Sophocles of Kolōnos (c. 496 - c. 406 BCE) was one of the most famous and celebrated writers of tragedy plays in ancient Greece and his surviving works, written throughout the 5th century BCE, include such classics as Oedipus the King, Antigone, and Women of Trachis. As with other Greek plays, Sophocles’ work is not only a record of Greek theatre but also provides an invaluable insight into many of the political and social aspects of ancient Greece, from family relations to details of Greek religion. In addition, Sophocles’ innovations in theatre presentation would provide the foundations for all future western dramatic performance, and his plays continue to be performed today in theatres around the world.
The Greek world had three great tragedians: Aeschylus (c. 525 - c. 456 BCE), Euripides (c. 484 - 407 BCE), and Sophocles. Their works were usually first performed in groups of threes (not necessarily trilogies) in such religious festivals as the competitions of Dionysos Eleuthereus, notably the City Dionysia in Athens. The plays were often performed again in lesser theatres around Greece, and the best were even distributed in written form for public reading, kept as official state documents for posterity, and studied as part of the standard Greek education.
Sophocles had an exceptionally long career. His first competition entry was in 468 BCE and his last (whilst still alive) was in 406 BCE when he was 90. Clearly a great admirer of his fellow playwrights, Sophocles even dressed the actors and chorus of his final play in mourning to mark the death of Euripides in 407 BCE. Sophocles won at least 20 festival competitions, including 18 at the City Dionysia. He also came second many times and never had the ignominy of being voted third and last in competitions. Sophocles was, therefore, at least in terms of victories, the most successful of the three great tragedians.
As a child, Sophocles had been the chief dancer in the festivities to celebrate victory over the Persians in 479 BCE. Early in his career Sophocles even acted in his own plays, but due to a weak voice he settled into the role of writer only. The playwright, based on his practical experience of acting no doubt, seems to have had a favourite principal actor, one Tlepolemus. As to Sophocles’ character we have hints from Aristophanes, the great writer of Greek Comedy, who describes his contemporary as ‘easy-going’ and ‘relaxed’.
Outside of theatre life, Sophocles was also an active member of the Athenian polis. He was a state treasurer (hellenotamiai) between 443 and 442 BCE and a general (alongside Pericles) involved with putting down the revolt on Samos in c. 441 BCE. In 413 BCE he sat on the ten-man council (the probouloi) which was convened to deal with the crisis of Athens’ failed Sicilian expedition against Syracuse. In later life the playwright was involved in a legal battle with his son who claimed his father was senile and so sought his inheritance and control of the family property. We know that Sophocles was a pious individual and actually a priest in the hero cult of Halon. Following his death, the tragedian was himself honoured with a cult when he was renamed Dexion.
Approach & Innovation
Tremendously popular in his own time, Sophocles was also an innovative playwright, as he added a third actor to the tragedy play format and was the first to employ painted scenery (to suggest a rural scene, for example), sometimes even changing scenery during the play. The use of three actors (playing multiple roles and wearing masks) was a major breakthrough as now much more sophisticated plots became possible. Sophocles, therefore, stands between the earlier Aeschylus and the later Euripides. Sophocles was more interested in realistic action than his predecessors but kept the chorus segment (a group of up to 15 actors who sang rather than spoke their lines) as a more participatory cast member than his successors. For Sophocles the chorus became both a protagonist and a commentator on the events of the play, creating a closer relationship with the audience.
Sophocles was also a great user of theatrical metaphor, for example, blindness in the Oedipus plays and bestiality in Women of Trachis, and his work in general sought to provoke and disturb the audience from their ready acceptance of what is ‘normal’ and what is not, forcing them through the play’s characters to make difficult or even impossible choices. Other techniques he used to convey meaning and emphasis were dramatic entrances and exits of actors and the repeated use of significant props such as the urn in Electra and the sword in Ajax. Finally, in the language itself that Sophocles used we see more innovation. Rich language, highly formalised but with flexibility added by running over sentences and including segments of more ‘natural’ speech, and the unusual use of pauses result in Sophocles achieving a greater rhythm, fluidity, and dramatic tension than his contemporaries.
The plays of Sophocles, like those of his contemporaries, drew on classic tales of Greek mythology. This was the convention of tragedy (tragōida), and the familiarity of the story and setting to the audience allowed the writer to focus on specific elements and interpret them in a novel way. Sophocles is very often not so concerned with what happened (the audience already knew this) but with how these events happened. Another typical feature is that amongst the principal characters, there is usually a hero figure with exceptional abilities whose over-confidence and pride ensure a tragic ending.
One of his most famous works is Antigone in which the lead character pays the ultimate price for burying her brother Polynices against the wishes of King Kreon of Thebes. It is a classic situation of tragedy - the political right of having the traitor Polynices denied burial rites is contrasted against the moral right of a sister seeking to lay to rest her brother. A theme that runs through Sophocles’ work is right battling against right and that the characters are mistaken in their interpretation of events. Only when tragedy results, when in fact, it is all too late, do the characters recognise truth.
We know that Sophocles wrote around 120 plays in all but these have survived only in a fragmentary form. A reasonable chunk of the satyr play The Searchers survives but in many cases only a few lines have withstood the ravages of time. Sophocles’ seven surviving full plays are:
- Antigone (c. 442 BCE) about a woman torn between public and private duty.
- Oedipus The King (429 - 420 BCE) about the famous king who loved his mother a little too much.
- Philoctetes (409 BCE) on how Odysseus persuades the hero to join the Trojan War.
- Oedipus at Colonus (401 BCE) the final part of the trilogy about Oedipus.
- Ajax (date unknown) on the hero of the Trojan War and his wounded pride.
- Electra (date unknown) about two siblings who take revenge for their father’s murder.
- Women of Trachis (date unknown) about the wife of Hercules and her failed attempt to regain her husband’s affections.
Below is a selection of extracts from Sophocles’ work:
Setting the tragic scene:
Am I deluded, or do I hear a lamentation just arising in the house? What am I saying? Someone is uttering no muted cry, but one of sorrow, and there is new trouble in the house. Notice how sadly, and with what a cloud upon here eyes, the old woman is approaching us to tell us something.
(863-870, Women of Trachis)
How passion is hard to master, and if left uncontrolled, can lead to tragedy:
Whoever stands up to Eros like a boxer is a fool; for he rules me.
(440-441, Women of Trachis)
That whatever happens, one can often only blame oneself:
It is you, whose fate is grievous, who have chosen this; this fortune has not come to you from one more powerful; for when it was possible to show good sense, you chose to approve the worse, rather than the better fate.
A cautionary tale and the moral of the story:
Good sense is by far the chief part of happiness; and we must not be impious towards the gods. The great words of boasters are always punished with great blows, and as they grow old teach them wisdom.
(1348-1353, the final lines of Antigone)
That ultimately, one must accept one’s fate:
Come, cease your lament and do not arouse it more! For in all ways these things stand fast.
(1777-1779, the final lines of Oedipus at Colonnus)
Sophocles then, has not only provided us with several masterpieces of literature, but through his innovations he also helped establish the standard formula for Greek Tragedy, which along with Greek Comedy, would define the foundations of all western theatre for millennia. The work of Sophocles has also escaped the boundaries of theatre and provoked discussion and reaction in other fields, notably psychology and the work of Sigmund Freud, which is perhaps testimony to the depth and difficulties of interpretation in the plays of this great Greek master.