SOPHOCLES (495-406 B.C.), Greek tragic poet, was born at Colonus in the neighborhood of Athens. His father’s name was Sophillus; and the family burial-place, is said to have been about a mile and a half from the city on the Decelean Way.
Timeline of the Poet’s Life
The date assigned for the poet’s birth is in accordance with the tale that young Sophocles, then a pupil of the musician Lamprus, was chosen to lead the chorus of boys in the celebration of the victory of Salamis (480 B.C.).
The time of his death is fixed by the allusions to it in the Frogs of Aristophanes and in the Muses, a lost play of Phrynichus, the comic poet, which were both produced in 405 B.C., shortly before the capture of Athens. And the legend which implies that Lysander allowed him funeral honors is one of those which, like the story of Alexander and Pindar’s house at Thebes, we can at least wish to be founded on fact, though we should probably substitute Agis for Lysander.
Apart from tragic victories, the event of Sophocles’ life most fully authenticated is his appointment at the age of fifty-five as one of the generals who served with Pericles in the Samian War (440-439 B.C.). Conjecture has been rife as to the possibility of his here improving acquaintance with Herodotus, whom he probably met some years earlier at Athens. But the distich quoted by Plutarch—
Ὠιδὴν Ἡροδότῳ τεῦξεν Σοφοκλής ἐτέων ὢν
Πέντ’ ἐπὶ πεντήκοντα—
is a slight ground on which to reject the stronger tradition according to which Herodotus was ere this established at Thurii; and the coincidences in their writings may be accounted for by their having drawn from a common source.
The fact of Sophocles’ generalship is the less surprising if taken in connection with the interesting remark of his biographer (whose Life, though absent from the earliest manuscript through some mischance, bears marks of an Alexandrian origin) that he took his full share of civic duties, and even served on foreign embassies. The large acquaintanceship which this implies, not only in Athens, but in Ionic cities generally, is a point of main importance in considering the opportunities of information at his command. And, if we credit this assertion, we are the more at liberty to doubt the other statement, though it is not incredible, that his appointment as general was due to the political wisdom of his Antigone.
The testimony borne by Aristophanes in the Frogs to the amiability of the poet’s temper (ὁ δ’εὔκολος μὲν ἐνθάδ’, εὔκολος δ’ἐκεῖ) agrees with the record of his biographer that he was universally beloved. And the anecdote recalled by Cephalus in Plato’s Republic, that Sophocles welcomed the release from the passions which is brought by age, accords with the spirit of his famous Ode to Love in the Antigone.
The Sophocles who, according to Aristotle (Rhet. iii. 18), said of the government of the Four Hundred that it was the better of two bad alternatives (probably the same who was one of the probuli), may or may not have been the poet. Other gossiping stories are hardly worth repeating—as that Pericles rebuked his love of pleasure and thought him a bad general, though a good poet; that he humorously boasted of his own “generalship” in affairs of love; or that he said of Aeschylus that he was often right without knowing it, and that Euripides represented men as they are, not as they ought to be. (This last anecdote has the authority of Aristotle.)
The Poet’s Character
Such trifles rather reflect contemporary or subsequent impressions of a superficial kind than tell us anything about the man or the dramatist. The gibe of Aristophanes (Pax 695 seq.), that Sophocles in his old age was become a very Simonides in his love for gain, may turn on some perversion of fact, without being altogether fair to either poet. It is certainly irreconcilable with the remark (Vit. anon.) that in spite of pressing invitations he refused to leave Athens for kings’ courts.
And the story of his indictment by his son Iophon for incompetence to manage his affairs—to which Cicero has given some weight by quoting it in the De senectute—appears to be really traceable to Satyrus (fl. c. 200 B.C.), the same author who gave publicity to the most ridiculous of the various absurd accounts of the poet’s death that his breath failed him for want of a pause in reading some passage of the Antigone. Satyrus is at least the sole authority for the defense of the aged poet, who, after reciting passages from the Oed. Col., is supposed to have said to his accusers, “If I am Sophocles I am no dotard, and if I dote I am not Sophocles.”
On the other hand, we need not the testimony of biographers to assure us that he was devoted to Athens and renowned for piety. He is said to have been priest of the hero Alcon, and himself to have received divine honors after death.
