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The Life and Works of Sophocles, a Pioneering Ancient Greek Tragedian

Sophocles, one of the three prominent tragedians of Ancient Greece, was a highly revered figure in 5th century Athens. His seven remaining plays offer a glimpse into his beliefs, skill as a playwright, and the enduring appeal of his tragic works.

A Brief History of Sophocles

Sophocles was born in 496 BCE in Colonus, a small town near Athens. He received a well-rounded education in music, dance, and athletics from a young age. At 15, he was selected to lead a choir in a hymn of praise to commemorate the Victory of Salamis. In 468 BCE, he achieved first place in the Dionysian dramatic festival, which had previously been dominated by his contemporary, Aeschylus.

The Dionysia was an annual festival honoring the god Dionysus, featuring dramatic competitions where participants presented three tragic plays and one Satyr play. Sophocles triumphed in 24 out of 30 competitions, solidifying his status as a master of tragedy.

Cimon, an Athenian statesman, is believed to have been Sophocles' benefactor. Despite Cimon's exile in 461 BCE, Sophocles continued to thrive.

When studying ancient writers like Sophocles, it's important to consider the limited and fragmented information available to modern scholars.

Between 443-442 BCE, Sophocles served as the Hellenotamiai, a treasurer for Athens, and was later elected as a general in 441 BCE during a campaign against the rival island of Samos. He passed away at the age of 90 in 406 or 405 BCE.

The Beliefs of Sophocles

Sophocles believed that human nature, including emotions and suffering, was not purely internal but also intertwined with divine laws and governance. The Ancient Greek deities were often inscrutable and impulsive, representing the forces of nature. Humans only comprehend the influence of these forces when faced with a tragic event, which reveals the bigger picture of the universe. Therefore, Sophocles' plays often convey the idea that fate and destiny are inescapable.

Sophocles and His Influence on Aristotle's Philosophy

Sophocles was a playwright, not a philosopher. However, his works, particularly Oedipus Rex (429 BC), had a lasting impact on later thinkers such as Aristotle (384 BCE - 322 BCE), the founder of the Peripatetic school of philosophy.

Aristotle incorporated Sophocles' plays into his philosophical ideas, which revolved around the concept that matter is the fundamental aspect of everything and has the potential for anything. The Peripatetics also believed that science was the basis of all truth and employed inductive reasoning to draw conclusions. They advocated for attaining moral virtue by living in harmony with nature and practicing restraint.

In his analysis of Antigone (c. 441 BCE), Aristotle examined it through the lens of the golden mean, the ideal state achieved by striking a balance between two extremes, and the role of Greek deities in human life. The gods' influence could be either positive or negative, depending on the author's beliefs. In Sophocles' plays, the gods were often erratic and unpredictable, affecting the lives of mortals. Aristotle concluded that, like the gods, humans were flawed and needed to strive for balance to avoid tragedy, as demonstrated by the characters of Antigone and King Creon.

Sophocles' Tragic Works

Unfortunately, the majority of Sophocles' plays have been lost over time, leaving only seven for modern readers to study.

The Theban Plays: Tragic Tales Set in Thebes

The city of Thebes has been the setting for many tragic stories, with only seven surviving to this day. Out of these, only two have definitive dates: "Philoctetes" (409 BCE) and the posthumous "Oedipus at Colonus" (401 BCE).

The Theban Plays

Sophocles wrote three plays, known as the Theban Plays, that take place in and around Thebes and feature recurring characters. However, these plays were not meant to be performed as a trilogy and were most likely written at different points in Sophocles' life.

The Tragic Fate of Oedipus

Oedipus, a young man from Corinth, receives a dreadful prophecy that he will kill his father and marry his mother. In an attempt to escape this fate, he leaves his home and eventually becomes the ruler of Thebes. Unaware of his true identity, Oedipus marries Jocasta, the widowed queen.

The play Oedipus Rex tells the story of Oedipus, who learns that his past is intertwined with a tragic prophecy that has come to fruition. This thought-provoking play explores themes of fate, the power of gods, and the shame brought upon families.

In one of the most impactful moments, Oedipus says, "I am the most hated man, the one who was once celebrated in Thebes. I have brought doom upon myself..."(Lines 1628-1635). He reflects on the cruel irony of fulfilling the same prophecy he desperately tried to avoid. Oedipus is now consumed by guilt for unknowingly killing his father and marrying his mother, causing great turmoil for his children.

The Dilemma of Antigone

Antigone, Oedipus' daughter, faces a difficult decision when she must choose to either bury her dead brother, Polyneices, outside the city walls where he will be left to the mercy of animals, or risk her life by giving him a proper burial within the city walls. Creon, her uncle and King of Thebes, has forbidden the burial of Polyneices, who he considers a traitor. Antigone defies Creon's orders and buries her brother, leading to her tragic death. This decision sets off a series of events that ultimately results in the deaths of Creon's son and wife. The play explores the lengths people will go to when faced with destiny.

