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Born c.497/6 BC
Died winter 407/6 BC
Occupation Ancient Tragedian
Nationality Athenian
Period Theatre of ancient Greece
Genres Tragedy and Satyr plays

Sophocles (pronounced /ˈsɒfəkliːz/ in English; ancient Greek Σοφοκλῆς Sophoklēs, probably pronounced [sopʰoklɛ̂ːs]; c. 497/6 BC- winter 406/5 BC)[1] was the second of the three ancient Greek tragedians whose work has survived. His first plays were written later than those of Aeschylus and earlier than those of Euripides. According to the Suda, a 10th century encyclopedia, Sophocles wrote 123 plays during the course of his life, but only seven have survived in a complete form: Ajax, Antigone, Trachinian Women, Oedipus the King, Electra, Philoctetes and Oedipus at Colonus.[2] For almost 50 years, Sophocles was the most-awarded playwright in the dramatic competitions of the city-state of Athens that took place during the religious festivals of the Lenaea and the Dionysia. Sophocles competed in around 30 competitions; he won perhaps 24 and never received lower than second place; in comparison, Aeschylus won 14 competitions and was defeated by Sophocles at times, while Euripides won only 4 competitions.[3]

The most famous of Sophocles' tragedies are those concerning Oedipus and Antigone: these are often known as the Theban plays, although each play was actually a part of different tetralogy, the other members of which are now lost. Sophocles influenced the development of the drama, most importantly by adding a third actor and thereby reducing the importance of the chorus in the presentation of the plot. He also developed his characters to a greater extent than earlier playwrights such as Aeschylus.[4]



[[Image:Sophocles CdM Chab3308.jpg|thumb|left|A marble relief of a poet, perhaps Sophocles

Sophocles, the son of Sophillus, was a wealthy member of the rural deme (small community) of Colonus Hippius in Attica, which would later become a setting for his plays, and was probably born there.[1][5] His birth took place a few years before the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC: the exact year is unclear, although 497/6 is perhaps most likely.[1][6] Sophocles' first artistic triumph was in the 468 BC when he took first prize in the Dionysia theatre competition over the reigning master of Athenian drama, Aeschylus.[1][7] According to Plutarch the victory came under unusual circumstances. Instead of following the custom of choosing judges by lot, the archon asked Cimon and the other strategoi present to decide the victor of the contest. Plutarch further contends that Aeschylus soon left for Sicily following this loss to Sophocles.[8] Although Plutarch says that this was Sophocles' first production, it is now thought that this is an embellishment of the truth and that his first production was most likely in 470 BC.[5] Triptolemus was probably one of the plays that Sophocles presented at this festival.[5]

Sophocles became a man of importance in the public halls of Athens as well as in the theatres. Sophocles was chosen to lead the paean, a choral chant to a god, at the age of 16 celebrating the decisive Greek sea victory over the Persians at the Battle of Salamis. This rather insufficient information about Sophocles’ civic life implies he was a well-liked man who participated in activities in society and showed remarkable artistic ability. He was also elected as one of ten strategoi, high executive officials that commanded the armed forces, as a junior colleague of Pericles. Sophocles was born extremely wealthy (his father was a wealthy armour manufacturer) and was highly educated throughout his entire life. Early in his career, the politician Cimon might have been one of his patrons, although if he was there was no ill will borne by Pericles, Cimon's rival, when Cimon was ostracized in 461 BC.[1] In 443/2 he served as one of the Hellenotamiai, or treasurers of Athena, helping to manage the finances of the city during the political ascendancy of Pericles.[1] According to the Vita Sophoclis he served as a general in the Athenian campaign against Samos, which had revolted in 441 BC; he was supposed to have been elected to his post as the result of his production of Antigone.[9]

In 420 he welcomed and set up an altar for the icon of Asclepius at his house, when the deity was introduced in Athens. For this he was given the posthumous epithet Dexion (receiver) by the Athenians.[10] He was also elected, in 413 BC, to be one of the commissioners crafting a response to the catastrophic destruction of the Athenian expeditionary force in Sicily during the Peloponnesian War.[11]

Sophocles died at the age of ninety or ninety-one in the winter of 406/5 BC, having seen within his lifetime both the Greek triumph in the Persian Wars and the terrible bloodletting of the Peloponnesian War.[1] As with many famous men in classical antiquity, Sophocles' death inspired a number of apocryphal stories about the cause. Perhaps the most famous is the suggestion that he died from the strain of trying to recite a long sentence from his Antigone without pausing to take a breath; another account suggests he choked while eating grapes at the Anthesteria festival in Athens. A third account holds that he died of happiness after winning his final victory at the City Dionysia.[12] A few months later, the comic poet wrote this eulogy in his play titled The Muses: "Blessed is Sophocles, who had a long life, was a man both happy and talented, and the writer of many good tragedies; and he ended his life well without suffering any misfortune."[13] This is somewhat ironic, for according to some accounts his own sons tried to have him declared incompetent near the end of his life; he is said to have refuted their charge in court by reading from his as yet unproduced Oedipus at Colonus.[14] Both Iophon, one of his sons, and a grandson, also called Sophocles, followed in his footsteps to become playwrights.[15]

Sophocles as erastês

It was common in fifth-century Greece for men of the upper classes to cultivate sexual relationships with adolescent boys. Sophocles was one such participant in the relationship between the erastês ("lover") and eromenos ("beloved").[16]

Athenaeus reports two stories of this kind, one, if authentic, from a contemporary: a symposium in which Sophocles cleverly steals a kiss from the boy sitting next to him,[17] and another in which Sophocles entices a young boy to have sex outside the walls of Athens, and the boy takes Sophocles' cloak.[18] According to Plutarch, when he caught Sophocles admiring a young boy's looks, Pericles rebuked him for neglecting his duty as a strategos.[19] Sophocles' sexual appetite reportedly lasted well into old age. In The Republic (1.329b-329c) Plato tells us that when he finally succumbed to impotence, Sophocles was glad to be free of his "raging and savage beast of a master."[20] it is debatable how far such anecdotes were invented as references to this well-known passage.

In yet another such account, a satirical one by Machon involving a hetaira known for her ironical sense of humor, we are told that, "Demophon, Sophocles' minion, when still a youth had Nico, already old and surnamed the she-goat; they say she had very fine buttocks. One day he begged of her to lend them to him. 'Very well,' she said with a smile,—'Take from me, dear, what you give to Sophocles.'"[21][22]

Works and legacy

[[Image:Euaion.jpg|thumb|right|Portrait of the Greek actor Euiaon in Sophocles' Andromeda, c. 430 BC.]] Among Sophocles' earliest innovations was the addition of a third actor, which further reduced the role of the chorus and created greater opportunity for character development and conflict between characters.[4] Aeschylus, who dominated Athenian playwrighting during Sophocles' early career, followed suit and adopted the third character into his own work towards the end of his life.[4] Aristotle credits Sophocles with the introduction of skenographia, or scenery-painting. It was not until after the death of the old master Aeschylus in 456 BC that Sophocles became the pre-eminent playwright in Athens.[1]

Thereafter, Sophocles emerged victorious in dramatic competitions at 18 Dionysia and 6 Lenaia festivals.[1] In addition to innovations in dramatic structure, Sophocles' work is also known for its deeper development of characters than earlier playwrights.[4] His reputation was such that foreign rulers invited him to attend their courts, although unlike Aeschylus who died in Sicily, or Euripides who spent time in Macedon, Sophocles never accepted any of these invitations.[1] Aristotle used Sophocles's Oedipus the King in his Poetics (c. 335 BC) as an example of the highest achievement in tragedy, which suggests the high esteem in which his work was held by later Greeks.[23]

Only two of the seven surviving plays[24] can be dated securely: Philoctetes (409 BC) and Oedipus at Colonus (401 BC, staged after Sophocles' death by his grandson). Of the others, Electra shows stylistic similarities to these two plays, which suggests that it was probably written in the latter part of his career. Ajax, Antigone and The Trachiniae are generally thought to be among his early works, again based on stylistic elements, with Oedipus the King coming in Sophocles' middle period. Most of Sophocles' plays show an undercurrent of early fatalism and the beginnings of Socratic logic as a mainstay for the long tradition of Greek tragedy.[25][26]

The Theban plays

The Theban plays consist of three plays: Antigone, Oedipus the King (also called Oedipus Tyrannus or Oedipus Rex), and Oedipus at Colonus. All three plays concern the fate of Thebes during and after the reign of King Oedipus.[27] They have often been published under a single cover.[28] Sophocles, however, wrote the three plays for separate festival competitions, many years apart. Not only are the Theban plays not a true trilogy (three plays presented as a continuous narrative) but they are not even an intentional series and contain some inconsistencies among them.[27] He also wrote other plays having to do with Thebes, such as The Progeny, of which only fragments have survived.[29]


Each of the plays relates to the tale of the mythological Oedipus, who killed his father and married his mother without knowledge that they were his parents. His family is fated to be doomed for three generations.

