Sophocles Sophocles World Literature Analysis

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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,...

(The entire section is 2,700 words.)