Sophocles


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Sophocles [Sophokles] (c. 495 BC-406 BC), Greek playwright wrote Oedipus the King (also known as Oedipus Rex and Oedipus Tyrannus), first performed in 429 BC. It begins;

OEDIPUS
My children, latest born to Cadmus old,
Why sit ye here as suppliants, in your hands
Branches of olive filleted with wool?
What means this reek of incense everywhere,
And everywhere laments and litanies?
Children, it were not meet that I should learn
From others, and am hither come, myself,
I Oedipus, your world-renowned king.
Ho! aged sire, whose venerable locks
Proclaim thee spokesman of this company,
Explain your mood and purport. Is it dread
Of ill that moves you or a boon ye crave?
My zeal in your behalf ye cannot doubt;
Ruthless indeed were I and obdurate
If such petitioners as you I spurned.

Oedipus, son of Jocasta and Laius, has just been made King of Thebes. When his father was King it was prophesied by an Oracle of Apollo before Oedipus was born that he would kill his father and marry his mother. To avoid this fate his parents decide to leave him, a helpless baby, on Mount Cithaeron to die. However, a shepherd finds him and takes him to Polybus, the King of Corinth and his wife Merope. They adopt him, not knowing where he came from. Many years later, Oedipus saves the Thebans from the Sphinx's curse by solving her riddle, which was asked of all who wished to enter the city. When they answered incorrectly the Sphinx killed them. So when Oedipus finally outwits her, she jumps to her death, and he is made King. But his past comes back to haunt him, and his downfall lies in the uncovering of his true identity.

In Oedipus at Colonus (c. 400 BC), the downfall of Oedipus continues. Odysseus, self-blinded and in exile from Thebes, is accompanied by Antigone, back to his birthplace of Colonus. At a sacred place he is reunited with both daughters. His two sons Eteocles and Polynices are warring against each other for power. Odysseus awaits Theseus, King of Athens, for as the Oracle foretold, Oedipus's burial site will bring blessings to the city. Oedipus has finally accepted his fate and wishes to sacrifice himself for the better of others.

The tragedy of Antigone (441 BC), daughter of Oedipus and his mother Jocasta, surrounds Antigone's fate after she rebelliously defies her uncle Creon, the staunch new ruler of Thebes. Her father Oedipus is now blind and banished from the city. Her brother Polyneices has just died in a battle against Creon, who then decrees his body be left outside the city walls to the carrion birds. In the god's eyes it is an ignoble fate and Antigone demands that her brother be given an honourable burial. Creon sentences her to death for disrespecting his authority. But Antigone is strong-willed and ignores him, and in the end stays true to her strong sense of moral purpose;

Yea, for these laws were not ordained of Zeus,
And she who sits enthroned with gods below,
Justice, enacted not these human laws.
Nor did I deem that thou, a mortal man,
Could'st by a breath annul and override
The immutable unwritten laws of Heaven.
They were not born today nor yesterday;
They die not; and none knoweth whence they sprang.
I was not like, who feared no mortal's frown,
To disobey these laws and so provoke
The wrath of Heaven. I knew that I must die,
E'en hadst thou not proclaimed it; and if death
Is thereby hastened, I shall count it gain.
For death is gain to him whose life, like mine,
Is full of misery. Thus my lot appears
Not sad, but blissful; for had I endured
To leave my mother's son unburied there,
I should have grieved with reason, but not now.
And if in this thou judgest me a fool,
Methinks the judge of folly's not acquit.

Sophocles is among the greatest of the Greek tragedians that also includes Aeschylus (c. 525-425), who was the most popular dramatist before him, and Sophocles's younger contemporary Euripides (c. 480-406), author of Medea (c. 431 BC). Sophocles' three Theban plays or Oedipus Cycle consist of Antigone, Oedipus the King, and Oedipus at Colonus. While these plays were written many years apart, they all concern Greek gods, kings and mortals in the history of the city of Thebes during and after the reign of King Oedipus. Sophocles wrote over one-hundred plays, but only seven complete ones exist. For the rest, only fragments of papyrus survive. His Satyr play Ichneutae is the largest.

