Sophocles

Summary

Sophocles (Ancient Greek Σοφοκλῆς-Sofokles – b. ca. 496 BC – d. 406 BC) was a Greek tragic poet. Together with Aeschylus and Euripides he laid the foundations of classical Greek tragedy. He made significant innovations in theatrical technique: abandoning the trilogy connection by creating independent plays, increasing the number of choruses (ancient verse) from 12 to 15, introducing the third actor, developing dialogue, and giving importance to the set and costumes. The work of the great tragic poet, the successor of Aeschylus, comprises more than 120 plays (according to various sources and opinions, the number of plays is 123, 130, 133 and even 140), of which only seven remain in their entirety.

The writer was born in 496 BC in Colonos, a suburb of Athens, into a wealthy family, the son of Sofillus, a wealthy armourer. Sophocles benefited from the education of the young people of his time, learning musical theory and practice (his teacher was Lampros, one of the most famous masters of Antiquity, from whom he learned the art of using musical instruments, especially the kithara), dancing and physical exercise (horse riding, chariot driving), and probably some scientific knowledge.

Adolescence, youth and adulthood

At the age of 16, he was elected by his compatriots as leader of the young people in charge of celebrating Salamina”s glorious anniversary with songs and games. His beauty, in addition to his talents, contributed to his earning this honour. He had no sonorous voice, however, so he was also later exempted from obeying the custom, which required the dramatic poet to act in his own plays. He appeared only once on stage, as Tamiris the blind man.

Sophocles showed a strong passion for literature from his youth, searching eagerly in the Homeric works, in the tragedies of Aeschylus and in folklore for answers to the many problems of his time. Tragedy appealed to him immensely, and even as a child he took part in the choir that supported the stage performances of his ancestors” plays. In 468 BC he took part in a competition in Athens and won first prize for the first time, winning over the city”s refined audience. In the 60 years of his creation, the citizens applauded his victory in dramatic contests 23 more times, without ever having the opportunity to show their sympathy for any defeat, the bitter taste of which Sophocles never felt.

A lay priest of the cult of a local deity, Sophocles also founded a literary association and was a close friend of prominent people such as Ion of Chios, Herodotus, Archelaus. Civilised, well-mannered and witty, Sophocles was loved by his contemporaries, who saw in him the embodiment of balance and serenity. They nicknamed him “The Bee” for his “sweet” eloquence and paid him the most flattering compliment a poet or storyteller could aspire to – they likened him to the tragic Homer.

End of life

Sophocles died in 406 BC, only a few months after his younger contemporary Euripides. He was buried at Colonos, in his native land, to which he brought praise and glory in his last play, “Oedipus at Colonos”. Two years after his death, Athens was defeated by Sparta, which marked the end of about a hundred years of Athenian cultural supremacy. At the centre of public life in Athens, Sophocles was imperial treasurer and diplomat, and was twice elected general.

Even after his death, the great writer continued to dominate the Greek stage, with his plays enjoying great success. On the initiative of Lycurgus, 40 years after Sophocles” death, a bronze statue was erected to him and his name joined the ranks of heroes, along with Homer, Aeschylus and others.

Sophocles and his political career

As a politician, however, Sophocles did not show the skill, although he held positions in the state under Pericles . He failed to adapt to all the intricacies of Athenian political life and to find a stable place for himself in the evolving conflict between slave-owning democracy and conservative aristocratic groups. In his youth Sophocles leaned towards the latter, sympathising with Cimon”s reactionary group, and then embraced Pericles” politics. Towards the end of his life Sophocles again wavered, even taking part in a plot (in 411 BC) to overthrow democratic government in Athens.

Sophocles” inconsistencies in his political attitude are mirrored to a large extent in his plays, through a series of hesitations and compromises that he shows in deciding his verdict on the struggle between the old and the new moral or political norms that democratic life and its institutions demand. But all this is explicable because democratic slave government itself contains contradictions, is often indecisive and vacillating, is shaken by internal struggles and clashes of divisive interests.

In 413 BC, when he was eighty years old, Sophocles became special commissioner to investigate the Athenian military disaster in Sicily.

In the 5th century BC, during the time of the three great tragedians of Greek antiquity – Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides – Greece experienced a period of development and flourishing in agriculture, crafts, navigation, trade, etc.