In Oedipus the King, Oedipus is the protagonist. He becomes the ruler of Thebes after solving the riddle of the sphinx. Before solving this riddle, Oedipus had met at a crossroads a man accompanied by servants; Oedipus and the man fought, and Oedipus killed the man. Oedipus continued on to Thebes to marry the widowed Queen, who was, unknown to him, his mother. Oedipus eventually learns that his mother and father gave him up when he was just an infant in fear that he would kill his father and fulfill the Delphic Oracle's prophecy of him. Upon learning of the completed prophecy, his mother, Jocasta, realizes the incest and commits suicide; Oedipus, in horror of what he has seen, blinds himself and leaves Thebes. The couple had four children, who figure in the remaining plays of the set.

In Oedipus at Colonus, the banished Oedipus and his daughters Antigone and Ismene arrive at the town of Colonus where they encounter Theseus, King of Athens. Oedipus dies and strife begins between his sons Polyneices and Eteocles.

In Antigone the protagonist is Oedipus' daughter. Antigone is faced with the choice of allowing her brother Polyneices' body to remain unburied, outside the city walls, exposed to the ravages of wild animals, or to bury him and face death. The king of the land, Creon, has forbidden the burial of Polyneices for he was a traitor to the city. Antigone decides to bury his body and face the consequences of her actions. Creon sentences her to death. Eventually, Creon is convinced to free Antigone from her punishment, but his decision comes too late and Antigone commits suicide. Her suicide triggers the suicide of two others close to King Creon: his son, Haemon, who was to wed Antigone, and his wife who commits suicide after losing her only surviving son.

Composition and inconsistencies

The plays were written across thirty-six years of Sophocles' career and were not composed in chronological order, but instead were written in the order Antigone, Oedipus the King, and Oedipus at Colonus. As a result, there are some inconsistencies: notably, Creon is the undisputed king at the end of Oedipus the King and, in consultation with Apollo, single-handedly makes the decision to expel Oedipus from Thebes. Creon is also instructed to look after Oedipus' daughters Antigone and Ismene at the end of Oedipus the King. By contrast, in the other plays there is some struggle with Oedipus' sons Eteocles and Polynices in regards to the succession. In Oedipus at Colonus, Sophocles attempts to work these inconsistencies into a coherent whole: Ismene explains that, in light of their tainted family lineage, her brothers were at first willing to cede the throne to Creon. Nevertheless, they eventually decided to take charge of the monarchy, with each brother disputing the other's right to succeed. In addition to being in a clearly more powerful position in Oedipus at Colonus, Eteocles and Polynices are also culpable: they condemn their father to exile, which is one of his bitterest charges against them.[27]

Other plays

Other than the three Theban plays, there are four surviving plays by Sophocles: Ajax, The Trachiniae, Electra, and Philoctetes, the last of which won first prize.[30]

Ajax focuses on the prideful hero of the Trojan War, Telamonian Ajax, who is driven to treachery and eventually suicide. Ajax becomes gravely upset when Achilles’ armor is presented to Odysseus instead of himself. Despite their enmity toward him, Odysseus persuades the kings Menelaus and Agamemnon to grant Ajax a proper burial.

The Trachiniae (named for the Trachinian women who make up the chorus) dramatizes Deianeira's accidentally killing Heracles after he had completed his famous twelve labors. Tricked into thinking it is a love charm, Deianeira applies poison to an article of Heracles' clothing; this poisoned robe causes Heracles to die an excruciating death. Upon learning the truth, Deianeira commits suicide.

Electra Corresponds roughly to the plot of Aeschylus' Libation Bearers. It details Electra and Orestes' avenging their father Agamemnon's murder by Clytemnestra and Aegisthus.

Philoctetes retells the story of Philoctetes, an archer who had been abandoned on Lemnos by the rest of the Greek fleet while on the way to Troy. After learning that they cannot win the Trojan War without Philoctetes' bow, the Greeks send Odysseus and Neoptolemus to retrieve him; due to the Greeks' earlier treachery, however, Philoctetes refuses to rejoin the army. It is only Heracles' deus ex machina appearance that persuades Philoctetes to go to Troy.

Fragmentary plays

Fragments of The Tracking Satyrs (Ichneutae) were discovered in Egypt in 1907.[31] These amount to about half of the play, making it the best preserved satyr play after Euripides' Cyclops, which survives in its entirety.[31] Fragments of The Progeny (Epigonoi) were discovered in April 2005 by classicists at Oxford University with the help of infrared technology previously used for satellite imaging. The tragedy tells the story of the second siege of Thebes.[29] A number of other Sophoclean works have survived only in fragments, including:

  • Aias Lokros (Ajax the Locrian)
  • Akhaiôn Syllogos (The Gathering of the Achaeans)
  • Aleadae (The Sons of Aleus)
  • Creusa
  • Eurypylus
  • Hermione
  • Inachos
  • Lacaenae (Lacaenian Women)
  • Manteis or Polyidus (The Prophets or Polyidus)
  • Nauplios Katapleon (Nauplius' Arrival)
  • Nauplios Pyrkaeus (Nauplius' Fires)
  • Niobe
  • Oeneus
  • Oenomaus
  • Poimenes (The Shepherds)
  • Polyxene
  • Syndeipnoi (The Diners, or, The Banqueters)
  • Tereus
  • Thyestes
  • Troilus
  • Phaedra
  • Triptolemus
  • Tyro Keiromene (Tyro Shorn)
  • Tyro Anagnorizomene (Tyro Rediscovered).

Sophocles' view of his own work

There is a passage of Plutarch's tract De Profectibus in Virtute 7 in which Sophocles discusses his own growth as a writer. A likely source of this material for Plutarch was the Epidemiae of Ion of Chios, a book that recorded many conversations of Sophocles. This book is a likely candidate to have contained Sophocles' discourse on his own development because Ion was a friend of Sophocles, and the book is known to have been used by Plutarch.[32] Though some interpretations of Plutarch's words suggest that Sophocles says that he imitated Aeschylus, the translation does not fit grammatically, nor does the interpretation that Sophocles said that he was making fun of Aeschylus' works. C. M. Bowra argues for the following translation of the line: "After practising to the full the bigness of Aeschylus, then the painful ingenuity of my own invention, now in the third stage I am changing to the kind of diction which is most expressive of character and best."[33]

