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 his predecessor, 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 Oedipus at Colonus when Oedipus suffers because of his actions and can only find peace when he accepts responsibility and renews his faith in the gods. 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, who humanizes his characters to an extent even further than Sophocles to the point that the role of the gods becomes minimal. 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 stateman, serving as treasurer of the Athenian democracy from 443-442 B.C., and as a military general from 441-440, and much later he 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. In Oedipus at Colonus, Theseus' governance of Athens is a stark contrast to the self-serving chaos and corruption that is seen in Thebes.

Sophocles and his plays form a keystone of Greek drama as it moves 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, and he died in 405 B.C. just before this period of greatness would be brought to a nitemarish end with the defeat of Athens in the Pelopennesian War, causing a deep historical tragedy that Sophocles did not live long enough to write.

It also must be pointed out that although loosely connected, 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 441 B.C.when he was fifty-four years old; following this came Oedipus the King fifteen years later in 426, and finally came Oedipus at Colonus, written very close to when Sophocles died 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.

For this reason, the play is considered to be largely autobiographical, reflecting Sophocles' own unease as an eighty-nine year-old man. It may appear that the play pays a final tribute and good-bye to Athens with Oedipus' many compliments and praises for its citizens and its leadership. Just as he had spent his entire life writing, now Sophocles ends his life perhaps allegorically through the mystical death of Oedipus who is swallowed by the earth at Colonus, thus preserving the city of Athens from enemies for all of time. Certainly he could not know that Athens would be defeated by Sparta a couple years later, yet through these vivid images and sweet words, Sophocles has preserved the city of Athens as it was and will be for all time, forever frozen between the lips of his characters.

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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