Sophocles was one of the three great Greek tragedians who took classical society by storm with their work, radically reforming the arts and culture in Ancient Greek. He falls in the middle of the three in terms of the time that he lived and worked, with Aeschylus preceding him and Euripides following. In addition to being an accomplished playwright, Sophocles was also a prominent figure in Greek society, beloved and revered as a true gentleman by Athenian standards.
He was born in 496 BCE in a small rural community, later moving to Athens. As an Athenian, Sophocles was twice elected the position of general, and he served as a priest, at one point allowing his home to be used for religious functions until an appropriate temple could be built. He was also known for being an amiable, sociable, very friendly man, and these traits were held in high esteem by the Athenians, so he quickly rose to social prominence. He is also said to have been extremely beautiful by Athenian standards.
He had three sons by two wives, Nicostrate and Theoris, and he was also an extremely productive playwright, producing an estimated 125 plays, of which seven survive today, in addition to some fragments. Unlike many famous authors, Sophocles enjoyed fame and accolades during his lifetime, with his work routinely receiving top prizes at Greek dramatic festivals, and after the death of Aeschylus, he dominated the Greek theatre community.
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The work of Sophocles is distinctive for a number of reasons. He added a third actor to his tragedies, taking the focus away from the chorus and introducing more character interactions which allowed his characters to develop more fully. Sophocles often included an exploration of human emotions in his work, looking at tragedies of character rather than abstract circumstances imposed by the Gods, and he also introduced and refined the concept of dramatic irony.
His most famous works are probably the three Theban plays, written over a period of around 40 years and meant to be performed individually, although some theatres perform them as a trilogy. The Theban plays consist of Antigone, Oedipus the King, and Oedipus at Colonus, and many people consider them to be a masterpiece of dramatic art, classical or otherwise. Among other complete plays surviving today are Ajax and Eclectra. Sophocles died in 406 BCE, and he was deeply mourned by his contemporaries.