Plot structure in Thucydides and Sophocles

Michael Shaw

University of Kansas

The recent translation of Hans-Peter Stahl's 1966 book, Man's Place in History (2003) shows how important that book was in the development of reading Thucydides as a complex literary author, as John Mariincola points out in his excellent review (Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.12.36) but it also presents us with a model of narrative structure which not only revises how we read Thucydides but is also applicable to tragic narrative. 

Stahl insists that Thucydides' text is a unity, and this means that the speeches must be read in context with the narrative.  This is a necessary corrective for those who treat the speeches in Thucydides as independent statements of political philosophy (for a recent example, see Balot, AJP 122 ((2001)) 505–525).  This approach of treating theoretical statements in Thucydides out of context has led to the use of Thucydides to support ideology which he in fact is testing and qualifying.  Marincola concludes his review with this statement which embodies my own frustration with those scholars who support utopian policies with reference to Thucydides: "Yet, given the continued belief that human actions can be predicted and that the calculations of war can be easily assessed beforehand -- one can hardly help thinking of current events -- it is clear that the lessons imparted both by Thucydides and Stahl need to be learned again and again. It is yet further proof, if such were needed, that Thucydides' work really is a 'possession for all time.'"

With regards to plot structure, Stahl describes various strings of action which exhibit this sequence:  a broad discussion of policy, optimistic about outcomes, leads to an event which reverses this policy, producing a desperate situation where discussions of planning are more short-term, more influenced by hope and the supernatural, followed by suffering and collapse.

It may be that this sequence accounts for some troubling elements of Sophocles' Antigone, namely Cleon's shift from a public interest argument to one of man versus woman (739-40), and Antigone's shift from "unwritten laws" to her "law" (so called, 908, 914) of the last surviving brother.  Seen in this light, one might question whether Creon's admission that the city might be polluted by Antigone's death (775-6) and Antigone's expectation of meeting her family in Hades (897-899) shows them turning to hope of things unseen, much as the Melians do.

There are passages in other plays of Sophocles which may be taken as representing this narrowing process.  Ajax's views of his personal code become more narrowed as he confronts the situation caused by his insanity.  Others have noted how the question in the Oedipus Tyrannus moves from Oedipus' concern for Thebes to Oedipus' concern for who he is.  Such narrowing can be seen in Neoptolemus in Philoctetes, who moves from the social good to the personal.  So, too, the shift in Oedipus Colonus from Cleon's public good argument to Polyneices' more personal and more difficult to handle claims.

Questioning ideology is not the only thematic strain in either Thucydides or Sophocles, but this plot structure enables them to develop it.


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