The Relevance of Sophocles to Today’s World
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A play is meant to entertain. A play that amuses the audience is considered a comedy, and a play that saddens is classified as a tragedy. Sophocles wrote tragedies about ordinary people and their interaction with fate. All of Sophocles’ major characters posses a heroic flaw. A heroic flaw is a trait that brings both good and bad events upon the character (Magill 3). Sophocles’ use of heroic flaws, the irony between a prophecy and a characters attempt to avoid it, his definition of what makes someone great, and his view of laws are the reasons why his plays are still read almost two thousand years after they were written.
Sophocles was born in Colonus, Greece in 496 b.c.e. At the time of his birth, there was a legend about an exiled Theban king, Oedipus. It was said that Oedipus disappeared somewhere around Colonus, and because of this he protected the area (Magill 1). This tale was the source of three of Sophocles’ greatest plays: Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone (Romilly 2). Sophocles’ involvement in theatre started at a young age. He sang in a chorus celebrating an Athenian naval battle. As an adult, Sophocles was credited with playing the lyre, a musical instrument, and he also played the lead role in one of his plays. However as he aged, he stopped appearing on stage because of his weakened voice. This ended the Greek custom of playwrights playing the lead role in their own plays (Magill 1).
Sophocles won his first award for his plays at the festival of Dionysius in 648b.c.e. The other contender for this award was Aeschylus, an older and more experienced Greek playwright. A legend about this first victory states that because of high tensions over the competition, ten Athenian generals presented Sophocles the award instead of the customary ten government officials. Sophocles went on to win this award twenty more times, more frequently than any other playwright. When he did not win, he came in second. He never came in last place (Magill 2).
A position in the government was a symbol of a person’s status in society. When Sophocles’ plays were at the peak of their popularity, he served as the head of the treasury and as a general for the city of Athens (Magill 2). Sophocles’ power, popularity, and the greed of his eldest son provide an insight into how he viewed himself.
When Sophocles was in his later years, his eldest son put him on trial for insanity. The son hoped to gain control of the family fortune. In his defense, Sophocles said “If I am Sophocles, I am not mad. If I am mad, I am not Sophocles” (Magill 1). Sophocles died shortly after the trial at the age of 90 in 496b.c.e. The Spartan general, who was besieging Athens at the time of Sophocles’ death, ordered his men to stop fighting so that Sophocles could be buried outside of Athens on the road to Decelia.
In Sophocles’ plays, his characters possess many different traits that affect what happens to them during the play. Sophocles’ characters are not mortal representations of a specific trait or idea (Romilly 2). However, in all of his plays the protagonist has a different heroic flaw. In Ajax, the main character is a very proud noblemen and to prove this he states “A man of good birth must either live nobly or be noble in his death” (Winnington-Ingram 2). Later in the play, after Ajax has tried to kill Agamemnon and has failed, he realizes that he will never be able to live in the manner that a nobleman should and so he kills himself so he can be noble in his death (Winnington-Ingram 2). In Oedipus the King, Oedipus is very brash and over confident. These traits have helped him obtain his position as king of Thebes; however, it also brings his downfall. When Oedipus states that he will punish and exile whoever killed the former king he unknowingly condemns himself. Sophocles’ use of heroic flaws shows that all greatness comes at a high cost (Romilly 2).
The gods were the rulers of ancient Greece. The gods were credited with all the good and bad that occurred in a person’s life. In his plays, Sophocles uses oracles to make the presence of the gods known. The only time a deity is on stage is during the prologue of Ajax (Romilly 3). The characters in the plays often seek reassurance of their actions in what the oracles say. In Oedipus the King, Oedipus fails to realize who his real parents are and in doing so he fulfills the prophecy the oracles had predicted for him (Romilly 2). If the gods made themselves clearer in speaking through the oracle, Oedipus would not have fulfilled his fate. The gods use the characters’ belief in the truth and clearness of the oracles words to trick them into fulfilling the prophecy (Romilly 3). The contrast between the characters ignorance and their fate is a source of irony in the plays. It is one of the few sources of comedy in the plays (Romilly 1).
