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The Golden Age of Athens is held to be the finest example of democracy in the ancient world. But apart from the histories, the spirit of the age can perhaps best be seen in its drama. The great Greek dramatists were able to capture contemporary moods, even when dealing with mythical or historical events. Sophocles and Euripides' work contains commentary on their contemporary society that can be unearthed like archeological finds. Both of these playwrights represent opposite attitudes toward the government of the day.
Sophocles' is attributed to the following Theban plays which reflect helplessness and morality in the face of destiny, as the characters are often caught between divine and human law:
But Sophocles was also an important man in Athenian government, and his plays demonstrate an overall obedience to the law. In Oedipus the King, for example, although Oedipus cannot escape his fate, nowhere is his rule of Thebes called into question. "For now this land of ours/calls you its savior since you saved it once". Hubris does not seem to preclude bad government.
Oedipus, at first a stranger to Thebes, is accepted as king because he is deemed the noblest among them. "I became a citizen among you, citizens," reveals that he has been chosen to be king, not out of some divine right, but perhaps through some democratic process. In Antigone, Creon supports the idea of a strong central ruler governing with the help of the leading citizens: ""I think that a man supreme ruler of a whole city/if he does not reach for the best counsel for herhim I judge the worst of any.
Euripides, on the other hand, created his best-known plays during the height of the Peloponnesian Wars, and made his opposition to the war known by voluntarily leaving Athens. His attitude towards Athenian democracy is less than favorable. In The Women of Troy, for example, he shows great sympathy for the ancient enemy. His treatment of the characters is the exact opposite of Homer. Athena, who has helped the Greeks in their victory, now turns her back on the Greeks. The heroines of the story are "chattels of the Dorian State". In other words, the wars have reduced nobility to slavery. In Medea, we see the revenge of a woman scorned by a Greek hero in favor of politics. In The Bacchae, Pentheus, the symbol of the government, is torn to shreds by a frenzied mob. "Justice now be revealed! Now let your sword/Thrust-through and through-to sever the throat/Of the godless, lawless, shameless son of Echion". What this seems to be saying is that the frenzy of war that has gripped Athens is tearing democracy apart. Conditions in Athens so disgusted Euripides that he went into self-imposed exile.