Masterpieces of Greek Literature (1902)/Sophocles


"Be his
My special thanks, whose even-balanced soul,
From first youth tested up to extreme old age,
Business could not make dull, nor passion wild;
Who saw life steadily, and saw it whole;
The mellow glory of the Attic stage,
Singer of sweet Colonus, and its child."

Sophocles was born about 495 B. C., in the village of Colonus, near Athens. Little is known of his early life, but he was chosen for his beauty to lead the chorus of boys in celebration of the victory at Salamis in 480 B. C. He took some part in public life, serving as a general with Pericles in the Samian war. Throughout his lifetime he was devoted to Athens, and died there at an advanced age in 406 B. C.

He won applause early in life by his acting, when the poet was also an actor, like Shakespeare, but we are told that on account of a weak voice he gave up taking part in plays and contented himself with writing them. His first literary competition was in 468 B. C., when he won the victory over Aeschylus, thirty years his senior. All through his career he was a favorite with the Athenians, winning eighteen victories at the Dionysiac festivals, and never falling below second place. His two important innovations in dramatic art were the introduction of a third actor and the use of painted scenery.

The difference in spirit between Aeschylus and Sophocles is shown in Browning's lines:—

"Aeschylus enjoined us fear the gods,
And Sophocles advised respect the kings."

The older poet shows how the fate of mortals is worked out by the inevitable laws of the gods. The younger, though acknowledging the inevitability of these laws, lays more stress on the motives of the individual, and is thus able to make his characters seem more human and to portray their development.

Of more than a hundred plays by Sophocles, we have only seven, all belonging to the period of his finished style. The subjects of all, as of Greek tragedy in general, are taken from legends of the heroes of Greece.

Three of the plays, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone, are based on one story,—the fate of the ruling house of Thebes,—and might seem to be a "trilogy," but that the dates of their production show that they were not written to form a sequence.

The Antigone, although written earliest (443 B. C.), forms the climax of the story given in these three tragedies. After the death at Colonus of Oedipus, former king of Thebes, his daughters Antigone and Ismene returned to Thebes, and lived in the king's house with their brother Eteocles. But Polyneices, their second brother, who had been unjustly driven forth, came against the city to capture it, with seven captains of Argos. The two brothers died at each other's hands, and Creon, their uncle, was made king. He decreed that Eteocles should be interred with due honors, but that Polyneices should lie unburied, since he had come as an enemy to the city and the temples of the gods. The offender of this decree should be put to death.

Here the play opens. The whole tragedy turns on the determination of Antigone to resist the king's decree, and follow out the divine law by burying her brother. This she does with a lofty unselfishness, "a purity of passion, a fixity of purpose, a sublime enthusiasm for duty," which make her, as Symonds called her, "the most perfect female character in Greek poetry."

The translation is by E. H. Plumptre.