SOPHOCLES AND HIS TRAGEDIES

This document was originally published in The Drama: Its History, Literature and Influence on Civilization, vol. 1. ed. Alfred Bates. London: Historical Publishing Company, 1906. pp. 106-112.

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SophoclesColonus, a village near Athens, was the place of Sophocles' birth, and the date, 495 B.C., thus making him thirty years younger than Aeschylus and fifteen years older than Euripides. His father, Sophilus, a man of wealth and excellent repute, gave him the benefit of all the literary accomplishment of the age. His powers were developed and refined by a careful instruction in the arts of music and poetry, and to the natural graces of his person further attractions were added through the exercises of the palæstra. That he was a comely and agile youth is shown by his selection, at the age of sixteen, to lead with dance and lyre the chorus which celebrated his country's triumph at Salamis.

In his younger days he appears to have been somewhat over fond of women and wine, and this he himself admits in one of his sayings recorded by Plato: "I thank old age for delivering me from the tyranny of my appetites." Yet, even in his later years, the charms of the gentler sex were at times too strong for the great dramatist. Aristophanes accused him of avarice, though there is nothing in what is known of Sophocles to substantiate the charge, and this is further disproved by the utter neglect of his affairs, which brought on him the imputation of lunacy, refuted by reading to his judges a passage from a newly-written play. The occasional excesses referred to appear to have been the only blemish on an otherwise blameless and contented life.

Dramatic Career

The commencement of his dramatic career was marked by a victory in competition with Aeschylus, under exceptional circumstances. The remains of the hero Theseus were being removed by Cimon from the isle of Scyros to Athens, at the time of a tragic contest which had excited unusual interest on account of the fame of the older and the popularity of the younger candidate. Instead of choosing judges by lot, as was the custom, the archon administered the oath to Cimon and his colleagues, asking them to decide between the rival tragedians. The first prize was awarded to Sophocles, greatly to the disgust of the veteran dramatist, who soon afterward departed for Sicily. Yet the decision does not imply want of appreciation for the plays which Aeschylus presented. The rivalry was not between two works, but between two styles of tragic art, and the subject chosen by the young poet, together with the desire to encourage his first attempt, was sufficient to outbalance the reputation of the great antagonist, whose verses lacked the air of freshness and youth that hung around the poetry of Sophocles.

For more than sixty years after this event Sophocles continued to compose and exhibit tragedies and satyric dramas. Of the one hundred and eighty plays ascribed to him, probably seventeen were spurious, and the number of his first prizes is variously stated at from eighteen to twenty-four, with many second prizes, so that in this respect he left both Aeschylus and Euripides far behind. So far from being dulled with age and toil, his powers seem only to have assumed a mellower tone, a more touching pathos, a sweeter and gentler mode of thought and expression.

To the improvements which Aeschylus made in tragic exhibition he added others, some of which the former adopted in his later works, before taking leave of the stage. He introduced a third actor, further curtailed the choral parts and gave the dialogue its full development. He caused the scenery to be carefully painted and properly arranged, thus greatly increasing the spectacular effect. His odes were distinguished by their close connection with the business of the play, the correctness of their sentiments, and the beauty of their lines. His language, though sometimes harsh and involved, was for the most part grand and majestic, avoiding the massive phraseology of Aeschylus and the commonplace diction of Euripides. In the management of his subjects he was unrivaled, no one understanding so well the artistic development of incident, the secret of working on the feelings, the gradual culmination of the interest when leading up to the final crisis, and the crushing blow of the catastrophe, overwhelming the spectators with terror or compassion.

"Sophocles," says one of his admirers, "is the summit of Greek art; but we must have scaled many a steep before we can appreciate his loftiness, for little of his beauty is perceptible to one who is not thoroughly imbued with the spirit of antiquity." The ancients fully appreciated him, but it is hard for the modern reader to divest himself completely of his associations and set a just value on productions so essentially Greek as were the Sophoclean tragedies. It must also be remembered that, as the successor of Aeschylus, he endeavored rather to follow and improve upon his works than to create a new species for himself.

Qualities as a Dramatist

Aeschylus felt what a Greek tragedy ought to be as a religious union of the two elements of the national poetry. Sophocles, with his just perception of the beautiful in art, effected an outward realization of the conceptions of the great master, exhibiting in perfect form before the eyes of Athens what the other had hewn out in rude masses from the mines of thought. His tragedy was not essentially different from that of Aeschylus, and when he chose subjects which the latter had treated, his completed drama bore the same relation to its forerunner that a finished statue bears to an unfinished group. It was, as he thought, his mission to improve on the tragic art, as Phidias had improved the work of his predecessors. None did he deem worthy of the cothurnus save those who had figured in the ancient legends or in the poems of the epic cycle, and if an inferior character appears, it is only as the instrument of irony, introduced like a streak of bright color into the picture in contrast with its tragic gloom. Moreover, notwithstanding his sensualism, he was of a strongly religious temperament, filled with reverence for his country's gods, by whom, it would seem, he believed himself inspired. In the words which Landor aptly puts into his mouth, he declares himself to be "only the interpreter of the heroes and divinities who are looking down upon him."

An associate of Pericles, though not one of his political disciples, Sophocles, in his full maturity stood, like the mighty ruler of the Greeks, amid a community to which both imparted the lustre of their genius on the sunny heights of noble and brilliant achievement, his perfect art typifying, as it were, the watchful and creative calm of his city's imperial epoch. Of a profoundly religious temperament, but without any vulgar superstition, he treats the sacred myths of his country in the spirit of a conscientious artist, contrasting, with many touches of irony, the struggles of humanity with the irresistible march of fate. After the retirement of Aeschylus, he was recognized as beyond dispute the greatest master of tragedy, and, as we have seen, during the lifetime of the former, wrested from him the tragic prize.

The days of Sophocles were not altogether devoted to the muses. At the age of fifty-six he was appointed one of ten generals for the conduct of the war against Samos, but does not appear to have distinguished himself. Later he became a priest, and in extreme old age was elected one of a committee ordered, during the revolution brought about by Pisander, to investigate the condition of affairs and report thereon to the people. In the easy, good-natured way that was natural to him he assented to the establishment of an oligarchy under the council of four hundred as "a bad thing, but the least pernicious measure which circumstances allowed." In his last years the reverses of the Peloponnesian war, with their attendant civil dissensions, fell heavily on one whose chief delight was in domestic tranquility, and who still remembered the part which he bore in the glorious triumph of Salamis. Yet he was spared the misery of witnessing the final overthrow of his country, dying, full of years and honors, a few months before the defeat of Ægospotami wrought the downfall of Athens.

Seven only of the dramas of Sophocles have come down to us, but these were, with one exception, composed in the full maturity of his tragic power, and each resplendent with its own peculiar excellencies. In the Antigone heroism is exhibited in a purely feminine character; in the Ajax, the manly sense of honor in all its strength. In the Trachiniæ, or Women of Trachis, are described the sufferings of Hercules and the levity of Dëianeira, atoned for by her death; the Electra is distinguished by energy and pathos, and in the Oedipus at Colonus are a mildness and gracefulness suggestive of the character of the author. While we cannot divide the plays of Sophocles into distinct groups indicating certain periods in his dramatic art, he himself recognized three epochs in his own style--first, the tumid grandeur borrowed from Aeschylus; second, a harshness of expression due to his own mannerism; third, the style that seemed to him best fitted for the portrayal of human character.

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