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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. Education 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 Mediterranean. 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 killers. 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. Source: Sophocles. "The Oedipus Trilogy: Sophocles Biography ." Get Homework Help with CliffsNotes Study Guides . John Wiley & Sons, Inc., n.d. Web. 12 Oct. 2012. <http://www.cliffsnotes.com/study_guide/literature/oedipus-trilogy/sophoclesbiography.html>. 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 compassion. "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. Source: "Sophocles and His Tragedies." TheatreHistory.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Oct. 2012. <http://www.theatrehistory.com/ancient/sophocles001.html>.