Sophocles was the Shakespeare of Greek dramatists, the poet whom Aristotle felt had perfected the form of tragedy, though the great Aeschylus (c. 525-456, B.C.E.) and Euripides (c. 480-408, B.C.E.) were his contemporaries. These three playwrights competed for prizes in the golden age of drama in fifth century Athens.
Sophocles was born in Colonus, Greece, a district of Athens, about 496, B.C.E. At that time democratic Athens was the leading city-state of Greece, and a center of culture and learning. His father Sophilus was a well-to-do merchant, and the young Sophocles received a good education in the arts. At sixteen he was chosen to lead in dancing and playing the lyre in the public celebration for the victory at Salamis. He supposedly loved wine and women when young, though he was noted later for his charm, good nature, and virtuous life. He was a friend to the great Athenian ruler, Pericles, and perhaps that is why there is so much political discussion in his plays. The political wisdom in his drama led to his being chosen for many public offices—treasurer, foreign emissary, and general.
Sophocles began his sixty-year career as a dramatist early in life and won first place in the Athenian festival of the Greater Dionysia for the first time in 468, B.C.E., defeating the veteran, Aeschylus. He won twenty-four times and never placed lower than second, thus beating the records of Aeschylus and Euripides. Immediately popular in his own day, Sophocles has never lost ground in being one of the most respected dramatists of all time.
His wife was called Nicostrate, and their son, Iophon, and their grandson, Sophocles, were also tragic poets. Sophocles wrote 120 dramas, but only seven of the tragedies survive: Ajax (c. 445); Antigone (c. 441); Oedipus the King (c. 430); Maidens of Trachis (c. 413); Electra (c. 410), Philoctetes (c. 409), and Oedipus at Colonus (c. 401, produced posthumously).
Sophocles made certain innovations in tragedy, including adding a third actor, cutting back the choral parts in favor of dialogue, and insisting on elaborate painted scenery. Plot construction was tight and led seamlessly to the catastrophe. His plots were unified around a single issue. The odes were closely connected to the plot, and the poetic language was noted for its great beauty.
Sophocles believed that suffering teaches wisdom. The gods do not have as prominent a role in his drama as in Aeschylus’s plays, for Sophocles praises human endeavor (see The Ode to Man in Antigone), making him an exemplar of Greek humanism, though he was a religious man as well. His characters mainly fall because of their own flaws or family fate. His plays are still enjoyed for the depth of character motivation and complex psychological drama.
Sophocles was elected as one of the ten generals of Athens at the age of fifty-six in the war against Samos. Later he became a priest to Asclepius, the god of medicine, and was highly honored and respected in Athens, dying about 406, B.C.E. just before the defeat of Athens by Sparta in the Peloponnesian War (404, B.C.E.). After his death a hero cult was formed around the figure of Sophocles. The most famous story about him is that when his son Iophon took him to court at the age of ninety to prove he was incompetent, he was acquitted on reciting part of the play he was writing then, Oedipus at Colonus.
Antigone: Biography: Sophocles