Sophocles, along with Euripides and Aeschylus, remains one of the key figures in Ancient Greek Tragedy from Athens in the 5th century. The seven tragedies that have survived into the modern-day reveal much about his beliefs, expertise as a playwright, and what made his tragic plays so popular.

Sophocles Sophocles

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Table of contents

    Sophocles Statue of Sophocles StudySmarterSophocles was an Ancient Greek Tragedian, pixabay.

    Biography of Sophocles

    Sophocles was born around 496 BCE near Athens in a deme (small community) called Colonus. From an early age had an education in music, dancing, and athletics. When he was around 15 years old he was chosen to lead a procession of choir boys to sing the paean, which is a type of hymnal praise, in honor of the Victory of Salamis. In 468 BCE, he won first place for the first time in the Dionysian dramatic festival. Before Sophocles' victory in 468 BCE, the poet Aeschylus had been the reigning champion.

    The Dionysia was an annual festival held in honor of the god Dionysus. The festival was centered around ancient dramatic competitions in which three dramatists would submit a tetralogy of tragic plays and one Satyr play. Sophocles won twenty-four of the thirty Dionysian competitions he competed in.

    It is believed that Cimon, an Athenian statesman, was Sophocles' patron. However, when Cimon was ostracized in 461 BCE by his rival Pericles, it seems that Sophocles' success did not falter.

    It is important to remember that when reading the biography of ancient writers, such as Sophocles, the information available to modern-day scholars is often limited and fragmented.

    Around 443 or 442 BCE, Sophocles worked as a Hellenotamiai, which was a treasurer for Athens, and by 441 BCE, was elected as a general working in a campaign against Samos, an island in Greece that was Athens' rival in the 5th century. Sophocles died around the age of 90 in 406 or 405 BCE.

    Sophocles Drawing of Athens StudySmarterSophocles lived in Athens, pixabay.

    Sophocles's Beliefs

    According to Sophocles, human nature—in particular human passion and suffering—are not merely internal, but they also relate to Divine laws and government. The Greek deities were irrational and unpredictable in their alignment with the forces of nature. Humans are ignorant of these forces of nature, until they are faced with a tragic circumstance that reveals to them the universe. Therefore, with Sophocles's beliefs in mind, his plays reveal to the reader that destiny and fate are always lurking in the background; there is little humans can do to escape their divine fates.

    Sophocles and Aristotle's philosophy

    Sophocles was a playwright and not a philosopher as many may think. However, Sophocles' work, especially Oedipus Rex (429 BC), influenced later philosophers, particularly Aristotle (384 BCE-322BCE). Aristotle was the founder of the Peripatetic school of philosophy.

    Sophocles Aristotle Side Profile Portrait StudySmarterAristotle used Sophocles' plays as points of analysis in his philosophical thought, pixabay.

    The Peripatetic school of philosophy believed that matter is the foundation of every existing thing and contains the potential for anything. Science was the basis of all facts and inductive reasoning was used to reach all conclusions. They also believed that good virtue was reached by acting in accordance with nature and temperance.

    When Aristotle analyzed Sophocles' play Antigone (around 441 BCE), he analyzed it through the lens of the golden mean and role of the Olympian divine.

    The golden mean is the perfect middle between two extremes. It is where ideal balance can be found.

    The role of the Olympian divine refers to the role of the Greek deities, such as Zeus or Aphrodite, in a mortal person's life. The role can be active, passive, destructive, and sometimes beneficial, depending on the school of thought the author adhered to.

    In many of Sophocles' plays, the Greek gods are unpredictable, irrational, and impulsive which would impact the lives of mortal beings. In Aristotle's belief surrounding the play Antigone, men who choose the middle path between extremes will find a balance and serenity regardless of the actions of the gods above. The characters of Antigone and King Creon represent two opposite extremes and they both face a tragic ending. Aristotle concluded that man is as imperfect as the gods above and therefore should strive to find a balance between extremes to avoid any tragedies.

    Plays by Sophocles with Quotes

    A majority of Sophocles' plays have been lost to time. Seven tragedies have survived to this day and only two have precise dating: Philoctetes (409 BCE) and the posthumous Oedipus at Colonus (401 BCE).

