Sophocles was an ancient Greek playwright, born in Colonus near Athens, Greece in 496 B.C.E. His father, Sophilus, was a rich member of a small community, the rural ‘Deme’. Sophocles was highly educated. He is one of three Greek tragedians whose plays have lived on. The Suda, which is an ancient 10th Century encyclopedia, from which we know that Sophocles wrote 123 plays out of which we have 7 complete plays. These are ‘Ajax’, ‘Antigone’, ‘The Women of Trachis’, ‘Oedipus the King’, ‘Electra’, ‘Philoctetes’ and ‘Oedipus at Colonus’. He took part in competitions and even won over the two popular playwrights Aeschylus and Euripides.
His most popular plays also known as the ‘Theban Plays’ are ‘Oedipus’ and ‘Antigone’. He began his artistic journey in 468 BC, with winning a prize for his play and leaving behind Aeschylus in the competition. When he was sixteen he led the ‘paean’ which was a chant for the Gods after the Greek victory over the Persians. He brought many innovations to the Greek play style. One of his advances was the introduction of a third actor which gave him the chance of creating and developing his characters in further depth.
He was the Imperial Treasurer from 443 to 442 B.C.E, helping control the funds of the Delian Confederacy for the Athenian Empire. He was also elected as a member of the Board of Generals more than once. He was very religious. He had given up his house for the worship of a God named Asclepius who was the god of medicine, till a proper temple was not constructed. He was also given the title of ‘Dexion’ for this generosity. Sophocles first wife was Nicostrata with whom he had two sons named Iophon and Sophocles. His second wife was Theoris with whom he had one son who was called Ariston.
His plays involved themes such as the relation between man and the Gods and how man reacts in certain problematic situations and the Heroes of his plays had to overcome various obstacles. He changed the style of having a trilogy and instead made three plays; each with a different plot. This however has produced some inconsistencies in his work. His play ‘Electra’ (418-414 B.C.E), the character Electra is waiting for her brother, Orestes. His play ‘Philoctetus’ (409 B.C.E) shows the conflict between man and the society and the cruelties of the society when it no longer need the man. His play ‘Oedipus at Colonus’ (401 B.C.E.) was produced posthumously and it was the longest play written by him. Sophocles was inspired by human nature and its welfare as we can see from his line in ‘Antigone’:
‘Many are the wonders of the world,” says Sophocles, ‘but none is more wonderful than man.’
Sophocles died at the age of ninety one in 406 B.C. He saw in his life many great times and events including the Greek victory in the Persian Wars and the Peloponnesian War. A eulogy written by a poet in a play called ‘The Muses’:
‘Blessed is Sophocles, who had a long life, was a man both happy and talented, and the writer of many good tragedies; and he ended his life well without suffering any misfortune.’