Sophocles (c. 496 B.C.E. – 406 B.C.E.) (Ancient Greek: Σοφοκλης) was one of the three great ancient Greek tragedians who, with Aeschylus and Euripides, defined the forms of drama and theater, establishing a literary tradition that influenced not only the drama of the ancient world but of the Western literary tradition to the present day. Every major dramatist—from Seneca to William Shakespeare, from Jean-Baptiste Molière to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe—has been influenced in some degree by Sophocles' conception of tragedy.
The tragedies of Sophocles are less derivative of Homeric fate or the implacable will of the gods than of inherent human limitations. Prefiguring Shakepearean tragedy, Sophocles explores human fallibility, the limits of knowledge, and the susceptibility of the human condition within the cosmic order. In Sophoclean tragedy, the violation of natural law entails its own consequences, but suffering also provides a means of redemption.
Sophocles' protagonists were admired by Aristotle as being "like ourselves only nobler." The plays express deep piety, without superstition. Arrogance, pride, impiety, and the urge for revenge lead men and women into actions that violate the divine order, yet heroic figure surmounts obstacles and injustice through virtues of reverence, courage, and deference to the gods.
Of Sophocles' more than 120 plays, eighteen won first prize in competitions, although only seven have survived. The plots which Sophocles devised have been adapted and re-envisioned countless times throughout history and across the Western world, from Grecian and Roman tragedians, to medieval and Renaissance playwrights, to adaptations of Sophocles which continue to be produced today. He is one of the most influential writers of ancient Greece and among the greatest dramatists in history.
What little is known of Sophocles' life can be gleaned from fragments of other ancient writers, whose works largely have been lost. According to the Suda, Sophocles wrote 123 plays in the dramatic competitions of the Festival of Dionysus (where each submission by one playwright consisted of four plays; three tragedies and a satyr play, a sort of ancient Greek burlesque put on after a series of tragedies to relieve the audience of grief). Sophocles won more first prizes (around 20) than any other playwright, and placed second in all others he participated in (Lloyd-Jones 1994, 8). His first victory was in 468 B.C.E., although scholars are no longer certain that this was the first time that he competed (Scullion 2002).
Only seven of his tragedies have survived complete in the medieval manuscript tradition. The most famous are the three tragedies concerning Oedipus and Antigone: These are often known as the Theban plays or The Oedipus Cycle, although they do not make up a single trilogy. Discoveries of papyri from the late nineteenth century onwards, especially at Oxyrhynchus, have greatly added to our knowledge of Sophocles' works. The most substantial fragment that has so far appeared contains approximately half of a satyr play, The Tracking Satyrs.
Sophocles was born about a mile northwest of Athens in the rural deme (small community) of Colonus Hippius in Attica. His birth took place a few years before the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C.E.: The exact year is unclear, although 497 or 496 is perhaps most likely (Lloyd-Jones 1994, 7). The nature of his family life is disputed; it is unknown whether his father, Sophillus, was a carpenter, smith, or swordmaker, of if he owned slaves who pursued such occupations. Young Sophocles won awards in wrestling and music, and was graceful and handsome. He led the chorus of boys (paean) at the Athenian celebration of the victory against the Persians at the Battle of Salamis in 480 B.C.E.
Sophocles enjoyed a public profile outside the theater. In 443/442 he served as one of the Hellenotamiai or treasurers of Athena. The Athenian people elected him as one of the ten generals for 441/440, during which he participated in crushing the revolt of Samos Island. There is some evidence that he was one of the commissioners appointed in 413 B.C.E. as a response to the catastrophic destruction of the Athenian expeditionary force in Sicily (Lloyd-Jones 1994, 12-13). Sophocles also served as a priest for a time.
Like many ancient Greek names, that of Sophocles (Σοφοκλης) has a meaning. A compound of σόφος (sophos) "wise" and κλέος (kleos) "glory," Sophocles' name translates to "famous for wisdom;" considering that his words continue to be studied some 2,500 years after his death, his name has proven to be quite apt.
The Theban Plays
The three Theban Plays, or the Oedipus cycle, Oedipus the King (also known as Oedipus Rex or Oedipus Tyrannus), Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone, were written across thirty-six years of Sophocles' career and were not composed in chronological order, but instead were written in the order Antigone, Oedipus the King, and Oedipus at Colonus.
Oedipus the King
Oedipus the King (also known as Oedipus Rex and Oedipus Tyrannos, Oι̉δίπoυς τύραννoς in Greek) is often considered Sophocles’ masterpiece, written in 425 B.C.E., the play was the second of Sophocles' three Theban plays to be produced, but comes first in the internal chronology of the plays, followed by Oedipus at Colonus and then Antigone. The play was highly esteemed in its time, and has gone on to be even more popular today, in part due to the significance attached to the Oedipus myth by Sigmund Freud.