Here Sophocles says that he has completed a stage of Aeschylus' work, meaning that he went through a phase of imitating Aeschylus' style but is finished with that. Sophocles' opinion of Aeschylus was mixed. He certainly respected him enough to imitate his work early on in his career, but he had reservations about Aeschylus' style,[34] and thus did not keep his imitation up. Sophocles' first stage, in which he imitated Aeschylus, is marked by "Aeschylean pomp in the language".[35] Sophocles' second stage was entirely his own. He introduced new ways of evoking feeling out of an audience, like in his Ajax when he is mocked by Athene, then the stage is emptied so that he may commit suicide alone.[36] Sophocles mentions a third stage, distinct from the other two, in his discussion of his development. The third stage pays more heed to diction. His characters spoke in a way that was more natural to them and more expressive of their individual character feelings.[37]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Sommerstein (2002), p. 41.
  2. ^ Suda (ed. Finkel et al.): s.v. Σοφοκλῆς.
  3. ^ Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc.
  4. ^ a b c d Freeman, p. 247.
  5. ^ a b c Sommerstein (2007), p. xi.
  6. ^ Lloyd-Jones 1994, p. 7.
  7. ^ Freeman, p. 246.
  8. ^ Life of Cimon 8. Whatever the merit of the rest of the story, Plutarch is obviously mistaken about Aeschylus' death during this trip; he went on to produce dramas in Athens for another decade.
  9. ^ Beer 2004, p. 67.
  10. ^ Clinton, Kevin "The Epidauria and the Arrival of Asclepius in Athens", in Ancient Greek Cult Practice from the Epigraphical Evidence, edited by R. Hägg, Stockholm, 1994.
  11. ^ Lloyd-Jones, pp. 12-13.
  12. ^ Schultz 1835, pp. 150-1.
  13. ^ Lucas 1964, p. 128.
  14. ^ Cicero recounts this story in his De Senectute 7.22.
  15. ^ Sommerstein (2002), pp. 41-42.
  16. ^ For the erastês-eromenos relationship in ancient Greece, see (e.g.) Johnson/Ryan 2005, 3-4.
  17. ^ Athenaeus attributes this to the Encounters of Ion of Chios. See Hubbard 2003, 80.
  18. ^ From the Historical Notes of Hieronymus of Rhodes. See Hubbard 2003, 81.
  19. ^ Life of Pericles 8.5.
  20. ^ Plato, The Republic, 1.329c.
  21. ^ Friederich Karl Forberg, Manual of Classical Erotology (De Figuris Veneris), p. 74 N26.
  22. ^ Lee Alexander Stone, The Power of a Symbol, p. 229.
  23. ^ Aristotle. Ars Poetica.
  24. ^ The first printed edition of the seven plays is by Aldus Manutius in Venice 1502: Sophoclis tragaediae [sic] septem cum commentariis. Despite the addition 'cum commentariis' in the title, the Aldine edition did not include the ancient scholia to Sophocles. These had to wait until 1518 when Janus Lascaris brought out the relevant edition in Rome.
  25. ^ Lloyd-Jones 1994, pp. 8-9.
  26. ^ Scullion, pp. 85–86, rejects attempts to date Antigone to shortly before 441/0 based on an anecdote that the play led to Sophocles' election as general. On other grounds, he cautiously suggests c. 450 BC.
  27. ^ a b c Sophocles, ed Grene and Lattimore, pp. 1–2.
  28. ^ See for example: "Sophocles: The Theban Plays", Penguin Books, 1947; Sophocles I: Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone, University of Chicago, 1991; Sophocles: The Theban Plays: Antigone/King Oidipous/Oidipous at Colonus, Focus Publishing/R. Pullins Company, 2002; Sophocles, The Oedipus Cycle: Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone, Harvest Books, 2002; Sophocles, Works, Loeb Classical Library, Vol I. London, W. Heinemann; New York,Macmillan, 1912 (often reprinted) - the 1994 Loeb, however, prints Sophocles in chronological order.
  29. ^ a b Murray, Matthew, "Newly Readable Oxyrhynchus Papyri Reveal Works by Sophocles, Lucian, and Others", Theatermania, 18 April 2005. Retrieved 9 July 2007.
  30. ^ Freeman, pp. 247–248.
  31. ^ a b Seaford, p. 1361.
  32. ^ Bowra, p. 386.
  33. ^ Bowra, p. 401.
  34. ^ Bowra, p. 389.
  35. ^ Bowra, p. 392.
  36. ^ Bowra, p. 396.
  37. ^ Bowra, pp. 385–401.

See also


  • Finkel, Raphael; et al. (eds.). "Suda On Line: Byzantine Lexicography". pp. s.v. Σοφοκλῆς. Retrieved 2007-03-14. 
  • Beer, Josh (2004). Sophocles and the Tragedy of Athenian Democracy. Greenwood Publishing. ISBN 0313289468
  • Bowra, C. M. (1940). "Sophocles on His Own Development" (JSTOR access required). American Journal of Philology 61 (4): 385–401. doi:10.2307/291377. Retrieved 2007-11-24. 
  • Freeman, Charles. (1999). The Greek Achievement: The Foundation of the Western World. New York: Viking Press. ISBN 0670885150
  • Hubbard, Thomas K. (2003). Homosexuality in Greece and Rome: a Sourcebook of Basic Documents.
  • Johnson, Marguerite & Terry Ryan (2005). Sexuality in Greek and Roman Society and Literature: a Sourcebook. Routledge. ISBN 0415173310, 9780415173315
  • Lloyd-Jones, Hugh (ed.) (1994). Sophocles. Ajax. Electra. Oedipus Tyrannus. Harvard University Press.
  • Lucas, Donald William (1964). The Greek Tragic Poets. W.W. Norton & Co.
  • Plato. Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vols. 5 & 6 translated by Paul Shorey. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1969.
  • Schultz, Ferdinand (1835). De vita Sophoclis poetae commentatio.‎ Phil. Diss., Berlin.[1]
  • Scullion, Scott (2002). Tragic dates, Classical Quarterly, new sequence 52, pp. 81–101.
  • Seaford, Richard A. S. (2003). "Satyric drama". in Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth. The Oxford Classical Dictionary (revised 3rd edition ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 1361. ISBN 0-19-860641-9. 
  • Smith, Philip (1867). "Sophocles". in William Smith. Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. 3. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company. pp. 865–873. Retrieved 2007-02-19. 
  • Sommerstein, Alan Herbert (2002). Greek Drama and Dramatists. Routledge. ISBN 0415260272
  • Sommerstein, Alan Herbert (2007). "General Introduction" pp.xi-xxix in Sommerstein, A.H., Fitzpatrick, D. and Tallboy, T. Sophocles: Selected Fragmentary Plays: Volume 1. Aris and Phillips. ISBN 0856687669
  • Sophocles. Sophocles I: Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone. 2nd ed. Grene, David and Lattimore, Richard, eds. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1991.
  • Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. "Macropaedia Knowledge In Depth." The New Encyclopaedia Britannica Volume 20. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 2005. 344-346.

External links


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

It is no weakness for the wisest man to learn when he is wrong.

Sophocles (496 BC–406 BC; Greek: Σοφοκλης) was an ancient Greek playwright, dramatist, priest, and politician of Athens. He was also a general for the Athenian Empire in the Peloponnesian Wars, and during his service he led the battle against the Peloponnesian Island of Samos.



  • Truly, to tell lies is not honorable;
    But when the truth entails tremendous ruin,
    To speak dishonorably is pardonable.
    • Creusa, fragment 323
  • Sons are the anchors of a mother's life.
    • Phaedra, fragment 612
  • No man loves life like him that's growing old.
    • Acrisius, fragment 64
  • When ice appears out of doors, and boys seize it up while it is solid, at first they experience new pleasures. But in the end their pride will not agree to let it go, but their acquisition is not good for them if it stays in their hands. In the same way an identical desire drives lovers to act and not to act.
    • The loves of Achilles, only surviving fragment, often quoted as "Love is like ice in the hands of children".