    Sophocles Classic two theatre masks StudySmarterSophocles was the author of many tragedies,

    The Theban Plays

    The Theban Plays refer to three plays written by Sophocles that are set in and around the city of Thebes and have a continuation of characters. Despite being grouped, the plays were not performed as a trilogy and were most likely written at different points throughout Sophocles's life.

    Oedipus Rex (circa 429 BCE)

    Oedipus is told a terrible prophecy in which he will kill his father and marry his mother, so he leaves his home of Corinth. He left because he believed himself to be the son of King Polybus of Corinth. Through a series of trials and victories, Oedipus becomes the king of Thebes and marries Jocasta, the widowed queen. Oedipus learns during the play that he is the abandoned son of King Laius and Queen Jocasta, and Oedipus realizes the prophecy that he was told—about killing his father and marrying his mother—had come true all along. The play explores the role of destiny, the gods, and generational shame.

    I am the most abhorred of men, I,

    the finest one of all those bred in Thebes,

    I have condemned myself, telling everyone

    they had to banish for impiety

    the man the gods have now exposed

    as sacrilegious—a son of Laius, too.

    With such polluting stains upon me,

    could I set eyes on you and hold your gaze?" (Lines 1628-1635).

    Here Oedipus reflects on his tragedy. of unintentionally fulfilling the prophecy he had spent his life trying to avoid. Where once he was considered a respected king, he now lives in deep shame for the murder of his own father and for sleeping with his own mother. His downfall leads him to feel great disgust and shame for himself which will affect his children.

    Antigone (circa 441 BCE)

    Antigone is the daughter of Oedipus and she has to make a difficult decision. Either she can bury the body of her dead brother, Polyneices, outside the city walls where he will be ravaged by animals, or she can bury him inside the city walls and face the punishment of death. King Creon refused to let Polyneices be buried within the city walls because Polyneices was a traitor. Antigone decides to bury her brother within the city walls and is sentenced to death. However, before King Creon can tell Antigone he has changed his mind, she has already committed suicide. This prompts the suicide of King Creon's son Haemon, who Antigone was to marry. This then prompts the suicide of Haemon's mother—King Creon's wife, Eurydice. The play explores extremities in the face of destiny.

    I should have praise and honor for what I have done.

    All these men here would praise me

    Were their lips not frozen shut with fear of you" (Lines 398-400).

    In this quote, Antigone confronts King Creon. King Creon has made Antigone make an impossible decision between burying her brother Polyneices within the city walls and facing a death sentence or allowing his body to be ravaged by animals. She chooses to bury her brother within the city walls and tells King Creon that any man would find her actions honorable were it not for King Creon's hold over them.

    Oedipus at Colonus (409 BCE)

    The blind Oedipus has been in exile for many years and is only cared for by his daughters: Antigone and Ismene. He arrives in Colonus and is offered protection by Theseus, the King of Athens, against King Creon of Thebes, his brother-in-law. Oedipus's son, Polyneices, decides he will fight against Thebes. Oedipus mysteriously dies, and Polyneices fights his brother Eteocles. As Sophocles' last known play, it is also one of his most beautiful and lyrical plays.

    A man incurs no punishment from Fate
    when he responds to evils done to him.
    You deceived us—now we are doing the same.
    Such actions bring no gratifying reward
    but merely pain. So you must go away,
    leave where you are sitting, set off again,
    and hurry out of Athens without delay,
    in case you bring pollution to our state" (Lines 243-250)

    In these lines spoken by Oedipus to the chorus, who represent the citizens of Athens, we see the lingering effect Oedipus's actions have had on his life. Despite his old age, his fated destiny of fulfilling the cruel prophecy in which he kills his father and sleeps with his mother still stains his reputation. When the people of Athens find out about his actions they send him away, which causes Oedipus to feel great pain.

    Other plays by Sophocles

    Along with Sophocles's Theban plays, four other Tragic plays have survived:

    • Ajax (5th century BCE)
    • Trachinian Women (after 458 BCE)
    • Electra (Date unknown; potentially 420-414 BCE)
    • Philoctetes (409 BCE)

    As with most of Sophocles' Tragedies, the central theme that appears is that of fate versus free will.

