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).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

Sophocles: Selected full-text books and articles

A Commentary on the Plays of Sophocles By James C. Hogan Southern Illinois University Press, 1991
Sophocles and the Language of Tragedy By Simon Goldhill Oxford University Press, 2012
CliffsNotes Oedipus Trilogy By Charles Higgins; Regina Higgins Wiley, 2000
Antigone; Oedipus the King; Electra By Sophocles; H. D. F. Kitto; Edith Hall Oxford University Press, 1994
Philoctetes By Sophocles; Carl Phillips Oxford University Press, 2003
Aias: Ajax By Sophocles; Herbert Golder; Richard Pevear Oxford University Press, 1999
Sophocles Revisited: Essays Presented to Sir Hugh Lloyd-Jones By Hugh Lloyd-Jones; Jasper Griffin Oxford University Press, 1999
Tragedy and the Tragic: Greek Theatre and Beyond By M. S. Silk Oxford University Press, 1998
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 1 "Vision, Blindness and Mask: The Radicalization of the Emotions in Sophocles' Oedipus Rex"
Sounding the Classics: From Sophocles to Thomas Mann By Rudolph Binion Praeger, 1997
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 2 "The Trouble with Oedipus Sophocles' Oedipus the King"
Intimate Commerce: Exchange, Gender, and Subjectivity in Greek Tragedy By Victoria Wohl University of Texas Press, 1998
Librarian’s tip: Part One "Sovereign Father and Female Subject in Sophocles' Trachiniae"
Ancient Tragedy and the Origins of Modern Science By Michael Davis Southern Illinois University Press, 1988
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 2 "Ancient Tragedy: Sophocles' Ajax"
Symbol and Myth in Ancient Poetry By Herbert Musurillo Fordham University Press, 1961
Librarian’s tip: Chap. V "Tragic Wisdom: Aeschylus, Sophocles"
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