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Ancient Greek Tragedy 101: Prominent Tragedy Playwrights: SOPHOCLES


Ancient Greek Tragedy 101 series intends to deepen the reader’s knowledge of the Greek Tragedies rooted in sixth century B.C. The fundamental purpose of this series is to present a detailed informative background and understanding of the elements of Greek tragedy as well as its prominent tragedians.

Ancient Greek Tragedy 101 is divided into Six Chapters:

5. Ancient Greek Tragedy 101: Prominent Tragedy Playwrights: SOPHOCLES

6. Ancient Greek Tragedy 101: Tragedy & Shakespearian Tragedy

Ancient Greek Tragedy 101: Prominent Tragedy Playwrights: SOPHOCLES

Note: Portrait of Euripides. Image by Peter Rubens, engraved and created by Paulus Pontius, based on original antique busts. (1638).

The third prominent Greek Tragedy playwright Sophocles was born in a suburb of Athens, Colonus, probably in 497/496 B.C. into an exclusive family. During his lifetime, he presented a set of plays: the titles of 118 plays are known, yet only seven have survived: The Oedipal Trilogy (Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone), Philoctetes, Electra, Ajax, and Trachiniae. In total, he competed in thirty competitions among which he won twenty-four and never placed lower than the second place at the competitions at annual festivals in honour of the god Dionysus while Aeschylus won thirteen and Euripides won four. His son Iophon and his grandson, whose name is also Sophocles, became playwrights after him. It is controversial whether the third actor is added by Aeschylus or Sophocles; however, Aristotle credits Sophocles for the addition of a third actor and the introduction of scenery painting. It is clear that he has shown his interest in his characters and his skill in drawing them.

Within his lifetime, Sophocles had seen the Greek triumph in the Peloponnesian War and Persian Wars. The reason for his death around 406/405 B.C. led to different fictitious stories: the first and most famous one was that he died while he was trying to recite a very long sentence from his Antigone without taking a breath. The other was that he died of happiness after his victory at the City of Dionysia (Schultz,1835). However, it is claimed that he lived and died without suffering any misfortune.

Sophocles and his Understanding of Justice in his Plays

The element that unites all of Sophocles' plays is "δικη", meaning justice or trial in English, not by divine intervention but by the natural flow of events. The logic behind his plots is how he captures the universe in which δικη works dynamically in an unstoppable way. Unlike the linear movement of Aeschylus' plots, Sophocles uses the cycle of δικη in a more complex way involving not only the tragic hero but also others: Ajax's vanity ruins him but it endangers Tecmessa, Eurysaces, his sailors and Teucer; Creon's stubbornness threatens the Watchman and destroys Antigone even before it destroys Creon himself. In one way or another, it asserts itself physically or morally to restore the balance. For example, the fact that whatever men do, innocently or not, has consequences functions in his works; yet, the complicated web of circumstances is highlighted in the life of Oedipus.

Note: After the truth finally comes to light, Oedipus gauges out his eyes and leaves his children. [Painting]. Located at National Museum, Stockholm. (Gagneraux, 1784).

Upon learning a prophecy that he is destined to kill his own father and marry his own mother, Oedipus tries to escape from his destiny by moving to the city of Thebes, leaving his family behind without knowing that he was adopted. After he becomes the King of Thebes, he searches for the murderer of the previous King Laius with the help of his Queen Jocasta to end the plague ravaging the city. The conversation between Oedipus and the Corinthian messenger reveals the truth that drives Oedipus and Jocasta from hope to terror. Innocently, Oedipus kills King Laius (his real father) and marries Jocasta (his real mother) while trying to escape from his destiny. Horrified at his patricide and incest, Oedipus gouges out his eyes while Jocasta hangs herself in despair. Therefore, δικη works for all men whether their actions are innocent or not, it completes its cycle of justice someway without escaping one.