The flourishing social and cultural life of Athens made it one of the most important economic, political and cultural centres. Thus, a part of the citizens, who were inclined towards thought and art, could devote themselves to philosophy, literature, sculpture, etc.

The rulers of the Athenian democracy, eager to bring fame to their city, stimulated the development of tragic theatre, theatre with a clear educational role.

The performances, held outdoors, were watched by tens of thousands of spectators seated on the steps of a vast amphitheatre. Periodically, the citadel held competitions to award prizes for the best dramatic plays, and the winning authors were honoured with great pomp by the population and celebrated as heroes. The three great tragedians of the 5th century BC were often victorious in these contests. Aeschylus won first prize 13 times, Sophocles (whose work mirrors the apogee of slave-owning democracy) more than 20 times, and Euripides four times.

The citizens of Athens – who honoured him with important political and military offices, honoured Sophocles particularly for his high citizenship. Memories of tyranny still lingered in people”s minds when Sophocles decried tyranny personified in the figure of Creon in Antigone. At the same time, the poet warned his fellow citizens not to let themselves be dragged into the chaos of anarchy by demagogues. Sophocles then denounced the greed for wealth and the corrupting power of money:

Sophocles replaced Aeschylus” linked trilogies with separate plays on different subjects, establishing the norm, later adopted in Western theatre, of shifting the emphasis to the intensity and unity of dramatic action.

While Aeschylus is credited with discovering the poetic and emotional resources of tragedy, Sophocles” refinement and technical mastery have been the standards by which this literary form has been judged since the 5th century BC.

If Pericles elevated slave democracy to its highest political and military heights, Sophocles” work is the literary mirror of this climax, faithfully embodying the political aspirations, moral, legal, religious and other concepts of slave democracy. As a tribute to the significance of Sophocles” work, the citizens of Athens elected him strategist (military leader), in which capacity he took part in an expedition against the island of Lemnos.

In creating his tragedies, Sophocles draws on the same sources as Aeschylus; like his predecessor, he draws on well-known legends and mythological heroes, the themes of some of his tragedies being similar to those of Aeschylus” plays, or he simply continues the theme of Aeschylus” plays (for example, in Antigone, Sophocles starts from the final moment of the tragedy The Seven Against Thebes).

In Sophocles” creation, a moment of great significance is the tragedy “Oedipus the King”, staged for the first time in 429 BC.

The fate of Oedipus and his nation is presented in the tragedies “Oedipus the King”, “Oedipus at the Colonos” and “Antigone”, which together form a unity.

The themes of Sophocles” tragedies are self-contained; within the trilogy, each play has its own theme, whereas in Aeschylus the theme runs throughout the trilogy. This innovation that Sophocles brought to drama enabled him to present the specifics of human characters and the complex situations in which his heroes live in a more varied way.

Sophocles” dramatic treatment of the tragic fate of the legendary Oedipus has influenced drama throughout the world and remains a permanent fixture on the dramatic stage today.

While Aeschylus was primarily looking for a moment of fulfilment of the inherited curse in the figure of Oedipus, Sophocles focuses on the hero”s individual fate; Oedipus” sufferings are, to a large extent, the result of his own actions, the attitude he voluntarily chooses. In Sophocles” play, the implacable fate that the gods have decreed for the unhappy Oedipus is less decisive than in Aeschylus, and the author reveals more clearly the unstable nature of man”s happiness or unhappiness. Oedipus – according to the myth – lives many years of happy reign in the city of Thebes, with his mother Jocasta as his wife. The tragic denouement comes only when, on his own initiative, he eagerly seeks the truth about his life, and thus chooses for himself the path that will lead him to a whole series of misfortunes.

In a tragedy written towards the end of his life, “Oedipus in the Colonos”, Sophocles praises the death of the hero. Old and blind, Oedipus comes to Athens, settles in Colonos, the author”s birthplace, and dies in complete reconciliation with the gods, becoming a guardian genius of the city where he found warm hospitality. One cannot help but notice in this conclusion to the tragedy of Oedipus a tribute that Sophocles pays to his city, its hospitable inhabitants and, in general, to the spirit of order and justice that prevailed in this democratic state, in contrast to the harsh and rigid rules of aristocratic Sparta with which he had clashed in the Peloponnesian War.

The ancient myth of Oedipus does not end with his death, but employs the direct descendants of the unfortunate legendary king. In The Seven Against Thebes, Aeschylus describes the fate of Oedipus” two sons Polinike and Eteocles; Sophocles continues the story of the nation pursued by the curse of the gods; placing the image of Oedipus” daughter Antigone at the centre of the action. Thus was born the tragedy of the same name, first performed around 442 BC.

