At a Glance

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.

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Biography

(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

Life

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 entire section is 4,500 words.)