A History of Ancient Greek Literature/Chapter 11

 

XI

SOPHOCLES

Sophocles, son of Sophillos, from Colonus
(496–406 B.C.)

Sophocles is formed by the legend into a figure of ideal serenity and success. His life lay through the period of his country's highest prosperity. He was too young to suffer much in the flight of 480, and he died, just before Athens fell. He was rich, pious, good-looking, good-tempered, pleasure-loving, witty, "with such charm of character that he was loved by everybody wherever he went." He held almost the only two sources of income which did not suffer from the war—the manufacture of weapons, and the state-paid drama. He won a prodigious number of first prizes—twenty as against the five of Euripides. The fifteen of Æschylus were gained in times of less competition. He dabbled in public life, and, though destitute of practical ability, was elected to the highest offices of the state. He was always comfortable in Athens, and had no temptation to console himself in foreign courts as his colleagues did. We may add to this that he was an artist of the 'faultless' type, and that he had no great message to worry over. His father was a rich armourer, and a full citizen—not a 'Metœcus' like Kephalus (p. 337). Sophocles learned music from lampros, and we hear of him at the age of sixteen leading a choir as harper in the thanksgiving for Salamis. His first victory was in 468, when he was eight and twenty. The play was perhaps the Triptolemus.*[1] If so, it was a success to the patriotic drama on its first appearance; for Triptolemus was a local hero with no real place in the Homeric legend.[2] Our account of the victory is embroidered by a strange anecdote: there were such hot factions in the theatre that the archon suddenly set aside the regular five judges, and called on the ten generals, who had just returned from campaigning, to provide a fresh board. The first defeat of Æschylus by a younger generation which knew not Marathon and Salamis, would produce the same bitterness as was felt in modern Greece and Italy against the first Prime Ministers who had not fought in the wars of independence.

One of Sophocles's very earliest plays was probably the Women Washing.* The scene, Nausicaa and her maidens on the sea-shore, seems meant for the old dancing-floor before the palace front had become a fixed tradition; and the poet himself acted Nausicaa, which he can only have done in youth. His figure in middle life was far from girlish, as even the idealised statue shows. The earliest dated play is the Antigone; it was produced immediately before the author's appointment as admiral in the Samian War of 440, and constituted in the opinion of wits his chief claim to that office. The poet Ion, who met him at Chios, describes him as "merry and clever over his cups," and charming in conversation; of public affairs he "understood about as much as the average educated Athenian." In 443 he had been 'Hellênotamias' (Treasurer of the Empire) with no bad results. His fame and popularity must have carried real weight, or he would not have been one of ten Commissioners ('Probouloi') appointed after the defeat of the Sicilian Expedition in 413. And it is significant that, when he was prosecuted along with his colleagues for agreeing to the Oligarchical Constitution of 411, he was acquitted on the naïve defence that he "had really no choice!"

The anecdotes credit him with some family difficulties at the end of his life, apparently owing to his connection with an 'hetaira' named Theôris. His legitimate son Iophon tried to get a warrant for administering the family estate, on the ground of his father's incapacity. Sophocles read to the jury an ode from the Œdipus at Colônus, which he was then writing, and was held to have proved thereby his general sanity! The story smacks of the comic stage; and the references to the poet at the time of his death, especially by Aristophanes in the Frogs, and Phrynichus, son of Eunomides, in the Muses* preclude the likelihood of any serious trouble having occurred shortly before. He died in 406, a few months after his great colleague Euripides, in whose honour he introduced his last chorus in mourning and without the usual garlands.[3] His tomb lay on the road to Dekeleia, and we hear that he was worshipped as a hero under the name of 'Dexiôn' ('Receiver'), on the curious ground that he had in some sense 'received' the god Asclêpius into his house. He was a priest of the Asclepian hero Alcon, and had built a chapel to 'The Revealer'—Mênûtes, identified with Heracles; but the real reason for his own worship becomes clear when we find in another connection that he had founded a 'Thiasos of the Muses,' a sort of theatrical club for the artists of Dionysus. He thus became technically a 'Hero-Founder,' like Plato and Epicurus, and doubtless was honoured with incense and an ode on his birthday. He was 'Dexiôn' merely as the original 'host.'