Acting or Choosing Actors
That the duty of managing the actors as well as of training the chorus belonged to the author is well known. But did Aeschylus act in his own plays? This certainly is implied in the tradition that Sophocles, because of the weakness of his voice, was the first poet who desisted from doing so. In his Thamyras, however, he is said to have performed on the lyre to admiration, and in his Nausicaa (perhaps as coryphaeus) to have played gracefully the game of ball. Various minor improvements in decoration and stage carpentry are attributed to him—whether truly or not who can tell?
It is more interesting, if true, that he wrote his plays having certain actors in his eye; that he formed an association for the promotion of liberal culture; and that he was the first to introduce three actors on the stage. It is asserted on the authority of Aristoxenus that Sophocles was also the first to employ Phrygian melodies. And it is easy to believe that Aj. 693 seq., Trach. 205 seq., were sung to Phrygian music, though there are strains in Aeschylus (e.g. Choeph. 152 seq., 423 seq.) which it is hard to distinguish essentially from these.
Familiarity with Homer
Ancient critics had also noted his familiarity with Homer, especially with the Odyssey, his power of selection and of extracting an exquisite grace from all he touched (whence he was named the “Attic Bee”), his mingled felicity and boldness, and, above all, his subtle delineation of human nature and feeling. They observed that the balanced proportions and fine articulation of his work are such that in a single half line or phrase he often conveys the impression of an entire character. Nor is this verdict of antiquity likely to be reversed by modern criticism.
His minor poems, elegies, paeans, &c., have all perished; and of his hundred and odd dramas only seven remain. These all belong to the period of his maturity (he had no decline); and not only the titles but some scanty fragments of more than ninety others have been preserved. Several of these were, of course, satyric dramas. And this recalls a point of some importance, which has been urged on the authority of Suidas, who says that “Sophocles began the practice of pitting play against play, instead of the tetralogy.” If it were meant that Sophocles did not exhibit tetralogies, this statement would have simply to be rejected. For the word of Suïdas (A.D. 950) has no weight against quotations from the lists of tragic victories (διδασκαλίαι), which there is no other reason for discrediting.
It is distinctly asserted on the authority of the διδασκαλίαι that the Bacchae of Euripides, certainly as late as any play of Sophocles, was one of a trilogy or tetralogy. And if the custom was thus maintained for so long it was clearly impossible for any single competitor to break through it. But it seems probable that the trilogy had ceased to be the continuous development of one legend or cycle of legends—”presenting Thebes or Pelops’ line”—if, indeed, it ever was so exclusively; and if a Sophoclean tetralogy was still linked together by some subtle bond of tragic thought or feeling, this would not affect the criticism of each play considered as an artistic whole. At the same time it appears that the satyric drama lost its grosser features and became more or less assimilated to the milder form of tragedy. And these changes, or something like them, may have given rise to the statement in Suïdas.
Dramas and Heroic Poems
The small number of tragic victories attributed to Sophocles, in proportion to the number of his plays, is only intelligible on the supposition that the dramas were presented in groups.
If the diction of Sophocles sometimes reminds his readers of the Odyssey, the subjects of his plays were more frequently chosen from those later epics which subsequently came to be embodied in the epic cycle—such as the Aethiopis, the Little Iliad, the Iliupersis, the Cypria, the Nosti, the Telegonia (all revolving round the tale of Troy), the Thebaica, the Olxalias alostis, and others, including probably, though there is no mention of such a thing, some early version of the Argonautic story.
In one or other of these heroic poems the legends of all the great cities of Hellas were by this time embodied; and though there must also have been a cloud of oral tradition floating over many a sacred spot, Sophocles does not seem, unless in his Oedipus Coloneus, to have directly drawn from this. He was content to quarry from the epic rhapsodies the materials for his more concentrated art, much as Shakespeare made use of Hollingshed or Plutarch, or as the subjects of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King were taken from Sir Thomas Malory.
As Sophocles has been accused of narrowing the range of tragic sympathy from Hellas to Athens, it deserves mention here that, of some hundred subjects of plays attributed to him, fifteen only are connected with Attica, while exactly the same number belong to the tale of Argos, twelve are Argonautic, and thirty Trojan. Even Corinthian heroes (Bellerophon, Polyidus) are not left out. It seems probable on the whole that, within the limits allowed by convention, Sophocles was guided simply by his instinctive perception of the tragic capabilities of a particular fable.
