The Greek tragedian Sophocles (496-406 B.C.) ranks foremost among Greek classical dramatists and has been called the poet of Greek humanism par excellence.
The son of Sophilus, a well-to-do industrialist, Sophocles was born in Colonus near Athens and grew up in the most brilliant intellectual period of Athens. Nothing concrete is known about his education, though it is known that he had a reputation for learning and esthetic taste. He was well versed in Homer and the Greek lyric poets, and because of his industriousness he was known as the "Attic Bee." His music teacher was a great man of the old school, Lamprus. Tradition says that because of his beauty and talent Sophocles was chosen to lead the male chorus at the celebration of the Greek victory at Salamis.
In 468 B.C., at age 28, Sophocles defeated Aeschylus in one of the drama contests that were then fashionable. During the remainder of his career he never won less than second prize and gained first prize more than any other Greek tragedian. He was also known for his amiability and sociability which epitomized the ideal Athenian gentleman (kaloskagathos). In public life he distinguished himself as a man of affairs. In 443-442 he held the post of Hellenotamias, or imperial treasurer, and was elected general at least twice. His religious activities included service as priest of the healing divinity, and he turned over his house for the worship of Asclepius until a proper temple could be built. For this he was honored with the title Dexion as a hero after his death. He is reported to have written a paean in honor of Asclepius. Sophocles had two sons, lophon and Sophocles, by his first wife, Nicostrata, and he had a third son, Ariston, by his second wife, Theoris.
Of approximately 125 tragedies that Sophocles is said to have written, only 7 have survived. Since we have but a fraction of the plays he wrote, general comments on Sophoclean drama are based on the extant plays. However, Plutarch tells us that there were three periods in Sophocles's literary development: imitation of the grand style of Aeschylus, use of artificial and incisive style, and use of the best style and that which is most expressive of character. It is only from the third period that we have examples.
It is often asserted that Sophocles found tragedy up in the clouds and brought it down to earth. For Aeschylus, myth was an important vehicle for ideas, for highlighting man's relation to the gods. Sophocles dealt with men and showed how a character reacts under stress. The tragedy of Sophocles has been described as a tragedy of character as contrasted to Aeschylus's tragedy of situation. Sophocles's principal subject is man, and his hero is suffering man. The protagonist is subjected to a series of tests which he usually surmounts.
It was Sophocles who raised the number of the chorus from 12 to 15 members and initiated other technical improvements, such as scene painting and better tragic masks. He abandoned the tetralogy and presented three plays on different subjects and a satyr play. A supreme master in the delineation of character, he is credited with the invention of the heroic maiden (Antigone, Electra) and the ingenuous young man (Haemon). Sophocles's choral songs are excellent and structurally, as well as situationally, beautiful.
The dates of the seven extant plays of Sophocles are not all certain. Three are known: Antigone, 442/441; Philoctetes, 409; and Oedipus at Colonus, 401 (posthumously). C. H. Whitman has argued for 447 for the Ajax, about 437-432 for the Trachiniae, about 429 for the Oedipus Rex, and 418-414 for the Electra.
In the Ajax, the hero, whom the Iliad describes as second only to Achilles, is humiliated by Agamemnon and Menelaus when they award the arms of Achilles to Odysseus through intrigue. He vows vengeance on the Greek commanders as well as on Odysseus, but the goddess Athena makes him believe that he is attacking the Greeks when he is in fact attacking sheep. When he realizes his folly, he is so appalled that he commits suicide. Menelaus and Agamemnon try to prevent a proper burial, but Odysseus intercedes to make it possible. In the Ajax, Sophocles is pointing up the tragedy that may result from an insult to a man's arete (Homeric recognition of a man's excellence).
The Antigone is one of three plays on the Oedipus theme written over a period of some 40 years. Antigone is the young princess who pits herself against her uncle, King Creon. She defies his cruel edict forbidding burial of her brother Polyneices who, in attempting to invade Thebes and seize the throne from his brother Eteocles, slew him in mortal combat and, in turn, was slain. Against the pleas of her sister Ismene and fiancé Haemon, Antigone goes to her death holding to her defiance.
The Antigone has been interpreted as depicting the conflict between divine and secular law, between devotion to family and to the state, and between the arete of the heroine and the inadequacy of society represented by an illegal tyrant.
In the Trachiniae, Heracles's wife, Deianira, worries about the 15-month absence of her husband, who has acquired a new love, Princess Iole, and is bringing her home. In her sincere attempt to regain her husband's love, Deianira sends him a poisoned robe which she falsely believes has magical powers to restore lost love. Her son Hyllus and her husband, before dying, denounce Deianira, who commits suicide.
In this play Sophocles poignantly raises the question, "Why can knowledge hurt?" He stresses the dilemma of the person who unintentionally hurts those whom he loves. The question of the role of knowledge in human affairs prepares us for the Oedipus, his greatest play and the work that Aristotle considered the perfect Greek play and many have considered the greatest play of all time.
