From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Sophocles (495 BC - 406 BC) was the second of three great ancient Greek tragedians. He was preceded by Aeschylus, and was followed by or contemporary to Euripides. According to the Suda, a tenth century AD encyclopedia, he wrote 123 or more plays during the course of his life.
For almost 50 years, he was the dominant competitor in the dramatic competitions of ancient Athens that took place during the religious festivals of the Lenaea and the Dionysia. His first victory was in 468 BC, although scholars are no longer certain that this was the first time that he competed.
Only seven of his tragedies have survived into modern times with their text completely known. The most famous of these are the three tragedies concerning Oedipus and Antigone: these are often known as the Theban plays or The Oedipus Cycle, although they were not originally written or performed as a single trilogy. Sophocles influenced the development of the drama, most importantly by adding a third character and thereby reducing the importance of the chorus in the presentation of the plot. He also developed his characters to a greater extent than earlier playwrights such as Aeschylus, and used female characters in his plays.
Subjects of the Oedipus plays
Each of the plays relates to the tale of the mythological Oedipus, who killed his father and married his mother without knowledge that they were his parents. His family is fated to be doomed for three generations.
In Oedipus the King, Oedipus is the protagonist. Oedipus' infanticide is planned by his parents, Laius and Jocasta, to avert him fulfilling a prophecy ; in truth, the servant entrusted with the infanticide passes the infant on through a series of intermediaries to a childless couple, who adopt him not knowing his history. Oedipus eventually learns of the Delphic Oracle's prophecy of him, that he would kill his father and marry his mother ; Oedipus attempts to flee his fate without harming his parents (at this point, he does not know that he is adopted). Oedipus meets a man at a crossroads accompanied by servants; Oedipus and the man fought, and Oedipus killed the man. (This man was his father, Laius, not that anyone apart from the gods knew this at the time). He becomes the ruler of Thebes after solving the riddle of the sphinx and in the process, marries the widowed Queen, his mother Jocasta. Thus the stage is set for horrors. When the truth comes out, folling from another true but confusing prophecy from Delphi, Jocasta commits suicide, Oedipus blinds himself and leaves Thebes, and the children are left to sort out the consequences themselves (which provides the grounds for the later parts of the cycle of plays).
In Oedipus at Colonus, the banished Oedipus and his daughters Antigone and Ismene arrive at the town of Colonus where they encounter Theseus, King of Athens. Oedipus dies and strife begins between his sons Polyneices and Eteocles.
In Antigone the protagonist is Oedipus' daughter. Antigone is faced with the choice of allowing her brother Polyneices' body to remain unburied, outside the city walls, exposed to the ravages of wild animals, or to bury him and face death. The king of the land, Creon, has forbidden the burial of Polyneices for he was a traitor to the city. Antigone decides to bury his body and face the consequences of her actions. Creon sentences her to death. Eventually, Creon is convinced to free Antigone from her punishment, but his decision comes too late and Antigone commits suicide. Her suicide triggers the suicide of two others close to King Creon: his son, Haemon, who was to wed Antigone, and his wife who commits suicide after losing her only surviving son.