Aeschylus is the first playwright whose plays survive, but Sophocles (ca. 496-406 BC) is the second. Sophocles lived at the same time as Aeschylus, but he was younger and he lived longer. He died at the age of about 100, right before the end of the Peloponnesian War.
When Sophocles was six years old, the Athenians beat the Persians at Marathon. When he was sixteen, the Athenians beat the Persians at Salamis. Sophocles did not fight, but he saw his house and all of Athens, including the Parthenon, burned by the Persians before the Athenians beat them.
As an adult, Sophocles was active in Athenian politics, and worked alongside Pericles. He knew Herodotus and Thucydides as well as Aeschylus and the younger playwright Euripides. Socrates was only a little younger than Sophocles. Sophocles watched the construction of the new Parthenon.
Sophocles’ plays are generally very optimistic, full of the spirit of Athens in the classical period. He sees men (and to some extent women) as powerful, rational, creative beings, the masters of the world around them, and the proud creations of the gods.
Sophocles also remembers the terrors of war and barbarism, which can sometimes overcome men and women. He pleads, in his plays, for the triumph of reason over wild emotion and anger. Here is a bit from Antigone:
There are many wonders, and none is more wonderful than man; he crosses the stormy, raging sea, sailing a path through swallowing waves; and he digs up the Earth, the oldest, undying, untiring god. He turns the dirt with mules, as the plows go back and forth through the fields and the years.
And the easy-going birds, and the gangs of savage beasts, and the salty sea creatures, he catches them all in nets he weaves, he catches them, man is so smart. And he knows how to catch wild animals, who wander in the hills; man breaks shaggy wild horses, he tames tireless bulls and yokes their necks.
And man taught himself to talk, and to think quicker than the wind blows, and all the moods that make a town a city. And he figured out how to flee the frost-arrows, when it’s too cold to stay outside under the clear sky, and how to get out of the rushing rain; yes, he can do anything. Nothing finds him hopeless, only against Death he is helpless; but even for mysterious diseases he finds cures.
His fertile skill is cunning beyond dreams of cunning; it brings him sometimes to bad, sometimes to good.
Sophocles wrote over 100 plays in his lifetime, but only seven survive. This is because sometime around 200 AD, when Greece was under Roman rule, somebody chose seven plays of Aeschylus and seven plays of Sophocles and ten of Euripides and put them together in a book which was used in school classes. The only plays which survived were these ones which teachers assigned in Roman schools.
Learn by doing: what do you think of Sophocles’ Ode to Man?
More about Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex
Greek Theatre, by Stewart Ross (1999). Easy reading.
Greek and Roman Theater, by Don Nardo. For teenagers.
Ancient Greeks: Creating the Classical Tradition (Oxford Profiles) by Rosalie F. Baker and Charles F. Baker (reprinted 1997). Short biographies of many famous Greeks including Sophocles.
Helping Friends and Harming Enemies : A Study in Sophocles and Greek Ethics, by Mary Whitlock Blundell (1991).
Greek Tragedy: A Literary Study, by H. D. F. Kitto (reprinted 2002). A classic discussion of the meaning of Greek tragic plays, by a specialist.