Human Interest in Fables
To say that subsidiary or collateral motives were never present to Sophocles in the selection of a subject would, however, be beyond the mark. His first drama, the Triptolemus, must have been full of local coloring; the Ajax appealed powerfully to the national pride; and in the Oedipus Coloneus some faint echoes even of oligarchical partisanship may be possibly discerned (see below). But, even where they existed, such motives were collateral and subsidiary; they were never primary. All else was subordinated to the dramatic, or, in other words, the purely human, interest of the fable.
This central interest is even more dominant and pervading in Sophocles than the otherwise supreme influence of religious and ethical ideas. The idea of destiny, for example, was of course inseparable from Greek tragedy. Its prevalence was one of the conditions which presided over the art from its birth, and, unlike Aeschylus, who wrestles with gods, Sophocles simply accepts it, both as a datum of tradition and a fact of life. But in the free handling of Sophocles even fate and providence are adminicular to tragic art. They are instruments through which sympathetic emotion is awakened, deepened, intensified.
And, while the vision of the eternal and unwritten laws was holier yet, for it was not the creation of any former age, but rose and culminated with the Sophoclean drama, still to the poet and his Periclean audience this was no abstract notion, but was inseparable from their impassioned contemplation of the life of man—so great and yet so helpless, aiming so high and falling down so far, a plaything of the gods and yet essentially divine. This lofty vision subdued with the serenity of awe the terror and pity of the scene, but from neither could it take a single tremor or a single tear. Emotion was the element in which Greek tragedy lived and moved, albeit an emotion that was curbed to a serene stillness through its very depth and intensity.
Destiny in Sophoclean Tragedy
The final estimate of Sophoclean tragedy must largely depend upon the mode in which his treatment of destiny is conceived. That Aeschylus had risen on the wings of faith to a height of prophetic vision, from whence he saw the triumph of equity and the defeat of wrong as an eternal process moving on toward one divine event—that he realized sin, retribution, responsibility as no other ancient did — may be gladly conceded. But it has been argued that because Sophocles is saddened by glancing down again at actual life — because in the fatalism of the old fables he finds the reflection of a truth—he in so far takes a step backward as a tragic artist.
This remark is not altogether just. His value for what is highest in man is none the less because he strips it of earthly rewards, nor is his reverence for eternal law less deep because he knows that its workings are sometimes pitiless. Nor, once more, does he disbelieve in Providence, because experience has shown him that the end towards which the supreme powers lead forth mankind is still unseen.
Not only the utter devotion of Antigone, but the lacerated innocence of Oedipus and Deianira, the tempted truth of Neoptolemus, the essential nobility of Ajax, leave an impress on the heart which is ineffaceable, and must elevate and purify while it remains. In one respect, however, it must be admitted that Sophocles is not before his age. There is an element of unrelieved vindictiveness, not merely inherent in the fables, but inseparable from the poet’s handling of some themes, which is only too consistent with the temper of the “tyrant city.” Aeschylus represents this with equal dramatic vividness, but he associates it not with heroism, but with crime.
Sophocles is often praised for skillful construction. But the secret of his skill depends in large measure on the profound way in which the central situation in each of his fables has been conceived and felt. Concentration is the distinguishing note of tragedy, and it is by greater concentration that Sophocles is distinguished from other tragic poets.
In the Septem contra Thebas or the Prometheus of Aeschylus there is still somewhat of epic enlargement and breadth; in the Hecuba and other dramas of Euripides separate scenes have an idyllic beauty and tenderness which affect us more than the progress of the action as a whole, a defect which the poet sometimes tries to compensate by some novel dénouement or catastrophe.
But in following a Sophoclean tragedy we are carried steadily and swiftly onward, looking neither to the right nor to the left; the more elaborately any scene or single speech is wrought the more does it contribute to enhance the main emotion, and if there is a deliberate pause it is felt either as a welcome breathing space or as the calm of brooding expectancy.
