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Sophocles | Biography

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As is true of other ancient Greek playwrights, there are many stories but few reliable details available about the life of the great tragedian Sophocles. Ancient sources disagree not only on his exact birth date but also on his family's social status. Sophocles was born in Colonus around 496 BCE. Some contemporary texts say that his father owned a business that produced armor. Others claim he was only a tradesman in that business.

Regardless of his social background, everyone who knew Sophocles agrees that he was quite a charmer. He was a handsome, likable man who was successful not only as a prizewinning tragic playwright but also as a military commander and financial strategist for Athens. Sophocles had several sons, both legitimate and illegitimate. One son from his marriage, Lophon, became a successful playwright as well. When Sophocles was quite old, his sons tried to claim in court that he suffered from dementia. They wanted to take over his finances, but Sophocles won the case by reciting a part of one of his plays from memory. Sophocles lived to be 90 years old, dying in 406 BCE.

Sophocles wrote 123 plays, but only 7 of them have survived in their entirety, including:

  • Electra (c. 410 BCE)
  • Oedipus at Colonus (401 BCE)
  • Antigone (c. 442-441 BCE)

He was by far the most successful of the major tragic playwrights in ancient Greece. He won more first prizes at the annual Dionysian dramatic festival than any other playwright. Sophocles was also the first playwright to introduce a third actor on stage. Earlier plays had two actors who could play two different characters each, if needed. However, three actors gave Sophocles the freedom to make his story lines more complex. He also created backdrops for his plays, which added richness and detail to the performances. Oedipus Rex was his most popular play. It was mentioned by the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BCE) in his writings.

Sophocles is known for his ability to change his style of language depending on the emotional weight of each scene. He is also recognized for his clear depictions of the painful struggles his main characters endure as they face their tragic situations. Sophocles often employed dramatic irony in his plays, a literary innovation in which the audience understands the significance of certain actions that the characters do not. In Oedipus Rex Sophocles treats the mythical character Oedipus's suffering with sympathy. He also shows that tragedy brings into focus the power of the gods. Both ideas are emblematic of his personal style and his view of the human condition.

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