SOPHOCLES, (Lat., from Gk. Sophokl¶s) (c.496-406 B.C.). An Athenian dramatist, born of a prosperous family, at Colonus, a beautiful suburb of Athens. His long and happy life coincided with the period of the Imperial greatness of Athens. His dramas are the most perfect examples of Attic art. His statue in the Lateran is the ideal type of Greek manhood. At the celebration of the victory of Salamis (480 B.C.) he was selected to lead the chorus of youths. His grace and youthful beauty in the role of the Princess Nausicaa playing ball with her attendant maidens were long remembered. He served also as the model of the painter Polygnotus for his ideal picture of the bard Thamyris. He composed the music of his beautiful choric odes, and in addition to his plays wrote many poems, including a Pæan to Æsculapius, which was still sung in the third century A.D. He served his country as ambassador, treasurer of the tribute, and general. He was noted for his piety, held a minor priesthood in his old age, and was worshiped with heroic honors after death. He was the friend of Herodotus (q.v.) who wrote an ode in his honor, and the associate and colleague of Pericles (q.v.).
In 468, at the age of 28, he produced his earliest play, the Triptolemus, which won the first prize against the veteran Æschylus (q.v.). For the remaining years of Æschylus' life the two mighty rivals contended, with varying success, each learning much from the art of the other. The first recorded contest with Euripides occurred in 438, when the younger poet's Alcestis won the second place. In the contests of the next 32 years Sophocles was generally successful, receiving first prize about 20 times and never falling below second place.
In 440 he was elected one of the board of generals for the Samian war, according to the legend, because of the popularity or political wisdom of the Antigone. The great poet as general was the theme of many anecdotes, some of which have been preserved by the writer of memoirs, Ion of Chios, who met him in Chian society. His old age is said to have been clouded by the attempt of his son Iophon to deprive him of the management of his estate on the ground of mental incapacity. The legend adds that Sophocles refuted the charge by reading to the jurors the magnificent chorus in praise of Colonus from the dipus at Colonus, his latest play, produced after his death by his grandson and namesake. If the tale is true it is strange that Aristophanes makes no allusion to it in the Frogs (405 B.C.). There the relations between father and son are so friendly that Dionysus is unwilling to bring back Sophocles to the upper world until he has had an opportunity to test Iophon's poetic powers when unaided by his father. On the death of Euripides in the spring of 406 Sophocles assumed mourning and ordered his chorus to appear without wreaths. A few months later he followed his younger rival.
The chief changes in the external form of tragedy attributed to Sophocles are the raising of the number of members of the chorus from 12 to 15 and the introduction of a third actor, which made possible the complication of the action and the more effective portrayal of character by contrast and juxtaposition. He also abandoned the Æschlean fashion of composing plays in groups of three about a central myth or motive and made each play an independent psychological and dramatic unity. The chorus participates very slightly if at all in the plot, and the length of the choric odes relatively to the dialogue diminishes, though they never become mere musical interludes, as is too often the case in Euripides. The Sophoclean chorus is the ideal spectator and interpreter of the ethical and religious significance of the action. The great choric odes of the Antigone and the dipus unite the grace of the Greek lyric to the moral earnestness of the Hebrew psalm.