Oedipus Rex is a superb example of dramatic irony. It is not a play about sex or murder; it is a play about the inadequacy of human knowledge and man's capacity to survive almost intolerable suffering. The worst of all things happens to Oedipus: unknowingly he kills his own father, Laius, and is given his own mother, Jocasta, in marriage for slaying the Sphinx. When a plague at Thebes compels him to consult the oracle, he finds that he himself is the cause of the affliction.
No summary can do this amazing play justice. Sophocles brings up the question of justice. Why is there irrational evil in the world? Why does the very man who is basically good suffer intolerably? The answer is found in the concept of dikē—balance, order, justice. The world is orderly and follows natural laws. No matter how good or how well intentioned man may be, if he violates a natural law, he will be punished and he will suffer. Human knowledge is limited, but there is nobility in human suffering.
The Electra is Sophocles's only play that can be compared thematically with works of Aeschylus (Libation Bearers) and Euripides (Electra). Again Sophocles concentrates on a character under stress. Described as the most grim of all Greek tragedies, Electra suggests a flaw in the universe. It is less concerned with moral issues than the other two Electra plays. An oppressed and harassed Electra anxiously awaits the return of her avenging brother, Orestes. He returns secretly, first spreading the news that Orestes was killed in a chariot accident. Electra is constantly at the tomb of her father but is warned by her sister, Chrysothemis, about her constant wailing. Clytemnestra, disturbed by an ominous dream, sends Chrysothemis to offer libations at the tomb. A quarrel between Clytemnestra and Electra demonstrates the impossibility of reconciliation between mother and daughter. A messenger announcing the death of Orestes and carrying an urn with his ashes stirs up maternal feelings in Clytemnestra, despair in Chrysothemis, and determination to wreak vengeance on her mother and Aegisthus, her mother's consort, in Electra. The appearance of Orestes rejuvenates Electra, and together they do away with Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. The chorus rejoices that justice has triumphed.
The Electra of Sophocles may have been written as an answer to Euripides's Electra. Matricide and murder are fully justified, Clytemnestra and Aegisthus are completely and utterly evil, and Electra avenges her father's death relentlessly and almost psychopathically.
In the Philoctetes, Odysseus is sent with young Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles, from Troy to the allegedly uninhabited island of Lemnos to bring back Philoctetes with his bow and his arrows to effect the capture of Troy. Urged by Odysseus to do his assignment, Neoptolemus, after gaining Philoctetes's confidence suffers pangs of conscience over the old man and refuses to deceive him. He returns Philoctetes's weapons and promises to take him home. A deus ex machina finally convinces Philoctetes to return to Troy voluntarily. The Philoctetes clearly shows how man and society can come into conflict, how society can discard an individual when it does not need him, and how the individual with technological knowhow can bring society to its knees.
The Oedipus at Colonus, produced posthumously, is the most loosely structured, most lyrical, and longest of Sophoclean dramas. It brings to a conclusion Sophocles's concern with the Oedipus theme. Exiled by Creon, in concurrence with Eteocles and Polyneices, Oedipus becomes a wandering beggar accompanied by his daughter Antigone. He stumbles into a sacred grove of the Eumenides at Colonus, and the chorus of Elders is shocked to discover his identity. Oedipus justifies his past and asks that Theseus be summoned. Theseus arrives and promises him asylum, but Creon, first deceitfully, then by force, tries to remove Oedipus. Theseus comes to the rescue and thwarts Creon. The arrival of his son Polyneices produces thunderous rage in Oedipus, who curses both him and Eteocles. Oedipus soon senses his impending death and allows only Theseus to witness the event by which he is transfigured into a hero and a saint.
"Many are the wonders of the world," says Sophocles in the first stasimon of the Antigone, "but none is more wonderful than man." Sophocles's humanism is nowhere more concisely manifest than in this famous quotation. Man is able to overcome all kinds of obstacles and is able to be remarkably inventive and creative, but he is mortal and hence limited, despite an optimistic, progressive outlook. Suffering is an inherent part of the nature of things, but learning can be gained, and through suffering man can achieve nobility and dignity.
The bibliography on Sophocles is extensive, and in recent years some very stimulating and imaginative interpretations have appeared. Among the most significant works are C.M. Bowra, Sophoclean Tragedy (1944); Robert F. Goheen, The Imagery of Sophocles' Antigone (1951); Cedric H. Whitman, Sophocles: A Study of Heroic Humanism (1951); Sinclair M. Adams, Sophocles the Playwright (1957); Bernard M.W. Knox, Oedipus at Thebes (1957); George M. Kirkwood, A Study of Sophoclean Drama (1958); H.D.F. Kitto, Sophocles, Dramatist and Philosopher (1958); and Michael J. O'Brien, ed., Twentieth Century Interpretations of Oedipus Rex (1968).