Authors: Sophocles

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

Greek playwright and poet

ca. 496 b.c.e.

Colonus, near Athens, Greece

ca. 406 b.c.e.

Athens, Greece


Few facts about Sophocles (SAHF-uh-kleez) are known. He was born about 496 b.c.e. at Colonus in Attica, near Athens, and his father, Sophillus, was said by tradition to have been a carpenter, a blacksmith, or a sword-cutler. Perhaps he owned slaves skilled in these trades. At any rate, Sophocles apparently moved in the best society and was not lampooned by the comic writers for low birth, as was his rival Euripides. He married a woman named Nicostrate, with whom he had a son, Iophon. His second wife, a woman of Sicyon, was, according to Athenian law, not legally a wife. Together they had several illegitimate children, including a son named Ariston, whose son Sophocles was legitimized, wrote tragedies, and staged his grandfather’s Oedipus at Colonus immediately after the latter’s death. In his old age the playwright kept a mistress, Archippe, whom he named his heiress, but she was cheated of her legacy. {$I[AN]9810001443} {$I[A]Sophocles} {$I[geo]GREECE;Sophocles} {$I[tim]0496 b.c.e.;Sophocles}


(Library of Congress)

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 b.c.e. He studied music under Lampros, an outstanding professional musician (the term is broader than today), and he learned the art of writing tragedy from Aeschylus, with whom he eventually competed and whom he sometimes defeated. His first production was offered in 468 b.c.e., but the names of the tragedies then presented are not known with certainty. It is generally agreed that Antigone was the first of his surviving plays to be produced. This is dated by the fact that its popularity is credited with getting him elected to the board of ten generals (another of whom was Pericles), whose term of office occurred during the Samian War of 441–439 b.c.e.

Sophocles was already a public figure. He had been elected to the board of Hellenotamiai, the treasurers of the Athenian League, in 443 b.c.e. This was the year in which the tribute list was revised, and therefore the office was exceptionally responsible.

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 b.c.e. that governed Athens after the failure of the Sicilian campaign. His direct involvement in public affairs extended over a period of some thirty years even as he was writing his plays—which eventually numbered more than 120 and included satyr plays such as the Ichneutae as well as tragedies.

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 b.c.e.—and came to symbolize to a later generation the largeness, serenity, and idealism of that time. His dramas reflect these qualities in the idealized aspect of their heroes, the ease and skill of their dramatic construction, and the calm beauty of many of their choral odes. They have, however, something more than these qualities. The hero of a Sophoclean tragedy is at bottom intransigent. He is destroyed by circumstances only partly, if at all, of his own making, which would crush into nothingness a lesser man. Yet, though destroyed, he is not crushed. For the spectators, he retains in his ruin the integrity of his nature. Sophocles’ dramatic skill consists in his ability to reveal this quality through speeches of the characters and songs by the chorus. His heroes are intelligent. Though they do not foresee their approaching doom, they recognize it when it is at hand for what it is. The action of most of the tragedies consists in showing by dialogue or monologue the steps by which this awareness is achieved. Sophocles uses the chorus well to heighten this effect. The chorus sympathizes with the hero but feels terror at his suffering. The chorus often gives expression to pessimism about life as a result of being close observers of the tragic fate of the hero. This pessimism is often wrongly attributed to Sophocles himself.

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 b.c.e.) credits Sophocles with adding a third actor, inventing scene-painting, and increasing the size of the chorus from twelve to fifteen members. These innovations increased the complexity of the dramatic action and heightened the sense of realism. Sophocles lacks Aeschylus’s cosmic grandeur and his grim, majestic gods that intervene directly in human affairs. In Sophocles the gods are more hidden, manifesting themselves in oracles and in humankind’s inner nature. If Sophocles’ characters are less human than those of Euripides, they are more recognizable as fellow creatures and therefore more sympathetic than the personages of Aeschlyus. Sophocles’ language is tenser and more ironic than that of Aeschylus, his poetry more metaphoric, allusive, and supple. Sophocles was the most influential of the great Greek dramatists. His emphasis on a single tragic hero set the pattern for Western tragedy which prevails to this day.