  • Nobly to live, or else nobly to die,
    Befits proud birth.
    • Line 480
  • Of all human ills, greatest is fortune's wayward tyranny.
    • Line 486
  • For kindness begets kindness evermore,
    But he from whose mind fades the memory
    Of benefits, noble is he no more.
    • Line 522
  • Men of ill judgement oft ignore the good
    That lies within their hands, till they have lost it.
    • Line 964

Oedipus Rex

  • Fear? What has a man to do with fear? Chance rules our lives, and the future is all unknown. Best live as we may, from day to day.
    • Jocasta
  • I am the child of Fortune, the giver of good, and I shall not be shamed. She is my mother; my sisters are the Seasons; my rising and my falling match with theirs. Born thus, I ask to be no other man than that I am.
    • Oedipus
  • Wisdom is a curse when wisdom does nothing for the man who has it.
    • Teiresias
  • I will never reveal my dreadful secrets, or rather, yours.
    • Teiresias
  • How dreadful knowledge of the truth can be
    When there's no help in truth!
    • Line 316
  • The tyrant is a child of Pride
    Who drinks from his sickening cup
    Recklessness and vanity,
    Until from his high crest headlong
    He plummets to the dust of hope.
    • Line 872
  • The greatest griefs are those we cause ourselves.
    • Line 1230
  • Time eases all things.
    • Line 1515
  • Let every man in mankind's frailty
    Consider his last day; and let none
    Presume on his good fortune until he find
    Life, at his death, a memory without pain.
    • Line 1529


  • I say this crime is holy.
    • Antigone
  • It is no weakness for the wisest man to learn when he is wrong.
    • Haemon
  • No other touchstone can test the heart of a man, the temper of his mind and spirit, till he be tried in the practice of authority and rule.
    • Creon
  • When I have tried and failed, I shall have failed.
    • Antigone
  • Don't kill the messenger.
    • Messenger
  • For God hates utterly
    The bray of bragging tongues.
    • Line 123
  • Our ship of fate, which recent storms have threatened to destroy, has come safely to harbor at last.
    • Line 163
  • I have nothing but contempt for the kind of governor who is afraid, for whatever reason, to follow the course that he knows is best for the State; and as for the man who sets private friendship above the public welfare - I have no use for him, either.
    • Line 181
  • Nobody likes the man who brings bad news.
    • Line 277
  • Money: There's nothing in the world so demoralizing as money.
    • Line 295
  • Nothing so evil as money ever grew to be current among men. This lays cities low, this drives men from their homes, this trains and warps honest souls till they set themselves to works of shame; this still teaches folk to practise villainies, and to know every godless deed. But all the men who wrought this thing for hire have made it sure that, soon or late, they shall pay the price.
    • Lines 295-303
  • that henceforth ye may thieve with better knowledge whence lucre should be won, and learn that it is not well to love gain from every source. For thou wilt find that ill-gotten pelf brings more men to ruin than to weal.
    • Lines 311-314
  • Numberless are the world's wonders, but none
    More wonderful than man.
    • Line 333 (Ode I)
  • It is a good thing
    To escape from death, but it is not great pleasure
    To bring death to a friend.
    • Line 437
  • Grief teaches the steadiest minds to waver.
    • Line 563
  • Show me the man who keeps his house in hand,
    He's fit for public authority.
    • Line 660
  • The ideal condition
    Would be, I admit, that men should be right by instinct;
    But since we are all likely to go astray,
    The reasonable thing is to learn from those who can teach.
    • Line 720
  • Love, unconquerable,
    Waster of rich men, keeper
    Of warm lights and all-night vigil
    In the soft face of a girl:
    Sea-wanderer, forest-visitor!
    Even the pure immortals cannot escape you,
    And mortal man, in his one day's dusk,
    Trembles before your glory.
    • Line 781 (Ode III)
  • Wisdom outweighs any wealth.
    • Line 1050
  • There is no happiness where there is no wisdom;
    No wisdom but in submission to the gods.
    Big words are always punished,
    And proud men in old age learn to be wise.
    • Line 1347, closing lines


  • A prudent mind can see room for misgiving, lest he who prospers should one day suffer reverse.
    • Line 296
  • They are not wise, then, who stand forth to buffet against Love; for Love rules the gods as he will, and me.
    • Line 441
  • Knowledge must come through action; you can have no test which is not fanciful, save by trial.
    • Line 592
  • Rash indeed is he who reckons on the morrow, or haply on days beyond it; for tomorrow is not, until today is past.
    • Line 943

Oedipus at Colonus

  • Unwanted favours gain no gratitude.
    • Oedipus
  • One word
    Frees us of all the weight and pain of life:
    That word is love.
    • Line 1616

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1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

SOPHOCLES (495-4 06 B.C.), Greek tragic poet, was born at Colonus in the neighbourhood of Athens. His father's name was Sophillus; and the family burial-place is said to have been about a mile and a half from the city on the Decelean Way. The date assigned for the poet's birth is in accordance with the tale that young Sophocles, then a pupil of the musician Lamprus, was chosen to lead the chorus of boys in the celebration of the victory of Salamis (480(480 B.C.). The time of his death is fixed by the allusions to it in the Frogs of Aristophanes and in the Muses, a lost play of Phrynichus, the comic poet, which were both produced in 405 B.C., shortly before the capture of Athens. And the legend which implies that Lysander allowed him funeral honours is one of those which, like the story of Alexander and Pindar's house at Thebes, we can at least wish to be founded on fact, though we should probably substitute Agis for Lysander. Apart from tragic victories, the event of Sophocles' life most fully authenticated is his appointment at the age of fifty-five as one of the generals who served with Pericles in the Samian War (440-439 B.C.). Conjecture has been rife as to the possibility of his here improving acquaintance with Herodotus, whom he probably met some years earlier at Athens. But the distich quoted by Plutarch - Z040KXi a- is a slight ground on which to reject the stronger tradition according to which Herodotus was ere this established at Thurii; and the coincidences in their writings may be accounted for by their having drawn from a common source. The fact of Sophocles' generalship is the less surprising if taken in connexion with the interesting remark of his biographer (whose Life, though absent from the earliest MS. through some mischance, bears marks of an Alexandrian origin) that he took his full share of civic duties, and even served on foreign embassies. The large acquaintanceship which this implies, not only in Athens, but in Ionic cities generally, is a point of main importance in considering the opportunities of information at his command. And, if we credit this assertion, we are the more at liberty to doubt the other statement, though it is not incredible, that his appointment as general was due to the political wisdom of his Antigone. The testimony borne by Aristophanes in the Frogs to the amiability of the poet's temper (b 5' Ei)KoXos µEV EvOaS', E13KOAos b' KEi) agrees with the record of his biographer that he was universally beloved. And the anecdote recalled by Cephalus in Plato's Republic, that Sophocles welcomed the release from the passions which is brought by age, accords with the spirit of his famous Ode to Love in the Antigone. The Sophocles who, according to Aristotle (Rhet. iii. 18), said of the government of the Four Hundred that it was the better of two bad alternatives (probably the same who was one of the probuli), may or may not have been the poet. Other gossiping stories are hardly worth repeating - as that Pericles rebuked his love of pleasure and thought him a bad general, though a good poet; that he humorously boasted of his own "generalship" in affairs of love; or that he said of Aeschylus that he was often right without knowing it, and that Euripides represented men as they are, not as they ought to be. (This last anecdote has the authority of Aristotle.) Such trifles rather reflect contemporary or subsequent impressions of a superficial kind than tell us anything about the man or the dramatist. The gibe of Aristophanes (Pax 695 seq.), that Sophocles in his old age was become a very Simonides in his love for' gain, may turn on some perversion of fact, without being altogether fair to either poet. It is certainly irreconcilable with the remark (Vit. anon.) that in spite of pressing invitations he refused to leave Athens for kings' courts. And the story of his indictment by his son Iophon for incompetence to manage his affairs - to which Cicero has given some weight by quoting it in the, De senectute - appears to be really traceable to Satyrus (fl. c. 200 B.C.), the same author who gave publicity to the most ridiculous of the various absurd accounts of the poet's death - that his breath failed him for want of a pause in reading some passage of the Antigone. Satyrus is at least the sole authority for the defence of the aged poet, who, after reciting passages from the Oed. Col., is supposed to have said to his accusers, "If I am Sophocles I am no dotard, and if I dote I am not Sophocles." On the other hand, we need not the testimony of biographers to assure us that he was devoted to Athens and renowned for piety. He is said to have been priest of the hero Alcon, and himself to have received divine honours after death.

