Sophocles received a high level of education and was a golden youth, noted for his athletic abilities and personal beauty. At the age of 16 he had the honor of leading the formal celebrations in praise of the naval victory over the Persians at Salamis, which helped end the threat of the invasion of Greece.
He was also an actor in the earlier part of his life and received some fame and recognition. However, he abandoned acting in favor of civic and religious duties, in addition to his writing. He served as a strategos on three occasions, when he was elected as one of 10 Athenian officials placed in charge of military affairs.
He was later elected a proboulos, which was one of 10 officials charged with overseeing the finances of the city. He also gave the oration at the funeral of Euripides, in the same year in which he himself later died. These achievements indicate that he was not only a popular individual who recognized the duties laid upon the privileged of Athens but also one trusted to enact important roles.
Sophocles wrote more than 120 plays, although only seven still exist in complete form. The most notable of these works is Oedipus the King (Oedipus Rex). However, Sophocles is perhaps better appreciated as an innovator of the theater rather than for the quality of his individual works.
At the beginning of his career the Athenian stage was a somewhat inflexible and formalized institution, but as a result of Sophocles’ innovations it became a place where dramatic tension and characterization could be more deftly manipulated.
Perhaps his most important innovation was to introduce a third actor. Previously, only two actors were able to act onstage at one time, although it was possible for those actors to take other roles.
The third actor allowed a great deal more flexibility in the nature of the action and in the possible interactions between the characters. Sophocles was skilled in creating characters with terse but powerful strokes that were capable of impelling themselves toward an inevitable doom through the possession of innate tragic flaws.
This conception of tragedy was documented by Aristotle and formed the basis of Western tragic drama. Other Sophoclean innovations include the expansion of the chorus and the intensification of the action through focusing on the resolution of the plot within a single play rather than a trilogy.
The play Oedipus the King recounts the story of Oedipus, who was initially the happy and fortunate king of Thebes, but whose fortune unravels as his badtempered arrogance leads him to kill an old man in an act that subsequently causes his kingdom to be plagued.
He finally comes to realize that, through a combination of his own character flaws and the ineluctable nature of fate, he has married his mother and murdered his father. At the conclusion of the play Oedipus blinds himself and prepares to face the world in a state of utter desolation. The early play Ajax considers the conventional plot material of the Trojan War.
The eponymous hero is outraged by his failure to murder the enemies he has made and kills himself. Odysseus, whose victory over Ajax in a contest had sparked the action, persuades the ruling Greeks to permit Ajax to be buried with dignity. This play shows a possibility of redemption in the character of Odysseus.
The play Oedipus at Colonus takes place between the action of Oedipus the King and of Antigone. Oedipus is wandering the world in desolation but refuses to assent to his son Polyneices and his request to take action against Creon. For thereby standing for honor and duty, Oedipus appears to transcend to divine status.
The other important plays are Antigone, Electra, and the Trachiniai. Several hundred lines also exist of a satyr play and the names of various other plays exist, especially those rewarded by the 24 victories in the Dionysia festival, in addition to several other fragments.
Sophocles rarely diverges from the orthodox religious conception of the universe and adds little to philosophical understanding. However, the power of his dramatic vision and some of the lyrical verse employed within it testify to his standing as a major figure in world literature.