Author Works Drama: Aias, early 440s b.c.e. (Ajax, 1729) Antigonē, 441 b.c.e. (Antigone, 1729) Trachinai, 435–429 b.c.e. (The Women of Trachis, 1729) Oidipous Tyrannos, c. 429 b.c.e. (Oedipus Tyrannus, 1715) Ēlektra, 418–410 b.c.e. (Electra, 1649) Philoktētēs, 409 b.c.e. (Philoctetes, 1729) Oidipous epi Kolōnōi, 401 b.c.e. (Oedipus at Colonus, 1729) Sophocles: The Plays and Fragments with Critical Notes, Commentary, and Translation in English Prose, pb. 1889–1908 Ichneutae , pb. 1912 (The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus: The Delphi Text 1988, 1990) Poetry: Selected Poems: Odes and Fragments, 2008 Bibliography Budelmann, Felix. The Language of Sophocles: Communality, Communication, and Involvement. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. A wide-ranging study of Sophoclean language. From a detailed analysis of sentence structure in the first chapter, it moves on to discuss in subsequent chapters how language shapes the perception of characters, of myths, of gods, and of choruses. All chapters are united by a shared concern: how Sophoclean language engages readers and spectators. Daniels, Charles B. What Really Goes on in Sophocles’ Theban Plays. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1996. Daniels examines Sophocles’ Theban plays with reference to Greek mythology. Bibliography and index. Edinger, Edwin F., and Sheila Dickman Zarrow, eds. The Psyche on Stage: Individuation Motifs in Shakespeare and Sophocles. Toronto: Inner City Books, 2001. The third and final section is titled “Oedipus Rex: Mythology and the Tragic Hero.” Includes bibliography and index. Griffin, Jasper. Sophocles Revisited: Essays Presented to Sir Hugh Lloyd-Jones. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Papers in this volume give varied approaches to Sophocles, his work, and his influence. Kirkwood, Gordon MacDonald. A Study of Sophoclean Drama: With a New Preface and Enlarged Bibliographical Note. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1994. A scholarly look at the tragedies of Sophocles. Bibliography and indexes. Knox, Bernard MacGregor Walker. Oedipus at Thebes: Sophocles’ Greatest Hero and His Time. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1998. Looks at Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus in the context of Athens in the fifth century b.c.e. Includes preface and a list of suggested readings. Lefkowitz, Mary. The Lives of the Greek Poets. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981. A translation and discussion of the Alexandrian biography of Sophocles are included in this book, which also includes a bibliography. Lesky, Albin. Greek Tragedy. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1965. A scholarly introduction to Aeschylus’s dramaturgy, with a brief summary of his life. A bibliography is included. Lesky, Albin. A History of Greek Literature. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1996. Sophocles’ place in the literature of ancient Greece can be traced in this standard history, which includes biographical evidence and a bibliography. Scodel, Ruth. Sophocles. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1984. A good introduction written for the general reader, this book includes a chronological chart and a select annotated bibliography. Ormand, Kirk. Exchange and the Maiden: Marriage in Sophoclean Tragedy. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999. Marriage is a central concern in five of the seven extant plays of Sophocles. In this study, Ormand discusses the ways in which these plays represent and problematize marriage, thus finding insights into how Athenians thought about the institution of marriage. Pucci, Pietro. Oedipus and the Fabrication of the Father: “Oedipus Tyrannus” in Modern Criticism and Philosophy. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992. A study of Sophocles’ works that focuses on the Oedipus character. Bibliography and index. Segal, Charles. Oedipus Tyrannus: Tragic Heroism and the Limits of Knowledge. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. A close examination of the role of heroes in Sophocles’ tragedies, particularly Oedipus in Oedipus Tyrannus. Bibliography and index. Segal, Charles. Sophocles’ Tragic World: Divinity, Nature, Society. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995. The tragedies of Sophocles are analyzed in respect to religion, nature, and society. Bibliography and indexes. Segal, Charles. Tragedy and Civilization: An Interpretation of Sophocles. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999. Segal’s study attempts to show how Sophoclean tragedy reflects the human condition in its constant struggle for order and civilized life. Slenders, Willeon. "Sophocles' Ichneutae or How to Write a Satyr Play." A Companion to Sophocles, edited by Kirk Ormand, Blackwell, 2012, pp. 155–68. Describes the known characteristics of the satyr play, discusses the importance of Sophocles as a satyr playwright, and analyzes the Ichneutae. Van Nortwick, Thomas. Oedipus: The Meaning of a Masculine Life. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998. A scholarly study of the Oedipus character, particularly in Oedipus Tyrannus and Oedipus at Colonus. Bibliography and index. Webster, T. B. L. An Introduction to Sophocles. London: Methuen, 1969. An excellent and carefully documented life of Sophocles can be found in the first chapter of this standard study.

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