That the duty of managing the actors as well as of training the chorus belonged to the author is well known. But did Aeschylus act in his own plays ? This certainly is implied in the tradition that Sophocles, because of the weakness of his voice, was the first poet who desisted from doing so. In his Thamyras, however, he is said to have performed on the lyre to admiration, and in his Nausicaa (perhaps as coryphaeus) to have played gracefully the game of ball. Various minor improvements in decoration and stage carpentry are attributed to him - whether truly or not who can tell ? It is more interesting, if true, that he wrote his plays having certain actors in his eye; that he formed an association for the promotion of liberal culture; and that he was the first to introduce three actors on the stage. It is asserted on the authority of Aristoxenus that Sophocles was also the first to employ Phrygian melodies. And it is easy to believe that Aj. 693 seq., Trach. 205 seq., were sung to Phrygian music, though there are strains in Aeschylus (e.g. Choeph. 152 seq., 423 seq.) which it is hard to distinguish essentially from these. Ancient critics had also noted his familiarity with Homer, especially with the Odyssey, his power xxv. 14 a of selection and of extracting an exquisite grace from all he touched (whence he was named the "Attic Bee"), his mingled felicity and boldness, and, above all, his subtle delineation of human nature and feeling. They observed that the balanced proportions and fine articulation of his work are such that in a single half line or phrase he often conveys the impression of an entire character. Nor is this verdict of antiquity likely to be reversed by modern criticism.

His minor poems, elegies, paeans, &c., have all perished; and of his hundred and odd dramas only seven remain. These all belong to the period of his maturity (he had no decline); and not only the titles but some scanty fragments of more than ninety others have been preserved. Several of these were, of course, satyric dramas. And this recalls a point of some importance, which has been urged on the authority of Suidas, who says that "Sophocles began the practice of pitting play against play, instead of the tetralogy." If it were meant that Sophocles did not exhibit tetralogies, this statement would have simply to be rejected. For the word of SuIdas (A.D. 950) has no weight against quotations from the lists of tragic victories (&cba6KaXiae), which there is no other reason for discrediting. It is distinctly asserted on the authority of the 3t&ureaMat that the Bacchae of Euripides, certainly as late as any play of Sophocles, was one of a trilogy or tetralogy. And if the custom was thus maintained for so long it was clearly impossible for any single competitor to break through it. But it seems probable that the trilogy had ceased to be the continuous development of one legend or cycle of legends - "presenting Thebes or Pelops' line" - if, indeed, it ever was so exclusively; and if a Sophoclean tetralogy was still linked together by some subtle bond of tragic thought or feeling, this would not affect the criticism of each play considered as an artistic whole. At the same time it appears that the satyric drama lost its grosser features and became more or less assimilated to the milder form of tragedy. And these changes, or something like them, may have given rise to the statement in Suidas.

The small number of tragic victories attributed to Sophocles, in proportion to the number of his plays, is only intelligible on the supposition that the dramas were presented in groups. If the diction of Sophocles sometimes reminds his readers of the Odyssey, the subjects of his plays were more frequently chosen from those later epics which subsequently came to be embodied in the epic .cycle - such as the Aethiopis, the Little Iliad, the Iliupersis, the Cypria, the. Nosti, the Telegonia (all revolving round the tale of Troy), the Thebaica, the OiXaXias &Awacs, and others, including probably, though there is no mention of such a thing, some early version of the Argonautic story. In one or other of these heroic poems the legends of all the great cities of Hellas were by this time embodied; and though there must also have been a cloud of oral tradition floating over many a sacred spot, Sophocles does not seem, unless in his Oedipus Coloneus, to have directly drawn from this. He was content to quarry from the epic rhapsodies the materials for his more concentrated art, much as Shakespeare made use of Hollingshed or Plutarch, or as the subjects of Tennyson's Idylls of the King were taken from Sir Thomas Malory. As Sophocles has been accused of narrowing the range of tragic sympathy from Hellas to Athens, it deserves mention here that, of some hundred subjects of plays attributed to him, fifteen only are connected with Attica, while exactly the same number belong to the tale of Argos, twelve are Argonautic, and thirty Trojan. Even Corinthian heroes (Bellerophon, Polyidus) are not left out. It seems probable on the whole that, within the limits allowed by convention, Sophocles was guided simply by his instinctive perception of the tragic capabilities of a particular fable.

To say that subsidiary or collateral motives were never present to Sophocles in the selection of a subject would, however, be beyond the mark. His first drama, the Triptolemus, must have been full of local colouring; the Ajax appealed powerfully to the national pride; and in the Oedipus Coloneus some faint echoes even of oligarchical partisanship may be possibly discerned (see below). But, even where they existed, such motives were collateral and subsidiary; they were never primary. All else was subordinated to the dramatic, or, in other words, the purely human, interest of the fable. This central interest is even more dominant and pervading in Sophocles than the otherwise supreme influence of religious and ethical ideas. The idea of destiny, for example, was of course inseparable from Greek tragedy. Its prevalence was one of the conditions which presided over the art from its birth, and, unlike Aeschylus, who wrestles with gods, Sophocles simply accepts it, both as a datum of tradition and a fact of life. But in the free handling of Sophocles even fate and providence are adminicular to tragic art. They are instruments through which sympathetic emotion is awakened, deepened, intensified. And, while the vision of the eternal and unwritten laws was holier yet, for it was not the creation of any former age, but rose and culminated with the Sophoclean drama, still to the poet and his Periclean audience this was no abstract notion, but was inseparable from their impassioned contemplation of the life of man - so great and yet so helpless, aiming so high and falling down so far, a plaything of the gods and yet essentially divine. This lofty vision subdued with the serenity of awe the terror and pity of the scene, but from neither could it take a single tremor or a single tear. Emotion was the element in which Greek tragedy lived and moved, albeit an emotion that was curbed to a serene stillness through its very depth and intensity.

The final estimate of Sophoclean tragedy must largely depend upon the mode in which his treatment of destiny is conceived. That Aeschylus had risen on the wings of faith to a height of prophetic vision, from whence he saw the triumph of equity and the defeat of wrong as an eternal process moving on toward one divine event - that he realized sin, retribution, responsibility as no other ancient did - may be gladly conceded. But it has been argued that because Sophocles is saddened by glancing down again at actual life - because in the fatalism of the old fables he finds the reflection of a truth - he in so far takes a step backward as a tragic artist. This remark is not altogether just. His value for what is highest in man is none the less because he strips it of earthly rewards, nor is his reverence for eternal law less deep because he knows that its workings are sometimes pitiless. Nor, once more, does he disbelieve in Providence, because experience has shown him that the end towards which the supreme powers lead forth mankind is still unseen. Not only the utter devotion of Antigone, but the lacerated innocence of Oedipus and Deianira, the tempted truth of Neoptolemus, the essential nobility of Ajax, leave an impress on the heart which is ineffaceable, and must elevate and purify while it remains. In one respect, however, it must be admitted that Sophocles is not before his age. There is an element of unrelieved vindictiveness, not merely inherent in the fables, but inseparable from the poet's handling of some themes, which is only too consistent with the temper of the "tyrant city." Aeschylus represents this with equal dramatic vividness, but he associates it not with heroism, but with crime.

Sophocles is often praised for skilful construction. But the secret of his skill depends in large measure on the profound way in which the central situation in each of his fables has been conceived and felt. Concentration is the distinguishing note of tragedy, and it is by greater concentration that Sophocles is distinguished from other tragic poets. In the Septem contra Thebas or the Prometheus of Aeschylus there is still somewhat of epic enlargement and breadth; in the Hecuba and other dramas of Euripides separate scenes have an idyllic beauty and tenderness which affect us more than the progress of the action as a whole, a defect which the poet sometimes tries to compensate by some novel denouement or catastrophe. But in following a Sophoclean tragedy we are carried steadily and swiftly onward, looking neither to the right nor to the left; the more elaborately any scene or single speech is wrought the more does it contribute to enhance the main emotion, and if there is a deliberate pause it is felt either as a welcome breathing space or as the calm of brooding expectancy.

