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THE CHARACTERS OF SOPHOCLES

The following essay was originally published in The Tragic Drama of the Greeks. A.E. Haigh. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1896. pp. 156-61.

The change which was effected by Sophocles in the general scope and purpose of Greek tragedy [is undeniable]. Under his guidance the center of interest was transferred from the problems of religion to the problems of human nature itself; and the structure of the plot and the arrangement of the scene were made subservient to one main subject -- the representation of character. In the painting of human character the supremacy of Sophocles has been generally admitted by ancient as well as modern critics. In some respects, indeed, he falls short of his two great rivals. The extremes of passionate emotion -- the frenzy of a Cassandra, and the jealous fury of a Medea -- are depicted with greater power by Aeschylus and Euripides. But in subtlety and delicacy of portraiture, in keen analysis of motive, and in depth of insight into the complex recesses of the human heart, it would be difficult to find his rival. The fineness of his touch was the admiration of the ancients, and is seen, more especially, in the skill and penetration with which he often hits off a character in a single line. His plays abound in those concise and pregnant phrases which reveal a man's soul, as it were, at one glance. The force of such expressions can hardly be reproduced in a translation; but we may mention, as an example, the scene in which the dying Oedipus entrusts his two daughters to the care of Theseus, and the latter, "like a man of noble spirit, without making lamentations," swears to fulfil the charge. This single brief phrase conveys a picture of high-bred courtesy and delicate reserve, which no amount of further description could improve upon.

His varied knowledge of the human heart is likewise proved by the multiplicity of the types of characters which he introduces, and by the fecundity with which he creates new and diverse figures. It is rare for him to repeat himself, as in the case of Chrysothemis and Ismene. In general, even when the same hero reappears in different plays, he is depicted in a new character, to suit the altered circumstances. Thus Creon, who plays a prominent part in three of the extant tragedies, is a different man in each of them. In the Oedipus Coloneus he is a heartless villain, brutal and deferential by turns, who, when his proposals are rejected by Oedipus, reveals the spite and malignity of his nature by robbing him of his two daughters. Again, in the Antigone, he is a narrow bigot, not destitute of good qualities, but wholly wrapt up in strict and formal rules of statesmanship. Antigone's heroic sense of duty is incomprehensible to him. The one idea which possesses his mind is the fear of rebellion against the laws, and especially rebellion by women; and sooner than endure to be called "weaker than a woman" he will risk the loss of everything. Lastly, in the Oedipus Rex he is a person of humane and sympathetic disposition, who replies with quiet dignity to the unjust aspersions of Oedipus, and when the catastrophe has fallen, betrays no trace of malicious exultation, but does his best to alleviate the sufferings of the victim.

Though human nature is the main subject of interest in the dramas of Sophocles, it is human nature in a refined and idealized form, equally removed from the excessive grandeur of Aeschylus, and from the realism of later poetry. The aim of Sophocles, as of the old Greek portrait painters, is to make his copies of mankine "like the original, but more beautiful." His characters are thoroughly human characters, swayed by the ordinary passions and emotions; but a sort of splendour from the heroic age hangs over them. They are seen, as it were, through a glorious veil of romance and poetry, which beautifies their outline, and excludes from view everything which is low and despicable. Men of a base disposition are seldom introduced, though Creon of the Oedipus Coloneus is an exception. But for the most part Sophocles prefers to dwell on the brighter side of human nature, and even his bad characters have many redeeming features. The vices which they display are the vices of a large and open spirit, such as anger, revenge, and ambition, rather thatn the meaner qualities of craft and cowardice. The spirit in which he approached the task of delineation is best expressed in his own well-known criticism, that he "drew men as they ought to be, while Euripides drew them as they are."

