Witness to Great Events
Sophocles was a native of Colonus on the outskirts of Athens. He was born in 496 B.C. and died in 406 B.C. Living through most of the fifth century B.C., he was a witness to such important events as the Persian invasions of Greece and their defeat, the growth of Athens as an imperial power and a centre of culture under the rule of Pericles, and the long and ruinous war with Sparta and her allies.
His father Sophillus was the owner of an arms factory. Sophocles took no active part in politics and had no special military gifts. In spite of that he was twice elected “Strategus” (a sort of military commander), and after the Sicilian disaster of 413 B.C., he was made one of the “Probouloi” (or special commissioners), no doubt by reason of his general fame and popularity.
A Lovable Person
Sophocles was a man of great charm, handsome, and well-to-do. Herodotus was one of his friends. Sophocles is regarded as having been a figure of ideal serenity and success. His life lay through the period of his country’s highest prosperity. He was loved by everybody wherever he went. After his death he was worshipped as a hero. Aristophanes sums up his character in the words: “contented among the living, contented among the dead.” He left two sons, one legitimate, and the other born of an illicit union. He was always comfortable in Athens and had no temptation to seek his fortune at foreign courts as some of his colleagues did.
Winner of Many Contests
Sophocles was an artist of the faultless type, showing few traces of the divine “discontentment”. He learned music early in his life and at the age of sixteen he led a choir as harper in the thanksgiving for Salamis. He wrote some 120 plays and won many victories in dramatic contests. His first victory occurred in 468 B.C., when he defeated Aeschylus, being then only twenty-eight years old. The first defeat of a veteran like Aeschylus by a member of the younger generation gave rise to a lot of bitterness. Thereafter Sophocles won the first position in as many as twenty-four contests. He contributed a good deal to the expression of that culture in the theatre which was its prime temple, performing also public duties which were as much the province of the artist as of the man of action. A biographer describes the life of Sophocles as “a picture of a childhood spent under the best influences of a prosperous and enlightened home, a youth educated in a harmonious physical and intellectual discipline and endowed with grace and accomplishment, a manhood devoted to the service of the State in art and public affairs, and in old age regarded with affectionate respect.”
According to an anecdote, Sophocles had some family difficulties at the end of his life. These difficulties were due to his illicit connection with a woman named Theoris. His legitimate son Iophon tried to get a warrant for administering the family estate, on the ground of his father’s mental incapacity. Sophocles read out to the Court an ode from his play Oedipus at Colonus which he was then writing, and was declared as having proved thereby his general sanity! He died a few months after his great colleague, Euripides, in whose honour he introduced his last chorus in mourning.
His Development as a Dramatist
Sophocles wrote pretty continuously for sixty years and he is believed to have given his own account of his development. He began by having some relation with the magniloquence of Aeschylus; next came his own “stern and artificial” period of style; thirdly he reached more ease and simplicity and seems to have satisfied himself. Perhaps, the most important change due to Sophocles took place in what the Greeks called the economy of the drama. Sophocles worked as a conscious artist improving details, demanding more and smoother tools, and making up by skilful construction, tactful scenic arrangement, and entire avoidance of exaggeration or grotesqueness, for his inability to walk quite so near the heavens as his great predecessor, Aeschylus. The stern and artificial period is best represented by the play, Electra. This play is artificial in a good sense through skill of plot, its clear characterisation, and its uniform good writing. It is also artificial in a bad sense. For instance, in the messenger’s speech where all that is wanted is a false report of the death of Orestes, the dramatist has inserted a brilliant, lengthy, and quite undramatic description of the Pythian Games. This play is also stern because of some coldness and a natural taste for severity and dislike of sentiment.
A Certain Bluntness of Moral Imagination
There is in Sophocles a lack of speculative freedom. There is also in him a certain bluntness of moral imagination which leads, for instance, to one structural defect in Oedipus Rex. That piece is a marvel of construction; every detail follows naturally, and yet every detail depends on the characters being exactly what they were, and makes us understand them. The one flaw, perhaps, is in Teiresias. That aged prophet comes to the King absolutely determined not to tell the secret which he has kept for sixteen years, and then tells it. Why? He tells it because of his uncontrollable anger at having been insulted by the King. An aged prophet, who does that, is a disgrace to his profession; but Sophocles does not seem to feel it.
Worthy of Admiration
Sophocles is subject to a certain conventional idealism. He lacks the elemental fire of Aeschylus, the speculative courage and subtle sympathy of Euripides. Otherwise there can be nothing but admiration for him. Plot, characters, and atmosphere are dignified and Homeric; his analysis, as far as it goes, is wonderfully sure and true; his language is a marvel of subtle power; his lyrics are uniformly skilful and fine. Sophocles also shows at times one high power which only a few of the world’s poets share with him. He feels, as Wordsworth does, the majesty of order and well-being; he sees the greatness of God, as it were, in the untroubled things of life. Few poets, besides him, could have shaped the great ode in Antigoneupon the rise of man or the description in Ajax of the “Give and Take” in Nature. And even in the famous verdict of despair which he pronounces upon life in Oedipus at Colonus, there is a certain depth of calm feeling, unfretted by any movement of mere intellect.
A critic writes: “Sophocles was a prolific writer and one highly acclaimed during his own life-time. Several technical innovations in theatrical arts are attributed to him, including the introduction of scene-painting and the use of scenes involving three speaking parts; and he is said to have written a treatise on his art. He found time as well to hold several high public offices and to serve as a priest of a minor healing-god. He was honoured by those who knew him for his charm and his good temper.”
Of the more than 120 plays of Sophocles known to antiquity only seven tragedies have survived intact into modern times. These seven are:
(2) Oedipus Rex, also known as Oedipus Tyrannus
(7) Oedipus at Colonus.
Not all of these can be dated with confidence. An ancient anecdote would dateAntigone to about 442 B.C., and Ajax is generally placed somewhat earlier, for reasons of style. Philoctetes is known to have been produced in 409 B.C. andOedipus at Colonus in 401 B.C., the latter after Sophocles’s death. The dates of the remaining plays are uncertain but there are some grounds for dating Oedipus Rex to the years immediately following 430 B.C. Three of his extant plays deal with the legend of the Theban royal house. (They are the two Oedipus plays and Antigone). The main outlines of this legend he inherited. The Iliad and the Odyssey allude briefly to Oedipus. In the fifth century B.C. both Aeschylus and Euripides wrote Oedipus plays neither of which survives. In later ages the theme attracted numerous dramatists, among them Seneca, Corncille, Voltaire, and Gide. But in most minds the name of Oedipus is linked with the dramatist Sophocles.