Of course, Sophocles” play has mythical influences in line with the prevailing spirit of his age, but at the same time it condemns despotism. Creon (in “Antigone”), with his narrow-mindedness and arbitrary actions, disregards the divine justice that has become traditional in the city and will be punished. In order not to err, Sophocles shows, man, like Antigone, must respect traditional customs, adapt his deeds and actions to the rules established in the life of the community. He who resists will be defeated, as Creon was defeated. So we note the specific note for Sophocles” tragedies – fate depends to a large extent on the actions (conscious or unconscious) of each man.

In Sophocles” tragedies, the tragic outcome of the heroes” lives is primarily due to their mistakes, to their misdeeds. If in Antigone we have typical cases of unnatural behaviour adopted with good intentions (which brings them to a fatal end.

The theme of suicide as a result of serious mistakes, committed without knowledge, is also repeated in the tragedy “Aiax”, created by Sophocles in his youth.

In the tragedy “Philoctetes”, written towards the end of his life (he emphasizes the great significance of innate goodness, capable of overcoming temporary weaknesses and unworthy temptations that plague people.

Sophocles” heroes live an intense individual life, they bring together in the actions they undertake high spiritual qualities. They show determination and consistency in fully resolving the situations in which they are engaged. Sophocles revealed the peculiarities of human nature with great artistic mastery and perfect dramatic technique.

Oedipus the King

The tragedy “Oedipus the King” (Ancient Greek: Oἰδίπoυς τύραννoς) begins with the city of Thebes, which is facing a torment: plants, animals and women were barren and the plague was taking countless victims. The Thebans come to ask for help from Oedipus, king of Thebes, who also saved them from Sphinx by correctly answering his riddle. Creon, the brother of Oedipus” wife, is sent to the oracle to find out why this calamity has befallen Thebes. The oracle reasons that the death of Laios, Oedipus” predecessor, has not been atoned for. In order to find out who killed Laios, Oedipus demands to be questioned by Tiresias, the old blind prophet. Tiresias tells Oedipus that he is the murderer of Laios. Believing that Tiresias and Creon have plotted against him, Oedipus argues with them. Oedipus”s wife Jocasta appears and tells him that he could not have killed Laios because he was foretold by the oracle that he would die by his son”s hand. “Oedipus the King” was considered by contemporaries and Aristotle to be the most perfect tragedy of all antiquity. The subject matter of the tragedy is well known, for even today “Oedipus the King” is the most performed tragedy in all Greek theatre. In the end, to atone for his terrible crime, Oedipus punishes himself by gouging out his own eyes, and then, blind and miserable, leaves Thebes after saying goodbye to his daughters:

Oedipus to the Settlers

The second tragedy in Sophocles” trilogy is “Oedipus at Colonos” (Ancient Greek: Οἰδίπους ἐπὶ Κολωνῷ). Old and blind, Oedipus arrives at Colonos, led by his daughter Antigone. Finding themselves in a sanctified grove, they are asked to leave Colonos. But Oedipus knows he will die here and asks to see Theseus, King of Athens. The elders of Colonos, who come before Oedipus, are told of his cursed origin, and they then wish to banish Oedipus. Antigone begs them to let them stay.

Ismena, Oedipus” youngest daughter, appears and tells of their brothers, Eteocles and Polinike, fighting for the throne. Polinike was driven from the throne and the country by Eteocles. Polinike went to Argos to ask for allies for a war against Thebes. Ismena then says that Creon will arrive to subdue Oedipus to the power of the Thebans. Oedipus harbours feelings of hatred towards Creon and his sons who did not support him when he was expelled from Thebes.

Theseus appears and grants Oedipus lodging in his country. Creon tries to persuade Oedipus to return to Thebes, knowing that in a possible war between Thebes and Athens, the side in possession of Oedipus” body will win. But Creon reminds Oedipus that he cannot be buried in the city but only outside it. Oedipus refuses Creon. He kidnaps Ismena, but she is freed by Theseus” men. Polinike appears and asks for his blessing for victory in the battle against Thebes. Oedipus refuses him too, knowing that Polinike will never conquer Thebes, and the brothers will kill each other in battle.

