Other Literary Forms

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In addition to his plays, Sophocles also wrote paeans and elegies. Fragments exist of a paean to the god Asclepius, of an ode to the historian Herodotus, and of an elegy to the philosopher Archelaus. An apparently complete epigram addressed to the poet Euripides also survives. According to ancient tradition, Sophocles wrote a literary treatise in prose, On the Chorus. Unfortunately, this work, which may have discussed the tragedian’s increase in the size of the chorus, is lost.


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Sophocles’ dramatic career, which intersects both Aeschylus’s and Euripides’ periods of production, was noted in antiquity for several important theatrical innovations, and his plays have experienced a remarkably constant popularity beginning in his own lifetime and continuing into the present. Perhaps no other playwright has had as great an influence on both ancient and modern concepts of the dramatic art.

Like Aeschylus, Sophocles acted in his own plays. His performances as a ball-playing Nausicaa and as a lyre-playing Thamyras in lost plays were well known in the fifth century. Sophocles is said by ancient sources, however, to have been the first playwright to have abandoned the practice of acting in his own works. It is now impossible to determine whether this change, which became the norm among later Greek tragedians, was a true Sophoclean innovation, the result of, as the sources state, Sophocles’ own weakening voice, or was rather the result of a general trend toward increasing specialization in later fifth century b.c.e. tragedies.

Sophocles is also said to have increased the size of the tragic chorus from twelve to fifteen members and to have added a third actor. If Aeschylus’s Oresteia, produced in 458 b.c.e., can be used as chronological evidence, the former innovation had not yet become the rule by 458, but the latter change had most certainly been introduced by that date. All the surviving plays of Sophocles make use of three actors, but the size of the chorus in a given play is rarely easy to document. The introduction of the third actor was the final evolutionary stage in the development of Greek tragedy, which probably had its origins in a choral song to which one, two, and, finally, three actors were added. With the use of three actors, Sophocles was able to concentrate dramatic attention on the actors and the spoken dialogues and agons or “debates” for which his plays are noted. Sophocles’ mastery of dialogue is especially evident in his prologues, which almost always begin not with the static, expository monologues of Euripides, but with dramatic, plot-advancing dialogues, such as the bitter exchange between Antigone and Ismene at the beginning of Antigone.

In general, Sophocles accomplishes this development of the actor’s role in tragedy without neglecting the choral portions of the play. Sophocles’ interest in the chorus is suggested not only by the tradition that he wrote a prose treatise on the chorus and increased its size, but also by the extant plays themselves. While the choruses of Sophocles’ tragedies do not have the central importance of such Aeschylean choruses as those in Hiketides (463 b.c.e.?; The Suppliants, 1777) and Eumenides (English translation, 1777; one of three parts of Oresteia, 458 b.c.e.), nevertheless, several Sophoclean odes, such as the “Ode to Man” in Antigone and the Colonus ode in Oedipus at Colonus, are among the most beautiful in Greek tragedy. Sophocles also shows himself able to manipulate dramatic mood through the tone of his odes, as in Ajax, when he places a joyful song just before disaster. Only in Philoctetes , which has only one true...

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choral ode, does a work of Sophocles exhibit the diminished choral role common in Greek tragedy of the last decades of the fifth centuryb.c.e.

Two other innovations attributed in antiquity to Sophocles suggest that the playwright was interested in the visual as well as the verbal effects of drama. The ancient biography on the life of Sophocles states that he designed boots and staffs for both actors and the chorus, and in De poetica (c. 334-323 b.c.e.; Poetics, 1705), Aristotle says that Sophocles invented scene painting. In general, however, the extant plays show little of the spectacular stagecraft found in both Aeschylus and Euripides. The closest Sophocles comes to Aeschylus’s use of ghosts is the supernatural disappearance of Oedipus in Oedipus at Colonus, and he employs the favorite Euripidean technique of the deus ex machina only once, in Philoctetes.

