The Greek dramatist Sophocles, born to a wealthy family at Colonus, near Athens, was admired as a boy for his personal beauty and musical skill. He served faithfully as a treasurer and general for Athens when it was expanding its empire and influence. In the dramatic contests, he defeated Aeschylus in 468 b.c. for first prize in tragedy, wrote a poem to Herodotus (see Vol. 3), and led his chorus and actors in mourning for Euripides just a few months before his own death. He wrote approximately 123 plays, of which 7 tragedies are extant, as well as a fragment of his satiric play, Ichneutae (Hunters). His plays were produced in the following order: Ajax (c.450 b.c.), Antigone (441 b.c.), Oedipus Tyrannus (c.430 b.c.), Trachiniae (c.430 b.c.), Electra (between 418 and 410 b.c.), Philoctetes (409 b.c.), and Oedipus at Colonus (posthumously in 401 b.c.). With Sophocles, Greek tragedy reached its most characteristic form. He added a third actor, made each play independent---that is, not dependent on others in a trilogy---increased the numbers of the chorus, introduced the use of scenery, shifted the focus from religious to more philosophical issues, and brought language and characters, though still majestic, nearer to everyday life. His finely delineated characters are responsible for the tragedy that befalls them, and they accept it heroically. Aristotle (see Vols. 3, 4, and 5) states that Sophocles said he portrayed people as they ought to be; Euripides, as they are. His utter command of tragic speech in the simple grandeur of his choral odes, dialogues, and monologues encourages the English reader to compare him to Shakespeare (see Vol. 1).
Bernard Knox was born in Bradford, West Yorkshire on November 24, 1914. After studying classics at St. John's College, Cambridge, he fought with the Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War. In 1939, he married Betty Baur and began teaching Latin at a private school in Greenwich, Connecticut. During World War II, he served in the United States Army where he parachuted into France to work with the resistance and went on to join the partisans in Italy. He received a Bronze Star and the Croix de Guerre for his service. He received a doctorate from Yale University in 1948. He also taught at Yale University, becoming a full professor in 1959, and became the founding director of Harvard's Center for Hellenic Studies, a position he held until 1985. He was an authority on the works of Sophocles and his first book was Oedipus at Thebes: Sophocles' Tragic Hero and His Time (1957). He also edited the anthology The Norton Book of Classical Literature (1993). His essay appeared in numerous publications including The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic and The New York Review of Books. They were also collected in numerous books including The Heroic Temper: Studies in Sophoclean Tragedy (1964), Word and Action: Essays on the Ancient Theater (1980), and The Oldest Dead White European Males and Other Reflections on the Classics (1993). He received numerous honorary degrees and distinctions during his lifetime including the George Jean Nathan Award for dramatic criticism in 1977; the Charles Frankel Prize of the National Endowment of the Humanities in 1990; and the Jefferson Medal of the Philosophical Society of America in 2004. He died of a heart attack on July 22, 2010 at the age of 95.
Frederic Will is the Simon Evans Distinguished Research Professor, Mellen University.