Playwright, Musician, Actor. One of the three giants of Ancient Greek drama, along with Aeschylus and Euripides. Sophocles lived from 496 to 406 BC, a period that spanned the rise and fall of the Golden Age of Athens, and he was a key contributor to its glory. Although he wrote an estimated 123 plays, only seven survive today: "Ajax" (c. 450 BC), "Antigone" (c. 442 BC), "The Women of Trachis" (c. 435), "Oedipus the King" (c. 429 BC), "Electra" (c. 410 BC), "Philoctetes" (409 BC) and "Oedipus at Colonus" (produced 401 BC, after Sophocles' death). Aristotle considered "Oedipus the King" the perfect play and many modern critics agree it is the greatest of all Greek tragedies. Sophocles was born in Colonus near Athens, the son of a wealthy arms manufacturer. He had an excellent education, including private study with the composer Lamprus of Erythrae, and won prizes in school for music and wrestling. At 16 he was chosen to lead the boys chorus in a paean celebrating the Greek victory at the Battle of Salamis (480 BC), a tribute to his musical skills and athleticism. He probably apprenticed in stagecraft before making his auspicious debut as a playwright at age 28. His tragedy "Triptolemos" (468 BC) took first prize at the City Dionysia festival, beating no less a contender than Aeschylus. What followed was a career of remarkable success and durability. Entering new plays for competition roughly every other year, he won a record 18 first prizes and never placed lower than second (at least six and possibly 12 times). Sophocles acted in many of his early dramas, playing both male and female roles; the Homeric heroine Nausicaa is a known example of the latter. In the title role of his tragedy "Thamyris" (c. 460 BC) he made such a profound impression that his portrait as the character was painted on a wall of the Stoa Poikile, a favorite gathering place in Athens. He withdrew from acting in middle age, allegedly because of problems with his voice but more likely due to the rise of professional actors in the 450s BC. Sophocles was esteemed as much for his personality as for his work. Aristocratic and handsome, he was a bon vivant noted for an amiable charm and self-deprecating wit that enabled him to get along with everyone. His friends included the great Athenian leader Pericles, the painter Polygnotus, historian Herodotus, and younger rival Euripides. He was so beloved by the public that the irreverent Aristophanes, who satirized Aeschylus and especially Euripides in his comedies, took aim at him once (in "Peace", 421 BC) - and never tried it again. Popular demand and a sense of civic duty compelled him to accept appointment as Hellenotamiai (City Treasurer) from 443 to 442 BC, and election as one of Athens' 10 generals during the Samian War (440 to 439 BC), even though he had no real taste for politics and was admittedly inexperienced in military affairs. Apart from that stint in the army he never left his hometown, refusing numerous invitations from foreign kings to visit their courts. After outbreaks of plague had ravaged Athens in the late 420s BC, Sophocles helped introduce Asclepius (the new god of medical healing) to the city, which led to the establishment of its first public hospital. He may have served on the Committee of Elders (413 to 412 BC) that offered advice on domestic policy in the wake of the disastrous Athenian expedition in Sicily. In 406 BC, when news of Euripides' death reached Athens, Sophocles led his chorus in mourning at the Theatre of Dionysus; it was a fitting end to his public life, which had begun with a commemorative ceremony so many years before. He died not long afterwards at the age of 90. Burial was at his family's ancestral tomb along the road between Athens and Decelea, beneath a statue of a siren. His son Iophon and grandson Sophocles went on to careers as tragedians; it was the grandson who produced the posthumous "Oedipus at Colonus" in 401 BC. Sophocles brought the art of Greek tragedy to formal and expressive perfection. Unlike Aeschylus or Euripides, who explored religious and intellectual problems, Sophocles was fundamentally concerned with human conflict. His plays show strong but flawed individuals struggling against a fate that seems less preordained by the gods than the result of a universal moral order. To better develop this theme he introduced a third actor to the Greek stage and reduced the direct involvement of the chorus in the action; characters are delineated with rare sympathy and pathos. His mastery of dramatic construction, and the economy and inexorable pace of his tragedies, enabled him to cover a subject in a single play instead of the connected trilogy as practiced by Aeschylus. (His three dramas about Oedipus and his children are often called his "Theban Trilogy", but they were written over a period of 40 years). Sophocles' plots, taken from well-known mythology, were already familiar to his audiences, so he held them in suspense through brilliant use of tragic irony. Oedipus in "Oedipus the King" offers the most devastating example. In his relentless pursuit of the truth he learns he has blindly fulfilled a prophecy he thought he had escaped - he is the original detective who discovers himself to be the murderer (and has married his own mother to boot). In drama to this day, when a protagonist says or does something the audience knows will lead to disaster, but the character does not, it is referred to as "Sophoclean irony". Sophocles' world view is fatalistic. People are stubborn in their ignorance and pride; they learn only through great suffering, often causing others to suffer as well. Antigone's protest that "There is a point beyond which even justice becomes unjust" can also apply to the gods - Sophocles offers no easy answers to the problems of existence. But attaining a bitter wisdom gives his characters dignity even if it leads to death. His fatalism is steeped in a serene acceptance of humanity. For all the faults of mortals, he can have the chorus in "Antigone" declare, "Many are the wonders of the world, but none is more wonderful than man". And in "Oedipus at Colonus" Sophocles left this world with a message of simple beauty: "One word frees us of all the weight and pain of life: That word is love". A facet of Sophocles' genius seldom mentioned in mainstream sources is his activity as a musician. None of his music has come down to us, and contemporary accounts are scarce. But it should be remembered that song and dance were inseparable components of Ancient Greek drama, and the surviving texts, magnificent and stageworthy as they still are, offer only approximations of the theatrical experience of that era. Sophocles was a kitharode (singer and kithara player) long before he entered the theatre. Playwrights were expected to compose the music for their tragedies and comedies, and its efficacy was a factor in competition. We have clues of how imaginatively Sophocles put it to use onstage in his presentation of "Thamyris", which provided a perfect showcase for his varied gifts. Thamyris was a mythical kitharode whose skill was unmatched by any mortal. He challenged the Muses to a contest, and lost; for his hubris the Muses blinded him and took away his talent. An aulos (a double reed pipe) was traditionally used in performance of a tragedy, so Sophocles' audience must have been perturbed when he brought his kithara into the action. Violating convention in this way was not only necessitated by the story, it underlined the protagonist's arrogance in his contest with the Muses, who would have been played by the other two actors or by the chorus with the standard aulos accompaniment. A fragment of the play suggests that Sophocles depicted Thamyris losing his musical ability in mid-song, with the lyrics falling apart while he was singing - a striking early example of musical illustration. All other indications are he was a conservative composer, following the style of sober restraint practiced by his teacher Lamprus and by Aeschylus. He was never counted among the exponents of the freer style of 5th Century Greek "New Music", as Euripides was. Sophocles was said to have introduced dithyrambic elements (including use of the Phrygian mode) into the music of his dramas - something of a return to roots, as tragedy originally developed from the dithyramb, a hymn of praise to Dionysus. Apart from dramatic scores he composed paeans, odes, elegies, epigrams, and a prose treatise on the chorus. His most famous composition was a late work, the "Paean to Asclepius" (c. 420 BC). It was still being sung in Athens 700 years after his death.
Bio by: Bobb Edwards
"I am concealing by this tomb Sophocles, who took first place in the tragic arts, a most august figure"