“In the absence of any clear understanding of the divine will, attention is focused on man; will he find an honorable response to the fate that threatens him?” (Romilly 3). The gods in Sophocles’ plays make their voices heard through the oracles; however, their actions are committed by the characters themselves (Winnington-Ingram 2). Sophocles puts the character against the gods. Since the gods control everything, there is no way that the characters can succeed. The characters know what their fate is and the plays revolve around how the characters deal with their fate. At the height of the character’s downfall, Sophocles exposes what truly makes them heroic. In Antigone, once Antigone has hanged herself, it is finally shown how dedicated she was in her task to bury her brother (Cropp 3). Throughout the play, Sophocles insinuates that Antigone may only be trying to bury her brother for the fame of the action. The fact that Antigone turns from wanting to die to hating it only strengthens this point. When a messenger brings the news that Antigone has committed suicide, it is now clear that she was sincere in her effort. This is the reason why she is truly great and heroic (Magill 2). Sophocles disguises the characters’ true greatness with a heroic flaw. Their true greatness is not revealed until after they have been destroyed. If the audience knew that Antigone was sincere in her endeavor, they would not be surprised by her choice of suicide (Winnington-Ingram 1).
Laws are rules enforced by the strong on the weak. In ancient Greece, there were two lawmaking entities: the gods and the kings. This is a source of conflict in Antigone. Antigone believes that even though Creon, the king, does not want her brother to be buried she should bury him because the gods say that family members should give other family members a proper burial. Antigone commits suicide to prevent Creon from carrying out the punishment for her crime of burying her brother. After Antigone’s death, Creon looses his wife and son to suicide. He is left alone as punishment for thinking that his rules were superior to the law of the gods (Winnington-Ingram 4).
The difference between the laws of the gods and the laws of the kings is how they are stated. The laws of the gods and the punishments for violating them are not specifically stated. On the contrary, the laws of the kings explicitly state what is wrong and what the punishment for committing the act is. The gods’ laws are never questioned because they are not known; however, the laws of the king’s are the source of many the disputes in Sophocles’s plays. Antigone, Oedipus the King, and Ajax all involve clashes between the laws of man versus the laws of the gods. In each instance, man’s laws are overruled (Magill 2).
I believe that Sophocles’ plays should be studied today because they can still teach valuable lessons to the reader. The gods in Sophocles’ plays can be seen as the judiciary branch of our government. They insure that there are laws, but unlike the kings in Sophocles’ literature, they make certain that the laws are fair. I think that his plays should be read today to show where our judiciary system came from.
At the beginning of all of Sophocles’ plays, the protagonist achieves great fame for possessing a certain trait; however, as they play goes on, the protagonist faces his or her downfall because they possess that certain trait. This can be applied to today’s world. There are people who pretend to be someone they are not. Eventually they will slip out of pretending to be someone they are not, and destroy that fake image. Sophocles’ plays illustrate to the modern reader that you cannot be great without sacrificing something valuable.
Sophocles was a great playwright. He wrote to educate the Athenian people about certain issues that modern society still values and understands. Sophocles uses heroic flaws, the irony between a prophecy and a person’s attempt to avoid it, his view of laws and how they should be followed, and what he considers to be a great person to make his plays valuable to every generation. Sophocles’ works have been read for almost two thousands years and they will continue to be read because they contain values for every generation.
Cropp, Martin. "Greece & Rome: Antigone’s Final Speech". Infotrac. 4 Dec 2000: pp. 1-2.
Online. 1 April 2004. Available: http://galenet.galegroup.com
Romilly, Jacqueline. “Drama in the Second Half of The Fifth Century: Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes” pp 66-89. New York: Dimensions 1988.
Winnington-Ingram, R.P. “Sophocles: An Interpretation”. Infotrac. pp 1-10.
Online. 1 April 2004. Available: http://www.galenet.galegroup.com/
Magill, Frank. Magill’s Survey of World Literature. New York: Marshall Cavendish Corp 1992.