Sophocles was writing pretty continuously for sixty years, and an interesting citation in Plutarch[4] purports to give his own account of his development. That the words are really his own is rather much to believe; but the terms used show the criticism to be very ancient. Unfortunately the passage is corrupt. He began by having some relation—is it 'imitation' or is it 'revolt'?—towards the 'magniloquence of Æschylus'; next came 'his own harsh and artificial period of style';[5] thirdly, he reached more ease and simplicity, and seems to have satisfied himself. Bergk finds a trace of the 'Æschylean period' in some of the fragments; and it is a curious fact that ancient critics found in the pseudo-Euripidean Rhesus a 'Sophoclean character.' It is not like the Sophocles of our late plays, but does suggest a fourth-century imitation of Æschylus. One form of the 'artificial' tendency—it might as well be translated 'technical' or 'professional'—is expressed in the scenic changes with which Sophocles is particularly associated; though, of course, it must be borne in mind that the actual admission of 'three actors and scene-painting'[6] to the sacred precinct must have been due to a public enactment, and not to the private innovation of a poet.

Perhaps the most important change due to Sophocles himself took place in what the Greeks called the 'economy' of the drama. He used up all his myth material in one well-constructed and complex play, and consequently produced three separate plays at a time instead of a continuous trilogy.[7] But, in general, Sophocles worked as a conscious artist improving details, demanding more and smoother tools, and making up, by skilful construction, tactful scenic arrangement, and entire avoidance of exaggeration or grotesqueness, for his inability to walk quite so near the heavens as his great predecessor. The 'harsh and artificial' period is best represented by the Electra. The Electra is 'artificial' in a good sense, through its skill of plot, its clear characterisation, its uniform good writing. It is also artificial in a bad sense. For instance, in the messenger's speech, where all that is wanted is a false report of Orestes's death, the poet chooses to insert a brilliant, lengthy, and quite undramatic description of the Pythian Games. It is also 'harsh.' Æschylus in the Choëphoroi had felt vividly the horror of his plot: he carries his characters to the deed of blood on a storm of confused, torturing, half-religious emotion; the climax is, of course, the mother-murder, and Orestes falls into madness after it. In the Electra this element is practically ignored. Electra has no qualms; Orestes shows no sign of madness; the climax is formed, not by the culminating horror, the matricide, but by the hardest bit of work, the slaying of Ægisthus! Æschylus had kept Electra and Clytæmestra apart: here we see them freely in the hard unloveliness of their daily wrangles. Above all, in place of the cry of bewilderment that closes the Choëphoroi—"What is the end of all this spilling of blood for blood?"—the Electra closes with an expression of entire satisfaction. It is this spirit that makes the Electra, brilliant as it is, so typically uncharmlng. The explanation may partly lie in some natural taste for severity and dislike of sentiment in Sophocles; it seems certainly also to be connected with his archaism. His language is archaistic through and through; and it seems as if his conceptions were.

All three tragedians have treated the Electra-saga, and treated it in characteristically different ways. The realistic spirit of Euripides's Electra is obvious to every one—the wolfish Pelopidæ, the noble peasant, the harrowing scene of remorse and mutual reproach between the murderers. But the truth is that Æschylus has tried to realise his subject too. He takes the old bloody saga in an earnest and troubled spirit, very different from Homer's, though quite as grand. His Orestes speaks and feels as Æschylus himself would. It is only Sophocles who takes the saga exactly as he finds it. He knows that those ancient chiefs did not trouble about their consciences: they killed in the fine old ruthless way. He does not try to make them real to himself at the cost of making them false to the spirit of the epos. The same objectiveness of treatment appears in another characteristic of Sophocles—the stress he lays on mere physical horror in the Œdipus, on physical pain in the Trachiniæ and the Philoctêtes. It is the spirit of the oldest, most savage epos.[8]

