Sophocles Drama Analysis

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The textual transmission of Sophocles is remarkably similar to that of Aeschylus, with a first complete ancient edition by the Athenian orator Lycurgus in the late fourth century b.c.e. and a definitive Alexandrian edition by Aristophanes of Byzantium in the second century b.c.e. A school selection of the seven extant tragedies was made sometime after the second century c.e. and was reedited by the late fourth century rhetorician Salustius. The plays may have survived the medieval period in only one manuscript, although this has been debated. The present text was extensively revised in the fourteenth century by several Byzantine scholars, including Planudes, Thomas Magister, and Triclinius. The plays reached the West in the fifteenth century, and the first printed edition of Sophocles was the Aldine edition of Venice (1502).

The Life of Sophocles devotes a lengthy paragraph to describing the playwright’s links with the epic poetry of Homer, and scholars of all periods have continued to note Sophoclean imitation of Homeric subject matter and language. Sophocles achieved his greatest success in the art of character development and especially in the depiction of the hero, for which he owes a major debt to Homer. Many Sophoclean characters, including nearly all the dramatis personae of Ajax and the Odysseus of Philoctetes, are derived from Homeric sources at least in part, but even where Sophocles treats a subject not directly handled by Homer, such as the stories of Oedipus and Antigone, the poetic techniques of Homer and Sophocles intersect in their methods of character development, in the types of characters depicted, and especially in their focus on the heroic qualities of particular individuals.

Even Aristotle recognized the importance of character development to Sophoclean studies. In his Poetics, he frequently cited Sophocles’ Oedipus as the ideal tragic character and stated that “Sophocles is the same kind of imitator as Homer, for both imitate characters of a higher type.” Much modern scholarship, too, has been devoted to a study of Sophocles’ technique of character development and of the “Sophoclean hero.” In particular, the works of C. H. Whitman and of B. M. W. Knox have both helped to clarify the characteristics of the Sophoclean hero and to show his affinities with the Homeric hero. It is impossible to analyze a Sophoclean play without studying Sophocles’ character development and without taking into account the Aristotelian and later interpretations of the Sophoclean hero that have molded a modern understanding of this dramatist and his work. At the same time, such an analysis must not lose sight of Sophocles’ other dramatic skills, such as his mastery of dialogue and his use of the chorus, both of which complement the development of Sophocles’ main characters.

The Theban Plays

Sophocles’ so-called Theban plays have always been considered the center of his corpus. Although Antigone, Oedipus Tyrannus, and Oedipus at Colonusdo not form a connected trilogy and, indeed, represent productions spanning a period of forty years, these plays project many consistencies of style and character development that suggest some continuity in Sophoclean dramatic art. The story of the unfortunate house of Laius was a popular theme of fifth century b.c.e. Greek tragedy, but except for Aeschylus’s Hepta epi Thbas (467 b.c.e.; Seven Against Thebes, 1777) and Euripides’ Phoinissai (c. 410 b.c.e.; The Phoenician Women, 1781), which are extant, far too little is known about any of these lost plays to judge their relationship to the Sophoclean versions. The misfortunes of the house of Laius, including Oedipus’s destiny to kill his father and marry his mother as well as the mutual fratricide of his sons, were mentioned by Homer, and several epics on this Theban cycle are known to have survived past the fifth century b.c.e. Knowledge of these epics is scanty, but Sophoclean innovations in this mythic cycle may include the blinding of Oedipus, the dramatic use of a local Athenian legend concerning the death of Oedipus in Sophocles’ native deme of Colonus, and the development of the story of Antigone.


Antigone concerns the events after the deaths of her brothers Eteocles and Polyneices and her decision to bury Polyneices despite the decree of Creon, the new ruler of Thebes, that the body remain unburied as a lesson to traitors. Sophocles begins the play with a dramatic prologue in which Antigone announces her decision to her sister Ismene, asks for her help and is refused, and finally determines in anger to act alone. This scene between the sisters, which Sophocles later skillfully imitated in Electra, demonstrates Sophocles’ ability to employ action to develop his characters. Absent are the long, choral, narrative beginnings of Aeschylus’s Persai (472 b.c.e.; The Persians, 1777) and Agamemnn (Agamemnon, 1777; one of three parts of Oresteia, 458 b.c.e.), and the expository prologues of Euripides. Within one hundred lines of dialogue, Sophocles not only has significantly advanced the action but also has vividly depicted Antigone’s character. Antigone’s stubbornness, isolation, and strong sense of self-righteous nobility are well developed in this scene and help to define not only her character but also that of the Sophoclean hero in general. Much like the Homeric hero, especially Achilles, the Sophoclean hero projects arete, an untranslatable Greek word implying a “pattern of virtue.” Arete sets the hero apart from other people and is inevitably self-destructive through its greatness. Thus, from the outset, Antigone is determined to face death for what she believes to be the noble course of action.

By contrast to the gloom of the prologue, the parodos, or choral entrance song, is a jubilant victory song celebrating the end of the siege of Thebes by Polyneices and is a striking example of Sophoclean manipulation of mood through choral passages. The chorus in Sophocles is usually considered to be a mouthpiece for the playwright’s own views, but the interest in dramatic...

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