His leading characters are mostly of a strong and forceful type, vehement in passion and immovable in courage, like those of Aeschylus; but with a softer side to their character, which brings them nearer to the human level. Conspicuous in this class are the heroic maidens, Electra and Antigone. Stern devotion to duty is the basis of their character. Where conscience and justice are concerned, they are firm and unshaken as a rock. Electra shows no traces of compunction, even when her mother is being slain, but bids Orestes "strike again"; she would "throw the body of Aegisthus to the dogs, the only burial he deserves." Both of them, too, are easily roused to indignation, have no tolerance for natures weaker than themselves, and pour unmerited scorn and contempt on their more timid sisters. But they are capable of tenderness no less profound. It was Electra who tended Orestes when he was a babe "with sweet labour" even as a mother; and it is Antigone whose nature is "to love rather than to hate," and who gladly sacrifices her life for the sake of her brother. Ajax is another of these strong and resolute characters, whom no appeal can soften. Yet even he is touched with compassion when he thinks of his parents' grief, and of the "great and bitter cries" which will issue from his mother's lips, when the tidings of his death are brought to Salamis.

Side by side with these powerful and striking personalities are a group of gentler beings, whose disposition is more yielding and tractable. Such are the timorous but affectionate Ismene, the tearful Tecmessa, and the dutiful Hyllus. Characters of this kind are introduced as a foil to the strength and vigour of the protagonist. But sometimes even the chief personage is of a softer type, especially in the later plays, where the colouring becomes more human, and less heroic. Philoctetes is an admirable specimen. His nature is far from being strong or masterful. At first he entreats the chorus to leave him; but afterwards, when he sees they are going, falters in his resolution, and implores them to stay. He shows a childish vanity in regard to his sufferings; longs to prove to Neoptolemus "how brave he had been," by showing him the cave where he had lived in solitude; and is afflicted by nothing so much as by the news that Greece had never heard of his misfortunes. The attractiveness of this character lies, not in his force and power, but in its simplicity and open-heartedness.

Characters from humble life -- nurses, watchmen, shepherds, and attendants -- are freely introduced by Sophocles. His idealism, like that of the Greek poets in general, was not of the fastidious kind which despises such personages as beneath its dignity, and which led Voltaire, in his imitation of Odeipus, to substitute for the two "herdsmen" a "favourite" and a "counsellor." But while these humble figures are represented by Sophocles with perfect truthfulness, the portraiture is so delicately handled, and the traits of common life are suggested with so much reserve, as not to interfere with the graceful beauty of the general tone. One of the most interesting specimens of this class is the watchman in the Antigone, the only comic character in Sophocles, and one whose forced and artificial humour reminds us of Shakespeare's clowns. Another person of the same type is the messenger in the Trachiniae, who frankly confesses that he has brought the tidings in order to "gain some advantage for himself," and who, with an honest bluntness that is impervious to the hints of Lichas, persists in revealing the fatal secret, and then consoles himself with the reflection that "if his words are unwelcome, he has spoken the truth."

Female characters are far more prominent in Sophocles than in Aeschylus, and play the leading part in three of his extant dramas. In fact, his art is nowhere more conspicuously shown than in his portraits of women. But while the tenderness, and devotion, and heroism of woman's nature are drawn with the deepest sympathy, the more sentimental and passionate side of the relationship between the sexes is comparatively ignored. Antigone, which led forth to death, while regretting her exclusion from the joys of wedlock, shows no sorrow for the loss of her lover. Ajax treats Tecmessa with sullen indifference, is merely irritated by her anxious solicitude, and in his dying speech, while fondly recalling the memory of his father and mother, has no thought for the wife he is leaving. Hercules displays the same callous disregard for Deianeira. Deianeira herself, though her anxiety to regain his love is the motive of the play, shows none of the passionate jealousy of a neglected wife, but submits to his will in perfect patience, and even welcomes home her rival without a murmur, since it is her husband's pleasure. From these examples it would appear that Sophocles shared to some extent in the ordinary Attic feeling of the fifth century, which regarded the relationship of man and wife, and the whole arrangements concerning marriage, as a matter of business, in which sentiment had very little place.

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