Sophocles was born in 495 BC in Colonus, a village a mile north of Athens. His father was a man of wealth and stature and was, accordingly, able to provide his son with the benefit of a rounded and far-reaching education. That education included instruction in the arts of poetry, music, and dance. Sophocles's education produced immediate results; at the age of sixteen, he was chosen to lead with dance and lyre the chorus that celebrated the Greek victory at Salamis. Then, at twenty-eight, in his first competition, his play took first prize, defeating even the renowned dramatist Aeschylus, who was thirty years his senior. This victory marked the commencement of a dramatic career that produced one hundred eighty plays, of which only seven have survived intact.
Sophocles proved himself one of the great innovators of theatre, adding to the improvements that Aeschylus had already made in the field of tragedy. He introduced a third actor to the stage, abbreviated the choral components of Greek drama, and more fully developed the tragedy's moments of dialogue. Importantly, Sophocles was the first to abandon the trilogy form. Other dramatists, such as Aeschylus, had previously used three tragedies to tell a single story. Sophocles, however, chose to make each tragedy its own entity. As a result, he had to pack the complete action of a story into a compressed form, which afforded new and uncharted dramatic possibilities.
Sophocles was a deeply sensual dramatist. His language, though sometimes characterized by harsh words or complicated syntax, was for the most part grand and majestic. He was careful to avoid both the colossal phraseology that typified the work of Aeschylus and the ordinary diction of Euripides. He paid unprecedented attention to the spectacular effects of the play, insisting upon inlcuding meticulously painted scenery that was to be properly and purposefully placed. Sophocles was also of a profoundly religious temperament, filled with a deep reverence for his country's gods, but without any strains of crude superstition. In many of his plays, he grapples with his country's sacred myths, examining them from the point of view of the diligent artist and pondering their relation to the struggles of humanity.
Electra is widely considered to be Sophocles's best character drama due to the thoroughness of its examination of the morals and motives of Electra herself. After Electra's father, King Agamemnon, returns from the Trojan War, his wife, Clytemnestra, and her lover, Aegisthus, murder him. Sophocles's play deals with Electra's intense desire for revenge in the years following her father's murder.
Sophocles's version of the Electra story was written around 410 BCE, and it is difficult to read it without thinking of Euripides's Electra and the middle portion of Aeschylus's trilogy, the Oresteia, which recounts the same events. When Aeschylus told the story, he did so with an eye to the ethical issues associated with a blood feud. Sophocles, however, addresses the problem of character—namely, he questions what kind of woman would want so keenly to kill her mother. Euripides similarly focuses on the issue of character, but Euripides's Electra is ultimately destroyed by her situation, whereas Sophocles's Electra prevails and triumphs, rendering his play both a highly satisfactory revenge drama and an interesting study of the psychology of Electra herself. The play is considered one of Sophocles' most successful dramas.
Sophocles devoted his life not exclusively to drama. He was, in addition, one of ten generals responsible for waging the country's war against Samos. He was an ordained priest in the service of Alcon and Ascelpius, god of medicine. He was for a time the director of the Treasury, responsible for the funds of a group of states known as the Delian Confederacy, and he served of the Board of Generals in administration of the civil and military affairs of Athens. He died in 405 BCE, at the old age of ninety years.