The Happy Tragedian

Antigone Giving the Burial Rites to Her Brother’s Body, painting by Marie Spartali Stillman
Simon Carter Gallery, Suffolk/Bridgeman Images
Marie Spartali Stillman: Antigone Giving the Burial Rites to Her Brother’s Body, 1871

When Sophocles departed the mortal world in his early nineties and arrived in the land of the dead, he chose not to compete for the title of greatest tragic playwright, but reverently ceded that honor to Aeschylus—or so Aristophanes imagined in his comedy The Frogs. That deference deprived later generations of much that we might have learned about who Sophocles was and how his fellow Athenians regarded his immense body of work, of which only seven out of some 120 plays survive intact. When The Frogs enacts a contest for the tragic crown between the old master Aeschylus and the brash young innovator Euripides, Sophocles and his oeuvre remain undiscussed except for a single enigmatic comment by the god Dionysus, the contest’s judge. “He was easygoing up here”—among the living—“and he’s easygoing down there,” says Dionysus, explaining why he won’t try to fetch Sophocles back from the land of the dead: the playwright might decline to come.

The word used by Aristophanes to describe Sophocles, eukolos (“easygoing”), is echoed by another comic poet of the day, Phrynichus, who in a now-lost play called the recently deceased tragedian eudaimôn—“happy.” The two epithets have helped establish the modern image of Sophocles as a contented, well-integrated Athenian, at peace with himself and his city. Contemporaneous evidence suggests that his fellow citizens esteemed and trusted him: they elected him at least twice to important offices, including the stratêgia, a ten-man board of military chiefs. As a stratêgos in 440 BC, Sophocles served under Pericles in an important campaign to quell the revolt of Samos, a subject state in the Athenian naval empire. The only testimony that survives from this generalship, however, a diary entry by Ion of Chios recording an evening with Sophocles during that campaign, suggests that Pericles did not think much of his colleague’s tactical skills and also reveals, incidentally, that Sophocles was a witty conversationalist at drinking parties and had an eye for attractive male wine-pourers.

What bearing does any of this have on the interpretation of Sophocles’ plays? The Greeks themselves saw links between his life and his work, sometimes tracing them from the latter to the former rather than, as modern scholars prefer to do, the other way around. An ancient preface to Antigone, written perhaps two centuries after Sophocles’ lifetime, claims that the Athenians chose him for the stratêgia based on the success of that play. Few modern officeholders have been elected on the strength of their poetic works (Václav Havel comes to mind), but the story is not out of harmony with the politics of mid-fifth-century Athens; most scholars have accepted it, to the point of dating the composition of Antigone to 443…

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