Another of the plays of Sophocles' is Aias or Ajax, composed between 450 and 400BC. At the end of the Trojan War, Achilles' armour is awarded to Odysseus, which enrages Aias. He feels he deserves the honour of the mighty warriors' shield. His great error is humiliating himself in his quest for revenge, attempting to assassinate the Greek army and Agamemnon. Darkness! my only light!....All here is ruin. This mad prey, Shames me for evermore: Vengeance is at the door; Yea, all the Achaean host, with armed hand, Is ready at command, To slay me o'er and o'er."

Electra (c. 425 BC) is princess of Argos, daughter of King Agamemnon and Queen Clytemnestra. The setting is a few years after the Trojan War. Agamemnon has been murdered by Clytemnestra and Electra becomes consumed with her quest to avenge her father's death. She plots to kill her mother with her brother Orestes' help. The moral ambiguity and theme of the play is the source of the psychological term 'Electra complex' in which a daughter has an unhealthy or inappropriate love for her father. Electra's story has been told a number of times, including Euripides's Electra (c. 420 BC) and Aeschylus's Oresteia.

The Trachiniae or Women of Trachis (c. 420 BC) is a domestic tragedy. Deianeira or Dejanira's husband Heracles, who has been neglecting his home life for years, has taken a young mistress, Iole. He wants her to live with them in Trachis. To try to prevent this situation, Deianeira concocts a love potion on him to revive his devotion only to her. Her plan, with the shirt of Nessus, backfires.

Sophocles' Philoctetes (c. 408 BC) tells the tale of protagonist Philoctetes, who is left alone on the island of Lemnos at the order of Odysseus. Philoctetes was bitten on the foot by a snake and the wound remained foul and unhealed, leaving Philoctetes unsuitable for fighting at Troy. However, Odysseus soon realises he needs him because he has the bow of Heracles. By much cunning, Odysseus devises a plan to trick Philoctetes into going with Neoptolemus, son of Achilles, to join the battle. Philoctetes is torn between his anger at having been abandoned and the prospect of being healed.

Sophocles was just a teenager when he submitted his first play Triptolemos to the Festival of Dionysia at the Theatre of Dionysus (god of wine and patron of drama) in Athens. He went on to win first prize with more than twenty plays. At first Sophocles caused controversy; he was advancing the style of Aeschylus' tragedy by adding a third and sometimes fourth actor to increase the dynamics of character dialogue and conflict, and he added more voices to the chorus. His plays were divided into scenes and he introduced the use of scenery items. Costumes became integral to roles. Some describe his plays as technically perfect. His departure from Aeschylus' style of trilogy, which had the gods in control of man's fate, portrays his tragic heroes as mere mortals taking things into their own hands.

Similar to the life of William Shakespeare and fellow Greek poet Homer, exact details of Sophocles' life are scarce. It is said he was born in a village, Colonos, near Athens, Greece, around the year 495 BC. His father Sophilos was a wealthy merchant. He was a highly talented musician and dignified scholar. His fitness of mind and athletic prowess stood him well in life for he lived past the age of eighty. Liked by many, he held numerous positions in public office. He was appointed military general in the campaign against Salamis and in the Peloponnesian War. One of his sons, Ariston, also became a playwright. It was said that the gods looked kindly on him. In the comedic play The Frogs, Aristophanes describes Sophocles, entering Hades after his death as a kind and gentle man, kissing the hand of his rival Aeschylus, who was chief poet of the underworld since his death. When it is decided that Aeschylus should return to earth to continue his work as playwright at the request of Dionysus, Aeschylus honours Sophocles with his seat as poet of the underworld.

Biography written by C.D. Merriman for Jalic Inc. Copyright Jalic Inc 2013. All Rights Reserved.

The above biography is copyrighted. Do not republish it without permission.

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