Sophocles World Literature Analysis - Essay

Sophocles World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Plutarch says that Sophocles himself saw three periods in his work: an early period of ponderous tragedies written in imitation of Aeschylus, a middle period of plays that were bitter and artificial, and a late period in which his tragedies best exemplified fullness of character and were those that he considered his best works. While the poet’s judgment concerning his first two periods seems excessively harsh, it does confirm at least one general impression. Sophocles’ early plays, such as the Aias (early 440’s b.c.e.; Ajax, 1729) and the Antigon (441 b.c.e.; Antigone, 1729), reflect the influence of Aeschylus. Aeschylus’s use of the “double bind”—the situation in which a character will be doomed no matter which course is chosen—in such works as the Oresteia (458 b.c.e.; English translation, 1777) and the Hepta epi Thbas (467 b.c.e.; Seven Against Thebes, 1777) has affected the presentation of both Antigone and Creon in Antigone. Moreover, Aeschylus’s preference for long, and sometimes obscure, compound words has a parallel to Sophocles’ use of language in such early works as the Ajax and the Trachinai (435-429 b.c.e.; The Women of Trachis, 1729).

Yet Sophocles was not content to write tragedies exactly as Aeschylus had done. Tradition reports that Sophocles introduced several innovations in the staging of Greek drama, such as the use of a third actor, scene painting, and a slightly larger chorus. The real contribution of Sophocles, however, was in his approach to plot and character. The later a Sophoclean tragedy is, the more its plot tends to be focused upon an individual hero. This tendency is quite different from the tragedies of Aeschylus, which usually deal with an entire household or even trace a story over several generations.

In Sophocles, the individual hero is always at the core of the story. Perhaps for this reason, six of Sophocles’ seven extant tragedies are named for their central characters. On the other hand, five of Aeschylus’s seven extant tragedies took their name from the chorus or from some other group of mythological figures. Perhaps also for this reason, Sophocles, unlike Aeschylus, did not write connected trilogies but allowed each play in a trilogy to deal with a different character and a different story.

Sophocles’ approach to character has also affected the construction of his tragedies in other ways. The long passages of monologue, familiar from Aeschylean drama, are now replaced by dialogue. Information that the audience needs to understand the plot is allowed to emerge gradually through conversation between the characters. Moreover, exchanges between characters with differing points of view—Antigone and Creon, Teucer and Menelaus, Oedipus and Polyneices—are able to provide the audience with insight into the psychological motivation of each individual.

This psychological motivation is frequently the key to another element of Sophoclean tragedy: the role of fate. It is frequently noted that nearly every tragedy by Sophocles hinges upon the fulfillment of an oracle or a prophecy. Yet this does not necessarily mean that Sophocles believed that humanity was a pawn in the hands of the gods. It is always true that, in Sophoclean tragedy, the destiny of the characters follows logically from their own choices. The gods may predict human suffering, but they are rarely the primary causes of disaster in these works. “Character,” the Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said, “determines a person’s destiny.” In Sophoclean tragedy, fate is always founded upon this maxim.

One major way in which character determines destiny in these plays is through the “heroic flaw.” In De poetica (334-323 b.c.e.; Poetics, 1705), Aristotle speaks of a tragic flaw, mistake, or error of judgment (hamartia) that brings a character from prosperity to ruin. In Sophocles, this tragic flaw is almost always the very same quality that brought about the hero’s greatness. Thus, Ajax’s pride, Antigone’s inability to compromise, Oedipus’s thirst for knowledge, and Heracles’ confidence in his own abilities are initially responsible for the success of these characters. Ultimately, however, these same heroic flaws destroy the persons whom they once made great.


First produced: Antigon, 441 b.c.e. (English translation, 1729)

Type of work: Play

A young woman is condemned to death for burying her brother in violation of the king’s decree.

Antigone, Oidipous Tyrannos (c. 429 b.c.e.; Oedipus Tyrannus, 1715), and Oedipus at Colonus are not a trilogy in the true sense. That is to say, they were not originally written to be performed on a single occasion. Rather, these three plays represent Sophocles’ return to the same body of myths several times during his long career as a dramatist. Nevertheless, the Theban plays, as they are called, together tell the complete story of Oedipus from the height of his power as king of Thebes to the execution of his daughter for the burial of his son, Polyneices.

Antigone, although it concerns the last events in the mythic history of this family, was the first of the three plays to be written. In it, certain elements of plot seem to indicate that Sophocles, in this early period of his career, was still imitating the works of his predecessor Aeschylus. For instance, both Antigone and Creon find themselves caught in a “double bind,” a situation in which they are doomed no matter which course of action they choose. Although Antigone suffers because she violates the law of Creon by burying her brother Polyneices, she would have neglected her religious duty had she left him unburied. Creon suffers because he regards his will as more important than the demands of the gods, although political pressures compelled him to punish the traitor of his city.

Antigone and Creon thus represent the two sides that may be taken toward any issue of great importance. Antigone defends the will of the gods, emphasizing the bond that she has to her family more than that which she has toward the state. Creon defends the need for law and order in a community, viewing civil law as more important than the will of the...

(The entire section is 2700 words.)