Sophocles Biography

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Greek drama has a long evolution, but the great tragic playwright Sophocles played a key role in this process by adding a third actor to the stage, and minimalizing the role of the Chorus that had always had a central role in the earlier plays of Aeschylus. Born around 495 B.C. in the very same Colonus region seen in Oedipus at Colonus, part of the ancient Greek city-state of Athens, Sophocles began writing early on in life. He continually entered the annual drama contest held in nearby Athens until he won first place in 468, shortly before he was thirty years old, taking popularity away from Aeschylus, the first great Greek tragedian who had until then reigned supreme.

Sophocles' work added to the technical elements of playwriting, but his thematic content is much more immediate to the opinions of Athenians as well. Rather than focusing on the archaic perspective that gods control all human events, Sophocles gives responsibility to humans and holds them accountable for their actions based upon the decisions they make. This theme is seen in Antigone because all of the characters suffer due to decisions they themselves have made: Antigone buries Polyneices, knowing that she will be put to death if she is caught, and Creon knows that his actions violate religious law but he does not care. Haemon dies because of his grief at Antigone's death, and Eurydice dies because of the deaths of her two sons. As a result, human events become a matter of cause and effect, rather than blaming everything on the cruelty of the gods. These characters control their own actions. In addition, previous traditions partly established by Aeschylus dictated that tragedies would be divided into a series of three plays, called a trilogy, which was usually followed by a fourth, lighthearted Satyr play. In contrast, Sophocles condensed the meaning of each play he wrote into a self-contained unit in and of itself, without any need to compare. His plays are thus each to be interpreted as independent from any other work.

After achieving his celebrity status in 468, success would follow Sophocles for the next twenty years until he would be beaten at the Athenian drama contest in 441 B.C. by the third and last great Athenian playwright, Euripides. Euripedes would reign supreme until his death in 406, a year before that of Sophocles. When not busy writing and entering competitions, Sophocles himself was also a successful statesman, serving as treasurer of the Athenian democracy from 443-442 BC, and as a military general from 441-440 after gaining great popularity from Antigone which was written in 442. Much later, he also served as an Athenian magistrate in 413. This political experience certainly gives much of the inspiration for his themes, such as how to properly rule a city or the capacity for corruption that rulers of cities and those in power may face. Much of the conflict seen in Antigone is as a result of people fighting for control of Thebes as Eteocles and Polyneices both fought and died for the power to rule, and Creon suffered because of his arrogance after becoming the new Theban king. Sophocles and his plays form a keystone of Greek drama as there is a movement away from an archaic world of fear and powerlessness toward a growing sense of humanity and enlightenment. He lived through the Golden Age of Athenian democracy when such notable persons such as Pericles and Socrates walked the earth. He died in 405 BC, shortly before this period of greatness would be brought to a nightmarish end with the defeat of Athens in the Peloponnesian War, creating a great historical tragedy that Sophocles did not live long enough to write.

It also must be pointed out that although loosely connected to the same mythological tale, Sophocles' Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone do not form a cohesive trilogy at all; the plays were not even written in this chronological order. Instead, it was the famous Antigone that was written first, presumably around 442 BC when he was fifty-four years old. Following this was Oedipus the King fifteen years later in 426, and finally Oedipus at Colonus, written very close to when Sophocles' death in 405 and produced postumously a year later. The first two plays deal very much with affairs of governing a city and the tendency towards corruption and ignorance that political power can bring, corresponding to the years when Sophocles was serving in public offices. However, this last play portrays a suffering, lonely old man who arrives at Colonus of all places -- Sophocles' birthplace -- in order to die.

Because it is the first of this series of plays, Antigone gives clues as to what Sophocles' original intent in writing about Oedipus' story may have been. The action of the story is set in Thebes and, as has been stated earlier, the theme of the story focuses on how a proper city should be ruled. In Antigone, there are many different issues that the new Theban king must face, and he fails miserably, learning wisdom only after great suffering. King Creon first creates a city law that violates a religious law, he is cold-hearted and causes Theban citizens to fear him rather than giving him respect, and he is cruel to his son, a young man whom he should be nourishing since he is his successor. Additionally, he openly mocks the power of women who are a very necessary element in urban society, nor does he listen to the wise advice of others who know better, such as the Chorus. When Creon realizes he has made a bad decision, he is paranoid and afraid that people will mock him. Only after he is punished for these many offenses does Creon find humility and wisdom. Sophocles thus uses Antigone to model everything that a city's ruler should not do. Overall, he teaches that a ruler must have wisdom, which is something that Creon is lacking throughout the play. The story of how a proper city should be ruled is the legacy that Sophocles has left for the people of Athens after writing Antigone. The production of this play led to immense popularity and universal confidence in Sophocles' ability to serve in an administrative office, and, soon after the play was produced, he was elected to the position of Athenian general from 441-440 BC.

Bibliography

Grene, David. "Introduction" to Sophocles I: Three Tragedies by Sophocles. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Hall, Edith, ed. "Introduction" to Antigone, Oedipus the King, and Electra by Sophocles. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Hamilton, Edith. Mythology. New York: New American Library, 1969.

Lattimore, Richard. "Introduction" to the Oresteia by Aeschylus. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1953.

Sophocles. Oedipus the King. Trans. by David Grene. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Vellacott, Phillip, trans. "Introduction" to The Oresteian Trilogy by Aeschylus. New York: Penguin Books, 1985.

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