articlemostwanted - (b. c. 496 BCE, Colonus, near Athens [Greece]—d. 406 BCE, Athens)
Sophocles, one of classical Athens’s great tragic play-wrights, was born in a village outside the walls of Athens, where his father, Sophillus, was a wealthy manufacturer of armor. Sophocles was wealthy from birth, highly educated, noted for his grace and charm, on easy terms with the leading families, and a personal friend of prominent statesmen. Because of his beauty of physique, his athletic prowess, and his skill in music, he was chosen in 480, when he was 16, to lead the paean (choral chant to a god) celebrating the decisive Greek sea victory over the Persians at the Battle of Salamis.
The relatively meagre information about Sophocles’ civic life suggests that he was a popular favorite who participated actively in his community and exercised outstanding artistic talents. In 442 he served as one of the treasurer’s responsible for receiving and managing tribute money from Athens’s subject-allies in the Delian League. In 440 he was elected one of the 10 strategoi (high executive officials who commanded the armed forces) as a junior colleague of Pericles. Sophocles later served as strategos perhaps twice again. In 413, then aged about 83, Sophocles was a proboulos, one of 10 advisory commissioners who were granted special powers and were entrusted with organizing Athens’s financial and domestic recovery after its terrible defeat at Syracuse in Sicily. These few facts, which are about all that is known of Sophocles’ life, imply steady and distinguished attachment to Athens, its government, religion, and social forms.
Sophocles won his first victory at the Dionysian dramatic festival in 468, however, defeating the great Aeschylus in the process. This began a career of unparalleled success and longevity. In total, Sophocles wrote 123 dramas for the festivals. Since each author who was chosen to enter the competition usually presented four plays, this means he must have competed about 30 times. Sophocles won perhaps as many as 24 victories, compared to 13 for Aeschylus, and indeed he may have never received lower than second place in the competitions he entered.
Ancient authorities credit Sophocles with several major and minor dramatic innovations. Among the latter is his invention of some type of “scene paintings” or other pictorial prop to establish locale or atmosphere. He also may have increased the size of the chorus from 12 to 15 members. Sophocles’ major innovation was his introduction of a third actor into the dramatic performance. It had previously been permissible for two actors to “double” (i.e., assume other roles during a play), but the addition of a third actor onstage enabled the dramatist both to increase the number of his characters and widen the variety of their interactions. The scope of the dramatic conflict was thereby extended, plots could be more fluid, and situations could be more complex.
The typical Sophoclean drama presents a few characters, impressive in their determination and power, and possessing a few strongly drawn qualities or faults that combine with a particular set of circumstances to lead them inevitably to a tragic fate. Sophocles develops his characters’ rush to tragedy with great economy, concentration, and dramatic effectiveness, creating a coherent, suspenseful situation whose sustained and inexorable onrush came to epitomize the tragic form to the classical world. Sophocles emphasizes that most people lack wisdom, and he presents truth in collision with ignorance, delusion, and folly. Many scenes dramatize laws or failure in thinking (deceptive reports and rumors, false optimism, hasty judgment, madness). The chief character does something involving grave error; this affects others, each of whom reacts in his own way, thereby causing the chief agent to take another step toward ruin—his own and that of others as well. Equally important, those who are to suffer from the tragic error usually are present at the time or belong to the same generation. It was this more complex type of tragedy that demanded a third actor. Sophocles thus abandoned the spacious Aeschylean framework of the connected trilogy and instead comprised the entire action in a single play.
Sophocles’ language responds flexibly to the dramatic needs of the moment. It can be ponderously weighty or swift-moving, emotionally intense or easygoing, highly decorative or perfectly plain and simple. His mastery of form and diction was highly respected by his contemporaries. Sophocles has also been admired for the sympathy and vividness with which he delineates his characters; especially notable are his tragic women, such as Electra and Antigone. Few dramatists have been able to handle situation and plot with more power and certainty; the frequent references in the Poetics to Sophocles’ Oedipus the King show that Aristotle regarded this play as a master-piece of construction, and few later critics have dissented.
Sophocles is also unsurpassed in his moments of high dramatic tension and in his revealing use of tragic irony.
In one of his last plays, Oedipus at Colonus, he still affectionately praises both his own birthplace and the great city itself. Sophocles’ last recorded act was to lead a chorus in public mourning for his deceased rival, Euripides, before the festival of 406. He died that same year.
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