Comparison of Sophocles' and Euripides' portrayal of humanity. Sophocles' is said to have portrayed men as they ought to be, while Euripides is said to have portrayed men "as they are"

Essay by egyptiandudeCollege, UndergraduateA+, December 2009

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The great poet Aristotle once said that Sophocles “portrayed men as they ought to be while Euripides portrayed men as they really are.” It can be argued that Sophocles did not portray an idealized version of man because his works did have both an antagonist and a protagonist, but even the antagonists in Sophocles’ plays were scrupulous. Furthermore, the manner in which Euripides portrays the characters in his plays adheres to a level of psychology unprecedented in his time, thus portraying men “as they really are.”For example, during the recognition scene in Euripides’ play Electra, the recognition scene in Aeschylus’ version of the myth is parodied as Euripides uses Electra to voice the incredibility of the “signs” used in the Libation Bearers, which is much more typical of what someone in Electra’s position would do. Instead, she recognizes Orestes when the old man points out a scar on his head.

Here Euripides uses realism which is very typical of his style throughout many of his works.

Sophocles on the other hand portrays the characters in his plays as men of principle. For instance in Oedipus the King, Oedipus is portrayed as a sympathetic ruler and a doer of great deeds. However, Oedipus ultimately turns out to be a sinner and the source of the plague in Thebes. Another example of the high moral standards of Sophocles’ characters is Oedipus’ insistence on having the old man speak in front of everyone instead of “keeping quiet” as he wanted (Oedpius Rex 1372) and this is representative of the concept that noble men hide nothing and keep everything out in the open. When he realized his sins were the source of the plague in Thebes, Oedipus gouged his own eyes; a more realistic Oedipus would have simply left the city in exile, but Sophocles’ ideal tragic hero must rise above and beyond what the common man would do.

Another example of Eurpides’ realism is in his play the Phrygian Slave, when Orestes went from becoming the captive to the captor, and was in control of the slave’s fate. Instead of treating him kindly, Orestes behaved in a cruel manner toward the slave, threatening to kill him. This is typical psychology of one who was once helplessly in the control of others and suddenly finds himself in control of the fate of another person. Modern psychologists call this phenomenon “role reversal psychology” and the effect it has on each person is different depending on how they handle the newly grasped power.

Sophocles also subjects one of the main characters of his play to this role reversal effect, but as expected, the results differ greatly from what Euripides has shown in his play. Oedipus at Colonus is a continuation of the story of the house of Oedipus in which Oedipus seeks refuge in Athens, and both of his sons seek his support to win the war for control of Thebes. Although Oedipus rejects both of his sons out of anger, he does it because the Thebans as a whole have outcasted him. Also, when he complains to Polyneices of all that he has been made to suffer because of his exile, he ends his list of complaints by saying “I may not weep, I must put up with it” (Oedipus at Colonus 1554), thus portraying Oedipus as a pious man who has accepted the will of the gods. Furthermore, Creon kidnaps the daughters of Oedipus in an attempt to force him to help Eteocles win. However, a real human being, one who feels anger, would have sided with Polyneices to help bring about the downfall of the Thebans as revenge for outcasting him as well as for kidnapping his daughters.

Therefore the men portrayed in Sophocles’ plays are not ones who walk among us, but are of a mythical sort to be told in plays and other such tales, whereas Euripides takes what he sees in day to day life and uses his characters as a tool to represent this realistic portrait of humanity. Although Sophocles’ characters aren’t completely unrealistic, their ability to be extra-considerate of those around them is an exaggeration typical of his dramas, especially when contrasted with the staggering realism of Euripides’ characters.

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