Sophocles composed about 120 plays, of which seven are preserved, together with fragments of 80 or 90 others. (1) Ajax. Ajax, brooding upon the dishonor done him by the awarding of the arms of Achilles to Odysseus, is bereft of his reason by Athena, whom he has offended by presumptuous speech. In his frenzy he wreaks his wrath upon the cattle of the Greeks, thinking that he is exacting vengeance from the Greek chieftains. At this point the action begins. Awakening to the intolerable humiliation of his position, he slays himself after a touching farewell to his infant son and a noble apostrophe to earth and sea and sky. The debate on the question of granting him honorable burial, which fills the last third of the play, is an anticlimax to modern feeling, but effectively displays the conciliatory temper of the sagacious Odysseus and the vindictive spirit of Menelaus. (2) The Antigone, perhaps the first problem play in literature, presents the moral antinomy that arises from a conflict between political authority and the law of the individual conscience. Antigone, in obedience to Greek religious feeling and the dictates of her woman's heart, bestows the rites of burial upon her rebel brother Polynices in defiance of the edict of King Creon, and so brings about her own death, and, by tragic complication, that of her lover, Hæmon, the King's son, and that of Eurydice, Creon's wife. (3 ) The Electra corresponds to the middle play of Æschylus' trilogy, the Oresteia, and to the Electra of Euripides. It treats the slaying of Clytemnestra and her paramour, Ægisthus, by her children, Orestes and Electra, to avenge the her murder of their father, Agamemnon. The psychological interest centres in the character of Electra, a sort of ancient Colomba, nerving her brother to the prosecution of the blood feud. (4) The dipus Tyrannus is the most ingeniously constructed of Greek plays and a typical example of the so-called Sophoclean or dramatic irony. The plot turns on the gradual inevitable revelation to dipus (q.v.), through his own insistent inquiry, of the dreadful truth, already known to the audience, that he has unwittingly fulfilled the oracle which doomed him to slay his father and live in incestuous marriage with his mother. (5) The Trachiniæ, named from the Trachinian maidens of the chorus, treats the poisoning of Hercules by the Nessus robe sent to him as a love charm by his jealous wife, Deianira, and his translation to heaven from the funeral pyre on Mount ta. (6) The Philoctetes was produced in 409. Philoctetes, bitten by a serpent and afflicted with a disgusting wound, had been abandoned by the Greeks on the desert shore of Lemnos. After many years an oracle declares that he, the possessor of the bow of Hercules, is indispensable to the besiegers of Troy. Odysseus and Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles, are sent to fetch him, if need be against his will. Very beautiful are the descriptions of nature and the account of Philoctetes' lonely life. But the chief interest of the play lies in the psychological study of the final revolt of the frank nature of Neoptolemus against the treachery which Odysseus requires him to practice upon the unsuspecting Pbiloctetes. (7 ) The dipus at Colonus (first produced in 401) depicts the reconciliation of dipus with destiny and his sublime and mysterious death at Colonus after years of wandering as a blind exile, sustained by the loving tendance of his daughter, Antigone.
As a poet Sophocles cannot vie in imaginative sublimity with Æschyllus. As a thinker he may be less fertile in suggestion than the ingenious Euripides. But regarded as a Greek artist, shaping Greek legends in the conventional molds of Attic tragedy, he holds the just and perfect mean between the titanic symbolism of the older poet and the sentimental, rhetorical realism of the younger. He is reported to have said that Æschylus did right without knowing it, and that Euripides painted men as they are, while he himself represented them as they ought to be. A slight plot suffices him for the creation of a masterpiece because his subtle dramatic art and his exhaustive psychological analysis elicit from a simple situation a complete revelation of character and destiny. Fate, the prime motive of ancient tragedy, is no longer felt as a capricious external power, but as the inevitable outcome of character and the unavoidable condition of life. Tragic pathos is refined to a sense of the universal human fellowship in frailty and suffering. And beauty, the all-pervading, gracious serenity of an unfailing and unobtrusive art, takes from pathos and tragedy their sting. Sophocles is the most truly Hellenic of the Greek tragedians and for those who have drunk-deeply of the Hellenic spirit the most human too.
The best edition is that of R. C. Jebb, in seven volumes, with elaborate introductions and commentary and English translation facing the Greek (Cambridge, 1881-96). There is a good annotated edition by L. Campbell (Oxford, 1871-81) , and an excellent monograph by the same author. Plumptre's verse translation (1870) is much esteemed. That of Whitelaw (1883) is perhaps better.
The New International Encyclopaedia, Vol. XXI (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1920) 291-292.