Sophocles' play treats the myth of Oedipus, son of King Laius of Thebes and Queen Jocasta, also known as Iocaste. Oedipus was a figure from Greek mythology who as an infant was sent to be exposed and left for dead with his ankles bound on a mountainside in an effort to circumvent the oracle's prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother. However, he was found and saved by a shepherd and raised in the court of King Polybus of Corinth and his wife Merope. Hearing from an oracle that he was destined to kill his father and marry his mother, and believing Polybus and Merope to be his real parents, he left Corinth. Oedipus meets Laius by chance on a road, but does not recognize him; the two get into an argument that descends into a fight, and Oedipus accidentally kills him. Arriving in Thebes, he saves the city from the Sphinx by solving his riddle, "What uses four legs in the morning, two in the day, and three at night?" The answer, of course, is Man, who begins life crawling, then learns to walk, and in old age walks with the aid of a cane. For saving the city his reward is the kingdom of Thebes, including the hand of his mother, Queen Jocasta.
As the play begins, Sophocles joins the story in media res after Thebes has been struck with a plague by the gods in outrage over Oedipus' crimes, patricide and incest. The action of the play centers on Oedipus' investigation into the source of the plague, in which he curses and promises to exile those responsible. Although the blind prophet Tiresias explicitly tells Oedipus at the beginning of the play that he is the cause of the plague, Oedipus at first does not understand. Instead he accuses Tiresias of conspiring with Creon, Jocasta's brother, to overthrow him.
Oedipus then calls for a former servant of Laius, the only surviving witness of the murder, who fled the city when Oedipus became king. Soon a messenger from Corinth also arrives to inform Oedipus of the death of Polybus, whom Oedipus still believes is his real father, until the messenger informs him that he was in fact adopted. In the subsequent discussions between Oedipus, Jocasta, the servant, and the messenger, Jocasta discovers the truth and runs off-stage; Oedipus learns the truth more slowly, but later runs off-stage as well. The Greek chorus fills in the unseen details: Jocasta has hanged herself, and Oedipus, upon discovering her body, blinds himself with the brooches (long gold pins with a pointed end) of her dress. The play ends with Oedipus entrusting his children to Creon and going into exile, as he promised at the beginning.
The play depends heavily on dramatic irony. The irony works at several different levels. First, unlike Oedipus, the audience is already aware of the facts before the play begins. While Oedipus is searching for the cause of the plague, the audience is already aware that he is searching for himself. On another level, every step that Oedipus takes to avoid his fate brings him one step closer to fulfilling it. Then, after having already fulfilled the prophecy, Oedipus and Jocasta discuss the oracle, dismissing it as its prophecies have apparently not come to pass. Sophocles' dramatic technique, using the difference between the audience's awareness of events and those of the characters, have been deployed to create suspense by modern playwrights like Shakespeare and filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock.
Other themes in the play include the ineluctablility of fate and hubris. Oedipus' parents (and Oedipus himself) do everything in their power to avoid the prophecy of the oracle, only to have the very actions they take to avoid their destinies lead them to fulfill it. However, it is not just the capricious will of the gods that lead to Oedipus' downfall. He is a victim of his ignorance, a universal human limitation.
Oedipus at Colonus
In the timeline of the plays, the events of Oedipus at Colonus occur after Oedipus the King and before Antigone. The play describes the end of Oedipus' tragic life. Legends differ as to the site of Oedipus' death; Sophocles set the place at Colonus, a village near Athens and also Sophocles' own birthplace, where the blinded Oedipus has come with his daughters Antigone and Ismene as suppliants of the Eumenides and of Theseus, the king of Athens.
Exiled by Creon, with the collaboration of his sons Eteocles and Polyneices, Oedipus becomes a wandering beggar led by his daughter Antigone. Oedipus enters the village of Colonus and they are approached by a villager, who demands that they leave, because that ground is sacred to the Furies, or Eumenides. Oedipus recognizes this as a sign, for when he received the prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother, Apollo also revealed to him that at the end of his life he would die at a place sacred to the Furies, and be a blessing for the land in which he is buried.
The chorus of old men from the village enters, and although they promise not to harm Oedipus, they wish to expel him from their city, fearing that he will curse it. Oedipus answers by explaining that he is not morally responsible for his crimes, since he killed his father in self-defense. Furthermore, he asks to see their king, Theseus, saying, "I come as someone sacred, someone filled with piety and power, bearing a great gift for all your people." The chorus is amazed, and decides to reserve their judgment of Oedipus until Theseus, king of Athens, arrives.
