Sophocles Biography

Sophocles changed Greek drama by killing the chorus. Although the device was still used in the playwright’s works, its size and importance was significantly reduced when he introduced the third actor. This revolutionary change was so popular that even his revered predecessor, Aeschylus, adopted the convention. Eschewing the poetic roots of tragedy, Sophocles also changed Greek drama by defining it as what happens between people. Sophocles’s most famous character, Oedipus, typified the idea of the protagonist who has a “tragic flaw”—the very human quality of misjudging one’s place in the world. Whether the incest, suicides, and murders that befell Oedipus and his clan were his fault or a cruel twist of fate, they firmly established the importance of Sophocles in the evolution of Greek tragedy.

Facts and Trivia

  • Sophocles wrote more than one hundred plays, but only a handful of his works survived in their entirety.
  • Living to be nearly a century old, Sophocles served in the military and government in addition to being a writer.
  • Today referred to as Sophocles’s “Theban Cycle,” Oedipus the King, Antigone, and Oedipus at Colonus were not originally part of the same trilogy, though they do feature some of the same characters and storylines.
  • Aristotle, who wrote extensively on the nature of fine tragedy, praised Oedipus the King highly. It remains the most famous of the surviving Greek tragedies.
  • Oedipus at Colonus was performed posthumously at the dramatic festival overseen by Sophocles’s grandson, who may have completed the play.

Biography

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Life

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The handsome, gifted son of Sophilus, who was a wealthy manufacturer of armor, Sophocles (SAHF-uh-kleez) was given a good education, studying with the famous musician Lamprus and probably with the great tragic dramatist Aeschylus. At sixteen, Sophocles was chosen to lead the choral chant, or paean, celebrating the Athenian fleet’s victory at Salamis.

However, Sophocles soon became best known as a dramatist. In 468 b.c.e., his tetralogy, or set of four plays, defeated that of Aeschylus to win the contest held at the Great Dionysia, Athens’ most important religious festival. During his lifetime, Sophocles would win first prize about twenty times; he never placed lower than second. Of his 123 plays, only seven complete tragedies survive: Aias (early 440’s b.c.e.; Ajax, 1729), Antigonī (441 b.c.e.; Antigone, 1729), Trachinai (435-429 b.c.e.; The Women of Trachis, 1729), Oidipous Tyrannos (c. 429 b.c.e.; Oedipus Tyrannus, 1715), Ēlektra (418-410 b.c.e.; Electra, 1649), Philoktītīs (409 b.c.e.; Philoctetes, 1729), and Oidipous epi Kolōnōi (401 b.c.e.; Oedipus at Colonus, 1729). About half of a satyr play, Ichneutae (“the trackers”), is also extant.

At least two of Sophocles’ descendants also became tragic dramatists. One was Iophon, his son by his first wife, Nicostrate; the other was his grandson and namesake. Sophocles’ second wife, Theoris of Sicyon, had borne him a son, Agathon, and it was Agathon’s son, the younger Sophocles, who staged his grandfather’s final play in 401 b.c.e.

Sophocles was also a prominent leader of his city-state. In 442 b.c.e., he was made a treasurer, collecting tribute from Athens’ subject-allies. Two years later, he was one of ten generals who put down a revolt in Samos. It was said that this post was a reward for his play Antigone, but Sophocles’ military ability is evident in that he was elected general at least once more. He also traveled on diplomatic missions, and in 413 b.c.e., when he was eighty-three, he served on a commission assigned to solve Athens’ financial crisis.

After his death, Sophocles was honored as a hero for his part in bringing to Athens the worship of Asclepius, the god of healing, whose priest he became. However, the dramatist’s final public act involved his art: Just months before his own death, he led a chorus of mourning for his younger rival Euripides.

Influence

Sophocles altered Greek drama by introducing scene painting, by increasing the size of the chorus, by writing each play in a trilogy as an independent unit, and by using three actors instead of just two, thus making it possible for plays to be more complex. Sophocles’ magnificent poetry, his memorable characters, and his insights into the way human destiny is shaped by fate and frailty have continued to influence Western playwrights throughout the centuries.

Further Reading:

Budelmann, Felix. The Language of Sophocles: Communality, Communication, and Involvement. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. A wide-ranging study of Sophoclean language. From a detailed analysis of sentence structure in the first chapter, it moves on to discuss in subsequent chapters how language shapes the perception of characters, of myths, of gods, and of choruses. All chapters are united by a shared concern: how Sophoclean language engages readers and spectators.

Daniels, Charles B. What Really Goes on in Sophocles’ Theban Plays. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1996. Daniels examines Sophocles’ Theban plays with reference to Greek mythology. Bibliography and index.

Edinger, Edwin F., and Sheila Dickman Zarrow, eds. The Psyche on Stage: Individuation Motifs in Shakespeare and Sophocles. Toronto: Inner City Books, 2001. The third and final section is titled “Oedipus Rex: Mythology and the Tragic Hero.” Includes bibliography and index.

Griffin, Jasper. Sophocles Revisited: Essays Presented to Sir Hugh Lloyd-Jones. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Papers in this volume give varied approaches to Sophocles, his work, and his influence.

Kirkwood, Gordon MacDonald. A Study of Sophoclean Drama: With a New Preface and Enlarged Bibliographical Note. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1994. A scholarly look at the tragedies of Sophocles. Bibliography and indexes.

Knox, Bernard MacGregor Walker. Oedipus at Thebes: Sophocles’ Greatest Hero and His Time. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1998. Looks at Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus in the context of Athens in the fifth century b.c.e. Includes preface and a list of suggested readings.

Lefkowitz, Mary. The Lives of the Greek Poets. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981. A translation and discussion of the Alexandrian biography of Sophocles are included in this book, which also includes a bibliography.

