Sophocles - Biography
Sophocles (497/496-406/405 BCE) was a luminary force in Classical Athenian culture. He was an innovator of drama. Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus were well-known as masters of tragedy. Like many good Athenian citizens, he was also a politician, priest and military leader. Much of what has been written about Sophocles can not be verified due to the untrustworthy nature of ancient biographies. However, many scholars accept the following events to be accurate.
Sophocles was born in Colonus, not far from Athens, the city whose culture would shape the dramatist. His father Sophillus, owned a business, which probably manufactured armor. Sophocles’s musical education led to his recognition as a master of song. Some sources indicate that the famous musician Lampros helped cultivate Sophocles’s musical ability. Likewise Aeschylus is said to have helped train the young Sophocles in the arts of tragedy. In the paean for the victory at Salamis, Sophocles was a soloist. His first award for a dramatic piece came in 468 BCE at the Greater Dionysia. He one no less than eighteen such contests, never receiving less than a second prize.
Sophocles was married twice. He was the father of at least two sons Iophon and Agathon. In 443 or 442 BCE, Sophocles became a treasurer of Athena. In this role, Sophocles was responsible for the collection of tribute from Athens’s subjected territories. Within a couple of years of holding that post, Sophocles was also elected a general in the suppression of the revolt on Samos. In this role, he served under Pericles In 413, he would return to military service as one of the generals selected to fight against Syracuse. The respect from the Athenian people also placed him in a position to be given one of the special commission implemented to deal with the state of emergency after the military failure in Syracuse. Sophocles died before the conclusion of the Peloponnesian War.
In addition to the artistry and political savvy of Sophocles, he had also been invested with a priesthood of Amynos, a healing deity. His devotion is famously related in the worship services he hosted for the another god of health, Asclepius. These services were held in Sophocles’s house until the temple of Asclepius was completed.
His widespread impact on Western (and global) culture is symbolized by the naming of one of Mercury’s craters after him. The shadow that Sophocles casts covers a diverse spectrum of fields including literature, philosophy and psychoanalysis. Our framework for understanding the human condition and human mentality would be extremely different without the complex works of Sophocles. The philosopher Aristotle enshrined Sophocles as a luminary of Western culture by identifying Oedipus Rex as the apotheosis of the tragedy. Aristotle praised the unity between the imagery and the plot, the juxtaposition of personal and political life, and the dramatic irony, which created new tension in a story that was already well-known to the audience. Aristotle was not alone in raising the reputation aloft. His devotees include Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Jean Racine and Mathew Arnold. Sophocles is praised not simply for the structural soundness of his work but for also depicting the complexities of human existence. With this reputation, it is of little wonder that Sigmund Freud turned to Sophocles’s chef d’oeuvre to help explain the familial drama—giving life to the ubiquitously known but often misunderstood Oedipus Complex. Many see the main focus of Sophocles’s plays as the importance of the individuals and the actions that they take.
Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex begins with the citizens of Thebes stricken with pestilence. Oedipus seeks to appease the gods. Only to find out that the gods will be appeased when the killer of the former king, Lauis, has been punished. The story unfolds as does the unknown history of Oedipus: his fathers attempted infanticide of the new born Oedipus, that Laius was his father and his wife Iocaste (Jocasta) was his mother, that Oedipus unwittingly slew Laius. Questions about the role of chance and destiny are threaded throughout the story. But the only depravity that Oedipus willfully commits through the entire play is Oedipus’s willingness to flout fate. The symbolic and literal blindness of the story lead to the unity of the plot and symbolism that was praised by Aristotle. This play also introduced the character of Creon who plays a central role in Sophocles’s Antigone. In addition, this play has made the legendary blind sage Tiresias in the public mind so that when referenced in the Arcanum of T.S. Elliot’s work it is a reference readily accessible. It is unfortunate that most people associate the hero of this play with the crimes committed out of ignorance. His basic desire to do good and his heroism are ignored for the sloppy lay interpretation of Freud’s theory.
The perpetual contrarian Voltaire spearheads the plays detractors pointing out that inconsistencies he perceives in the work of Sophocles. Critics who have followed Voltaire’s lead in trying to undermine the importance of Oedipus Rex point to the willful ignorance the eponymous character as one of the most glaring inconsistencies of the play. The also question the ability to sympathize with Laius, the king who was killed by the son that had been left to die of exposure. However, these opinions veer toward contention for the sake of being contentious. These critics adopt a posture where they are unwilling to suspend their disbelief for sake of understanding the structure and conventions of Sophocles’s play.
Despite its subsequent fame, Oedipus Rex does not take its place amongst Sophocles’s award winning plays. It has been theorized that it did not win a prize because it was too far ahead of its time. Sophocles’s writing may have been too transcendent for the judges to recognize. On a human level, the repulsion of the inadvertent incest, the horrors of the attempted infanticide that initiate the events of the story are what has made the story one of the most viscerally important in the Western canon.
Euripides is often considered one of Sophocles’s main challengers for notoriety in the field of tragedy. However, Euripides only won four awards. In his antiquity, the reputation was bolstered by his production of over one hundred and twenty plays; however, only seven complete plays survive. It is testament to the skill and esteem of Sophocles that he would so outpace his rival in fame and notoriety
Sophocles most famous surviving work includes the Theban plays: Oedipus Rex (sometimes called Oedipus Tyrannus) Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone. Although these plays deal with the similar subjects, it has been conjectured that they in fact come from different collections of works and the three plays should not be seen as a trilogy. His surviving works also include Trachinian Women, Ajax, Philoctes, and Electra. The few works that remain are outstanding; however, it is hard not to wonder about what literary jewels have been lost to the ages. The lost work of Sophocles is said to include Water-Carriers, Judgment, Assembly of the Achaeans, Banquet of the Achaeans, Ethiopians, Scyrians, Larissaeans, Iberians, Phaeacians, Mysians, Phrygians, Muses, Captive Women, Phthian Women, Scythian Women, Camicians, Colchian Women, Lemnian Women (two versions), Laconian Women, Lovers of Achilles, Momus, Image Bearers, Shepherds, Root-Cutters, Theseus, Atreus, Iphigenia, Odysseus, Madness of Odysseus, Andromache, Daedalus, Meleager, Pandora, Minos, Tantalus, Eris, Cerberus, Laocoon, Ion, Ixion, Sisyphus, Andromeda, Niobe, Voyage of Nauplius , Troilus, Phaedra, Triptolemus, Helen Claimed, Marriage of Helen, Helen Seized, Philoctetes at Troy, Clytemnestra, Tyro (two), the Fire-Kindler, Acrisius, Alexander, Priam,Amphiaraus, Euryalus, Danae, Hermione, Iobates, Aletes, Dionysiskos, Pelias, Epigoni, Amphitryon, Athamas (two), Heracles, Heracles at Taenarum, Tyndareus, Akanthoplex, Tympanists, Thyestes (three), Admetus, Phoenix, Aegisthus, Ajax of Locris, Cedalion, Chryses, Creusa, Nausicaa, Eriphyle, Erigone, Eumelus, Sinon, Oeneus, Aegeus, Eurypylus, Polyxena, Palamedes, Memnon, Thamyras, Inachus, Teucer, Hippodamia, Tereus, Nauplius, , Salmoneus, Procris, Oenomaus, Amycus, Eurysaces, , Peleus, Iocles, Hipponous, Alcmaeon, Herakleiskos, Phrixus, Polyides, Phineus (two versions), Iambe, Hybris, Dolopes, Antenoridae, Aleadae.