Who Was Sophocles?

The Life of Sophocles
Scanty material on his life – The available material relating to the life of Sophocles is scanty, and even what we have, does not enable us to trace any significant relationship between the life of the writer and his works. As O’Brien observes, the biographical information about Sophocles provides even less satisfaction to critics of the biographical and psychological schools than is the case with Shakespeare; ‘We know of no personal sorrow that sparked the composition of the play we call Oedipus Rex or Oedipus Tyrannus and attempts to link it with public disasters like the plague of Athens is not entirely convincing. His art in some ways, however, clearly shows the influence of fifth century thought; the portrayal of Oedipus in particular reflects an awareness of the language and attitudes of the fifth century enlightenment.”

His early years – Sophocles was born in 496 B.C. in the town of Colonus on the outskirts of the famous Greek City, Athens. Sophocles’ loving memories of his birth place are preserved for us in his last play, Oedipus at Colonus, where there is passionate lyric in praise of the peace and beauty which pervades Colonus. It was here that he passed his childhood and boyhood. Sophocles’s father was quite well-to-do and imparted to his son the best education that was available at the time. Sophocles is said to have been educated by the musician, Lamprus. He depicted well in his person, the classical precept of a sound mind in a sound body, for he was athletic and supple of body. He was a very good dancer and actor, and this fact was responsible for winning him the honour of being the leader of the choral dance at the celebration of the victory of Salamis.

His dramatic career as a dramatist – Sophocles wrote pretty continuously for sixty years and he is believed to have given his own account of his development. He began by having some relation with the magniloquence of Aeschylus; next came his own. “stern and artificial” period of style; thirdly, he reached more ease and simplicity and seems to have satisfied himself. Perhaps, the most important change due to Sophocles took place in what the Greeks called the economy of the drama. Sophocles worked as a conscious artist improving details, demanding more and smoother tools, and making up by skilful construction, tactful scenic arrangement, and entire avoidance of exaggeration or grotesqueness, for his inability to walk quite so near the heavens as his great predecessor, Aeschylus. The stern and artificial period is best represented by the play, Electra. This play is artificial in a good sense through skill of plot, its clear characterization, and its uniform good writing. It is also artificial in a bad sense. For instance, in the messenger’s speech where all that is wanted is a false report of the death of Orestes, the dramatist has inserted a brilliant lengthy and quite undramatic description of the Pythian Games. This play is also stern because of some coldness and natural taste for severity and dislike of sentiment.

Family difficulties – Sophocles married Nicostrata and had a son named Lophon by her. There are various traditions about Sophocles’s family life and one does not know which of them is to be credited. According to one account, Sophocles had affairs with other women and begot illegitimate children. It is said that his son, Lophon charged him with showing excessive favours to his illegitimate children and had taken him to court. The son also claimed that his father had become senile, but Sophocles is said to have disproved this by reciting a part of his last play, Oedipus at Colonus. On the other hand, there is also a tradition that relations between Sophocles and his son were quite cordial and that Sophocles helped Lophon in writing tragedies. This is supported by the contemporary comic dramatists, Aristophanes. It is possible that the story of the conflict between Sophocles and his son owe something to the situation that exists between Oedipus and his sons.

A lovable person - Sophocles was a man of great charm, handsome, and well-to-do. Herodotus was one of his friends. Sophocles is regarded as having been a figure of ideal serenity and success. His file lay through the period of his country’s highest prosperity. He was loved by everybody wherever he went. After his death he was worshiped as a hero. Aristophanes sums up his character in the words “contented among the living, contented among the dead”. He left two sons, one legitimate, and the other born of an illicit union. He was always comfortable in Athens and had no temptation to seek his fortune at foreign courts as some of his colleagues did.

His versatile life - Sophocles was not just a man of letters; in fact, such a concept was quite foreign to Greek Culture. He led a full and varied life. He played some part, even though a reluctant one in practical politics. He served in the defence of his country more than once. He was a friend of Pericles, who entrusted to him the task of putting down the rebellion at Samos. In another campaign, Sophocles served as a general. He is also connected with the cult of a minor god, Ascelpius, and served as one of his priests.

Literary output - Classical sources mention more than one hundred and twenty plays as written by Sophocles. Of these, only seven are now extant as full length plays. It is difficult to be precise about the dating of most of Sophocles’s plays. If we follow one ancient anecdote, we would place Antigone in about 442 B.C. On the other hand, Ajax would, on the basis of style, be placed much earlier. It is known that Philoctetes was produced in 409 B.C. and Oedipus at Colonus in 401 B.C. after the death of the dramatist. There is no certainty as to the dates of Women of Trachis, Electra and Oedipus Rex, though there is some ground for dating the last of these plays around 430 B.C. It may be noted that three of the most well-known plays of Sophocles deal with the fortunes of the Theban royal family, legends of which are available in early Greek literature, including the epics of Homer. In addition to the tragedies, Sophocles is also believed to have written a treatise on his dramatic art but it has not been preserved.

