Other Literary Forms
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.
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 choral ode, does a work of Sophocles exhibit the diminished choral role common in Greek tragedy of the last decades of the fifth century b.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...
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