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Sophocles - the name is pronounced with the stress on the first syllable; the final vowel is like that in 'see': 'SOFF-er-clees' IPA: /'sɒfə,kliːz/) - was an Athenian citizen, whose long life (496-406) spanned virtually the whole of the fifth century BCE. His earliest years coincided with the period of the Persian Wars, which ended with decisive Greek victories over the Persians at the sea battle of Salamis in 480 and, on land, at the battle of Plataea in 479. In the following years Sophocles will have witnessed the growth of Athenian power in the Greek world as Athens established its authority over most of the Aegean islands and the Greek cities of Asia Minor. He lived through the Athenian Golden Age, the 440s and 430s, when, under the leadership of Pericles, the city reached the height of its power and work was begun on the Parthenon and other prestigious state building projects. And finally the last two-and-a-half decades of his life were overshadowed by the Peloponnesian War, the bitter and protracted struggle between Athens and its great rival, Sparta.

Sophocles came from a wealthy family and was gifted in many fields. He was a fine lyre-player, dancer, and actor - he acted in some of his own dramas until problems with his voice led him to give up acting. He also played an active part in Athenian politics, as was then the norm for men of his class, and held with distinction several high political positions. As well as writing tragedies, he also wrote on literary theory, though this work has not survived.

He wrote more than 120 plays and won the competition at the Spring Festival of Dionysus 24 times. However, only seven of his plays have survived: they are Ajax, Antigone, Oedipus Rex (King Oedipus), Trachiniae (Women of Trachis), Electra, Philoctetes, and Oedipus Coloneus (Oedipus at Colonus).

Sophocles contributed in a number of ways to the development of Greek tragedy:

  • He increased the number of actors from two to three.
  • He reduced the part played by the chorus in the drama.
  • He introduced painted scenery on the stage.
  • He discontinued Aeschylus' practice of having linked plots for the three tragedies in a single trilogy (i.e., the three tragedies which were performed together on the same day at the Spring Festival of Dionysus).

Unlike Aeschylus, Sophocles sensitively delineates the characters of the individuals who appear in his tragedies. They are, like Oedipus in Oedipus Rex, admirable, though not perfect, individuals who find themselves in agonisingly difficult situations - e.g., faced with an impossible moral choice or subjected to intolerable pressure. Although they are partly responsible for the suffering they have to endure - the difficult situation in which they find themselves has resulted, in part, from a mistake which can be attributed to a fault in their characters - their sufferings are far greater than this mistake would seem to warrant.

See further Greek tragedy, Aeschylus, Euripides.

For some further help with the pronunciation of Greek names see Pronunciation of Greek Proper Names.