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The fifteen year old Sophocles was a singer and soloist of the chorus. He wrote 123 plays totally, that he created during the two decades between the writing of Aeschylus. During that time, the spirit of Athens had changed completely. City had grown powerful, imperial and tyrannical. Sophocles is considered to be the best and most admirable of the three great Attic tragedians, and the first who has increased the number of actors in his plays from two to three. Seven of his plays are extant, three of which deal with the unhappy Oedipus and his family. Sophocles has not the epic grandeur of Aeschylus or Euripides’ radical fire, but he is excellent at drawing character and evoking pathos. Sophocles’ view of the universe is extensively discussed by scholars without consistent agreement on it. According to him, man’s fate depends on the gods. However, Sophocles questions whether those gods share man’s moral insights.
Greece was divided politically into small city-states (polis) with autonomous governments. This brought diversity of political structures. Athens was the first democratic state with popular, though limited, representation. Furthermore, the ancient Greeks of Hellenes developed an outgoing disposition as seafarers and enjoyed an active commercial and cultural exchange with their neighbors.
Sophocles lived during the period when Greece was divided into numerous city-states, including Athens, Sparta, Corinth, and Thebes. Greece was unified by a common language and literature. The Greeks were also united by a common religion which honored Zeus as the highest god who dwelt on the high peaks of Mount Olympus. Then, too, all the Greek city-states participated in common activities, the most important of which were the Olympic Games. First Olympic Games were held in 776 BC and they have remained a tradition in the international sport till present time.
During the Classical or Hellenic period the Greek civilization, in particular Athens, was mainly in the focus of culture. This period marks the highest point in the remarkable civilization of Ancient Greeks. It is also known as the Golden Age of Athens or the Age of Pericles, after its great statesman.
The Classical Period contains the mainsprings of Western cultural tradition in the philosophy that crystallized from the works of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. This period was preceded by a brief traditional period in which the arts of the earlier age underwent a process of maturation.
Before Sophocles died, Sparta was at her begging phase of its development. Having a remarkable gift of prediction, Sophocles knew what was coming to Sparta, but he was powerless to prevent it. His melancholy led him to turn down his personal inner spirit that made him felt free and honorable. He had the warmth of human sympathy and a sure sense of what made good theatre. Many people enjoyed his plays that were mostly Greek dramas. This is why some writers and researchers have chosen Oedipus Tyranny for a special study. But first a careful reading of Aristotle’s Poetics is a good preparation for an analysis of this play.
Aristotle’s Definition of Tragedy
Comparing the dates of the three great tragedians and the dates of Aristotle, it can be seen that theory followed practice. It got preserved. Aristotle said that tragedy is a copy of action or situation which is complete, serious and of considerable magnitude and it is couched in poetic language. It should be dramatic and not narrative, including events that arouse fear and pity, “wherever to accomplish a catharsis of emotions”. It should be keen enough to show a character passing gradually from happiness to misery. It should represent one complete action with the incidents so closely integrated that nothing can be deleted without destroying the unity of the whole.
In Aristotle’s view, the incidents which arouse pity are best when they occur unexpectedly but in consequence to one another. A good plot involves peripety (reversal) which is a change from one state of affairs to its opposite, and discovering a change from ignorance to knowledge. Pity is aroused by deserved suffering and we have smaller fear of the same misfortune. The change from happiness to misery should come as a consequence of some great error which causes the character to commit the tragic deed. The effect of the tragedy should be able to purify the emotions of the observer. These are his main ideas.
Aristotle does not mention unity of place but this third unity can be assumed. Since there was no change of scenery in the Greek play, all the actions had to take place in one spot. Anything which happened elsewhere (for instance Jocasta’s suicide) was told by another character. These three unities, time, place and action, became a kind of dogma for future dramatists, especially in eighteenth century in France. (Reverman 791)
It will be helpful to remember these Greek words: nemesia-fair punishment for inappropriate behavior; hubris-pride, the tragic flaw; catharsis- a purging of the emotions; tragic irony-statement or situation that means to the character something in contrast to what is discovered to be true; Oedipus-swollen foot; logos-word.
