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Description of Action in the Narratives of Euripidean and Sophoclean Tragedy

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image of Mnemosyne

Drama and narrative share basic constituents, such as a chronological series of actions, their agents, and a setting in time and place. Narrative, moreover, often makes use of dialogue, while dramatic dialogue is hardly conceivable without narrative. Recognition of this kinship has encouraged the notion that narrative and dialogue are naturally complementary, so that when a story is told in tragic dialogue, for instance, the dramatic illusion is maintained unaffected. This essay asserts to the contrary that, just as certain kinds of narrative are not hospitable to dialogue, certain dramatic narratives—messenger speeches in particular—do not fit well in the dialogues in which they are embedded. In support of this assertion the study attempts to examine the way in which the narratives in Sophoclean and Euripidean dialogue describe action. Assuming that dramatic narrative seeks to approximate, at least in some degree, what van Dijk calls “natural narrative”—that occurring in everyday conversation—which mentions only those actions and events that are “strictly relevant”, the study finds that in fact most narratives in tragic dialogue are sparing of extraneous detail. There is, however, a group of narratives which with some frequency make 'irrelevant' multiple references to single actions and events. Most of the Euripidean narratives spoken by anonymous messengers and three in Sophoclean tragedy belong to this group, as well as five narratives spoken by named characters, four of which closely resemble messenger speeches in form and function.

Affiliations: 1: Department of Classical Studies, Tulane University, New Orleans, Louisiana, USA;, Email:


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