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BACKGROUND INFORMATION - BIOGRAPHY
Chronologically, Sophocles was the second in the triumvirate of great Greek playwrights, the others being Aeschylus and Euripides. Born in 496 B.C. in the rural suburb of Colonus near Athens, he lived there through most of the fifth century B.C. dying in 406 B.C. Though his father, Sophilius, owned an arms factory in Athens, Sophocles showed little or no interest in political and military affairs. Instead, he became well-versed in the competitive rites of Athenian culture, and, as a youth, won prizes in wrestling and music. At age fifteen, he led the Choral paean to celebrate the famous Greek victory over the Persians at Salamis.
Sophocles produced his first set of plays in 468 B.C. They were immediately successful, and he was awarded the coveted first place at the Dionysian festival that took place every spring, winning over his own mentor, Aeschylus. He went on to win the first prize on at least 18 to 20 occasions and ranked second several other times. Ironically, his greatest play, Oedipus the King, managed only a second place, perhaps due to biased judging. Sophocles also staged his plays at the "henaea", the annual feast of the wine-vats held each January in Athens after 450 B.C. The feast included elaborate processions, rituals, and dramatic contests.
Sophocles learned much of his art from Aeschylus, the "father of Greek tragedy," but developed his own innovations to Greek drama. He increased the chorus strength from 12 to 15, included the use of painted scenery on stage, and introduced a third actor as a key figure in the play. (Aeschylus sometime used a third actor, but in a rather limited role.)
Of the more than 120 Sophoclean plays written over a 60 year span, only the titles of about 110 of them are known. Unfortunately, only seven plays have survived intact into modern times. Their probable chronological order is as follows: Ajax and the Trachiniae/Women of Trachis pre-date Antigone (441 B.C.); Electra and Oedipus Tyranus / Oedipus the King followed; and Philoctetes is safely dated to 409 B.C. His last play Oedipus epi Kotonoi /Oedipus At Colonus was written when he was 90. Parts of his satyr play Ichneutae / The Trackers were discovered as recently as 1907.
Sophocles had two sons. The first was Iophon, the tragedian, by his legal wife, Nicostrate. Later in life, he had a second son Agathon (father of the younger Sophocles), by his mistress, Theoris of Sicyon. Literary critics have speculated that his final work Oedipus At Colonus was intended as a retort to his eldest son, Iophon, who during a legal dispute over the family property had accused Sophocles of being senile. To counter this accusation, the great dramatist recited before the court an ode from this play and proved his sanity. The play was produced posthumously on stage by his grandson (also called Sophocles "the younger") in 401 B.C., five years after Sophocles' death. In fact, Sophocles died just a few months after his great contemporary and fellow-playwright, Euripides, in whose honor he wrote his famous elegiac chorus. On the eve of the Dionysian festival in 406 B.C., Sophocles, with his actors and chorus, appeared in mourning garb (not wearing the usual garlands) and recited it before an audience that was deeply touched by its message.
The major part of Sophocles' life coincided with the Golden Age of ancient Greece, when it was an undisputed imperial power and a great center of culture and learning. Some of the great contemporary statesmen who ruled Athens in this period of immense prosperity, such as Cimon and Pericles. were friends of Sophocles. Though he was never tempted to seek honors and fortunes in high places, he was twice elected "strategos"/"general", once under Pericles and later with Nicias. As one of the ten generals, he led the Athenian expedition in the Samian war of 441- 438 B.C. He also presided over the Athenian treasury during these battle-stricken years. In 413 B.C., after a failed attempt by Athens to topple Sicily, he became one of the Proubloi (or "special commissioners") mainly due to his widespread fame and popularity after writing the play Antigone.
Reliable contemporary reports reveal that Sophocles was charming, handsome, and wealthy. He had a wide circle of friends, among them Pericles and Herodotus, the great historian to whom he wrote a poem. The Greeks regarded Sophocles as a kind of tragic Homer, hailed him as the favorite of the gods, and honored him with state sacrifices long after his death. (This was not only for his great plays, but for the fact that when the cult of Asclepius, god of healing, was introduced in Athens, Sophocles housed the sacred snake, symbolizing the god, until the temple was ready). In his comedy Rogs (405 B.C.), Aristophanes has Dionysius go down to Hades to ask Euripides to remind the people of Athens what Greek drama was. When asked why he did not ask Sophocles, the character says that since Sophocles had been "contented among the living, he will be contented among the dead." Phyrnicus, the ancient biographer, agreed that Sophocles' life was happy and that he enjoyed all his faculties to the very end. Aristotle considered Sophocles to be the greatest tragedian. Matthew Arnold, the 19th century poet and critic, praised Sophocles as a man "who saw life steadily and saw it whole."