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Sophocles is one of the oldest Greek tragedians whose plays still survive. He was born in 497 BC and wrote 123 plays during his lifetime (Sophocles works, par.1). He was the most feted playwright of his time. His plays were played in religious festivals of Dionysia and Lenaea in Athens. In his time the Greek empire was undergoing civilization and believed a lot in supernatural. This formed his influence along with a number of other issues. He died in 406 BC but his plays still survive today. Some of his most famous plays are Oedipus Rex the king and Antigone.
Just like Shakespeare, Sophocles greatest influence was his culture. Culture is a very big determiner of what people become. In this light then the creations of Sophocles are equally a creation of the Greek culture. His works like the tragedy of Oedipus are a creation of his experience of the Greek culture. They were the creation of his world (Thomson, par.1).
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To understand how the Greek culture influenced Sophocles we first examine why the Greek in the fifth century went to view tragedies. At that time, tragedies were performed only at religious festivities. Such events had huge followings, for instance city Dionysia had a theater which could hold 17000 people. City Dionysia was the most relevant event. Given that tragedies had such huge audiences and were staged at religious events, playwrights like Sophocles might have taken advantage of the events to input themes that had lessons taught and that served to reinforce cultural values.
In some segments of the Oedipus plot, there are indications that he tried to reinforce cultural values. For instance in Antigone Sophocles cautions against pride; “All men make mistakes, but a good man yields when he knows his course is wrong, and repairs the evil. The only crime is pride” (Grene 932) and the need to keep honest friends; “To throw away an honest friend is, as it were, to throw your life away” ((The Oedipus Plays, par.14). Sophocles play also taught about love for one another; “I was born to join in love, not hate – that is my nature” (Storr, 34) and the need for knowledge. “A man, though wise, should never be ashamed of learning more, and must unbend his mind” (Green, 202).
The other thing that influenced Sophocles was the kind of legendary characters that his audience had already gotten acquainted. As was with most Greek tragedies, the plays’ basis was a function of the legends, the knowledge the audience had on the legendary characters and the fate the characters had. Legends were attached a great value by the Greek society and were believed to be a reflection of the real life. For any playwright, to have characters that were borrowed from legends authenticated their plays. Sophocles use of the legend of Oedipus was very critical to his tragedy of Oedipus Rex “people of Thebes…. look on Oedipus….he solved the famous riddle, he rose to power…who could behold his greatness without envy” (The Oedipus Plays, par.4)
Sophocles Oedipus Rex is a very good example artistic drama “Here where the dark forces store up kindness both for living and the dead, there is no room for grieving here it might bring down the anger of the gods” (Grene, 934).
In addition, they are respected pieces of reflections of the Greek culture in the fifth century. Such cultures are long gone but were truly very critical in shaping the tragedies of Sophocles. They are true examples of the fact that art imitates life and with no way of life there would be no form of art.
In addition to legends and character, the competitive nature of Sophocles may have greatly influenced his tragedies. Sophocles may have written his tragedy to gain the kind of fame and respect that Aeschylus had gotten from the Theban cycle of plays he had written.
He may have also wanted to fill the gap that was there on the Theban history, the legends and mythology. Aeschylus, Sophocles fellow playwright, had written Thebes in terms of myths of the cursed character Oedipus and how he descended from Labdacus, the house that was cursed. The writings by Aeschylus were not very comprehensive. They never told the whole story of the horrors of the descendants, who were cursed, and of the troubled but divinely descended house. Sophocles may have, therefore, seen the opportunity to fill that gap Sophocles awareness of popularity of some topics may have also been a great influence. Thebes and troy were subjects of interest to his play going public “People of Thebes, my countrymen, look on Oedipus. He solved the famous riddle with his brilliance” (Ormand, par. 14). In addition, Sophocles may have been attracted by the range of themes that the story Oedipus allowed. For instance, Oedipus story raises the question of what really an individual has knowledge on others, one’s bloodline or even oneself. “Ah! My poor children, known, ah, known too well, the quest that brings you hither and your need” (Segal, 922).
Sophocles Writing Characteristics
In Sophocles era of writing Greek empire was developing rapidly and civilization was taking place. There were good school like one Sophocles went to. In addition, there were many theaters around Greek empire that were playing works by great playwrights like Sophocles and Aeschylus. During this time, Greeks used to frequent the theaters that played great tragedies like the works of Sophocles and Aeschylus among others. These kinds of play were very useful in educating, shaping the life’s of the Greeks at the time. For instance on the vises of loving wealth he wrote, “There’s nothing in the world so demoralizing as money” ((The Oedipus Plays, par.9) and on wrong doing he wrote; “All men make mistakes, but a good man yields when he knows his course is wrong, and repairs the evil. The only crime is pride” (Storr, 22).
Sophocles Writing Styles
The writing styles of Sophocles depend on the translation used. This is because his plays are very old and there have been a lot of translations from his original Greek works since then. Some translations still keeps his poetic form while some have translated it into prose and some have kept a combination of both.
In most of his works though, Sophocles uses greatly iambic pentameter in the lines. This style gives his lines a rhythm and consequently the play becomes very poetic. An example of iambic parameter is shown below (Kamerbeek, 99);
“Explain your mood and purport. Is it dread. Of ill that moves you or a boon ye crave?”(Ormand, 11).
Another technique that Sophocles uses greatly is extended prose monologues strophe (turns) in the chorus chants.
“Go, quibble with thy reason. If thou fail’st
To find these malefactors, thou shalt own
The wages of ill-gotten gains is death “(Kamerbeek, 327).