Modern scholars often state that Sophocles was responsible for the abandonment of connected tragic trilogies in favor of thematically independent plays, a conclusion based on the tenuous assumption that all mid-fifth century b.c.e. productions of three tragedies and one satyr play were connected in theme. Another possible interpretation of the scanty ancient evidence on trilogies is that connected trilogies were an Aeschylean experiment that few, if any, later tragedians repeated. Sophocles’ composition Telepheia, usually considered to be his only connected trilogy, may not have been a connected group at all. Not even the names of the plays that made up Telepheia are known, and there is no evidence that the -eia ending signifies a connected trilogy in fifth century b.c.e. terminology, despite the -eia ending in Oresteia.

Although it is unlikely, then, that Sophocles was an innovator in the production of unconnected trilogies, several of his individual plays do possess another distinctive structural feature, diptych composition. Composed of two nearly independent parts or with two separate main characters, Ajax, Antigone, and The Women of Trachis all divide neatly into two parts, with the departures or deaths of Ajax, Antigone, and Deianira, respectively. Only Euripides’ Alkstis (438 b.c.e.; Alcestis, 1781) approaches the two-part structure of these Sophoclean plays, the “disunity” of which has been noted by both ancient and modern critics. Yet dipytch form appears to have been an intentional feature of these tragedies, perhaps even a Sophoclean experiment made in response to the Aeschylean connected trilogy. This Sophoclean form is based not on structural disunity but rather on structural flexibility and demonstrates a general deemphasis on the need for single central characters that is notable not only in Sophocles but also in extant Greek tragedy in general. Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus, with its nearly exclusive attention to the fate of a single character, is rather the exception than the rule in this respect.

The esteem in which Sophocles’ work was held in the fifth century b.c.e. is evident from such contemporary evidence as Aristophanes’ Batrachoi (405 b.c.e.; The Frogs, 1780), in which praise of the late Sophocles as “good-natured while alive and good-natured in Hades,” is clearly comic understatement, and Phrynichus’s Muses, produced in the same year, in which Sophocles is described as “a prosperous and clever man who wrote many good tragedies.” This fifth century b.c.e. respect for Sophocles was intensified in the fourth century b.c.e., under the influence of Aristotle, whose high praise of Sophoclean tragedy in The Poetics has shaped all subsequent critical approaches, not only to Sophocles but also to tragedy in general. Aristotle, for whom Sophoclean tragedy, and specifically Oedipus Tyrannus, was an ideal tragedy, particularly admired Sophocles’ dramatic development of character and quoted the playwright as saying that “he [Sophocles] made men as they ought to be; Euripides as they are.”

Along with the works of Aeschylus and Euripides, Sophocles’ plays were widely adapted by Roman tragedians in the second and first centuries b.c.e., but Seneca’s Oedipus (c. 40-55 c.e.; English translation, 1581) is the only extant Roman imitation of Sophocles. Seneca follows closely the plot of Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus, but with a typically Roman overemphasis on Teiresias’s rites of prophecy and with a compressed version of Oedipus’s discovery of his true identity that pales beside its Sophoclean source. Seneca’s play also lacks the great mood of irony for which Sophocles is justly famous.

The role of Sophoclean tragedy in the history of ideas would be incomplete without mention of Sophocles’ influence on the philosophy of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel in the nineteenth century and on the psychological theories of Sigmund Freud in the twentieth century. In his Ästhetik (1835; The Philosophy of Fine Art, 1920), Hegel praised Antigone for its ideal tragic form—that is, its dramatic reconciliation of conflicting positions, which conformed well with the Hegelian concept of dialectics, of thesis-antithesis-synthesis. In The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), Freud cited Oedipus Tyrannus as an expression of a child’s love of one parent and hatred of the other, the psychic impulse that Freud came to call the “Oedipus complex.”

Despite such influence outside the theater, it is on Sophocles’ tragic art, and in particular on his skilled use of character development, dialogue, and dramatic irony, that his reputation has justly rested for more than two thousand years.

Discussion Topics

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What are the formal differences between the tragedies of Sophocles and those of his greatest predecessor as Greek tragic playwright, Aeschylus?

How do Sophocles’ Theban plays differ from typical trilogies?

Does Antigone convey the impression that there is no such thing as justice?

