With Aeschylus and Euripedes, Sophocles is the greatest of Athenian tragedians. Born around 496 BC, the son of a wealthy armour manufacturer, his charm and physical grace won an enduring popularity 'contented among the living, contented among the dead', said Aristophanes. Sophocles did not engage in politics but seems to have enjoyed polis life, leading the chorus in the celebrations for Salamis in 480, and twice acting as strategos (general). Unlike Aeschylus and Euripedes, he was not prosecuted or self-exiled, and always refused invitations to princely courts. Of his 123 plays, 96 won first prize, the rest coming second. He was still writing in his eighties and left two sons to continue the tradition. He died in 405/6, and was honoured as a hero for receiving the cult of Asclepius into his house while a temple was being made ready.

If the plays of Sophocles lack the grandeur of Aeschylus and the psychological insight of Euripedes, they have a directness and density that operates on many levels. Although (according to Plutarch) Sophocles had an earlier high-flown style, and an intermediate artificial and harsh style, it is the final style that appears in the seven plays that have come down to us dignified, natural and with a good ear for dialogue. He 'depicted people as they ought to be', remarked Aristotle, which is not idealized but intensely human.

Tragedy grows out of the innate character of the dramatis personae in Philoctetes, Oepidus Coloneus, Antigone, Trachiniae, Ajax, Oedipus Tyrannus and Electra, and the end cannot be otherwise. Sophocles substituted a self-contained plot for the Aeschylean habit of relating to current events, and introduced a third actor to make plot and characters more complex and interesting. By dealing with universal themes, the plays have generated an enormous number of renderings and imitations, in painting, poetry, plays and films.

Tragedy probably originated in Athens in the fifth century BC, and was very different from today's commercial theatre. The plays were performed on a few occasions during the year, only one play being presented at the time and not repeated. Production was decide by competition. Three poets were chosen by wealthy citizens, and each poet submitted three tragedies and a satyr play. Tragedies consisted of two elements choral song in lyrical measures and accompanied by music and dancing, and dramatic exchanges between two or three characters, who generally spoke in iambic trimeters. Both actors (who included the author in earlier productions) and chorus wore masks.

Athenian tragedy gradually became less ritualistic, but still dealt with man's relationship to the gods, taking themes from mythology that were well known to the audience. A prologue was followed by a choral song; then came episodes of actor and chorus, followed by a standing chorus and the final scene. By the end of the fourth century, the greatness of Athenian tragedy had apparently waned, and the numerous examples thereafter were not preserved.

Ancient Greek differs considerably from modern, and is not easy to learn or appreciate. But its study yearly by thousands of university students throughout the world shows the task is not impracticable. Workable translations exist, but none come close to the experience of reading the original. Those who possess no Greek may wish to approach Sophocles by first reading the plays in English, then immersing themselves in the history and culture of the classical world, perhaps then moving to some of the great poetry the work has inspired, and finally to seeing the plays enacted. After that, the real learning starts, but books like T. Woodward's Sophocles (1966), The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature (1989) and the biography following the Greek Poetry section of The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (1993) will add some incentives. A verse translation of Oedipus at Colonus is available from Ocaso Press in free pdf form.


Suggestion: Greek Tragedy in Action. Oliver Taplin. Routledge. 2002. $33.95.

Professor Taplin examines nine plays in detail, including Aeschylus' Agamemnon and Sophocles' Oedipus the King, drawing on the theatrical techniques used to give life and meaning to the drama. Once a revolutionary approach, but now accepted as a classic text.


C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013 2015.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if properly referenced.