A certain bluntness of moral imagination - There is, in Sophocles, a lack of speculative freedom. There is also in him a certain bluntness of moral imagination which leads, for instance, to one structural defect in Oedipus Rex. That piece is a marvel of construction, every detail follows naturally, and yet every detail depends on the characters being exactly what they were, and makes us understand them. The one flaw perhaps is in Teiresias. That aged prophet comes to the king absolutely determined not to tell the secret which he has kept for sixteen years, and then tells it. Why? He tells it because of his uncontrollable anger at having been insulted by the King. An aged prophet, who does that, is a disgrace to his profession; but Sophocles does not seem to feel it.

Worthy of admiration - Sophocles is subject to a certain conventional idealism. He lacks the elemental fire of Aeschylus, the speculative courage and subtle sympathy of Euripides. Otherwise there can be nothing but admiration for him. Plot, characters, and atmosphere are dignified and Homeric; his analysis as far as it goes, is wonderfully sure and true; his language is a marvel of subtle power; his lyrics are uniformally skilful and fine. At times, Sophocles also shows a high power which only a few of the world’s poets share with him. He feels, as Wordsworth does, the majesty of order and well-being; he sees the greatness of God, as it were, in the untroubled things of life. Few poets, besides him could have shaped the great ode in Antigone upon the rise of man or the description in Ajax of the “Give and Take” in nature, and even in the famous verdict of despair which he pronounces upon life is Oedipus at Colonus. There is a certain depth of calm feeling unfretted by movement of mere intellect.

His death - Sophocles is believed to have been a man of very calm nature and lovable character, quite unlike the hot tempered Oedipus with whom one would generally be tempted to identify him. He has been described as the most God-fearing of men. After a long life full of glory and honour, Sophocles passed away in 406 B.C. His epitaph was composed by a fellow poet who paid glowing compliments to Sophocles for his matchless songs and his sweet wisdom. His place in Greek drama is assured not only by his dramatic works but also by some important innovations which he made in the art of dramaturgy.

Conclusion - A critic writes: “Sophocles was a prolific writer and one highly-acclaimed during his life-time. Several technical innovations in theatrical arts are attributed to him, including the introduction of scene painting and the use of scenes involving three speaking parts; and he is said to have written a treatise on his art. He found time as well to hold several high public offices and to serve as a priest of a minor healing-god. He was honoured by those who knew him for his charm and his good temper”.

Sophocles’s works- Of the more than 120 plays of Sophocles known to antiquity, only seven tragedies have survived intact into modern times. These seven are:

1. Antigone

2. Oedipus Rex, also known as Oedipus Tyrannus

3. Electra

4. Ajax

5. Trichinae

6. Philoctetes

7. Oedipus at Colonus

Not all of these can be dated with confidence. An ancient anecdote would date Antigone to about 442 B.C; and Ajax is generally placed somewhat earlier, for reasons of style. Philoctetes is known to have been produced in 409 B.C; and Oedipus at Colonus in 401 B.C; the latter after Sophocles’s death. The dates of remaining plays are uncertain but there are some grounds for dating Oedipus Rex to the years immediately following 430 B.C. There of his extant plays deal with the legend of the Theban royal house. (They are the two Oedipus plays and Antigone.) The lliad and the Odyssey allude briefly to Oedipus. In the fifth century B.C. both Aeschylus and Euripides wrote Oedipus plays, neither of which survives. In later ages, the theme attracted numerous dramatists, among them Seneca, Corneille, Voltaire and Gödel. But in most minds, the name of Oedipus is linked with the dramatist Sophocles.

