Of the one hundred and twenty plays, or even more, which Sophocles composed, only seven have survived whole; and these for the most part are properly after the age of Pericles and written during the Peloponnesian war, in the midst of stormy events: but yet, on the whole, they seem to reflect the previous conditions and receive light from those years of balance and well-being in which the author had fashioned the best of his temperament and his art. This does not mean that he was insensitive to the unfolding of times; indeed he had a special faculty of adaptation, breadth of interest, sympathy and curiosity for all things; he knew what the new forces of thought were increasingly stirring around him in contrast to traditional faith and opinions; was influenced by historians, of scientists, of sophists; he was influenced even by his younger and bolder rival in tragedy, Euripides. Naturally, he remained largely on the ground of religion and tradition, but in a less rigid way than Aeschylus. His open and enlightened eye did not hide the injustices and cruelties of life, and recognized them as such: he did not try to resolve them, like Aeschylus, in the context of a superior and absolute divine justice; but rather he took the opportunity to bow before the power and inscrutable designs of the gods, and to complain of human frailty and nullity. Multiple impressions and tendencies are reflected in his works: at times it seems that harmony, balance, serenity predominate, at times disagreement, pain, distrust; you go from optimism to pessimism, from the ferocity of strong passions to the quieter and milder composure. So it happens that the poetry of this tragedian is the subject of generally incomplete and highly contradictory definitions. It is difficult to grasp what his true vision of life is, and consequently also his own characteristic as a poet. This is due to the fact that he does not have such a clear and salient characteristic as Aeschylus on the one hand or Euripides on the other. He is in a median position, so he deliberately avoids excesses, with a sure tendency towards σωϕροσύνη. He is endowed with a singular faculty of contemplation and objectification, which allows him to extend his gaze into the complex movement of life and to represent it with clear splendor. This faculty leads him to develop dialogue, action, the delineation of characters (much more than Aeschylus ever did, who, moreover, in his last plays used the example of Sophocles himself). The strength of Sophocles as a playwright lies in the conduct of the action, which he weaves with an expert hand, and in the fullness with which he determines the character of the principal characters. His characters are not as heroic as those of Aeschylus; they are nevertheless always conceived with special nobility of features; but they appear closer to us, and have greater richness of color and shades.
Unlike Sophocles, Euripides (480-406 BC) can be considered as the direct and genuine interpreter of the troubled period of the Peloponnesian war. This was not only a war on the outside, fought between Athens and Sparta for supremacy in the Hellenic world, but also a war on the inside, between the principles of the ancient state, which had essentially aristocratic origin and character, and the bursting forces. of democracy, which were degenerating into demagogy; and also a war of ideas, between the ancient moral, religious, philosophical concepts and the new tendencies of the spirit, which in everything introduced criticism, denial, doubt.
According to Shoefrantics, the eighteen plays of Euripides that have come down to us (in about ninety that he wrote) belong to that lapse of years; and they are the life and acute expression of the general crisis through which the Athenian polis was on its way to ruin. From such a state of crisis the poet’s entire personality is illuminated: he is not, like Sophocles, predominantly absorbed in the ideal admiration of the past, but rather appears dominated by anxiety and turned towards the future. In fact, he was a kind of precursor, and even before the Peloponnesian War, that is, before those events and manifestations fully matured, the effects of which he even partially deplored, he had personally contributed to the formation of the new spiritual climate, sowing the seeds of criticism and doubt from the stage. Melancholy and meditative nature of a scholar, equipped with marked philosophical tendencies without being a philosopher properly, he was a disciple and friend of those in Athens who represented the modern currents of thought. The most daring concepts that overlooked religion, the homeland, the authority of laws and traditions, etc. they found immediate resonance in him, who greedily welcomed them and grazed and tormented his soul as a poet. As a poet, especially as a tragedian, he could not fail to continue to draw arguments, according to custom, from the heroic world of myth, religion and tradition; and these, after all, were dear to him, as youthful dreams are dear to him, and they gladly populated his fantasy eager for beauty.