Lesky, Albin. Greek Tragedy. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1965. A scholarly introduction to Aeschylus’s dramaturgy, with a brief summary of his life. A bibliography is included.

Lesky, Albin. A History of Greek Literature. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1996. Sophocles’ place in the literature of ancient Greece can be traced in this standard history, which includes biographical evidence and a bibliography.

Scodel, Ruth. Sophocles. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1984. A good introduction written for the general reader, this book includes a chronological chart and a select annotated bibliography.

Ormand, Kirk. Exchange and the Maiden: Marriage in Sophoclean Tragedy. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999. Marriage is a central concern in five of the seven extant plays of Sophocles. In this study, Ormand discusses the ways in which these plays represent and problematize marriage, thus finding insights into how Athenians thought about the institution of marriage.

Pucci, Pietro. Oedipus and the Fabrication of the Father: “Oedipus Tyrannus” in Modern Criticism and Philosophy. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992. A study of Sophocles’ works that focuses on the Oedipus character. Bibliography and index.

Segal, Charles. Oedipus Tyrannus: Tragic Heroism and the Limits of Knowledge. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. A close examination of the role of heroes in Sophocles’ tragedies, particularly Oedipus in Oedipus Tyrannus. Bibliography and index.

Segal, Charles. Sophocles’ Tragic World: Divinity, Nature, Society. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995. The tragedies of Sophocles are analyzed in respect to religion, nature, and society. Bibliography and indexes.

Segal, Charles. Tragedy and Civilization: An Interpretation of Sophocles. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999. Segal’s study attempts to show how Sophoclean tragedy reflects the human condition in its constant struggle for order and civilized life.

Van Nortwick, Thomas. Oedipus: The Meaning of a Masculine Life. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998. A scholarly study of the Oedipus character, particularly in Oedipus Tyrannus and Oedipus at Colonus. Bibliography and index.

Webster, T. B. L. An Introduction to Sophocles. London: Methuen, 1969. An excellent and carefully documented life of Sophocles can be found in the first chapter of this standard study.

Further Reading:

Budelmann, Felix. The Language of Sophocles: Communality, Communication, and Involvement. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. A wide-ranging study of Sophoclean language. From a detailed analysis of sentence structure in the first chapter, it moves on to discuss in subsequent chapters how language shapes the perception of characters, of myths, of gods, and of choruses. All chapters are united by a shared concern: how Sophoclean language engages readers and spectators.

Daniels, Charles B. What Really Goes on in Sophocles’ Theban Plays. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1996. Daniels examines Sophocles’ Theban plays with reference to Greek mythology. Bibliography and index.

Edinger, Edwin F., and Sheila Dickman Zarrow, eds. The Psyche on Stage: Individuation Motifs in Shakespeare and Sophocles. Toronto: Inner City Books, 2001. The third and final section is titled “Oedipus Rex: Mythology and the Tragic Hero.” Includes bibliography and index.

Griffin, Jasper. Sophocles Revisited: Essays Presented to Sir Hugh Lloyd-Jones. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Papers in this volume give varied approaches to Sophocles, his work, and his influence.

Kirkwood, Gordon MacDonald. A Study of Sophoclean Drama: With a New Preface and Enlarged Bibliographical Note. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1994. A scholarly look at the tragedies of Sophocles. Bibliography and indexes.

Knox, Bernard MacGregor Walker. Oedipus at Thebes: Sophocles’ Greatest Hero and His Time. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1998. Looks at Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus in the context of Athens in the fifth century b.c.e. Includes preface and a list of suggested readings.

Lefkowitz, Mary. The Lives of the Greek Poets. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981. A translation and discussion of the Alexandrian biography of Sophocles are included in this book, which also includes a bibliography.

Lesky, Albin. Greek Tragedy. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1965. A scholarly introduction to Aeschylus’s dramaturgy, with a brief summary of his life. A bibliography is included.

Lesky, Albin. A History of Greek Literature. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1996. Sophocles’ place in the literature of ancient Greece can be traced in this standard history, which includes biographical evidence and a bibliography.

Ormand, Kirk. Exchange and the Maiden: Marriage in Sophoclean Tragedy. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999. Marriage is a central concern in five of the seven extant plays of Sophocles. In this study, Ormand discusses the ways in which these plays represent and problematize marriage, thus finding insights into how Athenians thought about the institution of marriage.

Pucci, Pietro. Oedipus and the Fabrication of the Father: “Oedipus Tyrannus” in Modern Criticism and Philosophy. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992. A study of Sophocles’ works that focuses on the Oedipus character. Bibliography and index.

Scodel, Ruth. Sophocles. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1984. A good introduction written for the general reader, this book includes a chronological chart and a select annotated bibliography.

Segal, Charles. Oedipus Tyrannus: Tragic Heroism and the Limits of Knowledge. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. A close examination of the role of heroes in Sophocles’ tragedies, particularly Oedipus in Oedipus Tyrannus. Bibliography and index.

Segal, Charles. Sophocles’ Tragic World: Divinity, Nature, Society. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995. The tragedies of Sophocles are analyzed in respect to religion, nature, and society. Bibliography and indexes.

Segal, Charles. Tragedy and Civilization: An Interpretation of Sophocles. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999. Segal’s study attempts to show how Sophoclean tragedy reflects the human condition in its constant struggle for order and civilized life.

Van Nortwick, Thomas. Oedipus: The Meaning of a Masculine Life. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998. A scholarly study of the Oedipus character, particularly in Oedipus Tyrannus and Oedipus at Colonus. Bibliography and index.

Webster, T. B. L. An Introduction to Sophocles. London: Methuen, 1969. An excellent and carefully documented life of Sophocles can be found in the first chapter of this standard study.

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