The result of this method is the union, in the highest degree, of simplicity with complexity, of largeness of design with absolute finish, of grandeur with harmony. Superfluities are thrown off without an effort through the burning of the fire within. Crude elements are fused and made transparent. What look like ornaments are found to be inseparable from the organic whole. Each of the plays is admirable in structure, not because it is cleverly put together, but because it is so completely alive.

The seven extant tragedies probably owe their preservation to some selection made for educational purposes in Alexandrian times. A yet smaller "sylloge" of three plays (Ajax, Electra, Oedipus Tyrannus) continued current amongst Byzantine students and many more copies of these exist than is the case with the other four. Of these four the Antigone seems to have been the most popular, while an inner circle of readers were specially attracted by the Oedipus Coloneus. No example of the poet's earliest manner has come down to us. The Antigone certainly belongs to the Periclean epoch, and while Creon's large professions (lines 175-190) have been supposed to reflect the policy of the Athenian statesman, the heroine's grand appeal to the unwritten laws may have been suggested by words which an Attic orator afterwards quoted as having been spoken by Pericles himself: "They say that Pericles once exhorted you that in the case of persons guilty of impiety you should observe not only the written laws, but also those unwritten, which are followed by the Eumolpidae in their instructions - laws which no man ever yet had power to abrogate, or dared to contradict, nor do the Eumolpidae themselves know who enacted them, for they believe that whoso violates them must pay the penalty not only to man, but to the gods" ([Lysias] contra Andocidem, § x. p. 104).

Modern readers have thought it strange that Creon when convinced goes to bury Polynices before attempting to release Antigone. It is obvious how this was necessary to the catastrophe, but it is also true to character, for Creon is not moved by compunction for the maiden nor by anxiety on Haemon's account, but by the fear of retribution coming on himself and the state, because of the sacred law of sepulture which he has defied. Antigone is the martyr of natural affection and of the religion of the family. But, as Kaibel pointed out, she is also the high-born Cadmean maiden, whose defiance of the oppressor is accentuated by the pride of race. She despises Creon as an upstart, who has done outrage not only to eternal ordinance, but to the rights of the royal house.

The Ajax, that tragedy of wounded honour, still bears some traces of Aeschylean influence, and may be even earlier than the Antigone. But it strikes the peculiarly Sophoclean note, that the great and noble spirit, although through its own or others' errors it may be overclouded for a time and rejected by contemporaries amongst mankind, is notwithstanding accepted by the gods and shall be held in lasting veneration. The construction of the Ajax has been adversely criticized, but without sufficient reason. If it has not the concentration of the Antigone, or of the Oedipus Tyrannus, it has a continuous movement which culminates in the hero's suicide, and develops a fine depth of sympathetic emotion in the sequel.

In the King Oedipus the poet attains to the supreme height of dramatic concentration and tragic intensity. The drama seems to have been produced soon after the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, but certainly not in the year of the plague - else Sophocles, like his predecessor Phrynichus, might be said to have reminded his countrymen too poignantly of their home troubles. "The unwritten laws" are now a theme for the chorus. The worship of the Delphic Apollo is associated with a profound,sense of the value and sacredness of domestic purity, and in the command to drive out pollution there is possibly an implied reference to the expulsion of the Alcmaeonidae.

The Electra, a less powerful drama, is shown by the metrical indications to be somewhat later than the Oedipus Rex. The harshness of the vendetta is not relieved as in Aeschylus by longdrawn invocations of the dead, nor, as in Euripides, is it made a subject of casuistry. Electra's heroic impulse, the offspring of filial love, through long endurance hardened into a "fixed idea," is irrepressible, and Orestes, supported by Pylades, goes directly to his aim in obedience to Apollo. But nothing can exceed the tenderness of the recognition scene - lines 1098-1321, and the description of the falsely reported chariot race (681-763) is full of spirit.

In the Trachinian Maidens there is a transition towards that milder pathos which Sophocles is said to have finally approved (i)OtKciraTov Kai iiptarov). The fate of Deianira is tragic indeed. But in her treatment of her rival, Iole, there are modern touches reminding one of Shakespeare. The play may have been produced at a time not far removed from the peace of Nicias; and if this were so Deianira's prayer that her descendants may never undergo captivity - lines 303-305 - might remind Athenian matrons of the captive Heracleids from Pylos, descendants through Iiyllus of Deianira herself. The "modern" note is even more conspicuous in the Philoctetes, where the inward conflict in the mind of Neoptolemus, between ambition and friendship, is delineated with equal subtlety and force, and the contrast of the ingenuous youth with the aged solitary, in whom just resentment has become a dominant idea, shows great depth of psychological insight. The tragic catastrophe of the Oedipus Tyrannus and the Trachiniae is absent here. The contending interests are reconciled by the intervention of the deified Heracles. But even more clearly than in the Ajax the heroic sufferer, rejected by men, is accepted by the gods and destined to triumph in the end. The Philoctetes is known to have been produced in the year 408 B.C., when Sophocles was 87 years old. The Oedipus Coloneus is said to have been brought out after the death of Sophocles by his grandson in the archonship of Micon, 402 B.C.

The question naturally arises, why a work of such surpassing merit should not have appeared in the lifetime of the poet. The answer is conjectural, but acquires some probability when several facts are taken into one view. It is surely remarkable that in a drama which obviously appeals to Athenian patriotism, local sanctities should obtain prominence to the exclusion of the corresponding national shrines on the Acropolis. It has been thought that the aged poet felt a peculiar satisfaction in celebrating the beauty and sacredness of his native district. This may well have been so, but could hardly supply a sufficient motive for a work destined to be presented to the assembled Athenians in the Dionysiac theatre. But there was a crisis in Athenian politics when "Colonus of the Knights" acquired a national significance. Those who organized the constitution of the Four Hundred made the precinct of Poseidon at Colonus the place of meeting, and probably sacrificed at the very altar which is consecrated by Theseus in this play. There must have been some reason for this. May it not have been that the occupants of the whole region, including the Academy, belonged mostly to the oligarchic faction? May not those who honoured Colonus by frequenting it - lines 62 and 63 - have belonged to the order of knighthood? The name Colonus Hippius (or TUN) 17r7rh,w) would then have an appropriate meaning, and the equestrian statue of the eponymous hero (line 59) would be symbolical. In times of political agitation Colonus would then be regarded like St Germain, as the aristocratic quarter, while the Peiraeus was that of the extreme democracy, a sort of Faubourg St Antoine. It was there that the counter-movement reached its culmination. If so much be granted, is it not possible that this play, so deeply tinged with oligarchic influence, may have been thought too dangerous, and consequently withheld from production until after the amnesty, when the name of Sophocles was universally beloved, and this work of his old age could be prudently made public by his descendant? The knights in Aristophanes (424 B.C.) make their special appeal to Poseidon of the chariot race and to the Athene of victory. The Coloniates celebrate the sons of Theseus as worshippers of Athene Hippia, and of Poseidon.

Theseus in Euripides (Supplices) is the first citizen of a republic. In this drama he is the king whose word is law, and he is warned by Oedipus to avoid the madness of revolutionary change (lines 1 5361-538). The tragic story of Oedipus is resumed, but in a later and deeper strain of thoughtful emotion. Once more the noble spirit, rejected by man, is accepted by the gods. The eternal laws have been vindicated. Their decrees are irreversible, but the involuntary unconscious criminal is not finally condemned. He has no more hope in this world, but is in mysterious communion with unseen powers. The sufferer is now a holy person and an author of blessing. An approach is even made to the New Testament doctrine of the sacredness of sorrow.