When confronting Creon, Antigone boldly declares, "I deserve praise and honor for my actions...If only the people weren't afraid of you..."(Lines 398-400). She stands strong in her belief that her actions were honorable, if not for the fear Creon instilled in the people of Thebes.

Oedipus in Colonus

In his old age, the blind Oedipus is living in exile, cared for by his daughters, Antigone and Ismene. Seeking refuge in Colonus, he is offered protection by Theseus, the King of Athens, against Creon, his brother-in-law and the King of Thebes. Meanwhile, Oedipus' sons, Polyneices and Eteocles, engage in a battle for the throne. In this final work by Sophocles, Oedipus' fate takes another tragic turn.

Reflecting on his past, Oedipus says to the chorus, "A person cannot escape their fate...You deceived us, and now we are doing the same..."(Lines 243-250). Even in his old age, the consequences of his actions continue to haunt him. When the people of Athens discover his true identity, they banish him from their city, causing deep pain.

Other plays by Sophocles

In addition to his well-known Theban plays, Sophocles also wrote four other Tragic plays that have survived:

  • Ajax (5th century BCE)
  • Trachinian Women (after 458 BCE)
  • Electra (Date unknown; potentially 420-414 BCE)
  • Philoctetes (409 BCE)

Like most of his tragedies, these works also explore the clash between fate and free will.

Analyze Sophocles' works

Sophocles is renowned for his Greek Tragedies, which originated in Ancient Greece and gained prominence in 5th century BCE Athens. These tragedies typically revolve around a protagonist with exceptional qualities who faces an uncontrollable disaster leading to their downfall. Many of Sophocles' plays focus on characters' responses to pressure, often caused by inner turmoil.

For instance, in Oedipus Rex, the titular character blinds himself upon discovering he fulfilled the prophecy of killing his father and marrying his mother.

This differentiates him from Aeschylus, whom Sophocles emulated in his earlier writings. Aeschylus often delved into the relationship between man and the actions of deities. Sophocles continued Aeschylus' practice of having a third actor, expanding the speaking roles in a scene from two to three. His characters were known for their strong qualities, yet inherent flaws that ultimately caused their tragic demise.

However, Sophocles chose to increase the number of characters in the Chorus from twelve to fifteen. The Chorus played a crucial role in Greek Tragedies, representing the voice of the people and providing commentary on the protagonist's actions.

For example, in this excerpt from Antigone, the Chorus mourns the cruelty of the Gods towards mortals like Antigone:

"I have seen this sorrow from times long past Loom upon Oedipus' children: generation after generation suffers from the wrath of the godly enemy."

"Even the last flower of Oedipus' line once basked in the sunlight, but now its beauty has been taken away with a passionate word and a handful of dust," (Antigone, Lines 470-477) wrote Sophocles, the renowned Greek playwright. He was also known for introducing skenographia, adding visual interest to his Tragedies, and carefully selecting his words and language to create a dramatic impact.

Sophocles was a master of diction, incorporating elements such as meter, dramatic irony, and rhyme to elevate his works. Meter refers to the rhythmic structure within a verse or line, while dramatic irony occurs when the audience knows something the character does not. Sophocles also used rhyme, which is the correspondence of ending or sound of words in a line of poetry, to captivate his audience.

His preferred meters were lyric and iambic trimeters, which rely on the stress and unstress of syllables in a line of poetry and contain three or two metrical feet, respectively. His language varied from ornate and lofty to plain and simple, depending on the character and situation, adding depth, suspense, and dynamism to his plays.

Sophocles - The Life and Legacy of a Literary Icon

Sophocles was born in 497 BCE in Colonus, a deme near Athens, where he displayed artistic talent from a young age. At the Dionysian festival in 468 BCE, he emerged victorious in the Drama competition, beating the reigning champion Aeschylus. Throughout his life, he wrote many plays, but only seven tragedies have survived. His Theban plays, which explore the theme of fate versus free will, have influenced Aristotelian philosophy. Besides being credited with introducing skenographia, Sophocles also increased the Chorus to fifteen members and was known for his delicate use of diction and language.


What was Sophocles known for?

Sophocles was renowned for his Greek Tragedies, including Oedipus Rex, Antigone, and Electra.

What were Sophocles' beliefs?

Though not a philosopher himself, Sophocles believed that humans were subject to the whims of the gods and destined for tragic ends.

What themes did Sophocles explore?

Sophocles' works often delve into the concept of fate versus free will and the consequences of human actions.

The Influence of Sophocles on Aristotle's Philosophy

Aristotle, the renowned philosopher, studied Sophocles' famous play, Antigone, to illustrate how humans must avoid extremes and strive for balance to avoid tragedy. Sophocles' rich literary background as an Athenian is evident in his works, although only his Greek Tragedies have survived, his legacy continues to inspire readers and writers to this day.

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