The result of this method is the union, in the highest degree, of simplicity with complexity, of largeness of design with absolute finish, of grandeur with harmony. Superfluities are thrown off without an effort through the burning of the fire within. Crude elements are fused and made transparent. What look like ornaments are found to be inseparable from the organic whole. Each of the plays is admirable in structure, not because it is cleverly put together, but because it is so completely alive.
Tragedies Written by Sophocles
The seven extant tragedies probably owe their preservation to some selection made for educational purposes in Alexandrian times. A yet smaller “syllogé” of three plays (Ajax, Electra, Oedipus Tyrannus) continued current amongst Byzantine students and many more copies of these exist than is the case with the other four. Of these four the Antigone seems to have been the most popular, while an inner circle of readers were specially attracted by the Oedipus Coloneus.
No example of the poet’s earliest manner has come down to us. The Antigone certainly belongs to the Periclean epoch, and while Creon’s large professions (lines 175-190) have been supposed to reflect the policy of the Athenian statesman, the heroine’s grand appeal to the unwritten laws may have been suggested by words which an Attic orator afterwards quoted as having been spoken by Pericles himself: “They say that Pericles once exhorted you that in the case of persons guilty of impiety you should observe not only the written laws, but also those unwritten, which are followed by the Eumolpidae in their instructions—laws which no man ever yet had power to abrogate, or dared to contradict, nor do the Eumolpidae themselves know who enacted them, for they believe that whoso violates them must pay the penalty not only to man, but to the gods” ([Lysias] contra Andocidem, § x. p. 104).
Modern readers have thought it strange that Creon when convinced goes to bury Polynices before attempting to release Antigone. It is obvious how this was necessary to the catastrophe, but it is also true to character, for Creon is not moved by compunction for the maiden nor by anxiety on Haemon’s account, but by the fear of retribution coming on himself and the state, because of the sacred law of sepulture which he has defied.
Antigone is the martyr of natural affection and of the religion of the family. But, as Kaibel pointed out, she is also the high-born Cadmean maiden, whose defiance of the oppressor is accentuated by the pride of race. She despises Creon as an upstart, who has done outrage not only to eternal ordinance, but to the rights of the royal house.
The drama of Ajax
The Ajax, that tragedy of wounded honour, still bears some traces of Aeschylean influence, and may be even earlier than the Antigone. But it strikes the peculiarly Sophoclean note, that the great and noble spirit, although through its own or others’ errors it may be overclouded for a time and rejected by contemporaries amongst mankind, is notwithstanding accepted by the gods and shall be held in lasting veneration.
The construction of the Ajax has been adversely criticized, but without sufficient reason. If it has not the concentration of the Antigone, or of the Oedipus Tyrannus, it has a continuous movement which culminates in the hero’s suicide, and develops a fine depth of sympathetic emotion in the sequel.
In the King Oedipus the poet attains to the supreme height of dramatic concentration and tragic intensity. The drama seems to have been produced soon after the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, but certainly not in the year of the plague—else Sophocles, like his predecessor Phrynichus, might be said to have reminded his countrymen too poignantly of their home troubles.
“The unwritten laws” are now a theme for the chorus. The worship of the Delphic Apollo is associated with a profound sense of the value and sacredness of domestic purity, and in the command to drive out pollution there is possibly an implied reference to the expulsion of the Alcmaeonidae.
Dramatic Analysis: Electra
The Electra, a less powerful drama, is shown by the metrical indications to be somewhat later than the Oedipus Rex. The harshness of the vendetta is not relieved as in Aeschylus by long drawn invocations of the dead, nor, as in Euripides, is it made a subject of casuistry. Electra’s heroic impulse, the offspring of filial love, through long endurance hardened into a “fixed idea,” is irrepressible, and Orestes, supported by Pylades, goes directly to his aim in obedience to Apollo. But nothing can exceed the tenderness of the recognition scene—lines 1098-1321, and the description of the falsely reported chariot race (681-763) is full of spirit.
In the Trachinian Maidens there is a transition towards that milder pathos which Sophocles is said to have finally approved (ἠθικώτατον καὶ ἄριστον). The fate of Deianira is tragic indeed. But in her treatment of her rival, Iole, there are modern touches reminding one of Shakespeare. The play may have been produced at a time not far removed from the peace of Nicias; and if this were so Deianira’s prayer that her descendants may never undergo captivity—lines 303-305—might remind Athenian matrons of the captive Heracleids from Pylos, descendants through Hyllus of Deianira herself.