Whatever may have been the nature of a Sophoclean tetralogy, the practice which at one time prevailed of describing the Oedipus Rex, Oedipus Coloneus and Antigone as "the Theban trilogy" was manifestly erroneous and misleading. The three plays belong to different periods in the life-work of the poet, and the Antigone is the earliest of the three.

The spectator of a Sophoclean tragedy was invited to witness the supreme crisis of an individual destiny, and was possessed at the outset with the circumstances of the decisive moment. Except in the Trachiniae, where the retrospective soliloquy of Deianira is intended to emphasize her lonely position, this exposition is effected through a brief dialogue, in which the protagonist may or may not take part. In the Oedipus Tyrannus the king's entrance and his colloquy with the aged priest introduce the audience at once to the action and to the chief person. In the Ajax and Philoctetes the entrance or discovery of the hero is made more impressive by being delayed. Immediately after the prologos the chorus enter, numbering fifteen, either chanting in procession as in the Antigone and Oedipus Tyrannus, or dispersedly as in the Oedipus Coloneus and Philoctetes, or, thirdly, as in the Electra, where, after entering silently during the monody of the heroine, and taking up their position in the orchestra, they address her one by one. With a remarkable exception, to be noted presently, the chorus, having once entered, remain to the end. They always stand in some carefully adjusted relation to the principal figure. The elders of Thebes, whose age and coldness throw into relief the fervour and the desolation of Antigone, are the very men to realize the calamity of Oedipus, and, while horror-stricken, to lament his fall. The rude Salaminian mariners are loyal to Ajax, but cannot enter into his grief. The Trachinian maidens would gladly support Deianira, who has won their hearts, but they are too young and inexperienced for the task. The noble Argive women can sympathize with the sorrows of Electra, but no sympathy can soothe her distress.

The parodos of the chorus is followed by the first scene or epeisodion, with which the action may be said to begin. For in the course of this the spectator's interest is strongly roused by some new circumstance involving an unforeseen complication - the awakening of Ajax (Aj.), the burial of Pclynices (Ant.) , the dream of Clytaemnestra (El.), the dark utterance of Teiresias (Oed. Tyr.), the arrival of Lichas with Iole (Trach.), the report of Ismene announcing Creon's coming (Oed. Col.), the sudden entreaty of Philoctetes crossed by the entrance of the pretended mariner (Phil.). The action from this point onwards is like a steadily flowing stream into which a swift and turbulent tributary has suddenly fallen, and the interest advances with rapid and continuous climax until the culmination is reached and the catastrophe is certain. The manner in which this is done, through the interweaving of dialogue and narration with the various lyrical portions, is very different in different dramas, one of the principal charms of Sophocles being his power of ingenious variation in the employment of his resources. Not less admirable is the strength with which he sustains the interest after the peripeteia, 1 whether, as in the Antigone, by heaping sorrow upon sorrow, or, as in the first Oedipus, by passing from horror to tenderness and unlocking the fountain of tears. The extreme point of boldness in arrangement is reached in the Ajax, where the chorus and Tecmessa, having been warned of the-impending 1 A tragic action has five stages, whence the five acts of the modern drama: the start, the rise, the height, the change, the close.

danger, depart severally in quest of the vanished hero, and thus leave not only the stage but the orchestra vacant for the soliloquy that precedes his suicide.

No such general description as has been here attempted can give even a remote impression of the march of Sophoclean tragedy - by what subtle yet firm and strongly marked gradations the plot is unfolded; how stroke after stroke contributes to the harmonious totality of feeling; what vivid interplay, on the stage, in the orchestra, and between both, builds up the majestic, ever-moving spectacle. Examine, for example, the opening scene or 'rp6Xoyos of. the Oedipus Tyrannus. Its function is merely to propound the situation; yet it is in itself a miniature drama. First there is the silent spectacle of the eager throng of suppliants at the palace gate - young children, youths and aged priests. To them the king appears, with royal condescension and true public zeal. The priest expresses their heartfelt loyalty, describes the distress of Thebes, and, extolling Oedipus's past services, implores him to exercise his consummate wisdom for the relief of his people. The king's reply unveils yet further his incessant watchfulness and anxious care for his subjects. And he discloses a new object to their expectancy and hope. Creon, a royal person, had been sent to Delphi, and should ere then have returned with the response of Apollo. At this all hearts are trembling in suspense, when Creon is seen approaching. He is wreathed with Apollo's laurel; he looks cheerfully. What has Phoebus said? Another moment of suspense is interposed. Then the oracle is repeated - so thrilling to the spectator who understands the story, so full of doubt and hope and dread to all the persons of the drama: "It is for the blood of Laius - his murderers are harboured in the land of Thebes. The country must be purged." That is the culminating point of the little tragedy. While Oedipus asks for information, while in gaiety of heart he undertakes the search, while he bids the folk of Cadmus to be summoned thither, the spectators have just time to take in the full significance of what has passed, which every word that is uttered sends further home. All this in 150 lines!

Or, once more, consider the employment of narrative by this great poet. The Tyrannus might be again adduced, but let us turn instead to the Antigone and the Trachiniae. The speech of the messenger in the Antigone, the speeches of Hyllus and the Nurse in the Trachiniae, occur at the supreme crisis of the two dramas. Yet there is no sense of any retardation in the action by the report of what has been happening elsewhere. Much rather the audience are carried breathlessly along, while each speaker brings before their mental vision the scene of which he had himself been part. It is a drama within the drama, an action rising from its starting-point in rapid climax, swift, full, concentrated, until that wave subsides, and is followed by a moment of expectation. Nor is this all. The narrative of the messenger is overheard by Eurydice, that of Hyllus is heard by Deianira, that of Nurse by the chorus of Maidens. And in each case a poignancy of tragic significance is added by this circumstance, while the speech of the Messenger in the Antigone, and that of Hyllus in a yet higher degree, bind together in one the twofold interest of an action which might otherwise seem in danger of distracting the spectator's sympathies.

So profound is the contrivance, or, to speak more accurately, such is the strength of central feeling and conception, which secures the grace of unity in complexity to the Sophoclean drama.

The proportion of the lyrics to the level dialogue is considerably less on the average in Sophocles than in Aeschylus, as might be expected from the development of the purely dramatic element, and the consequent subordination of the chorus to the protagonist. In the seven extant plays the lyrical portion ranges from one-fifth to nearly one-third, being highest in the Antigone and lowest in the Oedipus Tyrannus. The distribution of the lyrical parts is still more widely diversified. In the Electra, for instance, the chorus has less to do than in the Oedipus Tyrannus, although in the former the lyrics constitute one-fourth, and in the latter only one-fifth of the whole. But then the part of Electra is favourable to lyrical outbursts, whereas it is only after the tragic change that Oedipus can appropriately pass from the stately senarius to the broken language of the dochmiac and the "lamenting" ana p aest. The protagonists of the Ajax and the Philoctetes had also large opportunities for vocal display.

The union of strict symmetry with freedom and variety, which is throughout characteristic of the work of Sophocles, is especially noticeable in his handling of the tragic metres. In the iambics of his dialogue, as compared with those of Aeschylus, there is an advance which may be compared with the transition from "Marlowe's mighty line" to the subtler harmonies of Shakespeare. Felicitous pauses, the linking on of line to line, trisyllabic feet introduced for special effects, alliteration both hard and soft, length of speeches artfully suited to character and situation, adaptation of the caesura to the feeling expressed, are some of the points which occur most readily in thinking of his senari .. A minute speciality may be noted as illustrative of his manner in this respect. Where a line is broken by a pause towards the end and the latter phrase runs on into the following lines, elision sometimes takes place between the lines, e.g. (Oed. Tyr., 332-333) o-' ri TaDr' i MEyxE6s; This is called synaphea, and is peculiar to Sophocles.