There is no English equivalent for the word Tyrannus. It is usually translated as a king or rex. Oedipus was surely a king, because he was the son of King Laius. However. the Tyranns means more than that. Tyrant is inaccurate because he did not attain power ruthlessly. Tyrannus means the man who had overcome all obstacles by his own intelligence and was master of his own destiny. It was what the Greeks meant by “man, the measure of all things”, which was implied in Oedipus’ answer to the riddle of the Sphinx. It is similar to what we meant by a self-made man.
The entire action of the play is built on reversal. Oedipus changes from liberator of men to the most accursed of all men. This reversal represents the movement of the play. His first question, “Who killed Laius?” turns into “Who am I?” His intelligence spurs on the search even while he, himself, is the object of the search. This is an example of tragic irony and there are many other instances of it in the play. When Oedipus curses the murder of Laius, he is really cursing himself. Jocasta hopes that oracles were wrong. However, they could not possibly be wrong as the play itself was a part of a religious observance. Hence, the validity of the performance itself depends on the denouement of the play.
At the end, the Tyrannus is completely overthrown. It may be said that this fate is not deserved. But Oedipus is not completely innocent. His tragic flaw is pride. Even though the hero fails, tragedy is never fatalistic or pessimistic, nor does it leave one with a sense of frustration. We know that the hero has failed and we realize that he had to fail. However, there is no sense of despair or desolation. We feel even more strongly the essential values of life: love, justice, truth, goodness. (Rehm 192)
Oedipus has thought he possessed knowledge and certainty. However, he did not. Since he is a human, and men never do have it. In Sophocles’ next play, Oedipus at Colonus, Oedipus gradually comes to learn his limitations and ultimately becomes godlike. The play deals with fundamental problems that have concerned men throughout the ages. Who am I? Am I responsible for a mistake which I have committed unwillingly? Can suffering be avoided? Is there any hope?
The plays scenery is focused mostly on the outside of the majestic kingdom at Thebes. The scenery generally has double doors towards the entrance of the abode together with a stone altar. When Oedipus has discovered the truth about himself and his familial relationship, the play evolved all in that same day. Sophocles used third person point of view or narrative view. An objective and dramatic point of perspective was used and the audience served as the audience and spectator of the events as they happen before their eyes. There are times that the audience obtains the advantage of restricted omniscient unfolding of events when there is character interaction with the chorus. A chorus in the play is the citizens of the city where the action happens.
The chorus acts as the narrator and can be a silent keen observer to the interaction and communication between characters. At times it makes dance performances accompanied with words or also known as ode or station. The station separates the play into specific episodes by making commentaries on the recent scenario. The play is focused on the situations that happen and affect Oedipus. The chorus stimulates the feelings of the audience to heighten emotions and come up with conclusions on how the play affects them.
The Choragos acted as spectators of the scene about Oedipus and Jocasta. The Chorus is complementary and similar, in knowledge to Sophocles' direct audience. The Chorus and Choragos act as the men of Athens in attendance at the Festival of Dionysus. The table during the feast where the lines of the Corus or Chorago were mainly outspoken making the information available to the countrymen and to make them ponder bout what they have just witnessed. (Tesitore 161)
The overall tone of the play is portentous and apprehensive. Clarity becomes evident to the spectators. Oracle slowly informs the audience that Oedipus has murdered his father and married his mother. It is a stressful and uneasy course, with anxiety witnessed by Jocasta and Oedipus. It is spellbinding for the audience to see the worst case and climax of the play taking place right before their eyes.
