Sophocles World Literature Analysis

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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,...

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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 individual.

While these two points of view come into conflict in the Antigone, Sophocles does not regard them both as equally correct. Every character in the play, including the chorus and even Creon himself in the end, declares that Antigone was right and that Creon was wrong. Yet the justice of Antigone’s cause is not sufficient to save her. Many characters in Sophoclean tragedy suffer, not despite being right, but because they were right.

The Antigone illustrates, therefore, that there is a price to be paid for heroic inflexibility. It is unthinkable that Antigone, as Sophocles has drawn the character, would choose compromise rather than death. Her destruction follows inevitably from her unswerving devotion to the cause in which she believes. Nevertheless, it is one of the ironies of the Antigone that Creon also suffers because of his inflexibility and confidence. The very quality that made Antigone seem admirable makes Creon seem stubborn and petty. In the end, their fates are determined less by the nature of the cause that they defend than by the manner in which they defend it.

Oedipus Tyrannus

First produced: Oidipous Tyrannos, c. 429 b.c.e. (English translation, 1715)

Type of work: Play

A prosperous king of Thebes learns that, because of a curse, he has unknowingly killed his father and married his own mother.

The chorus at the end of a Greek tragedy will frequently state that human knowledge is limited and that the gods work in ways that human beings do not expect. No tragedy deals with this theme more explicitly than Oedipus Tyrannos. Despite Oedipus’s great confidence in his own knowledge, he is shown throughout the play to be wrong about nearly everything. By the end of the tragedy, Oedipus realizes that he had not even known who he was, where he had been born, or how unfortunate he had been. His fate illustrates the dangers of overconfidence: No matter how certain one may be about things, there is always the possibility that one may be wrong.

Oedipus goes from being a powerful and confident king at the beginning of the tragedy to being a blind beggar at the end. In part, this downfall is the result of his own anger. Oedipus states explicitly that it was due to anger that he killed the man who had blocked his way at the crossroads (line 807); this man turns out to have been Oedipus’s father, Laius. Yet it is also stated several times that Oedipus was destined to kill Laius (lines 713-714) and to marry his mother, Jocasta (lines 789 to 793). These two views are not at all contradictory; both Oedipus and fate have determined his suffering. The ancient Greek view was that an event need not have but a single cause. Actions could be “overdetermined,” that is, caused both by the will of the gods and by the nature of the individuals who perform them.

Moreover, Oedipus is an illustration of Heraclitus’s dictum that “Character determines a person’s destiny.” It is Oedipus’s nature to be confident, brash, and desirous of the truth. These are the qualities that enabled him to defeat the Sphinx and that led to his greatness. These are also the qualities that lead to his downfall in this play. As is often the case in Sophoclean tragedy, the same “heroic flaw” that produced the central character’s success also leads to his suffering.

Sophocles contrasts Oedipus with Teiresias, the blind seer, in this play. Ironically, the character who is blind can “see” the truth much more clearly than can Oedipus, who prided himself on his “insight.” Only when Oedipus himself is blind does he “see” the truth. Genuine truth, Sophocles suggests, is not derived from mere observation of physical realities. Rather, truth is perceived through an inner wisdom and is possible only when one is not distracted by the things of this world.


First produced: lektra, 418-410 b.c.e. (English translation, 1649)

Type of work: Play

After years of waiting, Electra is reunited with her brother, Orestes, who punishes their mother for killing their father.

The story of Electra was treated by the three major classical tragedians, each in his own characteristic way. For Aeschylus, the story of Electra in the Chophoroi (458 b.c.e.; Libation Bearers, 1777) is but a single episode in the sweeping history of a family; it is the second play of the Oresteia, a connected trilogy that presents the story of Electra’s household from the return of her father, Agamemnon, to the acquittal of her brother, Orestes. For Euripides, the Electra was a psychological profile of a woman who had endured outrage and humiliation for nearly a decade; Euripides openly criticized Aeschylus’s treatment of this story and changed many details of the plot. For Sophocles, Electra became the embodiment of heroic defiance, a return to many of the themes earlier explored in the Antigone.

