Who is Sophocles?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Sophocles was one of the three great Greek tragedians who took classical society by storm with their work, radically reforming the arts and culture in Ancient Greek. He falls in the middle of the three in terms of the time that he lived and worked, with Aeschylus preceding him and Euripides following. In addition to being an accomplished playwright, Sophocles was also a prominent figure in Greek society, beloved and revered as a true gentleman by Athenian standards.

Many of the plays of Sophocles were first performed in the ancient Greek city state of Athens.
Many of the plays of Sophocles were first performed in the ancient Greek city state of Athens.

He was born in 496 BCE in a small rural community, later moving to Athens. As an Athenian, Sophocles was twice elected the position of general, and he served as a priest, at one point allowing his home to be used for religious functions until an appropriate temple could be built. He was also known for being an amiable, sociable, very friendly man, and these traits were held in high esteem by the Athenians, so he quickly rose to social prominence. He is also said to have been extremely beautiful by Athenian standards.

He had three sons by two wives, Nicostrate and Theoris, and he was also an extremely productive playwright, producing an estimated 125 plays, of which seven survive today, in addition to some fragments. Unlike many famous authors, Sophocles enjoyed fame and accolades during his lifetime, with his work routinely receiving top prizes at Greek dramatic festivals, and after the death of Aeschylus, he dominated the Greek theatre community.

The work of Sophocles is distinctive for a number of reasons. He added a third actor to his tragedies, taking the focus away from the chorus and introducing more character interactions which allowed his characters to develop more fully. Sophocles often included an exploration of human emotions in his work, looking at tragedies of character rather than abstract circumstances imposed by the Gods, and he also introduced and refined the concept of dramatic irony.

His most famous works are probably the three Theban plays, written over a period of around 40 years and meant to be performed individually, although some theatres perform them as a trilogy. The Theban plays consist of Antigone, Oedipus the King, and Oedipus at Colonus, and many people consider them to be a masterpiece of dramatic art, classical or otherwise. Among other complete plays surviving today are Ajax and Eclectra. Sophocles died in 406 BCE, and he was deeply mourned by his contemporaries.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@burcidi-- No, you're right, its the same Oedipus in both. Sophocles actually took many Greek myths that were created and written by previous Greek writers and expanded on them. Even though many of his stories, including the Theban plays of Sophocles, were familiar to Greece, he introduced new emotions and methods to theater that made his works unique. My favorite Professor always said that no one understood and related to the audience as Sophocles had in Greek theater.


I thought that the story of Oedipus was in Homer's works. Is the character Oedipus in Sophocles trilogy different than Homer's Oedipus?


I remember reading Oedipus Rex in Middle School. I did not understand it too well at the time. It was actually too difficult to comprehend for a Middle School student but our teacher explained a big part of it to us. What I remember about this story was that the main character became King and married his mother. I thought that was horrific and that was the emotion that remained with me about Sophocles' plays.

Now when I read Oedipus Rex, I know that Sophocles was not trying to tell us about a disturbing family relations. The actual theme of the play is rather about fate and destiny and how it is pre-written. It's not the intention of the characters to experience life as they do. They are just puppets in God's play.

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