The “modern” note is even more conspicuous in the Philoctetes, where the inward conflict in the mind of Neoptolemus, between ambition and friendship, is delineated with equal subtlety and force, and the contrast of the ingenuous youth with the aged solitary, in whom just resentment has become a dominant idea, shows great depth of psychological insight.
The tragic catastrophe of the Oedipus Tyrannus and the Trachiniae is absent here. The contending interests are reconciled by the intervention of the deified Heracles. But even more clearly than in the Ajax the heroic sufferer, rejected by men, is accepted by the gods and destined to triumph in the end. The Philoctetes is known to have been produced in the year 408 B.C., when Sophocles was 87 years old. The Oedipus Coloneus is said to have been brought out after the death of Sophocles by his grandson in the archonship of Micon, 402 B.C.
Publication after the death of Sophocles
The question naturally arises, why a work of such surpassing merit should not have appeared in the lifetime of the poet. The answer is conjectural, but acquires some probability when several facts are taken into one view. It is surely remarkable that in a drama which obviously appeals to Athenian patriotism, local sanctities should obtain prominence to the exclusion of the corresponding national shrines on the Acropolis. It has been thought that the aged poet felt a peculiar satisfaction in celebrating the beauty and sacredness of his native district.
This may well have been so, but could hardly supply a sufficient motive for a work destined to be presented to the assembled Athenians in the Dionysiac theatre. But there was a crisis in Athenian politics when “Colonus of the Knights” acquired a national significance. Those who organized the constitution of the Four Hundred made the precinct of Poseidon at Colonus the place of meeting, and probably sacrificed at the very altar which is consecrated by Theseus in this play. There must have been some reason for this. May it not have been that the occupants of the whole region, including the Academy, belonged mostly to the oligarchic faction?
May not those who honoured Colonus by frequenting it—lines 62 and 63—have belonged to the order of knighthood? The name Colonus Hippius (or τῶν ἱππέων) would then have an appropriate meaning, and the equestrian statue of the eponymous hero (line 59) would be symbolical. In times of political agitation Colonus would then be regarded like St Germain, as the aristocratic quarter, while the Peiraeus was that of the extreme democracy, a sort of Faubourg St Antoine. It was there that the counter-movement reached its culmination.
If so much be granted, is it not possible that this play, so deeply tinged with oligarchic influence, may have been thought too dangerous, and consequently withheld from production until after the amnesty, when the name of Sophocles was universally beloved, and this work of his old age could be prudently made public by his descendant? The knights in Aristophanes (424 B.C.) make their special appeal to Poseidon of the chariot race and to the Athene of victory. The Coloniates celebrate the sons of Theseus as worshippers of Athene Hippia, and of Poseidon.
Theseus in Euripides (Supplices) is the first citizen of a republic. In this drama he is the king whose word is law, and he is warned by Oedipus to avoid the madness of revolutionary change (lines 15361-538). The tragic story of Oedipus is resumed, but in a later and deeper strain of thoughtful emotion.
Once more the noble spirit, rejected by man, is accepted by the gods. The eternal laws have been vindicated. Their decrees are irreversible, but the involuntary unconscious criminal is not finally condemned. He has no more hope in this world, but is in mysterious communion with unseen powers. The sufferer is now a holy person and an author of blessing. An approach is even made to the New Testament doctrine of the sacredness of sorrow.
Whatever may have been the nature of a Sophoclean tetralogy, the practice which at one time prevailed of describing the Oedipus Rex, Oedipus Coloneus and Antigone as “the Theban trilogy” was manifestly erroneous and misleading. The three plays belong to different periods in the life-work of the poet, and the Antigone is the earliest of the three.
The spectator of a Sophoclean tragedy was invited to witness the supreme crisis of an individual destiny, and was possessed at the outset with the circumstances of the decisive moment. Except in the Trachiniae, where the retrospective soliloquy of Deianira is intended to emphasize her lonely position, this exposition is effected through a brief dialogue, in which the protagonist may or may not take part. In the Oedipus Tyrannus the king’s entrance and his colloquy with the aged priest introduce the audience at once to the action and to the chief person. In the Ajax and Philocletes the entrance or discovery of the hero is made more impressive by being delayed.
