Sophocles was born just outside of Athens in 496 BC to a well-to-do family and lived to be 90 years old. He wrote more than one hundred plays, of which only seven in complete form have survived: Ajax, Antigone, The Women of Trachis, Oedipus Rex, Electra, Philoctetes, and Oedipus at Colonus. He was a contemporary of another great playwright, Euripides, and wrote most of his plays after those of Aeschylus.
Sophocles’ most famous plays were his three “Theban” ones: Antigone, Oedipus Rex, and Oedipus at Colonus, written at different stages of his life. Although they do not have a consistent story line, they have traditionally been grouped together in modern times because the three casts of characters are related and all of the plots involve the reign of the King of Thebes.
Beyond his striking characters, Sophocles’ contributions as a dramatist were substantial and innovative. His brilliance as a playwright was first noticed in 468 BC, when he took first prize in a theater competition over Aeschylus, the master dramatist. Over his lifetime, he was awarded many other prizes as well. But Sophocles was also known for something more fundamental: transforming the structure and form of the tragic play. He increased the number of people in the chorus from twelve to fifteen, added a third actor to make the dialogue and plots more complex, and pushed his characters toward more introspection and psychological realism. He introduced both painted scenery and dramatic exits and entrances by actors. Through the medium of his tragic works, he explored the intensity and fluidity of human emotions, displayed the consequences of human folly, and surveyed the role and function violence and brutality played in society.
Sophocles’ characters, such as Antigone, Electra, and Oedipus, are renowned for their attributes: haunted, worthy, hard-boiled, stubborn, brash, courageous, blind, and sometimes lost. His stories, and thus their stories, are as relevant now as they were thousands of years ago. Through his characters, Sophocles represented what was virtuous, brave, and noble, as well as what was wicked, prideful, wanting, and corrupt, in all societies and not just ancient Greece. The characters begged some of the great questions: Do love and decency prevail over arrogance, mendacity, and power? Do individual rights undermine the needs of the state? Are those who are blind morally culpable? Is faith enough? Are pride, fear, and loathing the downfall of all? Do wisdom and understanding come only after profound loss, suffering, or violence?
Sophocles was not unlike the 20th century original Southern Gothic writer, Flannery O’Connor from Andalusia Farm in Milledgeville, Georgia. The theological writer and Trappist monk Thomas Merton said as much. Her books[novels?] and stories were in many ways just as breathtaking, mordant, heart-rending, disturbing, and brutal as the surviving Sophocles plays, and they asked similar questions. Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away and the short stories “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” and “Everything That Rises Must Converge” come to mind. These works focused on related themes: the human capacity to commit evil, how revenge and brutality devour, how grace can be transformative in the midst of chaos and confusion, why pride is noxious, why blindness is fatal, and how revelation and understanding are often achieved (or forced) in unexpected ways after great suffering, violence, or death.
The poet Robert Fitzgerald rightly praised the power of “the clashes of blind wills and the low dodges of the heart” characteristic in Flannery O’Connor’s writing. In rivaling the genius of Sophocles, she was not far off the mark. In all the turbulence in these authors’ masterworks, Sophocles could be viewed and judged as her guide, inspiration, and equal.