He differentiates more than Aeschylus does between the metres to be employed in the Koµuoi (including the'Koµ,uarLKCZ) and in the choral odes. The dochmius, cretic, and free anapaest are employed chiefly in the Kop toi. In the stasima he has greatly developed the use of logaoedic and particularly of glyconic rhythms, and far less frequently than his predecessor indulges in long continuous runs of dactyls or trochees. The light trochaic line % - -, so frequent in Aeschylus, is comparatively rare in Sophocles. If, from the very severity with which the choral element is subordinated to the purely dramatic, his lyrics have neither the magnificent sweep of Aeschylus nor the "linked sweetness" of Euripides, they have a concinnity and point, a directness of aim, and a truth of dramatic keeping, more perfect than is to be found in either. And even in grandeur it would be hard to find many passages to bear comparison with the second stasimon, or central ode, either of the Antigone (eilaiµovcs o o-t KaKC;ov) or the first Oedipus (el µoc uv€l'q ckpov-rc). Nor does anything in Euripides equal in grace and sweetness the famous eulogy on Colonus (the poet's birthplace) in the Oedipus Coloneus. BIBL10GRAPHY. - Sophocles was edited (probably from the Venetian MSS.) by Aldus Manutius, with the help of Musurus, in 1502. The Juntine editions in which the text of Aldus was slightly modified with the help of Florentine MSS. were published in 1522, 154.7, respectively. An edition of the Scholia, very nearly corresponding to those on the margin of the Medicean or chief Laurentian MS. (La or L) has previously appeared at Rome in 1518. The first great modification of the text was due to Turnebus, who had access to the Parisian MSS.; but he was not fortunate in his selection. The earliest editors had been aware that the traditional arrangement of the metres was faulty, but little way had been made towards a readjustment. Now it so happens that the Parisian MS. T, which is a copy of the recension of Triclinius, an early 14th-century scholar, contains also the metrical views of the same editor; and, having found (as he erroneously supposed) a sound authority, Turnebus (1552) blindly adopted it, and was followed in this by H. Stephanus (1568), and by Canter in Holland (1579),(1579), who was the first to recognize the arrangement of the odes in strophe and antistrophe. The error was to a large extent corrected by Brunck (1786), who rightly preferred Par. A (2712), a 13th-century MS., belonging, as it happened, to the same family with Ven. 467, which Aldus had mainly followed. Thus after nearly three centuries the text returned (though with conjectural variations) into the former channel. Musgrave's edition was published posthumously in 1800, and Gilbert Wakefield had published a selection shortly before. Erfurdt in Germany then took up the succession, and his edition formed the basis of Hermann's, whose psychological method set the example of a new style of commentary which was adopted by Wunder. A new era commenced with Peter Elmsley's collation of the Laurentian MS. (made in 1818, but only published in full after his death). His transcription of the Scholia still exists in the Bodleian Library. The most important German commentaries since Hermann's have been those of Schneidewin, G. Wolff and Wecklein. L. Campbell's edition of the plays and fragments (1871-1881) was quickly followed by Jebb's edition of the seven plays (1881-1896). Editions of one or more dramas most worth consulting are Elmsley's Oedipus Tyrannus and Oedipus Coloneus, Bockh's Antigone, Lobeck's Ajax, J. W. Donaldson's Antigone, O. Jahn's Electra and J. William White's Oed. Tyr. A monograph on the Antigone by Kaibel is also well worth mentioning. Translations: in verse, by Francklin, Potter, Dale, Plumptre, L. Campbell, Whitelaw; in prose by R. C. Jebb. The chief German translations are those of Solger (1824), Donner (1839), Hartung (1853) and Thudichum. The French prose translation by Leconte de Lisle, and the Italian in verse by Bellotti deserve special mention. The Antigone was produced at Berlin with Mendelssohn's music in 1841 and the Oedipus Coloneus in 1845. They have been reproduced in English several times - the Antigone notably with Helen Faucit (Lady Martin) in the title-role in 1845. The Oedipe Roi (trans. La Croix) and the Antigone (trans. Vacquerie) have been frequently performed in Paris. A performance of the Oedipus Tyrannus in Greek at Harvard University, U.S.A. (1880), was remarkably successful. Of dissertations immediately devoted to Sophocles those of Lessing, Patin, Dronke and Evelyn Abbott (in Hellenica) are especially noteworthy. (L. C.)

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From Ancient Greek Σοφοκλῆς (Sophoklēs).

Proper noun


  1. A Greek dramatic poet (ca.495 BC – 406 BC); Sophocles was one of the three greatest Greek tragedians. In the Athenian dramatic competitions of the Festival of Dionysus, he won more first prizes (around 20) than any other playwright, and placed second in all others he participated in. He is best remembered for his Oedipus Cycle of plays.


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Simple English

A Roman bust of Sophocles
File:Sophocles CdM
A marble relief of a poet, perhaps Sophocles

Sophocles (497 BC, 496 BC, or 495 BC – 406 BC) was an Ancient Greek writer who wrote 123 plays, according to the Suda. Only 7 of his tragedies have survived complete. Sophocles was the second of the three greatest Ancient Greek writers of tragedies, the others being Aeschylus and Euripides. The most famous of Sophocles' tragedies are those concerning (relating to, being about) Oedipus and Antigone: these are often known as the Theban plays, although each play was actually a part of different tetralogy, the other members of which are now lost.



Sophocles, the son of Sophillus, was a wealthy member of the rural community of Colonus Hippius in Attica, which would later become a setting for his plays, and was probably born there.[1] His birth took place a few years before the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC: the exact year is unclear, although 497/6 is perhaps most likely.[2] Sophocles' first great play was in 468 BC when he took first prize in the Dionysia theatre competition over the reigning master of Athenian drama, Aeschylus.[3] According to Plutarch the victory came under unusual circumstances.

Surviving plays

  • The Theban plays (The Oedipus Cycle):
    • Antigone
    • Oedipus the King (Oedipus Rex or Oedipus Tyrannos)
    • Oedipus at Colonos
  • Ajax
  • The Trachiniae
  • Electra
  • Philoctetes

The Oedipus story

In Oedipus the King, Oedipus is the main character.

Oedipus' death as a child is planned by his parents, Laius and Jocasta, to stop him fulfilling a prophecy. A servant passes the infant on to a childless couple, who adopt him not knowing his history.

Oedipus eventually learns of the Delphic Oracle's prophecy of him, that he would kill his father and marry his mother. Then he thought this meant his adopted parents. He flees to avoid his fate. Oedipus meets a man at a crossroads accompanied by servants; Oedipus and the man fight, and Oedipus kills the man. This man was his father, Laius, not that anyone apart from the gods knew this at the time.

Oedipus becomes the ruler of Thebes after solving the riddle of the sphinx and in the process, marries the widowed Queen, his mother Jocasta. Thus the stage is set for horrors. When the truth comes out, Jocasta commits suicide, Oedipus blinds himself and leaves Thebes, and the children are left to sort out the consequences themselves (see the later parts of the cycle of plays).

In Oedipus at Colonus, the banished Oedipus and his daughters Antigone and Ismene arrive at the town of Colonus where they encounter Theseus, King of Athens. Oedipus dies and strife begins between his sons Polyneices and Eteocles.

In Antigone the protagonist is Oedipus' daughter. Antigone is faced with the choice of allowing her brother Polyneices' body to remain unburied, outside the city walls, exposed to the ravages of wild animals, or to bury him and face death.

The king of the land, Creon, has forbidden the burial of Polyneices for he was a traitor to the city. Antigone decides to bury his body and face the consequences of her actions. Creon sentences her to death. Eventually, Creon is convinced to free Antigone from her punishment, but his decision comes too late and Antigone commits suicide. Her suicide triggers the suicide of two others close to King Creon: his son, Haemon, who was to wed Antigone, and his wife who commits suicide after losing her only surviving son.

Running through such tragedies is the theme of fate, which cannot be avoided. A forbidden act is committed in innocence, and the consequences follow remorselessly.

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  1. Sommerstein 2007. xi.
  2. Lloyd-Jones 1994, p. 7.
  3. Freeman, p. 246.


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