Aristotle’s Poetics on Tragedy



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Aristotle’s Poetics on Tragedy
Directions: Carefully read the following excerpts from Aristotle’s Poetics to determine how to define and classify a tragedy. As you read, answer the questions in the margins to the side to help check for comprehension and structure your reading. They are placed near the answers in the text. You will also be asked to critique his overall argument.




  1. Write your definition of an Aristotelian tragedy in your own words.



  1. What are the six components of an Aristotelian tragedy? Beside each component, write a short description of what is necessary for that part to be effective.


VI
Of the poetry which imitates in hexameter verse, and of

Comedy, we will speak hereafter. Let us now discuss Tragedy,

resuming its formal definition, as resulting from what has

been already said.
Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious,

complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished

with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper

purgation of these emotions. By ‘language embellished,’ I

mean language into which rhythm, ‘harmony,’ and song enter.

By ‘the several kinds in separate parts,’ I mean, that some

parts are rendered through the medium of verse alone, others

again with the aid of song.


Now as tragic imitation implies persons acting, it necessarily

follows, in the first place, that Spectacular equipment will be a part of Tragedy. Next, Song and Diction, for these are the medium of imitation. By ‘Diction’ I mean the mere ‘metrical

arrangement of the words: as for ‘Song,’ it is a term whose

sense every one understands.


Again, Tragedy is the imitation of an action; and an action

implies personal agents, who necessarily possess certain distinctive qualities both of character and thought; for it is by

these that we qualify actions themselves, and these—thought

and character—are the two natural causes from which actions

spring, and on actions again all success or failure depends.
Hence, the Plot is the imitation of the action: for by plot I

here mean the arrangement of the incidents. By Character I

mean that in virtue of which we ascribe certain qualities to

the agents. Thought is required wherever a statement is proved, or, it may be, a general truth enunciated. Every Tragedy, therefore, must have six parts, which parts determine its quality— namely, Plot, Character, Diction, Thought, Spectacle, Song.


Two of the parts constitute the medium of imitation, one the manner, and three the objects of imitation. And these complete the list. These elements have been employed, we may say, by the poets to a man; in fact, every play contains Spectacular elements as well as Character, Plot, Diction, Song, and Thought.
But most important of all is the structure of the incidents. For Tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of an action and

of life, and life consists in action, and its end is a mode of



3. What are the most powerful elements to add emotion?


action, not a quality. Now character determines men’s qualities, but it is by their actions that they are happy or the reverse.
Dramatic action, therefore, is not with a view to the representation of character: character comes in as subsidiary to the actions. Hence the incidents and the plot are the end of a tragedy; and the end is the chief thing of all. Again, without

action there cannot be a tragedy; there may be without character.


The tragedies of most of our modern poets fail in the rendering of character; and of poets in general this is often true. It is the same in painting; and here lies the difference between Zeuxis and Polygnotus. Polygnotus delineates character well: the style of Zeuxis is devoid of ethical quality. Again, if you string together a set of speeches expressive of character, and well finished in point of diction and thought, you will not produce the essential tragic effect nearly so well as with a play which, however deficient in these respects, yet has a plot and artistically constructed incidents. Besides which, the most powerful elements of emotional: interest in Tragedy Peripeteia or Reversal of the Situation, and Recognition scenes—are parts of the plot. A further proof is, that novices in the art attain to finish: of diction and precision of portraiture before they can construct the plot. It is the same with almost all the early poets.
The Plot, then, is the first principle, and, as it were, the

soul of a tragedy: Character holds the second place. A similar

fact is seen in painting. The most beautiful colors, laid on

confusedly, will not give as much pleasure as the chalk outline

of a portrait. Thus Tragedy is the imitation of an action,

and of the agents mainly with a view to the action.


Third in order is Thought,—that is, the faculty of saying what is possible and pertinent in given circumstances. In the case of oratory, this is the function of the Political art and of the art of rhetoric: and so indeed the older poets make their characters speak the language of civic life; the poets of our time, the language of the rhetoricians. Character is that which reveals moral purpose, showing what kind of things a man chooses or avoids. Speeches, therefore, which do not make this manifest, or in which the speaker does not choose or avoid anything whatever, are not expressive of character.
Thought, on the other hand, is found where something is

proved to be. or not to be, or a general maxim is enunciated.


Fourth among the elements enumerated comes Diction;

by which I mean, as has been already said, the expression of

the meaning in words; and its essence is the same both in

verse and prose.


Of the remaining elements Song holds the chief place among

the embellishments.


The Spectacle has, indeed, an emotional attraction of its

own, but, of all the parts, it is the least artistic, and connected

least with the art of poetry. For the power of Tragedy, we may


4. How must a plot be structured to be effective?

5. How does Aristotle determine what is considered beautiful?



be sure, is felt even apart from representation and actors. Besides, the production of spectacular effects depends more on the art of the stage machinist than on that of the poet.
These principles being established, let us now discuss the

proper structure of the Plot, since this is the first and most

important thing in Tragedy.

Now, according to our definition, Tragedy is an imitation

of an action that is complete, and whole, and of a certain

magnitude; for there may be a whole that is wanting in magnitude.


