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BACKGROUND INFORMATION - BIOGRAPHY
Life of Sophocles (circa 496-406 B.C.)
Sophocles was chronologically the second of the trinity of great Greek tragedians, the other two being Aeschylus and Euripides. He was born at Colonus, a pleasant rural suburb of Athens, (probably in 496 B.C.) and died there, ninety years later. His father, Sophilius, manufactured armor for a living.
As a boy, Sophocles won prizes for both wrestling and music. In his teens, he is reputed to have led the singing of a lyrical paean to celebrate the famous Greek victory over the Persians at Salamis (480 B.C.). He produced his first set of plays in 468 B.C., and won the first prize although he was competing with his own mentor, Aeschylus.
He wrote more than 120 plays (the titles of over 110 of these are known). However, only seven of his tragedies have survived. Their probable chronological order was: Antigone (441 B.C.), Ajax, Oedipus Rex (also called Oedipus Tyrannus), Electra, Trachiniae, and Philoctetes (409 B.C.). He wrote his final work, Oedipus at Colonus, at the age of ninety. The play was first produced five years after Sophocles’ death by the younger Sophocles, the grandson of the great playwright.
As a dramatist, Sophocles learned his art from Aeschylus. He was instrumental in increasing the number of singers of the chorus from twelve to fifteen. He also had painted scenery in his productions and used three actors, instead of only two, in his dramas. He is known to have had at least eighteen to twenty victories at drama festivals (besides being ranked second on several occasions). These festivals were held at the theater of Dionysus in Athens. His greatest surviving play, Oedipus Rex managed only second place. Sophocles also staged his plays at the “Lenaea,” or feast of the wine-vats, held annually in January after 450 B.C. at the theater of Dionysus in Athens.
Sophocles married twice (first to Nicostrate, and then to Theoris of Sccyon) and had two sons: Iophon, the tragedian, and Agathon, father of the younger Sophocles, also a writer of tragedies. The Greeks regarded Sophocles as a kind of tragic Homer, hailed him as the favorite of the gods and honored him with state sacrifices long after his death. The last part of his life coincided with the glorious age of Cimon and Pericles, the period of Athens’ greatest prosperity. Although he showed little interest in politics and had no special military skills, he was elected as a “strategos” to serve as one of the ten generals who led the war of 441-438 B.C. He was also chairman of the Athenian treasury from 441-410 B.C., serving alongside the eminent statesman, Pericles. In 413 B.C., after the great Athenian disaster in Sicily, he was made one of the “Probouloi” (special commissioners), mainly due to his widespread fame.
From reliable contemporary accounts one learns that Sophocles was a handsome, wealthy man of great charm. He had friends like Pericles and Herodotus, the great Greek historian. The Victorian critic, Matthew Arnold, praised Sophocles as a man “who saw life steadily and saw it whole.” The ancient biographer, Phyrnicus, says that Sophocles’ life was happy and that he retained all his faculties to the very end. Sophocles is reported to have died either by choking on raw grapes or by running out of breath while reciting lines from Antigone, his favorite play.
The Works of Sophocles
Sophocles’ plays were not like those of either Aeschylus or Euripides. His tragedies did not deal with abstract problems of guilt and punishment stretching over generations, like those of Aeschylus (namely his famous trilogy, Oresteia). Sophocles preferred to depict the specific struggles of resolute individuals against the unyielding forces of fate. He did not favor the writing of a whole trilogy to cover one subject but wrote only single plays, such as Antigone or Ajax.
However, Sophocles did write three plays connected to the Oedipus legend from Greek mythology. The first, called Oedipus Rex, deals with the ill-fated reign of Oedipus as King of Thebes. It was written in the middle of his career, while the second, titled Oedipus at Colonus, was written in 406 B.C., when Sophocles was ninety years old. This play narrates the incidents following Oedipus’ downfall as king and his life in exile in the forests of Colonus. Here he was looked after by his loyal daughters, Antigone and Ismene, until his death. The third play in this series is Antigone, which was actually written first in 441 B.C.