Sophocles plays have themes such as fate, divinity and divine laws and pre-ordinance. These were notably the concerns of Greece at the time that Sophocles was writing (Sophoclean Themes, par.7). For instance in Ajax Sophocles wrote this on fate; “If you try to cure evil with evil. You will add more pain to your fate” (Kamerbeek, 86).
At the time, Greece was still developing, and the faith of Greeks on supernatural was constantly examined. In most of Sophocles play fate is the overruling order.
This is indicated, by the way, his characters try to use free will, but they never go beyond the cosmic orders. While trying to defy fate, humans are struck down for trying to go beyond their limits as humans. Accepting the order is part of the harmony that rules in the universe. Going against is trying to disrupt the order and one takes consequences of his actions. In Oedipus Rex, the theme explored is the fate of the characters (Jong & Rijksbaron, 113).
Fate and divinity are depicted on many levels in Sophocles plays. The themes are extensions of the theme on fate. For instance in Oedipus Rex Jocasta fervently shows her disbelief in prophecies; “Why should anyone in this world be afraid, since fates rules us and nothing can be foreseen? A man should live only for the present day” (Grene, 932)
She, however, is struck by fate and kills herself. By trying to divert disaster, she ironically invites it (Kamerbeek, 93). Oedipus also dies after realizing that the prophecy had been fulfilled.
“Look ye, countrymen and Thebans, this is Oedipus the great… Therefore, wait to see life’s ending ere thou count one mortal blest; Wait till free from pain and sorrow he has gained his final rest” (Ormand, 34).
There are also themes like the ideals of an ideal ruler and statehood attributes. In Oedipus Rex the audience witnesses the character of Oedipus both as a person and as a king. Oedipus conform to ideals of an ancient Greek ruler who suffers with his people, and at the end, Oedipus suffers for his people. It is only via the punishment of the people who murder Leius that Thebes is restored. “He cries ‘Unbar the doors and let all Thebes, Behold the slayer of his sire, his mother’s-…Than man can suffer as you will see. For lo, the palace portals are unbarred” (Storr, 34)
The biggest theme of the Oedipus Rex is destiny. In the play Jocasta, Laius and Oedipus try to escape from their destiny. They take matters on their own to try to evade destiny. “Not a man can see a day ahead……better to live at random, best we can.”(Sophocles works, 68) Oedipus escapes from Corinth to escape from his fate of killing his father, Laius and marrying Jocasta, his mother. On the other hand, Laius and Jocasta had knowledge of the prophecy that the newborn, Oedipus, would kill his father Laius and marry his mother Jocasta (Friedlander, par.5) Consequently Laius and Jacosta ordered that Oedipus be killed for them to escape their fate. Fate is foreboding in this play. The characters lack free will. They have an untrue sense of freedom which makes them try to take the matters on their own hand. However, the characters are not able to run away from their fate (“The Oedipus Plays”, par. 4).
In the play, there is a clear indication of the god such as Apollo playing a role. They, however, have a differing role from the role they had in the odyssey. In this play, the gods kept a distance unlike in the odyssey where they had an effect on the outcomes of each of the characters. Apollo was the one who decided Oedipus fate due to the fact that he is the god of prophecy and the god of truth. “Teiresias: true: it is not from me your fate will come. That lies within Apollo’s competence as it is his concern” (Campbell, 912).
Teiresias indicting that the fate of Oedipus was decided by the god of prophecy Apollo. Apollo refused to overturn Oedipus fate, and Oedipus is, therefore, doomed from the time he is born.
There is also the theme of denial in this play. For example, Laius and his wife Jacosta spend their entire life trying to run from their destiny because they knew it was filled with disaster. On the other hand, Oedipus denies what was prophesied, and he have the feeling that he can take control of the situation despite the fact that he knows it is the truth. He even mocks Teiresias, the messenger of the gods, who enlightens him of his fate.”Listen to me. You mock my blindness do you? But I say that you, with both your eyes, are blind” (Ormand, 45).
However, Teiresias tell Oedipus the truth notwithstanding Oedipus denial of the matter. “But the double lash of your parents’ curse will whip you out of this land someday, with only night upon your precious eyes” (Grene 91). In the prophecy Teresias even foretells that Oedipus will stab out his eyes and will wander aimlessly in grief.
Oedipus mother Jocasta ordered a shepherd to kill Oedipus while he was still a child. She plays the husband and mother role in the play. He consoles her husband, Leius and son Oedipus that the prophecies on them were not true “Have no more fear of sleeping with your mother: how many men, in dreams, have lain with their mothers! No reasonable man is troubled by such things” (Grene, 217). However, she realizes before Oedipus does that the prophecy had come true, and she even tries to hide the information from Oedipus. Jacosta is trying to be a protective mother by hiding the information. She tries to protect her son Oedipus from the hurt that the truth would inflict.”Iocaste Jocasta: Why should anyone in this world be afraid since fates rules us and nothing can be foreseen? A man should live only for the present day. Have no more fear of sleeping with your mother: how many men, in dreams, have lain with their mothers! No reasonable man is troubled by such things” (The Oedipus Plays, par.3).
There is irony in the lines above for Jacosta and Oedipus is troubled when they know later in the play that the prophecy has been fulfilled. Despite Jacosta trying to protect herself by putting the prophecy on her tragedies out of her mind but after happening, the tremendous guilt becomes unbearable, and she kills herself (Donaldson, 303).