Immediately after the prologos the chorus enter, numbering fifteen, either chanting in procession as in the Antigone and Oedipus Tyrannus, or dispersedly as in the Oedipus Coloneus and Philoctetes, or, thirdly, as in the Electra, where, after entering silently during the monody of the heroine, and taking up their position in the orchestra, they address her one by one.
With a remarkable exception, to be noted presently, the chorus, having once entered, remain to the end. They always stand in some carefully adjusted relation to the principal figure. The elders of Thebes, whose age and coldness throw into relief the fervor and the desolation of Antigone, are the very men to realize the calamity of Oedipus, and, while horror-stricken, to lament his fall. The rude Salaminian mariners are loyal to Ajax, but cannot enter into his grief. The Trachinian maidens would gladly support Deianira, who has won their hearts, but they are too young and inexperienced for the task. The noble Argive women can sympathize with the sorrows of Electra, but no sympathy can soothe her distress.
The parodos of the chorus is followed by the first scene or epeisodion, with which the action may be said to begin. For in the course of this the spectator’s interest is strongly roused by some new circumstance involving an unforeseen complication—the awakening of Ajax (Aj.), the burial of Polynices (Ant.), the dream of Clytaemnestra (El.), the dark utterance of Teiresias (Oed. Tyr.), the arrival of Lichas with Iole (Trach.), the report of Ismene announcing Creon’s coming (Oed. Col.), the sudden entreaty of Philoctetes crossed by the entrance of the pretended mariner (Phil.).
The action from this point onwards is like a steadily flowing stream into which a swift and turbulent tributary has suddenly fallen, and the interest advances with rapid and continuous climax until the culmination is reached and the catastrophe is certain. The manner in which this is done, through the interweaving of dialogue and narration with the various lyrical portions, is very different in different dramas, one of the principal charms of Sophocles being his power of ingenious variation in the employment of his resources.
Not less admirable is the strength with which he sustains the interest after the peripeteia, whether, as in the Antigone, by heaping sorrow upon sorrow, or, as in the first Oedipus, by passing from horror to tenderness and unlocking the fountain of tears. The extreme point of boldness in arrangement is reached in the Ajax, where the chorus and Tecmessa, having been warned of the impending danger, depart severally in quest of the vanished hero, and thus leave not only the stage but the orchestra vacant for the soliloquy that precedes his suicide.
Drama within Drama
No such general description as has been here attempted can give even a remote impression of the march of Sophoclean tragedy—by what subtle yet firm and strongly marked gradations the plot is unfolded; how stroke after stroke contributes to the harmonious totality of feeling; what vivid interplay, on the stage, in the orchestra, and between both, builds up the majestic, ever-moving spectacle.
Examine, for example, the opening scene or πρόλογος of the Oedipus Tyrannus. Its function is merely to propound the situation; yet it is in itself a miniature drama. First there is the silent spectacle of the eager throng of suppliants at the palace gate—young children, youths and aged priests. To them the king appears, with royal condescension and true public zeal. The priest expresses their heartfelt loyalty, describes the distress of Thebes, and, extolling Oedipus’s past services, implores him to exercise his consummate wisdom for the relief of his people.
The king’s reply unveils yet further his incessant watchfulness and anxious care for his subjects. And he discloses a new object to their expectancy and hope. Creon, a royal person, had been sent to Delphi, and should ere then have returned with the response of Apollo. At this all hearts are trembling in suspense, when Creon is seen approaching. He is wreathed with Apollo’s laurel; he looks cheerfully.
What has Phoebus said? Another moment of suspense is interposed. Then the oracle is repeated—so thrilling to the spectator who understands the story, so full of doubt and hope and dread to all the persons of the drama: “It is for the blood of Laïus—his murderers are harbored in the land of Thebes. The country must be purged.”
That is the culminating point of the little tragedy. While Oedipus asks for information, while in gaiety of heart he undertakes the search, while he bids the folk of Cadmus to be summoned thither, the spectators have just time to take in the full significance of what has passed, which every word that is uttered sends further home. All this in 150 lines!