A whole is that which has a beginning, a middle, and

an end. A beginning is that which does not itself follow anything by causal necessity, but after which something naturally is or comes to be. An end, on the contrary, is that which itself naturally follows some other thing, either by necessity, or as a rule, but has nothing following it. A middle is that which follows something as some other thing follows it. A well constructed plot, therefore, must neither begin nor end at haphazard, but conform to these principles.


Again, a beautiful object, whether it be a living organism or

any whole composed of parts, must not only have an orderly

arrangement of parts, but must also be of a certain magnitude;

for beauty depends on magnitude and order. Hence a very small animal organism cannot be beautiful; for the view of it is confused, the object being seen in an almost imperceptible

moment of time. Nor, again, can one of vast size be

beautiful; for as the eye cannot take it all in at once, the unity and sense of the whole is lost for the spectator; as for instance if there were one a thousand miles long. As, therefore, in the case of animate bodies and organisms a certain magnitude is

necessary, and a magnitude which may be easily embraced in

one view; so in the plot, a certain length is necessary, and a length which can be easily embraced by the memory. The

limit of length in relation to dramatic competition and sensuous presentment, is no part of artistic theory. For had it

been the rule for a hundred tragedies to compete together,

the performance would have been regulated by the waterclock,—as indeed we are told was formerly done. But the limit as fixed by the nature of the drama itself is this: the

greater the length, the more beautiful will the piece be by

reason of its size, provided that the whole be perspicuous.

And to define the matter roughly, we may say that the proper

magnitude is comprised within such limits, that the sequence

of events, according to the law of probability or necessity,

will admit of a change from bad fortune to good, or from

good fortune to bad.


XIII
As the sequel to what has already been said, we must proceed

to consider what the poet should aim at, and what he should avoid, in constructing his plots; and by what means the specific effect of Tragedy will be produced.



4. How does Aristotle propose a writer create pity and fear?

5. What is necessary of a tragic hero?




6. How does Aristotle propose a writer create pity and fear?

7. What is necessary for a tragic hero, according to Aristotle?



A perfect tragedy should, as we have seen, be arranged not on the simple but on the complex plan. It should, moreover, imitate actions which excite pity and fear, this being the distinctive mark of tragic imitation. It follows plainly, in the first place, that the change, of fortune presented must not be the spectacle of a virtuous man brought from prosperity to adversity: for this moves neither pity nor fear; it merely shocks us. Nor, again, that of a bad man passing from adversity to prosperity: for nothing can be more alien to the spirit of Tragedy; it possesses no single tragic quality; it neither satisfies the moral sense nor calls forth pity or fear. Nor, again, should the downfall of the utter villain be exhibited. A plot of this kind would, doubtless, satisfy the moral sense, but it would inspire neither pity nor fear; for pity is aroused by unmerited misfortune, fear by the misfortune of a man like ourselves. Such an event, therefore, will be neither pitiful nor terrible. There remains, then, the character between these two extremes,—that of a man who is not eminently good and just,- yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty. He must be one who is highly renowned and prosperous,—a personage like Oedipus, Thyestes, or other illustrious men of such families.
A well constructed plot should, therefore, be single in its issue, rather than double as some maintain. The change of fortune should be not from bad to good, but, reversely, from good to bad. It should come about as the result not of vice, but of some great error or frailty, in a character either such as we have described, or better rather than worse. The practice of the stage bears out our view. At first the poets recounted any legend that came in their way. Now, the best tragedies are founded on the story of a few houses, on the fortunes of Alcmaeon, Oedipus, Orestes, Meleager, Thyestes, Telephus, and those others who have done or suffered something terrible. A tragedy, then, to be perfect according to the rules of art should be of this construction. Hence they are in error who censure Euripides just because he follows this principle in his plays, many of which end unhappily. It is, as we have said, the right ending. The best proof is that on the stage and in dramatic competition, such plays, if well worked out, are the most tragic in effect; and Euripides, faulty though he may be in the general management of his subject, yet is felt to be the most tragic of the poets.

In the second rank comes the kind of tragedy which some

place first. Like the Odyssey, it has a double thread of plot,

and also an opposite catastrophe for the good and for the bad. It is accounted the best because of the weakness of the

spectators; for the poet is guided in what he writes by the wishes of his audience. The pleasure, however, thence derived is not the true tragic pleasure. It is proper rather to Comedy, where those who, in the piece, are the deadliest enemies—

like Orestes and Aegisthus—quit the stage as friends at the close, and no one slays or is slain.

XIV

Fear and pity may be aroused by spectacular means; but they



may also result from the inner structure of the piece, which is the better way, and indicates a superior poet. For the plot

8. What is an example of a tragic act that Aristotle would find pitiful?


ought to be so constructed that, even without the aid of the eye, he who hears the tale told will thrill with horror and melt to pity at what takes place. This is the impression we should receive from hearing the story of the Oedipus. But to produce this effect by the mere spectacle is a less artistic method, and dependent on extraneous aids. Those who employ spectacular means to create a sense not of the terrible but only of the monstrous, are strangers to the purpose of Tragedy; for we must not demand of Tragedy any and every kind of pleasure, but only that which is proper to it. And since the pleasure which the poet should afford is that which comes from pity and fear through imitation, it is evident that this quality must be impressed upon the incidents.
Let us then determine what are the circumstances which

strike us as terrible or pitiful.


