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Sophocles' Success

Sophocles' tragedies1 were overwhelmingly popular. In a sixty-year career as a playwright, he competed with a series of tragedies about thirty times, winning at least twenty times and never finishing worse than second. Since winning plays were selected by a panel of ordinary male citizens who were influenced by the audience's reaction2, Sophocles' record clearly means his works appealed to the large number of men who attended the drama competition of the festival of Dionysus. The evidence on whether women attended is contradictory, but they probably were allowed to see dramas. That Sophocles' plays concerned difficult ethical problems in the context of the polis is significant for understanding the function of Athenian tragedy. We cannot know precisely how the ancient audience interpreted tragedies in general or those of Sophocles in particular, but the spectators can hardly have been unaware that the central characters of the plays were figures who fell into disaster from positions of power and prestige. Their reversals of fortune3 come about not because they are villains, but because, as human beings, they are susceptible to a lethal mixture of error, ignorance, and hubris (aggressive arrogance).

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