Something of the same sort keeps him safe in the limits of convention. A poet who is uncompromisingly earnest in his realism, or unreserved in his imagination, is apt to jar upon his audience or to make them laugh. Sophocles avoids these dangers. He accepts throughout the traditional conception of heroes and saga-people. The various bits of criticism ascribed to him—"I draw men as they ought to be drawn; Euripides draws them as they are"; "Æschylus did the right thing, but without knowing it"—all imply the 'academic' standpoint. Sophocles is the one Greek writer who is 'classical' in the vulgar sense—almost in the same sense as Vergil and Milton. Even his exquisite diction, which is such a marked advance on the stiff magnificence of his predecessor, betrays the lesser man in the greater artist. Æschylus's superhuman speech seems like natural superhuman speech. It is just the language that Prometheus would talk, that an ideal Agamemnon or Atossa might talk in their great moments. But neither Prometheus nor Œdipus nor Electra, nor any one but an Attic poet of the highest culture, would talk as Sophocles makes them. It is this characteristic which has established Sophocles as the perfect model, not only for Aristotle, but in general for critics and grammarians; while the poets have been left to admire Æschylus, who "wrote in a state of intoxication," and Euripides, who broke himself against the bars both of life and of poetry.

The same limitation comes out curiously in points where his plays touch on speculation. For one thing, his piety makes him, as the scholiast quaintly puts it,[9] "quite helpless in representing blasphemy." Contrast, for instance, the similar passages in the Antigone (l. 1043) and the Heracles of Euripides (l. 1232). In the Heracles, the hero rebukes Theseus for lifting him from his despair and unveiling his face; he will pollute the sunlight! That is not a metaphor, but a real piece of superstition, Theseus replies that a mortal cannot pollute the eternally pure element. Later he asks Heracles for his hand. "It is bloody," cries Heracles; "it will infect you with my crime!" "Let me clasp it," answers Theseus, "and fear not." Now, Sophocles knew of these ideas—that the belief in a physical pollution of blood is a delusion, and that a man cannot, if he tries, make the sun impure; but to him they were wicked scepticism, and he uses them as a climax of blasphemy in the mouth of the offending Creon! No impulse to reason or analyse was allowed to disturb his solemn emotional effects. Another typical difference between the two poets is in their treatment of the incest of Œdipus. Sophocles is always harping on it and ringing the changes on the hero's relationships, but never thinks it out. Contrast with his horrified rhetoric, the treatment of the same subject at the end of Euripides's Phœnissæ, the beautiful affection retained by the blind man for Iocasta, his confidence that she at any rate would have gone into exile at his side uncomplaining, his tender farewell to her dead body. What was the respectable burgher to say to such a thing? It was defrauding him of his right to condemn and abominate Iocasta. No wonder Sophocles won four times as many prizes as Euripides! A natural concomitant of this lack of speculative freedom is a certain bluntness of moral imagination which leads, for instance, to one structural defect in the Œdipus Tyrannus. That piece is a marvel of construction: every detail follows naturally, and yet every detail depends on the characters being exactly what they were, and makes us understand them. The one flaw, perhaps, is in Teiresias. That aged prophet comes to the king absolutely determined not to tell the secret which he has kept for sixteen years, and then tells it—why? From uncontrollable anger, because the king insults him. An aged prophet who does that is a disgrace to his profession; but Sophocles does not seem to feel it.

Sophocles is thus subject to a certain conventional idealism. He lacks the elemental fire of Æschylus, the speculative courage and subtle sympathy of Euripides. All else that can be said of him must be unmixed admiration. Plot, characters, atmosphere are all dignified and 'Homeric'; his analysis, as far as it goes, is wonderfully sure and true; his language is a marvel of subtle power; the music he gets from the iambic trimeter by his weak endings and varied pauses is incomparable;[10] his lyrics are uniformly skilful and fine, though they sometimes leave an impression of laboured workmanship; if they have not the irresistible songfulness of Æschylus and Euripides, they are safe from the rhodomontade of the one, and the inapposite garrulity of the other. And it is true that Sophocles shows at times one high power which but few of the world's poets share with him. He feels, as Wordsworth does, the majesty of order and well-being; sees the greatness of God, as it were, in the untroubled things of life. Few hands but his could have shaped the great ode in the Antigone upon the Rise of Man, or the description in the Ajax of the 'Give and Take' in nature. And even in the famous verdict of despair which he pronounces upon Life in the second Œdipus[11] there is a certain depth of cahm feeling, unfretted by any movement of mere intellect, which at times makes the subtlest and boldest work of Euripides seem 'young man's poetry' by comparison.