Also, in Sophocles’s plays, the gods do not appear as characters except Athena in Ajax. Athena grants second chances, lessons and also revenge even though her only scene on stage is at the very beginning of the play. She remains present with her interruption shifting the whole plot in a different direction such as what occurs when Ajax and Odysseus fight for the Achilles' magic armour upon his death.

Note: The quarrel for the armour of Achilles between Ajax and Odysseus. Purchased by the Museum Het Prinsenhof, Delft in 1978. [Painting]. (Bramer, 1625)

Yet, after a debate competition, Odysseus is awarded the armour. Enraged by the loss, Ajax plans a massacre of the kings and of Odysseus; yet, knowing the consequences, Athena strike Ajax with madness to hinder his plans. Contrary to the play Ajax, Sophocles' characters try to comprehend the will of the gods through prophecies, omens and oracles; that are often ambiguous and beyond their understanding. Hence, all characters are in the total absence of the gods while they are in the web of δικη.

The Tragic Hero

Even if Aeschylus added the third actor unlike what Aristotle claims, there is a huge clash in the characterization of heroes between Aeschylus and Sophocles. While Aeschylus presented the single-minded tragic heroes, Sophocles combines the complexities of life and of characters with the circumstances to bring about the catastrophe. The Sophoclean hero is complex and not single-minded and can be interpreted from more than one point of view. Sophocles presents how the tragic hero and a diverse group of characters respond to one another so that the audience can fully understand and know the characteristics of the tragic hero: Oedipus' courtesy to Creon and his consideration for his people, the Watchman's reluctance to face Creon, and Creon's attitude to Haemon.

While constructing his tragic hero, Sophocles has a tendency of representing less violent and therefore sympathetic characters than Euripides's characters who are unsympathetic, sadistic, melodramatic, cruel and raving. According to Aristotle, the moral virtues are honesty, friendliness, justice, humility, and modesty while moral vices are dishonesty, greed, cowardice, and vanity. To him, the tragic hero with excellence must display all of the moral virtues rather than having some. Therefore, Aristotle claims that the tragic hero must mistakenly bring about his own downfall, not because of the fact that he is sinful or immoral. In that sense, "it is Sophocles who presented us with what we know . . . as 'the [perfectly constructed] tragic hero'" (Knox, 2020, 1 ).

Sophocles, as the third prominent Greek tragedy playwright, was the most first-prize winner at the competitions among the others. If it is Aeschylus or Sophocles inventing the third actor, Sophocles managed to form complex and not single-minded characters full of moral virtues a tragic hero must have, as Aristotle suggests, unlike Euripides' cruel and unsympathetic characters. With his understanding of δικη, he removed "deus ex machina" (his first play Ajax is an exception in terms of the tragic hero and the intervention of the gods) and instead, he developed the will of the gods restoring the balance of the web of circumstances. Hence, Sopracles is credited as the inventor of dramatic art.


Irwin, T. and Fine., G., (1995). Aristotle: Selections, Translated with Introduction, Notes, and Glossary. Indianapolis: Hackett. Retrieved from

Knox, B. (2020). I. The Sophoclean Hero 1. In The Heroic Temper: Studies in Sophoclean Tragedy (pp. 1-27). Berkeley: University of California Press.

Neil O’Sullivan. (1990). Sophoclean Logic (Antigone 175-81). The Journal of Hellenic Studies, 110, 191–192.

O’Neill, G. (1945). The Tragedies of Sophocles. The Irish Monthly, 73(868), 422–435.

Schultz, Ferdinand (1835). De Vita Sophoclis Poetae Commentatio. Phil. Diss., Berlin. Retrieved from

Image Resource

Bramer, Leonaert. (1625). The Quarrel between Ajax and Odysseus. [Painting]. Retrieved from

Gagneraux, Bénigne. (1784). The Blind Oedipus Commending his Children to the Gods. [Painting]. Retrieved from,_The_Blind_Oedipus_Commending_his_Children_to_the_Gods.jpg

Pontius, Paulus and Rubens, Peter. (1638). Sophocles. [Engraving]. Retrieved from


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Melis Güven

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