelings, the gradual culmination of the interest when leading up to the final
crisis, and the crushing blow of the catastrophe, overwhelming the spectators with terror or
"Sophocles," says one of his admirers, "is the summit of Greek art; but we must have scaled
many a steep before we can appreciate his loftiness, for little of his beauty is perceptible to one
who is not thoroughly imbued with the spirit of antiquity." The ancients fully appreciated him,
but it is hard for the modern reader to divest himself completely of his associations and set a just
value on productions so essentially Greek as were the Sophoclean tragedies. It must also be
remembered that, as the successor of Aeschylus, he endeavored rather to follow and improve
upon his works than to create a new species for himself.
Qualities as a Dramatist
Aeschylus felt what a Greek tragedy ought to be as a religious union of the two elements of the
national poetry. Sophocles, with his just perception of the beautiful in art, effected an outward
realization of the conceptions of the great master, exhibiting in perfect form before the eyes of
Athens what the other had hewn out in rude masses from the mines of thought. His tragedy was
not essentially different from that of Aeschylus, and when he chose subjects which the latter had
treated, his completed drama bore the same relation to its forerunner that a finished statue bears
to an unfinished group. It was, as he thought, his mission to improve on the tragic art, as Phidias
had improved the work of his predecessors. None did he deem worthy of the cothurnus save
those who had figured in the ancient legends or in the poems of the epic cycle, and if an inferior
character appears, it is only as the instrument of irony, introduced like a streak of bright color
into the picture in contrast with its tragic gloom. Moreover, notwithstanding his sensualism, he
was of a strongly religious temperament, filled with reverence for his country's gods, by whom,
it would seem, he believed himself inspired. In the words which Landor aptly puts into his
mouth, he declares himself to be "only the interpreter of the heroes and divinities who are
looking down upon him."
An associate of Pericles, though not one of his political disciples, Sophocles, in his full maturity
stood, like the mighty ruler of the Greeks, amid a community to which both imparted the lustre
of their genius on the sunny heights of noble and brilliant achievement, his perfect art typifying,
as it were, the watchful and creative calm of his city's imperial epoch. Of a profoundly religious
temperament, but without any vulgar superstition, he treats the sacred myths of his country in the
spirit of a conscientious artist, contrasting, with many touches of irony, the struggles of humanity
with the irresistible march of fate. After the retirement of Aeschylus, he was recognized as
beyond dispute the greatest master of tragedy, and, as we have seen, during the lifetime of the
former, wrested from him the tragic prize.
The days of Sophocles were not altogether devoted to the muses. At the age of fifty-six he was
appointed one of ten generals for the conduct of the war against Samos, but does not appear to
have distinguished himself. Later he became a priest, and in extreme old age was elected one of a
committee ordered, during the revolution brought about by Pisander, to investigate the condition
of affairs and report thereon to the people. In the easy, good-natured way that was natural to him
he assented to the establishment of an oligarchy under the council of four hundred as "a bad
thing, but the least pernicious measure which circumstances allowed." In his last years the
reverses of the Peloponnesian war, with their attendant civil dissensions, fell heavily on one
whose chief delight was in domestic tranquility, and who still remembered the part which he
bore in the glorious triumph of Salamis. Yet he was spared the misery of witnessing the final
overthrow of his country, dying, full of years and honors, a few months before the defeat of
Ægospotami wrought the downfall of Athens.
Seven only of the dramas of Sophocles have come down to us, but these were, with one
exception, composed in the full maturity of his tragic power, and each resplendent with its own
peculiar excellencies. In the Antigone heroism is exhibited in a purely feminine character; in the
Ajax, the manly sense of honor in all its strength. In the Trachiniæ, or Women of Trachis, are
described the sufferings of Hercules and the levity of Dëianeira, atoned for by her death; the
Electra is distinguished by energy and pathos, and in the Oedipus at Colonus are a mildness and
gracefulness suggestive of the character of the author. While we cannot divide the plays of
Sophocles into distinct groups indicating certain periods in his dramatic art, he himself
recognized three epochs in his own style--first, the tumid grandeur borrowed from Aeschylus;
second, a harshness of expression due to his own mannerism; third, the style that seemed to him
best fitted for the portrayal of human character.
"Sophocles and His Tragedies." N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Oct. 2012.