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Summary Article: Sophocles
From The Encyclopedia of Ancient History

Sophocles (ca. 496–406/5 BCE) was one of the three great fifth-century Athenian tragic dramatists, along with Aeschylus and Euripides, and a leading figure in Athenian public life. He wrote around 120 plays, seven of which survive. He competed in the City Dionysia for the first time in 468 BCE, defeating the old master Aeschylus. This was the first of his 18 victories, and he was never placed lower than second. He was thus by far the most successful fifth-century tragedian in his own lifetime. He also won a few other victories at the Lenaia. Three changes to the form of tragedy are attributed to him: (1) he increased the number of performers in the tragic chorus from twelve to fifteen (Life of Sophocles 4), for reasons that remain unclear; (2) he introduced scene-painting (Arist. Poet. 1449a18–19); and (3) he added a third speaking actor (Arist. Poet. 1449a18–19), early enough in his career to influence Aeschylus in the Oresteia (458), allowing more complex dialogue and on-stage action. His plays are self-contained, and he did not compose tetralogies, as Aeschylus had often done — that is, three tragedies with a continuous story and a satyr play on a related subject.

Some details are preserved concerning his career outside the theater. He led a victory song after the battle of Salamis (480), "carrying a lyre, naked, and anointed with oil" (Life of Sophocles 4). He was one of the ten HELLENOTAMIAI in 443/2 and served as one of the ten generals in 441/40, when he took part in the suppression of the revolt of Samos. He allegedly received the cult of the healing god Asklepios into Athens in 420/19, and consequently received Hero Cult himself, after his death, under the name Dexion ("The Receiver"). He was one of the ten PROBOULOI appointed to give advice in the crisis after the Sicilian disaster of 413 (see Sicilian Expedition). He died sometime between March 406 and January 405.

Seven tragedies survive, evidently those which were most widely read in antiquity: Ajax, Trachiniae (Women of Trachis), Antigone, Oedipus Tyrannus/Oedipus Rex (King Oedipus), Electra, Philoctetes, and Oedipus Coloneus (Oedipus at Colonus). There are also substantial fragments of a satyr-play, Ichneutae (Tracking Satyrs). We know the dates of Philoctetes (409) and Oedipus Coloneus (produced posthumously, in 401), and there is some ancient evidence that he was elected general in 441/40 as a result of the success of Antigone. Ajax and Trachiniae are generally regarded as his earliest surviving plays, and there are stylistic reasons to date Electra to the 410s (Lloyd 2005: 16–18), but we can only speculate about the date of Oedipus Tyrannus.

Sophocles was famous in antiquity for his portrayal of character. The ancient Life (21) remarked that he could "create an entire character from a mere half-line or phrase," and he himself thought that his mature style was "the most expressive of character and the best" (Plut. Quomodo quis virt. 79b). Each of his seven surviving plays has a dominating individual at its centre: "A man or woman of excess, an extremist, obstinate, inaccessible to argument, he refuses to compromise with the conditions of human life" (Winnington-Ingram 1980: 9). This figure is often contrasted with a more moderate and flexible character, for instance Kreon (Oedipus Tyrannus), Ismene (Antigone). Sophocles' choruses embed a group response in the action, which can be profound, partial, or misguided. Irony is one of his most distinctive features. Characters in his plays (for instance Oedipus, Electra) misunderstand the situations in which they find themselves, so that their words and actions have unintended meanings and consequences. He resembles Shakespeare in that the deeper meanings of his plays remain inexplicit — including the role of the gods. His style combines lucidity with a syntactical flexibility that can be ambiguous and opaque. He was one of the greatest masters of the medium in the history of theater, exploiting on- and offstage topography, entrances and exits, visual meaning (for example the blindness of Oedipus), and significant objects (such as Ajax's sword, Philoktetes' bow, the urn in Electra).

Sophocles' plays continue to be widely performed and adapted, especially Antigone (Steiner 1984), Electra (Lloyd 2005: 117–35), and Oedipus Tyrannus.


Aristotle; Festivals, Greece and Rome; Plutarch; Salamis, Island and Battle of; Strategoi; Theater, Greek and Roman; Tragedy, Greek.

References and Suggested Readings
  • Blundell, M. W. (1989) Helping friends and harming enemies: a study in Sophocles and Greek ethics. Cambridge.
  • Budelmann, F. (2000) The language of Sophocles: communality, communication and involvement. Cambridge.
  • Jebb, R. C., ed. (1883-96) Sophocles: the plays and fragments, 7 vols. Cambridge.
  • Knox, B. M. W. (1964) The heroic temper: studies in Sophoclean tragedy. Berkeley.
  • Lloyd, M. A. (2005) Sophocles: Electra. London.
  • Reinhardt, K. (1979) Sophocles [1933], trans. H. and; D. Harvey. Oxford.
  • Segal, C. P. (1981) Tragedy and civilization: an interpretation of Sophocles. Cambridge, MA.
  • Steiner, G. (1984) Antigones: the Antigone myth in western literature, art, and thought. Oxford.
  • Winnington-Ingram, R. P. (1980) Sophocles: an interpretation. Cambridge.
  • Michael Lloyd
    Wiley ©2012

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