Last reviewed: June 2018
Greek playwright and poet
Colonus, near Athens, Greece
Few facts about Sophocles (SAHF-uh-kleez) are known. He was born about 496 Sophocles
It is reported that as a boy Sophocles was handsome and well educated in the conventional music and gymnastics, and that he was chosen to lead the chorus that celebrated the victory of Salamis in 480
Sophocles was already a public figure. He had been elected to the board of Hellenotamiai, the treasurers of the Athenian League, in 443
It is likely that he held the generalship during the Peloponnesian War. Presumably Pericles held a low opinion of Sophocles’ military ability, as he once said to the dramatist, “You may know how to write poetry, but you certainly don’t know how to command an army.” Sophocles was one of the ten commissioners in 413–411
An uncertain tradition connects Sophocles with the introduction of the worship of Asclepius, the god of healing, at Athens, makes him a priest of a mysterious healer god Alon (or Alkon), and has the Athenians decree him heroic honors under the name Dexion (Receiver) after his death. This tradition may reflect his interest in Ionian medicine. He certainly knew the historian Herodotus, and from the language of his plays, as well as from other sources, it is fairly certain that he was aware of the growing interest in the technical aspects of language, from which the sciences of grammar, rhetoric, and logic took their start.
Sophocles’ personality impressed his contemporaries with its even temper and gentleness. He lived through the great Periclean Age of Athens—until 406 or 405
Not all of his seven extant tragedies exactly fit this pattern. Sophocles had a variety of things to say, but he is most Sophoclean in the plays that do fit it to a greater or lesser degree. Antigone, the daughter of Oedipus, is the starkest tragic figure in her self-isolation in the cause of her brother’s burial. Oedipus Tyrannus shows the hero weaving for himself an involuntary net of dire circumstance to discover his own undoing. In his last play, Oedipus at Colonus, Sophocles shows the same hero, still maintaining his integrity and ending in the awe-filled isolation of a mysterious death. Ajax is a variation on this theme. The hero has in madness disgraced himself. Suicide and its consequences in regard to his burial raise the problem of the place of the hero in a world of politicians and small-minded people. Herakles in The Women of Trachis literally goes through fire to purge his human weakness. Only the Philoctetes mutes the theme. Though the hero suffers and stands firm, the intervention of a god brings about a happy ending. Electra, dealing with the old theme of the punishment of the murderers of Agamemnon, is more a melodrama than a tragedy. Orestes and Electra do the bloody deed and rejoice at the end. They, too, preserve their integrity but at the cost, for the spectators, of appearing devoid of human feeling. This statement could not be made of any other known Sophoclean heroes.
Notably, Sophocles' Ichneutae, discovered in fragmentary form in 1907 and published in 1912, represents the second-most complete satyr play to have survived from antiquity. It thus illuminates a little-understood dramatic genre that contains characteristics of both tragedy and comedy and that draws on mythology. Sophocles is believed to have written many satyr plays alongside his tragedies.
Aristotle in the Poetics (334–323