Utterly dissimilar as the two dramatists are, the construction of the Œdipus Tyrannus reminds one strongly of Ibsen's later plays. From the very first scene the action moves straight and undistracted towards the catastrophe. The interest turns, not on what the characters do, but on their finding out what they have done. And one of the strongest scenes is made by the husband and wife deliberately and painfully confessing to one another certain dark passages of their lives, which they had hitherto kept concealed. The plot has the immense advantage of providing a deed in the past—the involuntary parricide and incest—which explains the hero's self-horror without making him lose our sympathies. And, as a matter of fact, the character of Œdipus, his determination to have truth at any cost, his utter disregard of his own sufferings, is heroic in itself, and comes naturally from the plot. Iocasta was difficult to treat: the mere fact of her being twice as old as her husband was an awkwardness; but there is a stately sadness, a power of quiet authority, and a certain stern grey outlook on life, which seem to belong to a woman of hard experiences. Of course there are gross improbabilities about the original saga, but, as Aristotle observes, they fall outside the action of the play. In the action everything is natural except the very end. Why did Œdipus put out his eyes? Iocasta realised that she must die, and hanged herself. Œdipus himself meant to slay her if she had not anticipated him. Why did he not follow her? Any free composition would have made him do so; but Sophocles was bound to the saga, and the saga was perfectly certain that Œdipus was alive and blind a long time afterwards. Euripides avoided the awkwardness in an ingenious way. In his Œdipus*[12] the hero is overpowered and blinded by the retainers when he has murdered Iocasta and is seeking to murder his children and himself. As a mere piece of technique, the Œdipus of Sophocles deserves the position given to it by Aristotle, as the typical example of the highest Greek tragedy. There is deep, if not very original, thought; there is wonderful power of language, though no great lift of imagination; and for pure dramatic strength and skill, there are few things in any drama so fine as the last exit of Iocasta, when she alone sees the truth that is coming.

The Ajax—called by the grammarians Ajax the Scourge-Bearer, in distinction to another Ajax the Locrian*—is a stiff and very early play. It is only in the prologue and in the last scene that it has three actors, and it does not really know how to use them, as they are used, for instance, in the Electra and the Antigone. Ajax, being defeated by Odysseus in the contest for the arms of Achilles, nursed his wrath till Athena sent him mad. He tried to attack Odysseus and the Atridæ in their tents, and, like Don Quixote, fell on some sheep and oxen instead. He comes to his mind again, goes out to a solitary place by the sea, and falls upon his sword. All the last five hundred lines are occupied with the question of his burial, his great enemy Odysseus being eventually the man who prevails on the angry generals to do him honour. The finest things in the play are the hero's speeches in his disgrace, and the portraiture of his concubine, the enslaved princess Tecmessa, whom he despises, and who is really superior to him in courage and strength of character, as well as in unselfishness. It is difficult to believe that the Ajax is uniform as we have it. Not only does the metrical technique vary in different parts, but both the subtly-drawn Tecmessa and the fiendish Athena seem to come from the influence of Euripides; while other points of late style, such as the abuse of heralds, and the representation of Menelaus as the wicked Spartan, combine with the disproportionate length of the burial discussion to suggest that there has been some late retouching of this very old play.

The Antigone is perhaps the most celebrated drama in Greek literature. The plot is built on the eternally-interesting idea of martyrdom, the devotion to a higher unseen law, resulting in revolt against and destruction by the lower visible law. Polyneikes has been slain fighting against his usurping brother Eteocles and against his country; and Creon—the name merely means 'ruler,' which accounts for its commonness for the official kings of the saga—commands that he be cast out to the dogs and birds as a traitor. Any one who attempts to bury him shall suffer instant death. His sister Antigone determines to bury him; the other sister, Ismênê, hesitates and shrinks. Antigone is discovered, refuses to make any kind of submission, and is condemned. Ismênê tries to share her suffering; her lover Hæmon, son of Creon, intercedes for her: both in vain. Hæmon forces his way into the tomb where she has been immured alive, finds her dead, and slays himself.

Apart from the beauty of detail, especially in the language, one of the marks of daring genius in this play is Antigone's vagueness about the motive or principle of her action: it is because her guilty brother's cause was just; because death is enough to wipe away all offences; because it is not her nature to join in hating, though she is ready to join in loving (l. 523); because an unburied corpse offends the gods; because her own heart is really with the dead, and she wishes to go to her own. In one passage she explains, in a helpless and pathetically false way, that she only buries him because he is her brother; she would not have buried her husband or son! It is absolutely true to life in a high sense; like Beatrice Cenci, she "cannot argue: she can only feel." And another wonderful touch is Antigone's inability to see the glory of her death: she is only a weak girl cruelly punished for a thing which she was bound to do. She thinks the almost religious admiration of the elders is mockery (l. 839).