Oedipus leads Theseus to the place of his death, a place which Theseus must keep secret, for only in this way can Oedipus protect Athens. Oedipus did not die a natural death; a god took him away or the earth opened up to receive him and free him from all suffering. Theseus promises Antigone and Ismena that he will be by their side forever, after which the two sisters return to Thebes to prevent their brothers” deaths.

Antigona

The last tragedy in this trilogy is ”Antigone” (Ancient Greek: Ἀντιγόνη), which begins in the morning after the battle for Thebes. The troops of Argos have fled after being defeated. Polinike and Eteocles killed each other in battle. Antigone learns that Creon, who now rules Thebes, has forbidden Polinike”s burial.

Like ”Oedipus the King”, the tragedy ”Antigone” is one of the most precious literary creations of antiquity. Antigone, Oedipus” intrepid daughter, witnesses the disaster caused by the fight between her brothers, Eteocles and Polinike. Both have fallen in battle, and the throne of Thebes is taken by Creon. The king orders the funeral of Eteocles, the defender of the city, to be held with pomp and ceremony. For Oedipus”s other son, Polinike – who has come with a foreign army to conquer the city – even a simple funeral is forbidden. Against the harsh royal order, facing the threat of death, Antigone, sister of the two warriors, stands up. In great secrecy, she hands over Polinike”s body to the earth, thus fulfilling her customary obligation to the dead. Antigone”s deed is soon discovered by Creon, who condemns her to death. The heated discussion between Creon and Antigone reveals a sharp clash of moral principles. Antigone, a fragile and gentle maiden, is endowed with a daring character, a courage worthy of a warrior. Her strength to stand up to the king stems from her awareness that she is acting in the name of ancient, unwritten laws, which encapsulate the traditional morality deeply rooted in Greek cities.

Antigone will perish in prison, but Creon, who disobeyed the will of the gods, will receive a cruel punishment by losing his son, Hemon (Antigone”s fiancé), and his wife, who commits suicide by casting curses on her arrogant and foolish husband.

Electra

Between 415 and 411 BC Sophocles wrote the masterpiece Electra (Ancient Greek: Ἠλέκτρα), retelling the old legend as told by Aeschylus in the tragedy “Orestes”. Sophocles creates a new Electra, endowed with qualities similar to Antigone”s profile: courage, determination, etc.

The brave soldier Aiax (Ancient Greek: Αἴας), whose honour as a warrior had been tarnished by his countrymen, decided to take revenge. Blinded by this desire, he throws himself, in a moment of madness, upon a flock of sheep, which he tears to pieces and scatters. Coming to his senses and ashamed of what he has done, he throws himself on the sword, surrendering to death willingly.

Filoctet

Neoptolemus, son of Achilles, at Odysseus” urging, decides to steal the enchanted bow of Heracles held by Philoctetes (Ancient Greek: Φιλοκτήτης). By trickery, Neoptolemus manages to win Philoctetes” trust and Philoctetes, in a moment of physical weakness, entrusts him with Odysseus” coveted bow. But an unexpected change occurs in the young Neoptolemus: unable to bear this dishonest game any longer, he returns the bow and grants Philoctetes his help.

Trahinienele

In the Thrainians (Ancient Greek: Tραχίνιαι), Deianira, wishing to preserve the love of her husband, Heracles, sends him a cloak dipped in a liquid that is supposed to awaken his passion, unaware that in reality she is sending him poison that will kill him in terrible torments. Learning of her crime, she kills herself. But her reckless act is born of the purest love, Deianira being kind, gentle, humane, and wanting nothing more than to win back her husband”s love.

Fragments of the satire “Copoii” (Ichneutae) were discovered in Egypt in 1907. These fragments make up about half of the play, making it the best preserved ancient satirical play after Euripides” ”Cyclops”. Fragments of the ”Progeny” (Epigonoi) were discovered in April 2005 by scholars at Oxford University. This tragedy tells the story of the siege of Thebes. A number of other tragedies by Sophocles have survived only in fragments:

Greek tragedy in the 5th century BC was the pinnacle of ancient dramatic creation. Both in terms of structure and depth of conflict, and in terms of the technique of representation, it remained essentially unchanged for many centuries to come. The works of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides exerted a powerful attraction and influence on Hellenistic, Roman and Alexandrian dramatic literature, and were also a source of inspiration for the great tragedy writers of the Renaissance and the modern era.

Sources

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