SophoclesAn innovator in tragedy - Sophocles was an innovator in tragedy. He introduced the third actor; he introduced, or at least, greatly developed stage scenery; he increased the number of chorus from twelve to fifteen; and he abandoned the practice of connected tetralogies, making each play an artistic whole in itself. In his tragedies, man’s will plays greater, and that of the gods a lesser part than in those of Aeschylus. The course of his dramas is determined by the characters of the protagonists; the influence, they undergo, the penalties they suffer not by external incidents. Sophocles is not a philosopher or speculator on the deeper problems of life; he accepts the conventional religion without criticism. His principal characters, though subject to human defects, are in a general way heroic and actuated by lofty motives. This was perhaps what Sophocles meant by saying that he portrayed people as they ought to be while Euripides portrayed them as they were. Among his notable achievements are his great heroines, Antigone and Electra, in whom he depicts a combination of womanly gentleness and superb courage. His lyrics form a less important element in the play, than do those of Aeschylus; they combine charm with grandeur, without the mystery and terror of Aeschylus or the “descriptive embroidery of Euripides. The dialogue of Sophocles is dignified, appropriate to his idealized characters. The whole is marked by a powerful simplicity.

Disaster without justification - The Aeschylean universe is governed by moral laws, a violation of which is sure of bring disaster. In the word of Sophocles, wrong doing does indeed lead to its punishment but disaster may come without justification and, at the most, with contributory negligence, Oedipus would not have done what he did, had he been a little more cautions and a little less self confident, nor would Heracles have suffered if he had never given Deianeira cause to use the supposed love-philtre. Butthis does not explain why a woman like Deianeira should be at one moment a loving, anxious but hopeful wife, and at the next a hanging corpse. Does Sophocles have any comfort to offer to his readers or any advice to give?

The grave beauty and dignity of being a man - Piety and wisdom cannot protect a man against the blows of destiny. And as for consolation, the suffering of Oedipus is beyond any possibility of relief. And yet Sophocles does have something to offer to his readers. He certainly offers no hope of a better world. But the grave beauty and dignity of his plays surely reflects the beauty and dignity that he found in human life. Man may be an insubstantial shade; but for all that, Sophocles leaves us with a great sense of the dignity of being a man. To be great and noble of soul is everything. Ajax faces death proudly. Antigone knows that she has done her duty and will be welcomed by her kin among the dead. As for Oedipus, his essential greatness is beyond any shadow of doubt.

Need of piety and wisdom - Of his pattern, which mankind describes as the will of gods, a great part is piety and purity. Accordingly, no poet speaks more than Sophocles of the need for reverence. But part of it lies beyond morality and is incalculable. Accordingly, no poet speaks so much as Sophocles of the need for wisdom. A man should know what he is; he should know his place in the world; he should be able to take the wide view, with a due sense of proportion unlike Creon in Antigone, who could see only that Polynices was a dead traitor, and could not see the more important fact that he was a dead man.

The “complex” Sophocles hero - The Sophocles’s hero is complex, not single-minded; he must, therefore, be seen from more than one point of view. We cannot understand Creon’s tragedy or the tragedy of Oedipus unless we know how they behave to a diversity of people, and how different people behave to them. Oedipus’s consideration for his people, his courtesy to Creon and Teiresias which quickly passes to suspicion and rage, Creon’s attitude to Haemon—these are not decorations or improvements; it is essential to the tragedy that we should know our heroes in this light. Similarly the watchman’s reluctance to face Creon is important as a side-light on the king’s character is transformed, necessarily, into this attractive character of flesh and blood. This is not “progress”, it is plain logic. This art of “undercutting” is used in Oedipus Rex as it has rarely been used since, when the supreme eminence of Oedipus is shown by the collapse of Jocasta’s bold scepticism.

The need for the third actor - Here most probably we have the origin of the third actor, but there was an accessory cause and development. No catastrophe can be self-contained; others besides the sinner are involved. To Aeschylus this necessary aspect of tragedy presented itself as a linear movement, hence the trilogy; either the tragic event is the result of inherited character, or it leaves a legacy of tragedy for the next generation. To Sophocles, this idea presents itself in a complex way, as one immediate situation which involves others at once. The vanity of Ajax ruins Ajax, but it also endangers his sailors, Tecmessa and others; Creon’s stubbornness threatens the watchman and destroys Antigone before it involves Creon himself through Haeman and Eurydice. Thus again more actors are wanted. Finally, Sophocles began to lay more weight on the tragic inter-working of circumstances, with character, so that the situation becomes more complex. The more complex situation brings the use of three actors to its highest degree of fluidity.

In the two great discovery scenes of Oedipus Rex, the situation is not presented practically complete before our eyes. Not only does it grow, but it grows in opposite directions for the two main actors. The conversation between Oedipus and the Corinthian messenger is itself painfully dramatic, but the addition of Jocasta more than doubles the power of the scene; the progress of Jocasta from home, through confidence, to frozen horror, and the progress of Oedipus from terror to a sublime resolution and assurance, the two connected by the common place cheerfulness of the Corinthian –this makes a really wonderful combination of cross-rhythms.

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