Creon also is subtly drawn. He is not a monster, though he has to act as one. He has staked his whole authority upon his edict. Finding it disobeyed, he has taken a position from which it is almost impossible to retreat. Then it appears that his niece is the culprit. It is hard for him to eat up his words forthwith; and she gives him no faintest excuse for doing so. She defies him openly with a deep dispassionate contempt. Ismênê, bold in the face of a real crisis, joins her sister; his own son Hæmon, at first moderate, becomes presently violent and insubordinate. Creon seems to be searching for a loophole to escape, subject only to the determination of an obstinate autocrat not to unsay what he has said. After Hæmon leaves him, he cries desperately that he sticks to his decision. Both the maidens must die! "Both," say the chorus—"you never spoke of Ismênê!" "Did I not?" he answers, with visible relief—"no, no; it was only Antigone!" And even on her he will not do the irreparable. With the obvious wish to leave himself breathing time, he orders her to be shut in a cave without food or water "till she learns wisdom." When he repents, of course, it is too late.

There are several similarities between this, perhaps the sublimest, and the Electra, perhaps the 'least sublime, of Sophocles's plays. The strong and the weak sister stand in exactly similar contrast; indeed in the passages where Antigone defies Creon and where she rejects Ismênê's claim to share her martyrdom, we seem to have a ring of the old 'harshness.' There are marks of early date also. The question Τίς ἀνδρῶν;—"What man hath dared?"—when the real sinner is of course a woman, is a piece of well-worn dramatic effect which the Attic stage soon grew out of. The love of antithesis, always present in Sophocles, is dominant in the Antigone—"Two brothers by two hands on one day slain"; or finer:

"Be of good cheer, thou livest; but my life
For the dead's sake these many days is dead."

The claims of the dead form, in fact, a note common to this play and the Electra. They repeat the protest already uttered by Æschylus in the Choëphoroi, against treating wrong done merely as it affects the convenience of the living. The love-motive in Hæmon is not likely to be due to Sophocles's invention; it is unlike his spirit, and he makes little use of it, much less than Euripides did in his lost Antigone.* The idea would naturally come from Mimnermus or one of the erotic elegists.

The Trachiniæ and the Philoctêtes show clearly the influence of Euripides. The former deals with the death of Heracles by the coat of burning poison which his enemy the centaur Nessus has given to the hero's wife Dêianîra, professing that it is a love-charm. Dêianîra finds that Heracles is untrue to her, and that an unhappy princess whom he has sent as captive of war to her house is really the object for whom he made the war. She bethinks her of the love-charm and sends it, and the burly demi-god dies raging. The Dorian hero, a common figure in satyr-plays, had never been admitted to tragedy till Euripides's Heracles, where he appears as the lusty conquering warrior, jovial and impulsive, with little nobleness of soul to fall back upon. There are some definite imitations of the Heracles in the Trachiniæ, apart from the Euripidean prologue and the subtly dramatic situation between Dêianîra and her husband's unwilling mistress. One would like to know if there can be any connection between the writing of this play and the history contained in Antiphon's speech On Poisoning (p. 335).

The Philoctêtes (409 B.C.) is markedly a character-play. The hero, once the companion of Heracles, and now owner of his unerring bow, had been bitten by a noxious snake. The festering wound seemed about to breed a pestilence, and the Greeks left the sick man marooned on Lemnos. Long years afterwards an oracle reveals that the bow, and Philoctêtes with it, must come to Troy, if the town is to be taken. It is all but impossible to approach the injured man; but Odysseus, the great contriver, agrees to try it, and takes with him the son of Achilles, Neoptolemus. Odysseus himself is known to Philoctêtes; so he keeps in the background, and puts Neoptolemus forward to entrap the man on board his ship by ingenious lies. The young soldier reluctantly consents. He wins entirely the confidence of the old broken-hearted solitary; everything is in train for the kidnapping, when a spasm of agony from the incurable wound comes on Philoctêtes. Neoptolemus does his best to tend him, and cannot face his victim's gratitude. At the last moment he confesses the truth. Philoctêtes has taken him for his single friend; he is really a tool in the hand of his cruellest enemy. This very interesting and Euripidean knot is loosed in the bad Euripidean manner by Heracles as "a god from the Mêchanê" (see p. 268).

