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Biography of Sophocles (496 BC-406 BC [approx])

Sophocles Sophocles

As with all ancient writers, we can know little for certain about Sophocles' life: sources are few and far between, and much of the information scholars have reached is the result of probability and good guesswork rather than any biographical fact. Some of the sources directly contradict each other.

Sophocles, usually considered the most accessible of the central triangle of Greek tragedians (the other two being Euripides and Aeschylus), was probably born in or around 496 BC at Colonus, near Athens, the setting of his Oedipus at Colonos (see, particularly, the Ode to Colonus in that play at 668ff).

Sources tells us that Sophocles wrote 123 plays in his lifetime, of which we know the titles of 118. Of this huge output of plays (Shakespeare, in comparison, wrote somewhere between 36-39 plays in his lifetime) only seven survive: Antigone, Oedipus Rex (sometimes also called Oedipus Tyrannos, Oedipus at Colonos, Ajax, Electra, The Women of Trachis, and Philoctetes. The tiny size of this sample (around 6% of Sophocles’ total output) should be enough to discourage us from making generalizations about Sophocles’ style or development as a writer.

All we know about Sophocles’ personality is from Aristophanes’ later play Frogs, which seems to suggest that Sophocles was extremely good-natured and well-liked. Dionysus, in that play, thinks Euripides a ‘scoundrel,’ likely to try and escape from hell, but Sophocles, because he was good-natured on earth, is assumed to be good-natured in Hades.

His father, Sophillus, was not an aristocrat but rather a wealthy man, which meant that Sophocles was given an excellent education. The first real glimpse of him in the sources reveal that he was chosen after the defeat of the Persians to lead a boys’ choir in singing a paean around the trophy of victory, and further accompany the proceedings on the harp.

Nothing more is known about Sophocles until he first appears as a tragic poet at one of the Athenian Festivals (see About Greek Theatre) in 468 BC (indeed, we have clearer records for these festivals than we do for Sophocles’ life story). He would then have been about twenty-eight years of age, and was entering his first trilogy against the extremely well-renowned Aeschylus. Supposedly, the excitement at this festival was so high that the ten generals, rather than a jury drawn by lots, were asked to decide the winner. They chose Sophocles.

From that point forward, Sophocles seems to have entered tragedies in the competitions something like once every two years, generally winning first prize. He won either eighteen or twenty-four first places at the City Dionysia, and never placed lower than second – and won several other prizes at the Lenaea. Oedipus Tyrannus, incidently, did not place first: the poet Philocles, on this occasion, won the prize (though it is possible that Philocles was entering using the tragedies of his uncle, Aeschylus, rather than ones he had himself written!). No full trilogy of Sophocles’ survives: the so-called ‘Theban Plays’, of which Oedipus Tyrannus is one, is not actually a full trilogy, and were not written in the order of their story, across Sophocles’ lifetime (Antigone comes first, Oedipus Tyrannus in his old age, and Oedipus at Colonos is only produced after Sophocles’ death).

Sophocles is famously supposed by Aristotle in the Poetics to have added the third speaking actor to the Greek stage (probably sometime around 460: Aeschylus’ Oresteia [which requires three actors] follows two years later in 458 BC. Sophocles also supposedly increased the chorus size, even writing a treatise on the use of the chorus within the plays (which has not survived).

The bond between Greek theatre and Greek society is also evident in Sophocles’ career. He was a senior administrator in the Athenian Empire, and elected to become one of the ten generals in charge of the military. He is also credited with introducing the cult of the healing god Asclepius into Athens: a result, perhaps, of the great plague that struck in the early years of the Peloponnesian War.

For many years, a long tradition of criticism held Sophocles above both Aeschylus and Euripides, hailing his work as the apex of Greek tragedy. This conclusion, it might be said, has undergone considerable revision, and any such value judgment would today be shot down by classical scholars. That said, Aristotle praised him above all other playwrights, using Oedipus the King as a model for the perfect tragedy in his highly influential Poetics.

Sophocles continued to write and serve in government well into his eighties. He died in c.406 BC. And yet, despite leaving us only a small sample of seven complete plays, Sophocles still left a legacy powerful enough to make him one of the founding fathers of Western drama.

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