    Analysis of Sophocles' plays

    Sophocles is known for his Greek Tragedies.

    Greek Tragedies originated in Ancient Greece and reached their height of importance in 5th century BCE Athens. Greek tragedies usually center around a protagonist of importance or who has exceptional qualities. These protagonists usually have to deal with some sort of uncontrollable disaster that leads to their downfall.

    Many of Sophocles's plays focus on how characters respond to pressure, usually caused by some sort of mental strife.

    For example, in Oedipus Rex, once Oedipus learns that he has fulfilled the prophecy of killing his father and marrying his mother, he blinds himself out of sheer horror of his actions.

    This differs from Aeschylus's works, which Sophocles imitated in his early writings. Aeschylus often focused on the relationship between man and the actions of deities.

    Sophocles also continued Aeschylus's addition of a third actor, which expanded the talking parts of the play from two main speakers to three in any given scene. His characters had strong characteristics and would always have some kind of flaw that would lead to their tragic downfall.

    Rather than reduce the number of people in the Chorus, however, Sophocles is credited with increasing it from twelve people to fifteen people. The Chorus was an essential element of Greek Tragedies as the Chorus represented the voice of the people and made commentaries on the main actions of the protagonist.

    I have seen this gathering sorrow from time long past

    Loom upon Oedipus’ children: generation from generation

    Takes the compulsive rage of the enemy god.

    So lately this last flower of Oedipus’ line

    Drank the sunlight! but now a passionate word

    And a handful of dust have closed up all its beauty" (Antigone, Lines 470-477)

    In this excerpt from Sophocles' tragic play Antigone, the Chorus laments the fact that the actions of the Gods toward mortals such as Antigone are unfair and cruel.

    Sophocles also potentially introduced skenographia (scenery paintings) during the performances of his Tragedies to add visual interest and context. It also made the plays feel more local if the audience could recognize the scenery.

    Sophocles was also known for his delicate and carefully chosen form of diction and phrases. Sophocles would use elements such as meter, dramatic irony, and occasionally rhyme.

    Meter— The rhythmic structure that is contained within a verse or a line

    Dramatic Irony— When the audience knows something that the character does not yet know.

    Rhyme— When the ending or sound of words at the end of a line of poetry correspond to each other.

    In many of his plays, he used lyric and iambic trimeters which are determined by how syllables are stressed and unstressed in a line of poetry. Iambic trimeters are a meter that contains three or two metrical feet. The language Sophocles would use could range from decorative and lofty, to plain and simple, depending on which character was speaking and what the scenario was. This increased dynamism, and suspense, and added depth to his plays.

    Sophocles - Key takeaways

    • Sophocles was born around 497 BCE in a deme near Athens called Colonus. From a young age, his artistic abilities were known.
    • Around 468 BCE, Sophocles won the Dionysian festival's Drama competition, defeating the reigning champion Aeschylus.
    • In his lifetime, Sophocles wrote many plays but only seven of his tragedies have survived. He is most well known for his Theban plays.
    • Sophocles's plays revolved around the theme of fate versus free will and would later inspire Aristotelian philosophical thought.
    • Sophocles is credited with the addition of a skenographia, a choir made of 15 people, and his delicate use of diction and language.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Sophocles

    What was Sophocles known for? 

    Sophocles is known for his Greek Tragedies such as Oedipus Rex, Antigone, and Electra. 

    What was Sophocles philosophy? 

    Sophocles was not a philosopher, but he did believe that humans were ignorant of the forces of nature, and they find this out through tragedy. 

    What is the message of Sophocles? 

    Sophocles believed that deities were irrational and unpredictable, and that humans are born with an unescapable fate that may lead to tragedy.

    How is Sophocles linked to Aristotle? 

    Aristotle analyzed Sophocles' play Antigone to explain how mortals should choose the middle path between extremes to avoid tragedy. 

    What types of literature did Sophocles write? 

    Sophocles was an Athenian playwright. The only works of his that survive today are his Greek Tragedies. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What is the name of the festival Sophocles' plays were performed for?

    What is the name of the school of philosophy founded by Aristotle?

    What genre do the seven surviving plays of Sophocles fall into?

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