The Œdipus at Colônus is a play of the patriotic-archæological type, of which our earliest example is the Heracleidæ of Euripides. It turns on the alleged possession by Attica of the grave of Œdipus—evidently only 'alleged,' and that not in early tradition, for we find in the play that no such supposed grave was visible. When Œdipus is an old man, and has, as it were, worn out the virulence of the curse upon him by his long innocent wanderings with his daughter Antigone, news is brought to him from Thebes by Ismênê of a new oracle. His body is to keep its 'hagos' or taboo—the power of the supernaturally pure or supernaturally polluted—and will be a divine bulwark to the country possessing it. Consequently the Thebans intend to capture him, keep him close to their border till he dies, and then bury him in Theban ground. Œdipus meantime has reached Colônus, in Attica, the seat of the 'Semnai,' 'Dread Goddesses,' where he knows that he is doomed to die. Theseus accepts him as a citizen, and he passes mysteriously away. This is the only play in which Sophocles has practically dispensed with a plot, and it is interesting to see that the experiment produces some of his very highest work. The poetry leaves an impression of superiority to ordinary technique, of contentment with its own large and reflective splendour. But the time was past when a mere situation could by imaginative intensity be made to fill a whole play. Sophocles has to insert 'epeisodia' of Creon and Polyneikes, and to make the first exciting by a futile attempt to kidnap the princesses, the second by the utterance of the father's curse. The real appeal of the play is to the burning, half-desperate patriotism of the end of the War Time. The glory of Athens, the beauty of the spring and the nightingales at Colônus, the holy Acropolis which can never be conquered, represent the modern ideals of that patriotism: the legendary root of it is given in the figure of Theseus, the law-abiding, humane, and religious king; in the eternal reward won by the bold generosity of Athens; in the rejection of Argos and the malediction laid for ever on turbulent and cruel Thebes. The piece is reported to be effective on the stage. Certainly the spiritual majesty of Œdipus at the end is among the great things of Greek poetry; and the rather harsh contrast which it forms with the rage of the curse-scene, could perhaps be made grand by sympathetic acting.

The play is said by the 'didascaliæ'[13] to have been produced after the poet's death by his grandson of the same name. The verse, however, seems decidedly earlier than that of the Philoctêtes (409), and the political allusions have led to various unconvincing theories about its composition at earlier dates. Prof. L. Campbell's (411) is perhaps the most probable.

Though not one of the most characteristic of the poet's plays, it is perhaps the most intimate and personal of them; and it would be hard to find a more typical piece of Sophoclean writing than the beautiful lines of Œdipus to Theseus:

"Fair Aigeus' son, only to gods in heaven
Comes no old age nor death of anything;
All else is turmoiled by our master Time.
The earth's strength fades and manhood's glory fades,
Faith dies, and unfaith blossoms like a flower.
And who shall find in the open streets of men
Or secret places of his own heart's love
One wind blow true for ever?"


  1. Plin. Hist. Nat. 18, 65.
  2. The Hymn to Demeter is no evidence to the contrary.
  3. At the 'pro-agôn' or introductory pageant. At the actual feast such conduct would probably have been 'impiety.'
  4. De Profect. Virt. 7.
  5. Πικρὸν καὶ κατάτεχνον. Πικρὸν is early Greek for the later αὐστηρόν.
  6. Ar. Poet. 4.
  7. It was his contemporary Aristarchus of Tegea who first "made plays of their present length" (Suidas).
  8. Cf. p. 41 on the Niptra*
  9. Electra, 831.
  10. W. M. Heracles, i. p. 21. It is Ionic style: weak endings, elisions at the end of the verse (like Achaios of Eretria), ἡμὶν for ἡμῖν, shortening of a long vowel or diphthong before another vowel.
  11. Antigone, 332 ff. Ajax, 669 ff. Œdipus Col., 1211 ff.
  12. Frag. 541, which seems misplaced in Nauck.
  13. Catalogues of the annual performances, collected from the official lists by Aristotle and others.