Theseus arrives and sympathizes with Oedipus, and offers him unconditional aid, causing Oedipus to praise the king and offer him the gift of his burial site, which will ensure victory in a future conflict with Thebes. Theseus protests, saying that the two cities are friendly, and Oedipus responds with what is perhaps the most famous speech in the play. "Oh Theseus, dear friend, only the gods can never age, the gods can never die. All else in the world almighty Time obliterates, crushes all to nothing…" Creon then tries to remove Oedipus but is thwarted by Theseus. The arrival of his son, Polyneices, produces enrages Oedipus, who curses both sons despite the intercession of Antigone. Oedipus tells him that he deserves his fate, for he cast his father out and foretells that his two sons will kill each other in the coming battle. Oedipus soon senses his own impending death and allows only Theseus to witness the event by which he is transformed through his sufferings into a hero and a saint.
While the two other plays about Oedipus often bring up the theme of a person's moral responsibility for their destiny, and whether it is possible to rebel against destiny, Oedipus at Colonus is the only one to address it explicitly. Oedipus vehemently states that he is not responsible for the actions he was fated to commit. Despite being blinded and exiled and facing violence from Creon and his sons, in the end Oedipus is accepted and absolved by Zeus.
Oedipus at Colonus suggests that, in breaking divine law, a ruler’s limited understanding may lead him to believe himself fully innocent; however, his lack of awareness does not change the objective fact of his guilt.
Nevertheless, determination of guilt is far more complex than this, as illustrated by the dichotomy between the blessing and the curse upon Oedipus. He has committed two crimes which render him a sort of monster and outcast among men: Incest and patricide. His physical suffering, including his self-inflicted blindness, and lonely wandering, are his punishment. However, in death, he will be favored; the place in which he dies will be blessed. This suggests that willful action is in some part of guilt; the fact that Oedipus is “rationally innocent”—that he sinned unknowingly—decreases his guilt, allowing his earthly sufferings to serve as sufficient expiation for his sins.
In Sophocles’ drama Antigone, Oedipus’ daughter Antigone is faced with the choice of allowing her brother Polyneices’ body to get eaten by savage dogs or to bury him and face death. The king of the land, Creon, has forbidden the burial of Polyneices for he was a traitor to the city. Antigone decides to bury his body and face the consequences. Eventually, Creon is convinced to free Antigone from her sentence of death, but his decision comes too late and Antigone commits suicide. Her suicide triggers the suicide of two others close to King Creon, his son, Haemon, who loved Antigone, and his wife who commits suicide after losing her only son.
Antigone focuses on the conflicting duties of civic versus spiritual loyalties, the clash of values between Creon and Antigone. Creon advocates obedience to man-made laws while Antigone stresses the higher laws of duty to the gods and one's family. The play is thus one of the most commonly cited supports in Greek tragedy for the supremacy of Natural Law. Creon, the dramatic hero, realizes only after he loses the lives of all his family that he was mistaken to place the law of the state above the law of the gods.
Antigone's determination to bury Polynices arises from a desire to bring honor to her family, not just to the gods. She repeatedly declares that she must act to please "those that are dead" (An. 77), because they hold more weight than any ruler. In the opening scene, she makes an emotional appeal to her sister Ismene saying that they must protect their brother out of sisterly love, even if he did betray their state. Antigone makes very few references to the gods, and so it is very easy to interpret much of her reasoning for honoring higher laws as referencing laws of family honor, not divine laws.
While he rejects Antigone's actions based on family honor, Creon appears to value family heavily himself as well. This is one of the few areas where Creon and Antigone's values seem to align. When talking to Haemon, Creon demands of him not only obedience as a citizen, but also as a son. Creon even goes so far as to say "everything else shall be second to your father's decision" ("An." 640-641). This stance seems extreme, especially in light of the fact that Creon elsewhere advocates obedience to the state above all else. While it is not clear how he would handle these two values in conflict, it is clear that even for Creon, family occupies a place as high if not higher than the state.
Sophocles' plays Ajax, Electra, The Trachiniae, and Philoctetes were adapted from the Homeric cycle. Ajax and recounts the life of the Greek hero, second only to Achilles among the Achaeans who fight against the Trojans. Of heroic strength and valor, Ajax is stained by arrogance and impiety. Claiming that "any coward could win victories with the help of the gods," he dismisses the goddess Athene who comes to encourage him in battle. He is then enraged because the armor of the fallen Achilles armor is awarded to Odysseus. Planning vengeance, he is tricked by Athena into believing that sheep and cattle taken as spoil are the Greek leaders who disgraced him. He slaughters some of them before realizing his folly, and then takes his life out of his humiliation.
