His Contribution to Greek Tragedy
Sophocles was an innovator in tragedy. He introduced the third actor; he introduced or at least greatly developed stage scenery; he increased the number of chorus from twelve to fifteen; and he abandoned the practice of connected tetralogies, making each play an artistic whole in itself. In his tragedies man’s will plays a greater, and that of the gods a lesser, part than in those of Aeschylus.
The course of his dramas is determined by the characters of the protagonists, the influence they undergo, the penalties they suffer, not by external incidents. Sophocles is no philosopher or speculator on the deeper problems of life; he accepts the conventional religion without criticism. His principal characters, though subject to human defects, are in a general way heroic and actuated by lofty motives. This is perhaps what Sophocles meant by saying that he portrayed people as they ought to be while Euripides portrayed them as they were. Among his notable achievements are his great heroines, Antigone and Electra, in whom he depicts a combination of womanly gentleness and superb courage. His lyrics form a less important element in the plays than do those of Aeschylus; they combine charm with grandeur, without the mystery and terror of Aeschylus, or the “descriptive embroidery” of Euripides. The dialogue of Sophocles is dignified, appropriate to his idealised characters. The whole is marked by a powerful simplicity. According to his own account of his poetic development, he abandoned the magniloquence of Aeschylus and passed to his own harsh and artificial period of style (as exemplified perhaps in the Electra), and finally attained greater ease and simplicity.
The high estimation in which Sophocles was held in antiquity has been shared in modern times, for instance, by Lessing and Racine. Matthew Arnold describes him as one
Who saw life steadily and saw it whole,
The mellow glory of the Attic stage,
Singer of sweet Colonus and its child.
Shelley had a volume of Sophocles in his pocket when he was drowned. Among Landor’s Imaginary Conversations is one between Sophocles and Pericles.
Disaster without Justification
The Aeschylean universe is governed by moral laws, a violation of which is sure to bring disaster. In the world of Sophocles wrong-doing does indeed lead to its punishment, but disaster may come without justification and, at the most, with contributory negligence. Oedipus would not have done what he did, had he been a little more cautious and a little less self-confident; nor would Heracles have suffered if he had never given Deianeira cause to use the supposed love-philtre. But this does not explain why, in a given case, a comparatively small fault should have such consequences. Still less does it explain why a woman like Deianeira should be at one moment a loving, anxious but hopeful wife, and at the next a hanging corpse. Does Sophocles have any comfort to offer to his readers or any advice to give?
Need of Pity and Wisdom
Of this pattern, which mankind describes as the will of the gods, a great part is piety and purity. Accordingly, no poet speaks more than Sophocles of the need for reverence. But part of it lies beyond morality and is incalculable. Accordingly, no poet speaks so much as Sophocles of the need for wisdom. A man should know what he is; he should know his place in the world; he should be able to take the wide view, with a due sense of proportion—unlike Creon in Antigone, who could see only that Polynices was a dead traitor, and could not see the more important fact that he was a dead man.
The Dignity of Being a Man
But no piety and no wisdom can protect a man against the blows of fate. And as for consolation, the suffering of Oedipus is beyond any possibility of relief. And yet Sophocles does have something to offer to his readers. He certainly offers no hope of a better world. But the grave beauty and dignity of his plays surely reflect the beauty and dignity that he found in human life. Man may be an insubstantial shade; but for all that, Sophocles leaves us with a great sense of the dignity of being a man. To be great and noble of soul is everything. Ajax faces death proudly. Antigone knows that she has done her duty and will be welcomed by her kin among the dead. As for Oedipus, his essential greatness is beyond any shadow of doubt.
The “Complex” Sophocles Hero
The Sophocles hero is complex, not single-minded; he must, therefore, be seen from more than one point of view. We cannot understand Creon’s tragedy or the tragedy of Oedipus unless we know how they behave to a diversity of people, and how different people behave to them. Oedipus’s consideration for his people, his courtesy to Creon and Teiresias which quickly passes to suspicion and rage, Creon’s attitude to Haemon—these are not decorations or improvements, it is essential to the tragedy that we should know our heroes in this light. Similarly the Watchman’s reluctance to face Creon is important as a side-light on the King’s character, not only sub-comic relief. Eteocles’s colourless Spy is transformed, necessarily, into this attractive character of flesh and blood. This is not “progress”, it is plain logic. This art of “undercutting” is used in Oedipus Rex as it has rarely been used since, when the supreme eminence of Oedipus is shown by the collapse of Jocasta’s bold scepticism.
The Need for the Third Actor
Here most probably we have the origin of the third actor, but there was an accessory cause and a development. No catastrophe can be self-contained; others besides the sinner are involved. To Aeschylus this necessary aspect of tragedy presented itself as a linear movement, hence the trilogy; either the tragic event is the result of inherited character, or it leaves a legacy of tragedy for the next generation. To Sophocles this idea presents itself in a complex way, as one immediate situation which involves others at once. The vanity of Ajax ruins Ajax, but it also endangers his sailors, Tecmessa, and others; Creon’s stubbornness threatens the Watchman and destroys Antigone before it involves Creon himself through Haemon and Eurydice. Thus again more actors are wanted. Finally, Sophocles began to lay more weight on the tragic inter-working of circumstance with character, so that the situation becomes more complex. The more complex situation brings the use of the three actors to its highest degree of fluidity.
In the two great discovery scenes of Oedipus Rex, the situation is not presented practically complete before our eyes; not only does it grow but it grows in opposite directions for the two chief actors. The conversation between Oedipus and the Corinthian messenger is itself painfully dramatic, but the addition of Jocasta more than doubles the power of the scene. The progress of Jocasta from hope, through confidence, to frozen horror, and the progress of Oedipus from terror to a sublime resolution and assurance, the two connected by the commonplace cheerfulness of the Corinthian—this makes a really excellent combination of cross-rhythms.