Is it convincing to explain Oedipus’s downfall as the result of a “flaw”?

How do the surviving versions of the Electra story confirm the greatness of the three principal Greek tragic playwrights?

How does Sophocles induce readers to empathize with protagonists whose stubbornness overpowers the knowledge which they have and which could preserve them?

How could Sophocles’ audience accept his reimagining of legendary characters that appear in more than one play?


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Further Reading:

Budelmann, Felix. The Language of Sophocles: Communality, Communication, and Involvement. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. A wide-ranging study of Sophoclean language. From a detailed analysis of sentence structure in the first chapter, it moves on to discuss in subsequent chapters how language shapes the perception of characters, of myths, of gods, and of choruses. All chapters are united by a shared concern: how Sophoclean language engages readers and spectators.

Daniels, Charles B. What Really Goes on in Sophocles’ Theban Plays. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1996. Daniels examines Sophocles’ Theban plays with reference to Greek mythology. Bibliography and index.

Edinger, Edwin F., and Sheila Dickman Zarrow, eds. The Psyche on Stage: Individuation Motifs in Shakespeare and Sophocles. Toronto: Inner City Books, 2001. The third and final section is titled “Oedipus Rex: Mythology and the Tragic Hero.” Includes bibliography and index.

Griffin, Jasper. Sophocles Revisited: Essays Presented to Sir Hugh Lloyd-Jones. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Papers in this volume give varied approaches to Sophocles, his work, and his influence.

Kirkwood, Gordon MacDonald. A Study of Sophoclean Drama: With a New Preface and Enlarged Bibliographical Note. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1994. A scholarly look at the tragedies of Sophocles. Bibliography and indexes.

Knox, Bernard MacGregor Walker. Oedipus at Thebes: Sophocles’ Greatest Hero and His Time. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1998. Looks at Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus in the context of Athens in the fifth century b.c.e. Includes preface and a list of suggested readings.

Lefkowitz, Mary. The Lives of the Greek Poets. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981. A translation and discussion of the Alexandrian biography of Sophocles are included in this book, which also includes a bibliography.

Lesky, Albin. Greek Tragedy. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1965. A scholarly introduction to Aeschylus’s dramaturgy, with a brief summary of his life. A bibliography is included.

Lesky, Albin. A History of Greek Literature. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1996. Sophocles’ place in the literature of ancient Greece can be traced in this standard history, which includes biographical evidence and a bibliography.

Scodel, Ruth. Sophocles. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1984. A good introduction written for the general reader, this book includes a chronological chart and a select annotated bibliography.

Ormand, Kirk. Exchange and the Maiden: Marriage in Sophoclean Tragedy. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999. Marriage is a central concern in five of the seven extant plays of Sophocles. In this study, Ormand discusses the ways in which these plays represent and problematize marriage, thus finding insights into how Athenians thought about the institution of marriage.

Pucci, Pietro. Oedipus and the Fabrication of the Father: “Oedipus Tyrannus” in Modern Criticism and Philosophy. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992. A study of Sophocles’ works that focuses on the Oedipus character. Bibliography and index.

Segal, Charles. Oedipus Tyrannus: Tragic Heroism and the Limits of Knowledge. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. A close examination of the role of heroes in Sophocles’ tragedies, particularly Oedipus in Oedipus Tyrannus. Bibliography and index.

Segal, Charles. Sophocles’ Tragic World: Divinity, Nature, Society. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995. The tragedies of Sophocles are analyzed in respect to religion, nature, and society. Bibliography and indexes.

Segal, Charles. Tragedy and Civilization: An Interpretation of Sophocles. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999. Segal’s study attempts to show how Sophoclean tragedy reflects the human condition in its constant struggle for order and civilized life.

Van Nortwick, Thomas. Oedipus: The Meaning of a Masculine Life. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998. A scholarly study of the Oedipus character, particularly in Oedipus Tyrannus and Oedipus at Colonus. Bibliography and index.

Webster, T. B. L. An Introduction to Sophocles. London: Methuen, 1969. An excellent and carefully documented life of Sophocles can be found in the first chapter of this standard study.


Critical Essays