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Sophocles

Updated on November 1, 2009

Sophocles was a dramatist in Ancient Greece. He was born in Colonus, Greece, about 496 B.C.

Sophocles was one of the great tragic dramatists of all time. His plays usually present a noble person who is faced with an overwhelming problem and who brings destruction on himself through a fault, such as pride or ignorance. Sophocles' greatest work, Oedipus the King, is one of the masterpieces of world drama. It is the ironic story of a king who, in his heroic search for truth, discovers that he has unknowingly murdered his father and married his mother.

Other plays by Sophocles that rank high in dramatic literature are Electro and Antigone. Electra tells of the terrible revenge taken by Orestes and Electra on their mother, Clytemnestra, who had killed Agamemnon, their father and her husband. Sophocles expresses neither approval nor disapproval of their act of vengeance, murder, but presents it as an example of harsh retribution for past and present crimes. In Antigone, Sophocles portrays the conflict between the idealistic Antigone, who believes in divine law, and her tyrannical uncle Creon, who represents man-made law.

Few facts are known about Sophocles' life. His father was wealthy, and young Sophocles received excellent training in music, dancing, and athletics. He held various public offices and in 440 B.C. was one of the generals in the war with the Samians. It is believed that Sophocles wrote more than 120 plays. They earned for him more than 20 first prizes in the annual dramatic competitions at Athens. Only seven of his tragedies have been preserved. In addition to Oedipus the King, Antigone, and Electra, they are Ajax, Trachiniae, Philoctetes, and Oedipus at Colonus.

Sophocles is credited with several innovations in the Greek theater. He was the first playwright to use three, rather than two, actors. This improvement enabled him to construct a more complex plot. According to the philosopher Aristotle, Sophocles also introduced scene painting.

Sophocles was a master of dramatic dialogue and the telling use of irony. He did not attempt to explain human suffering but presented it as it is in moving terms. His emphasis was on human action and the response of men to their problems rather than on divine will and the justification of the ways of the gods to man. In comparing himself to Euripides, another major ancient Greek playwright, Sophocles said that he depicted people as they ought to be, whereas Euripides portrayed them as they are.

Sophocles died in Athens, Greece, in about 406 B.C.

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