Irony fuels the fires up in the play. It is the inner force behind the unfolding of the truth. It is unexpected that the farther you run away from tells the truth. The more the truth comes closer to you. The characters have decided to take a lot of risks and major decisions just to avoid the oracle, but fate has overpowered their choices for fate that has led Oedipus to where he truly belongs. Also, fate has just let things be with the characters unaware of this power. Oedipus was sent out by Jocasta and Laius to be killed when he was born to prevent the prophecy from taking place. Oedipus’ death is not destined to happen just at that time for the shepherds just brought him to a faraway place just far enough from the potential harm that his parents my cause him.
After the silent warning was hinted at the feast that Polybus is not the biological father of Oedipus and that he is predestined to fulfill immoral acts of killing his father and marrying his mother, it has prompted the main lead to leave and avoid the prophecy of the scene. He tried to run away from the truth, but truth has always found him. Coincidentally, being unaware about it, he satisfied the foreboding. Another irony is that the person who is a gifted seer is actually biologically blind and Oedipus ability to see the truth about his life has forced him to blind himself using Jocasta’s brooches (Burns 555).
In the two translations of Sophocles’ Oedipus, the dramatic irony makes the best aspect for distinction. In Fagle’s translation, the dramatic irony is more concentrated in the prologue and first 3 episodes or stasimons. It is in Episode IV that Oedipus finds out all the truth about his personal background and prophecy. In the Exodus, Fagle explained the different aspects of the depression and gloom that have overwhelmed him.
It is possible that this play serves as the basic knowledge for students who read the play. Oedipus the King may be their initial exposure to Greek names, gods and goddesses and Greek mythology. The play translation is readable but there are some words that may be difficult for student readers, like hamartia and catharsis. The sentence structure and arrangement of sentences are too profound and philosophical in several parts.
Major Themes of Oedipus
Karma plot is happening in reverse order. Not all good things happen to good people. Oedipus was on a mission to run away from trouble but instead of escaping, fate cought him nearer to his prophecy.
He walked during the talk. When he promised that the murderer of Laius will be punished, he remained loyal to what he said even finding out it was him who is guilty.
Being blind makes you see beyond what the human eye can see. There is more than one way to “see”. Tiresia’s disability has not hindered him from seeing the truth. He does not have to visualize what the human eye can see but he has the power to foresee the future. He did not focus on what he does not have but he did his best to emphasize what he in fact he has.
The children of Oedipus will be the ones to experience the effects of his mistakes. The social stigma will be carried on to his next generation.
When Antigone tells her sister that she intends to bury their brother, and asks her for a help, Ismene objects. She explains to Antigone, that it is against the law for wowen to bury men. Therefore, it is not even worth trying to attempt to do the impossible. Antigone kills herself as soon as she finds out that she would not be even asked if she has done it from noble intentions. She considers that it is better to die in the name of what is right, than live a life knowing that she has done something wrong.
In tragedy, it is known that the hero will not be saved and cannot be saved. There is no possibility of happy ending. At the same time, however, we know that the values with which the hero is identified are not lost. This assures the reader to feel the triumph. Tragedy leaves one in a state of grief, but also positive exaltation. It is a strange combination of deep emotions and feelings that makes this tragedy to be one of the greatest literature peaces.
Though T. Watson produced a Latin translation of the Antigone in 1581, Milton’s Samson Agonistes was the first work in English to bear the stamp of Sophocles and it came before his time. Dryden’s Oedipus, though seven years later is chiefly indebted to Seneca. It was in the 19th century that Sophocles really came into favor. Shelley read him on his fatal and final sailing journy. Oedipus the King was adapted by Bulwer-Lytton. Sophoclean play Merope and two Sophoclean fragments, a Dejaneira and an Antigone were produced by M. Arnold. Sophoclean touches were introduced by Swinburne into his Erectheus and in the first half of the 20th century the term “Oedipus Complex” was hit by Freud to describe certain characteristics of infantile sexuality. This caught the public imagination and led to numerous translations and adaptations of the Theban play.