Sophocles

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Sophocles

Sophocles (sŏf´əklēz), c.496 BC–406 BC, Greek tragic dramatist, younger contemporary of Aeschylus and older contemporary of Euripides, b. Colonus, near Athens. A man of wealth, charm, and genius, Sophocles was given posts of responsibility in peace and in war by the Athenians. He was a general and a priest; after his death he was worshiped as a hero. At the age of 16 he led the chorus in a paean on the victory of Salamis. He won his first dramatic triumph in 468, over Aeschylus, and thenceforth wrote copiously (he composed about 123 dramas), winning first place about 20 times and never falling lower than second. A definitive innovator in the drama, he added a third actor—thereby tremendously increasing the dramatic possibilities of the medium—increased the size of the chorus, abandoned the trilogy of plays for the self-contained tragedy, and introduced scene painting. Seven complete tragedies (difficult to date), part of a satyr play, and over 1,000 fragments survive. Ajax is perhaps the earliest tragedy; three actors are used but the form is handled imperfectly. In his other plays, whether with two or three actors, the dialogue is polished and smooth. Antigone (c.441) contains extraordinarily fine characterization. The most famous of his tragedies (cited by Aristotle as a perfect example of tragedy) is Oedipus Rex or Oedipus Tyrannus (c.429), in which Greek dramatic irony reaches an apex. The plot is based on the Oedipus legend. Electra (date uncertain), the Trachiniae (date uncertain; on the death of Hercules by the blood of Nessus), and Philoctetes (409) followed. Oedipus at Colonus was written shortly before Sophocles' death and was produced in 401. A sequel to Oedipus Rex, it tells of the last days and death of Oedipus; it is a quiet, simple play of great beauty and power. There is also extant about half of a satyr play (Ichneutae or The Trackers, written perhaps c.460) on Hermes' theft of Apollo's cattle. The characters in Sophocles are governed in their fate more by their own faults than by the actions of the gods as in the tragedies of Aeschylus. Sophocles is supposed to have said that Aeschylus composed correctly without knowing it; Euripides portrayed people as they were; and he painted people as they ought to be. The translation by Richmond Lattimore and David Grene, The Complete Greek Tragedies (1959) is one of the many English translations of Sophocles.

See studies by C. H. Whitman (1951), A. J. A. Waldock (1966), R. P. Winnington-Ingram (1980), C. Segal (1981), and S. Goldhill (2012).

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