Sophocles was an ancient Greek playwright and the second of the 3 greatest Greek writers of tragedy with Aeschylus and Euripides. He is known best for what he wrote about Oedipus, the mythological figure who proved central to Freud and the history of psychoanalysis. The Suda, which is an ancient 10th Century encyclopedia, from which we know that Sophocles wrote 123 plays out of which we have 7 complete plays.
- The Women of Trachis
- Oedipus the King
- Oedipus at Colonus
Oedipus at Colonus was produced posthumously. Sophocles lived through most of the 5th century from 496-406 BCE, experiencing the Age of Pericles and the Peloponnesian War.
Sophocles grew up in the town of Colonus, just outside Athens, which was the setting of his tragedy Oedipus at Colonus. His father, Sophillus, thought to have been a wealthy nobleman, sent his son to Athens for an education. In 468 BCE, Sophocles defeated the first of the three great Greek tragedians, Aeschylus, in a dramatic competition; then in 441 BCE, the third of the tragedian trio, Euripides, beat him. During his long life, Sophocles earned many prizes, including about 20 for 1st place. Plutarch says that Sophocles himself saw three periods in his works: 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.
Ancient authorities credit Sophocles with several major and minor dramatic innovations. Among the latter is his invention of some type of “scene paintings” or other pictorial props to establish locale or atmosphere. He also may have increased the size of the chorus from 12 to 15 members. Sophocles’ major innovation was his introduction of a third actor into the dramatic performance. It had previously been permissible for two actors to “double” (i.e., assume other roles during a play), but the addition of a third actor onstage enabled the dramatist both to increase the number of his characters and widen the variety of their interactions. The scope of the dramatic conflict was thereby extended, plots could be more fluid, and situations could be more complex.
The typical Sophoclean drama presents a few characters, impressive in their determination and power and possessing a few strongly drawn qualities or faults that combine with a particular set of circumstances to lead them inevitably to a tragic fate. Sophocles develops his characters’ rush to tragedy with great economy, concentration, and dramatic effectiveness, creating a coherent, suspenseful situation whose sustained and inexorable onrush came to epitomize the tragic form to the classical world. Sophocles emphasizes that most people lack wisdom, and he presents truth in collision with ignorance, delusion, and folly. Many scenes dramatize flaws or failure in thinking (deceptive reports and rumours, false optimism, hasty judgment, madness). The chief character does something involving grave error; this affects others, each of whom reacts in his way, thereby causing the chief agent to take another step toward ruin—his own and that of others as well. Equally important, those who are to suffer from the tragic error usually are present at the time or belong to the same generation. It was this more complex type of tragedy that demanded a third actor. Sophocles thus abandoned the spacious Aeschylean framework of the connected trilogy and instead comprised the entire action in a single play. From his time onward, “trilogy” usually meant no more than three separate tragedies written by the same author and presented at the same festival.
Sophocles’ language responds flexibly to the dramatic needs of the moment; it can be ponderously weighty or swift-moving, emotionally intense or easygoing, highly decorative or perfectly plain and simple. His mastery of form and diction was highly respected by his contemporaries. Sophocles has also been universally admired for the sympathy and vividness with which he delineates his characters; especially notable are his tragic women, such as Electra and Antigone. Few dramatists have been able to handle situation and plot with more power and certainty; the frequent references in the Poetics to Sophocles’ Oedipus the King show that Aristotle regarded this play as a masterpiece of construction, and few later critics have dissented. Sophocles is also unsurpassed in his moments of high dramatic tension and his revealing use of tragic irony.
The criticism has been made that Sophocles was a superb artist and nothing more; he grappled neither with religious problems as Aeschylus had nor with intellectual ones as Euripides had done. He accepted the gods of Greek religion in a spirit of unreflecting orthodoxy, and he contented himself with presenting human characters and human conflicts. But it should be stressed that to Sophocles “the gods” appear to have represented the natural forces of the universe to which human beings are unwittingly or unwillingly subject. To Sophocles, human beings live for the most part in dark ignorance because they are cut off from these permanent, unchanging forces and structures of reality. Yet it is pain, suffering, and the endurance of tragic crisis that can bring people into valid contact with the universal order of things. In the process, a person can become more genuinely human, more genuinely himself.
‘Many are the wonders of the world,’ says Sophocles, ‘but none is more wonderful than man.’