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The Biography of Sophocles

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Sophocles was born in 496 BC in Colonus, a village just outside Athens, to a wealthy weapons-maker and a leading citizen. As a young man, Sophocles was talented at music and dancing. He was interested in playwriting and began to study The Odyssey and The Iliad. An anonymous biographer of the time called him “the pupil of Homer” -suggesting that Sophocles’ great power came to him from the greatest of Greek poets. In 468 BC, Sophocles’s play Triptolemus took first prize for tragedy, while his teacher’s came in second. Since Athens demanded that its citizens take part in all aspects public life, Sophocles served as a diplomat, general, and even a healer. Sophocles became treasurer of the Delian Confederation in 443 B.C.; the funds he collected bolstered Athenian glory at home and around the Mediterranean. Three years later, Sophocles was honored as serving as a general in the siege of Samos. Historians believe he may have served again 20 years later. He investigated the Athenian military defeat in Sicily in 413 B.C. He also acted as a negotiator with allies during the Peloponnesian War. His death in 406 B.C. inspired a national cult that worshipped him as a cultural hero and dedicated a shrine to him.

Through all of his service, however, Sophocles remained primarily a dramatist. In his life, he completed more than 120 plays. Now, only titles and fragments of most of those can be found, for only seven complete tragedies survive: Ajax, Antigone, Electra, Oedipus the King, The Trachinae, Philoctetes, and Oedipus at Colonus. However, in 1907, a papyrus with hundreds of lines of The Ichneutae was found in Egypt. This finding provides hope for finding more of the playwrights work in the future.

By analyzing the themes found in Sophocles’s personal life and Athen’s society, we can identify where Sophocles found the inspiration for his pieces; specifically, Electra. The story is based on “The Nostoi”, a lost epic of ancient Greek literature and part of the “Epic Cycle”, roughly covering the period between Homer’s Iliad and his Odyssey. Sophocles, as was stated in the previous paragraph, Sophocles studied Homer and was inspired by him. The character Electra is very emotional and stubbornly devoted to the principles of justice, reverence and honour, even if sometimes her grasp on these principles seems questionable. These characteristics were valuable in the eyes of Greek society. The main themes explored through the play include the conflict between justice and expediency, as embodied in the characters of Electra and Chrysothemis respectively; the effects of revenge on its perpetrator, as the moment of revenge approaches, Electra grows increasingly irrational, demonstrating a questionable grasp on the very principle of justice by which she claims to be motivated; and the degrading effects of dishonour. These are all themes Sophocles would’ve studied throughout his education in the arts and Greek society. Sophocles acknowledges the “bad” sides of the “heroes” and the “good” sides of the “villains”, in effect blurring the distinctions between these two categories and lending the play a morally ambiguous tone.

Many scholars are divided over whether Electra’s victory over her mother represents the triumph of justice or the downfall, even madness, of Electra.

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