Tragic Poet (495 BC – 406 BC)
One of the greatest tragic poets to have ever lived, Sophocles, together with Aeschylus and Euripides form the holy triad of tragic poetry and theater arts. The writer of world-renowned plays such as Oedepus, Antigone and Philoctetes, Sophocles exerted enormous influence in the world of theater in the distant past when the aim of theater was not for entertainment as is today’s but for education and spiritual cleansing.
Sophocles was born in Athens to a wealthy, aristocratic family. He received an excellent education for his times, learning music from acclaimed teachers and tragic poetry from Aeschylus’ plays. As a playwright, Sophocles made his debut in front of the Greek audience in 468 BC at the age of 28 with his first play Triptolemos. His play won him his first prize, winning over Aeschylus, who had dominated the hearts of Athenian men as the greatest of all tragic poets. This signaled the rise of a new genius in tragic poetry and marked the start of Sophocles’ long and successful career.
Sophocles was an emblematic figure in the Athenian society and an exemplary citizen. In 443 – 442, following the massive acclaim of his play Antigone, Sophocles was made an honorary general and together with Pericles took part in the battle against the Samiotes. The same year he served as president of the Greek treasury. Widely popular throughout the whole Greece, he was a close friend of both of his rivals Aechylus, whom he considered his mentor and Euripides, whom he admired. Additionally, Sophocles was a good friend of Herodotus whom he also admired greatly, a feeling that was mutual between the two.
There is a general disagreement among historians concerning the total number of Sophocles’ works. It is generally accepted, however, the total number to be around 123. Sophocles won 1st place a total of 20 times and never ranked lower than second place in any competition that he participated in. His plays, which still luster with the same greatness as they did thousands of years ago, draw inspiration from the rich stories of the ancient Greek tradition, the world of the ancient Greek mythology, which relfects the states of man’s soul. It was this soul that Sophocles’ tragedies aimed to provoke and disturb and ultimately cleanse during the climax of the play, leading to its catharsis.
Not only is Sophocles a tragic poet. He is a philosopher, a hierophant, an initiate of the Mystery Schools, as was Aeschylus before him, a profound connoisseur of the Dionysean and Apollonian Mysteries, an anatomist of the human soul. The center of Sophocles’ plays is Man. In contrast, however to his predecessor, Sophocles’ characters act within the natural world and within the normal human boundaries. They are, nevertheless, braver than the average man, engulfed by the sense of justice and ethical duty, possessing ideals and principles for which they are willing at any given moment to sacrifice themselves to defend them, an iron will to overcome situations that exceed the human dimensions. In Sophocles’ plays, the characters’ actions are born from within themselves and are not a cause of an external or divine force. Hence, Sophocles’ tragedies are born from the struggle of man to overcome their nature and their fate. Through the drama, Sophocles’ ultimate goal is the apotheosis of man, which he considers the most amazing being of the universe (πολλὰ τὰ δεινά, κοὐδὲν ἀνθρώπου δεινότερον πέλει).
The innovations which Sophocles introduced in theater were numerous. He increased the total number of actors on the stage from 2 to 3, and the dancers of the chorus from 12 to 15. The chorus thus served as a protagonist and as a commentator. He furthermore introduced the Phyrgic melody in his plays. Even though an actor himself, Sophocles did not act in his own plays, as did his predecessors. He is the first to introduce the psychological aspect in the drama, with his characters seeking to shed light to their innermost, darkest places of their soul. The characters gain for the first time in theater a three-dimensional and psychological aspect and their actions imbue admiration to the spectator. It was Sophocles’ breakthrough to portray characters not as they normally are, but how they should be. That is, the idealization of the human soul.
In general, Sophocles’ works befall in the following categories: Theogony and the birth of the Gods, on the geneology of Deucalion, on the Argonauts’ expedition, on the geneology of Heracles, Inachus, Cadmus and Europe, on the geneology of the Pelasgians, Cecrops, the children of Tandalos and lastly on the Iliad and the Odyssey. Of the 123 plays, all but 7 survive only in fragments. These 7 plays are the following:
- Antigone – About a young woman who disobeys the law to perform a righteous act.
- Ajax – A play centered on the Trojan hero Ajax, with the themes revolving around polemic virtue and dignity.
- Oedipus Tyrranus – A timeless classic on the tragic life of King Oedipus and his fate.
- Trachiniae – About Deianira and the accidental murder of her husband Hercules.
- Electra – A story of two siblings taking revenge on their father’s death.
- Philoctetes – On the persuation of Trojan hero Philoctetes by Odysseus to join the Trojan War and fulfill the prophecy of the fall of Troy.
- Oedipus at Colonus – The final part of the Oedipus trilogy masterpiece.
The main theme that is projected from Sophocles’ work is the highest ethical ideal of Hellenism: the harmony between the duty and freedom.
Sophocles is the primary representative of atticism, with his plays being the embodiment of everything the Athenian classicism of the 5th century BC epitomized, namely the philosophy, the religion, the ethics, the education, the Athenian land and nature and above all, all the high virtues of mankind, which Greece raised and placed in the center of man’s soul. Sophocles continued from where Aeschylus left the development of tragic poetry and brought it to the limits of perfection. He was called by many as the Homer of tragic poetry. With his works, tragic poetry and theatre arts as a whole reach their apogee. As Friedrich Nietzsche writes in his book The Birth of Tragedy “The art of Aeschylus and Sophocles originate from the artistic ideal of the perfect harmony of the Dionysean and Apollonian spirits”.
With Sophocles, tragic poetry transcends the boundaries of art, becoming a means of spiritual exaltation and Greek Meditation. His immortal masterpieces are children of the Greek spirit, the Greek Miracle, which, as N.D. Korkofinis puts beautifully in the Encyclopaedia of the Sun “[The Greek art, the Greek philosophy, the immortal ancient Greek spirit] gift the entire human race its freedom from the horrors and agony of its earthly life. And this service is the highest service of the Greek world to all Humanity”.
- “Sophocles”. Helios New Encyclopaedic Dictionary. N.D. Korkofinis, Passas, I. Athens: 1946. Print.
- Cartwright, Mark. Sophocles. Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 29 Sep 2013. Web. 09 May 2019.
- Δρακόπουλος, Ναστούλης, Ρώμας. Σοφοκλέους Τραγωδίαι – Ἀντιγόνη Φιλοκτήτης. Οργανισμός Εκδόσεως Διδακτικών Βιβλίων – Αθήνα. Υπουργείο Εθνικής Παιδείας και Θρησκευμάτων. Παιδαγωγικό Ινστιτούτο.