Indeed, there are many ways in which Sophocles’ version of Electra bears a closer resemblance to his Antigone than to the treatments of Electra by the other two playwrights. First, Sophocles contrasts both Electra and Antigone with a sister (Chrysothemis and Ismene, respectively) who is willing to compromise in order to live in peace. Both Electra and Antigone, in Sophocles’ version of their stories, devote themselves to a cause to such an extent that they forego husband and children; Aeschylus’s Electra has at least the serving women for comfort, and Euripides’ Electra is even married. Most important, perhaps, Sophocles’ Electra depicts the vengeance against Clytemnestra and Aegisthus as an end to the household’s suffering; in both Aeschylus’s and Euripides’ versions, there is foreshadowing of Orestes’ pursuit by the Furies, who will seek to punish him for this murder. Thus, Sophocles’ Electra, like his Antigone, represents the price that must be paid for heroic endurance.

Yet while Antigone paid with her life for defying Creon, Electra emerges triumphant at the end of this play. By the close of the tragedy, Electra’s vengeance has been fulfilled, her patience has been justified, and her enemies have been destroyed. The audience is able to witness her joy as vengeance is achieved. Nevertheless, Electra’s cries of joy are as chilling as they are deserved. Electra has gained her victory only at an appalling personal cost. She has devoted her youth to the memory of her father and has planned her vengeance for nearly a decade. Heroism comes at a price far higher than the chorus, Chrysothemis, and even most members of the audience would be willing to pay.

Oedipus at Colonus

First produced: Oidipous epi Kolni, 401 b.c.e. (English translation, 1729)

Type of work: Play

After years of wandering as a blind exile, Oedipus is received in Athens, where he undergoes a mysterious apotheosis.

Oedipus at Colonus was written in 406 b.c.e., shortly before Sophocles’ death, and was not performed until five years later. Since the play dates to about forty years after the Antigone and more than twenty years after Oedipus Tyrannus, it is not surprising that the figures of Creon, Antigone, and even Oedipus himself seem somewhat different from Sophocles’ earlier presentation of them. Creon, in particular, is wholly unlike his depiction in the other two plays. The Creon of Antigone was stubborn and mistaken but he did, at least, attempt to do what was right as he understood it. The Creon of Oedipus Tyrannus was patient and reasonable, a minor character who was completely sympathetic during his brief appearance on the stage. In Oedipus at Colonus, Creon is pure evil; his function is to provide a villainous foil for Oedipus and Theseus, and that he does to perfection.

Creon’s role as the stereotypical villain in this work makes Oedipus at Colonus, like Electra, seem more like a melodrama than a tragedy in structure. For example, there is in this work no fall of a noble character to a more humble position, no reversal of fortune from good to evil, no “tragic flaw.” Indeed, by the end of the play Oedipus is elevated from poverty to heroic status and will be worshiped even among the gods after his death. Yet it must be remembered that Greek tragedy did not always adhere to the general outline that Aristotle described. It must be remembered, too, that Aristotle wrote the De poetica (c. 334-323 b.c.e.; Poetics, 1705) more than half a century after the death of Sophocles. To force Oedipus at Colonus to fit Aristotle’s form of the “perfect tragedy” would damage the work. One of the great appeals of the Oedipus at Colonus is that its structure is so unlike that of any other tragedy.

Oedipus at Colonus was Sophocles’ final homage to the district in which he was born and to that area’s most famous hero. Written in a period when Athens was already losing the Peloponnesian War to the Spartans, this play reminds the Athenians of their own glorious past and of the hero who protected them. In the tragedy’s most famous ode (lines 668-719), Sophocles celebrates, not only the physical beauty of Athens and Colonus, but also its civic virtues: its hospitality, its perseverance, its ability to recover even from the most formidable opposition and defeat. These virtues, the poet suggests, could yet be the salvation of Athens if the city’s people would renew their confidence in their gods, their heroes, and themselves.

Like the perfected Athens that Sophocles describes, Oedipus in this tragedy draws his strength from some mysterious source. Despite years as a blind beggar, Oedipus becomes restored to moral strength as the plot unfolds. He spurns the treachery first of Creon and then of Polyneices. Finally, without even permitting anyone to guide him (lines 1520-1521), Oedipus himself leads Theseus into the grove where his miraculous transformation will take place. The account given by the messenger (lines 1586-1665) is not the death of a blind, old beggar but the apotheosis of a hero. Like Athens herself, Oedipus may have been guilty of many crimes, but he has been chosen by the gods to be special and is elevated at the very moment when he had seemed most humbled.


Sophocles Drama Analysis