Or, once more, consider the employment of narrative by this great poet. The Tyrannus might be again adduced, but let us turn instead to the Antigone and the Trachiniae. The speech of the messenger in the Antigone, the speeches of Hyllus and the Nurse in the Trachiniae, occur at the supreme crisis of the two dramas. Yet there is no sense of any retardation in the action by the report of what has been happening elsewhere.
Much rather the audience are carried breathlessly along, while each speaker brings before their mental vision the scene of which he had himself been part. It is a drama within the drama, an action rising from its starting-point in rapid climax, swift, full, concentrated, until that wave subsides, and is followed by a moment of expectation.
Nor is this all. The narrative of the messenger is overheard by Eurydice, that of Hyllus is heard by Deianira, that of Nurse by the chorus of Maidens. And in each case a poignancy of tragic significance is added by this circumstance, while the speech of the Messenger in the Antigone, and that of Hyllus in a yet higher degree, bind together in one the twofold interest of an action which might otherwise seem in danger of distracting the spectator’s sympathies.
So profound is the contrivance, or, to speak more accurately, such is the strength of central feeling and conception, which secures the grace of unity in complexity to the Sophoclean drama.
Lyrics vs. Dialogue
The proportion of the lyrics to the level dialogue is considerably less on the average in Sophocles than in Aeschylus, as might be expected from the development of the purely dramatic element, and the consequent subordination of the chorus to the protagonist. In the seven extant plays the lyrical portion ranges from one-fifth to nearly one-third, being highest in the Antigone and lowest in the Oedipus Tyrannus. The distribution of the lyrical parts is still more widely diversified. In the Electra, for instance, the chorus has less to do than in the Oedipus Tyrannus, although in the former the lyrics constitute one-fourth, and in the latter only one-fifth of the whole.
But then the part of Electra is favorable to lyrical outbursts, whereas it is only after the tragic change that Oedipus can appropriately pass from the stately senarius to the broken language of the dochmiac and the “lamenting” anapaest. The protagonists of the Ajax and the Phitoctetes had also large opportunities for vocal display.
The union of strict symmetry with freedom and variety, which is throughout characteristic of the work of Sophocles, is especially noticeable in his handling of the tragic meters. In the iambics of his dialogue, as compared with those of Aeschylus, there is an advance which may be compared with the transition from “Marlowe’s mighty line” to the subtler harmonies of Shakespeare.
Felicitous pauses, the linking on of line to line, trisyllabic feet introduced for special effects, alliteration both hard and soft, length of speeches artfully suited to character and situation, adaptation of the caesura to the feeling expressed, are some of the points which occur most readily in thinking of his senarii. A minute specialty may be noted as illustrative of his manner in this respect. Where a line is broken by a pause towards the end and the latter phrase runs on into the following lines, elision sometimes takes place between the lines, e.g. (Oed. Tyr., 332-333):—
Ἐγὼ οὔτ’ ἐμαυτὸν οὔτε σ’ ἀλγυνῶ. τί ταῦτ’
This is called synaphea, and is peculiar to Sophocles.
He differentiates more than Aeschylus does between the meters to be employed in the κομμοί (including the κομματικά) and in the choral odes. The dochmius, cretic, and free anapaest are employed chiefly in the κομμοί. In the stasima he has greatly developed the use of logaoedic and particularly of glyconic rhythms, and far less frequently than his predecessor indulges in long continuous runs of dactyls or trochees. The light trochaic line _/_ υ __ υ _/_ υ __, so frequent in Aeschylus, is comparatively rare in Sophocles.
If, from the very severity with which the choral element is subordinated to the purely dramatic, his lyrics have neither the magnificent sweep of Aeschylus nor the “linked sweetness” of Euripides, they have a concinnity and point, a directness of aim, and a truth of dramatic keeping, more perfect than is to be found in either. And even in grandeur it would be hard to find many passages to bear comparison with the second stasimon, or central ode, either of the Antigone (εὐδαίμονες οἷσι κακῶν) or the first Oedipus (εἴ μοι ξυνείη φέροντι). Nor does anything in Euripides equal in grace and sweetness the famous eulogy on Colonus (the poet’s birthplace) in the Oedipus Coloneus.
- A tragic action has five stages, whence the five acts of the modern drama: the start, the rise, the height, the change, the close.
From the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica. Adapted by EIL editor.