Electra is the story of the murders of Electra's father, the Greek king Agamemnon, and mother, Clytemnestra, both involved in treacherous personal betrayals. The story is was also presented by Aeschylus and Euripides, but Sophocles concentrates less on the dark and violent acts than on the character of Electra, whose desire for revenge for her father's murder leads her to conspire in her mother's murder. The Trachiniae concerns the jealousy of Deianeira, the wife of Heracles, but emphasizes her gentleness and devotion in contrast to the volcanic Heracles, who appears near madness in the mistaken belief that his wife sought to kill him.
Philoctetes is a psychological study of a relatively minor Homeric figure. The Greeks had abandoned Philoctetes on the island of Lemnos, because of an incurable wound to his foot. But they learn from an oracle that they cannot capture Troy without his assistance. Represented by Aeschylus as embittered by his sufferings and betrayal, Philoctetes for Sophocles is far more sympathetic, a figure of warmth and generosity who scorns deceit.
In Sophocles' time, the Greek art of the drama was undergoing rapid and profound change. It had begun with little more than a chorus, but earlier playwrights had added first one and then two actors and thereby shifted the action of the plays away from the chorus. Among Sophocles' earliest innovations was the addition of a third actor, further reducing the role of the chorus and creating greater opportunity for character development and conflict between characters. In fact, Aeschylus, who dominated Athenian theater during Sophocles' early career, adopted this third character into his own playwriting towards the end of his life. It was not until after the death of Aeschylus in 456 B.C.E. that Sophocles became the preeminent playwright in Athens. Thereafter, Sophocles emerged victorious in dramatic competitions at 18 Dionysia and 6 Lenaia festivals.
In addition to innovations in the structure of drama, Sophocles' work is known for deeper development of characters than earlier playwrights, whose characters are more two-dimensional and are therefore harder for an audience to relate to. His reputation was such that foreign rulers invited him to attend their courts, although unlike Aeschylus who died in Sicily, Sophocles never accepted any of these invitations. Aristotle used Sophocles's Oedipus the King as an example of perfect tragedy, which suggests the high esteem in which his work was held by later Greeks.
Throughout the The Theban cycle, Sophocles explores the inadequacy of knowledge, the baffling problem of evil visited on the just, and man's capacity to endure suffering. For Sophocles, the world is orderly and follows natural laws, and the violation of natural law necessitates punishment and suffering. Human knowledge is limited, and even the just violate natural law out of ignorance. Suffering follows from wrong actions, but through suffering man can achieve nobility and dignity.
Only two of the seven surviving plays have securely dated first or second performances: Philoctetes (409 B.C.E.) and Oedipus at Colonus (401 B.C.E., put on after Sophocles' death by his grandson). Of the others, Electra shows stylistic similarities to these two plays, and so was probably written in the latter part of his career. Ajax, Antigone, and The Trachiniae are generally thought to be among his early works, again based on stylistic elements, with Oedipus the King coming in Sophocles' middle period.
- The Tracking Satyrs
- The Progeny
- Aias Lokros (Ajax the Locrian)
- Akhaiôn Syllogos (The Gathering of the Achaeans)
- Nauplios Katapleon (Nauplius' Arrival)
- Nauplios Pyrkaeus (Nauplius' Fires)
- Poimenes (The Shepherds)
- Syndeipnoi (The Diners, or The Banqueters)
- Troilus and Phaedra
- Tyro Keiromene (Tyro Shorn)
- Tyro Anagnorizomene (Tyro Rediscovered)
Fragments of The Progeny (Epigonoi) were discovered in April 2005 by classicists at Oxford University with the help of infrared technology previously used for satellite imaging. The tragedy tells the story of the siege of Thebes.
- Sophocles, Sophocles I: Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone, 2nd ed., David Grene and Richard Lattimore (eds.) (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1991).
- Sophocles, The Three Theban Plays, trans. Robert Fagles (New York: Penguin Books, 1984).
- Freeman, 242-243.
- Aristotle, Ars Poetica.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Lloyd-Jones, Sir Hugh (ed.). Sophocles. Ajax. Electra. Oedipus Tyrannus. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994.
- Scullion, Scott. “Tragic Dates.” Classical Quarterly new sequence 52 (2002): 81-101.
- Smith, William. Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. 1870.
All links retrieved February 3, 2023.
- Works by Sophocles. Project Gutenberg
- Studies in Sophoclean Fragments
- Films based on Sophocles plays
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