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Sophocles was one of the three great Greek tragedians who took classical society by storm with their work, radically reforming the arts and culture in Ancient Greek. He falls in the middle of the three in terms of the time that he lived and worked, with Aeschylus preceding him and Euripides following. In addition to being an accomplished playwright, Sophocles was also a prominent figure in Greek society, beloved and revered as a true gentleman by Athenian standards.
He was born in 496 BCE in a small rural community, later moving to Athens. As an Athenian, Sophocles was twice elected the position of general, and he served as a priest, at one point allowing his home to be used for religious functions until an appropriate temple could be built. He was also known for being an amiable, sociable, very friendly man, and these traits were held in high esteem by the Athenians, so he quickly rose to social prominence. He is also said to have been extremely beautiful by Athenian standards.
He had three sons by two wives, Nicostrate and Theoris, and he was also an extremely productive playwright, producing an estimated 125 plays, of which seven survive today, in addition to some fragments. Unlike many famous authors, Sophocles enjoyed fame and accolades during his lifetime, with his work routinely receiving top prizes at Greek dramatic festivals, and after the death of Aeschylus, he dominated the Greek theatre community.
The work of Sophocles is distinctive for a number of reasons. He added a third actor to his tragedies, taking the focus away from the chorus and introducing more character interactions which allowed his characters to develop more fully. Sophocles often included an exploration of human emotions in his work, looking at tragedies of character rather than abstract circumstances imposed by the Gods, and he also introduced and refined the concept of dramatic irony.
His most famous works are probably the three Theban plays, written over a period of around 40 years and meant to be performed individually, although some theatres perform them as a trilogy. The Theban plays consist of Antigone, Oedipus the King, and Oedipus at Colonus, and many people consider them to be a masterpiece of dramatic art, classical or otherwise. Among other complete plays surviving today are Ajax and Eclectra. Sophocles died in 406 BCE, and he was deeply mourned by his contemporaries.
Frequently Asked Questions
Who was Sophocles and why is he significant in history?
Sophocles was an ancient Greek playwright, born around 496 BCE in Colonus near Athens. He is one of the three great tragedians of classical Athens, alongside Aeschylus and Euripides. Sophocles' significance lies in his contributions to the development of drama, particularly through his introduction of a third actor to the stage, which allowed for more complex character interactions and plot developments. He is best known for his Theban plays, including "Oedipus Rex" and "Antigone." His works are celebrated for their exploration of human nature and the complexities of fate and free will.
How many plays did Sophocles write, and how many survive today?
Sophocles is believed to have written around 120 plays over the course of his life. However, only seven have survived to the present day in complete form. These plays are "Ajax," "Antigone," "The Women of Trachis," "Oedipus Rex," "Electra," "Philoctetes," and "Oedipus at Colonus." These surviving works continue to be studied and performed, offering insights into ancient Greek culture and the evolution of theatrical traditions.
What are the main themes explored in Sophocles' plays?
Sophocles' plays often explore themes such as the tension between individual action and fate, the conflict between public and private morality, and the nature of wisdom and leadership. His characters frequently face tragic dilemmas, where they must make impossible choices that lead to suffering and self-awareness. The plays also delve into the role of the gods in human affairs, questioning divine justice and the meaning of piety.
How did Sophocles influence the development of Greek tragedy?
Sophocles' influence on Greek tragedy is profound. He added a third actor to the stage, which expanded the potential for dramatic interaction and complex storytelling. His use of dramatic irony, where the audience knows more than the characters on stage, heightened the emotional impact of his plays. Sophocles also focused on character development, creating protagonists with psychological depth. His innovations in plot construction and stagecraft helped to shape the form of Greek tragedy and set standards for future playwrights.
What is the legacy of Sophocles in modern literature and theater?
The legacy of Sophocles in modern literature and theater is immense. His plays have been adapted countless times across various cultures and eras, influencing playwrights from Shakespeare to Arthur Miller. Sophocles' exploration of human psychology, ethical dilemmas, and the tragic hero archetype resonate with contemporary audiences, making his work timeless. His contributions to dramatic structure and character development continue to be foundational in both classical and modern theatrical education and production.