Actions capable of this effect must happen between persons who are either friends or enemies or indifferent to one another.

If an enemy kills an enemy, there is nothing to excite pity either in the act or the intention, —except so far as the suffering in itself is pitiful. So again with indifferent persons.


But when the tragic incident occurs between those who are

near or dear to one another—if, for example, a brother kills,

or intends to kill, a brother, a son his father, a mother her son, a son his mother, or any other deed of the kind is done—these are the situations to be looked for by the poet. He may not indeed destroy the framework of the received legends—the fact, for instance, that Clytemnestra was slain by Orestes and Eriphyle by Alcmaeon but he ought to show invention of his own, and skillfully handle the traditional material. Let us explain more clearly what is meant by skilful handling.
The action may be done consciously and with knowledge

of the persons, in the manner of the older poets. It is thus too

that Euripides makes Medea slay her children. Or, again, the

deed of horror may be done, but done in ignorance, and the

tie of kinship or friendship be discovered afterwards. The

Oedipus of Sophocles is an example. Here, indeed, the incident is outside the drama proper; but cases occur where it

falls within the action of the play: one may cite the Alcmaeon

of Astydamas, or Telegonus in the Wounded Odysseus.


Again, there is a third case,—(to be about to act with knowledge of the persons and then not to act. The fourth case is) when someone is about to do an irreparable deed through ignorance, and makes the discovery before it is done. These are the only possible ways. For the deed must either be done or not done,—and that wittingly or unwittingly. But of all these ways, to be about to act knowing the persons, and then not to act, is the worst. It is shocking without being tragic, for no disaster follows. It is, therefore, never, or very rarely, found in poetry. One instance, however, is in the Antigone, where


9. What are the four character traits of a tragic hero?

10. Provide a critique of Aristotle’s overall argument. What is problematic about his definition of tragedy. Do you agree or disagree? Why?


Haemon threatens to kill Creon. The next and better way is that the deed should be perpetrated. Still better, that it should be perpetrated in ignorance, and the discovery made afterwards. There is then nothing to shock us, while the discovery produces a startling effect. The last case is the best, as when in the Cresphontes Merope is about to slay her son, but, recognizing who he is, spares his life. So in the Iphigenia, the sister recognizes the brother just in time. Again in the Helle, the son recognizes the mother when on the point of giving her up. This, then, is why a few families only, as has been already observed, furnish the subjects of tragedy. It was not art, but happy chance, that led the poets in search of subjects to impress the tragic quality upon their plots. They are compelled, therefore, to have recourse to those houses whose history contains moving incidents like these.
XV

In respect of Character there are four things to be aimed at.

First, and most important, it must be good. Now any speech

or action that manifests moral purpose of any kind will be

expressive of character: the character will be good if the purpose is good. This rule is relative to each class. Even a woman may be good, and also a slave; though the woman may be said to be an inferior being, and the slave quite worthless. The second thing to aim at is propriety. There is a type of manly valor; but valor in a woman, or unscrupulous cleverness, is inappropriate. Thirdly, character must be true to life: for this is a distinct thing from goodness and propriety, as here described. The fourth point is consistency: for though the subject of the imitation, who suggested the type, be inconsistent, still he must be consistently inconsistent. As an example of motiveless degradation of character, we have Menelaus in the Orestes: of character indecorous and inappropriate, the lament of Odysseus in the Scylla, and the speech of Melanippe: of inconsistency, the Iphigenia at Aulis,—for Iphigenia the suppliant in no way resembles her later self.
As in the structure of the plot, so too in the portraiture of

character, the poet should always aim either at the necessary

or the probable. Thus a person of a given character should

speak or act in a given way, by the rule either of necessity or of probability; just as this event should follow that by necessary or probable sequence. It is therefore evident that the unraveling of the plot, no less than the complication, must arise out of the plot itself, it must not be brought about by the ‘Deus ex Machina’—as in the Medea, or in the Return of the Greeks in the Iliad. The ‘Deus ex Machina’ should be employed only for events external to the drama,—for antecedent or subsequent events, which lie beyond the range of human knowledge, and which require to be reported or foretold; for to the gods we ascribe the power of seeing all things. Within the action there must be nothing irrational. If the irrational cannot be excluded, it should be outside the scope of the tragedy. Such is the irrational element in the Oedipus of Sophocles.


Again, since Tragedy is an imitation of persons who s are

above the common level, the example of good portrait-painters

should be followed. They, while reproducing the distinctive

form of the original, make a likeness which is true to life and

yet more beautiful. So too the poet, in representing men who

are irascible or indolent, or have other defects of character,



should preserve the type and yet ennoble it. In this way Achilles is portrayed by Agathon and Homer. These then are rules the poet should observe. Nor should he neglect those appeals to the senses, which, though not among the essentials, are the concomitants of poetry; for here too there is much room for error.


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