Greek Tragedy/Poetics

From Gerald R. Lucas

Aristotle’s Poetics is one of the most significant works of literary criticism in Western literature, and it has had a profound impact on our understanding of Greek Tragedy. In this work, Aristotle provides a detailed analysis of the key elements of tragedy and offers insights into the psychological, ethical, and aesthetic dimensions of the genre.

Aristotle by Jusepe de Ribera (1637)

One of the most significant contributions of Aristotle’s Poetics is his discussion of the tragic hero and the concept of hamartia, or tragic flaw. Aristotle argues that the tragic hero is a person of high status who possesses a tragic flaw that leads to their downfall. This flaw may be a moral weakness, such as hubris, or excessive pride that leads to a mistake in judgment. By identifying this crucial element of tragedy, Aristotle helps us to understand why the tragic hero is such a powerful figure in the genre.

Aristotle also discusses the importance of catharsis, or emotional release, in tragedy. He argues that tragedy should evoke feelings of pity and fear in the audience, which can be purged or purified through the experience of watching the play. This concept of catharsis helps us to understand the emotional impact of tragedy and its ability to move and transform us.

Poetics also provides a framework for understanding the structure of Greek Tragedy. Aristotle identifies the key elements of the plot, such as peripeteia (reversal of fortune) and anagnorisis (recognition), and argues that the plot should be structured in a way that creates a sense of unity and inevitability. This helps us to understand how Greek Tragedy is constructed and how the various elements of the genre work together to create a powerful and memorable experience.

Overall, Aristotle’s Poetics has had a profound impact on our understanding of Greek Tragedy. His insights into the tragic hero, catharsis, and plot structure have helped to shape our understanding of the genre and have influenced the way that we approach tragedy in literature and drama today.

Excerpt from Poetics
By: Aristotle
(Translated by Samuel Henry Butcher)

Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with every kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of dramatic action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purification of these emotions. By “language embellished,” I mean language into which rhythm, harmony, and song enter. By “the several kinds of 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 apart of tragedy. Next, song and diction, for these are the medium of imitation. By diction, I mean the metrical arrangement of the words: as for song, it is a term whose sense everyone understands.

Again, tragedy is the imitation of an action, and an action implies personal actors, who necessarily possess certain distinctive qualities of character and thought; for it is by these that we form our estimate of their actions and these two—thought and character—are the natural causes from which their actions spring, and on their actions all success or failure depends. Now, the imitation of the action is the plot; by plot I mean the arrangement of the incidents. By character I mean that because of which we ascribe certain qualities to the actors. Thought is needed whenever they speak to prove a statement or declare a general truth. Every tragedy, therefore, must have six parts, which parts determine its quality—namely, plot, character, diction, thought, spectacle, song. [. . .]

But most important of all is the structure of the incidents. For tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of action and life, of happiness and misery. And life consists of action, and its end is a mode of activity, not a quality. Now character determines men’s qualities, but it is their actions that make them happy or wretched. The purpose of action in the tragedy, therefore, is not the representation of character: character comes in as contributing to the action. Hence the incidents and the plot are the end of the tragedy; and the end is the chief thing of all. So without action there cannot be a tragedy; there may be one without character. [. . .]

5 Again, you may string together a set of speeches expressive of character, and well finished in point of diction and thought, and 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—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 statement is true of painting. The most beautiful colors, laid on confusedly, will not give as much pleasure as a simple chalk outline of a portrait. Thus tragedy is the imitation of an action, and of actors mainly with a view to the action. [. . .]

The spectacle is, indeed, an attraction in itself, but of all the parts it is the least artistic, and connected least with the art of poetry. For the power of tragedy is felt even apart from representation and actors. Besides, the production of scenic effects is more a matter for the property man than for 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 have to follow anything else, but after which something else naturally takes place. An end, on the contrary, is that which itself naturally follows something else, either by necessity or as a general rule, but has nothing coming after it. A middle is that which follows something else as some other thing follows it. A well-constructed plot must neither begin nor end at haphazard, but conform to these principles.

10 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 tiny creature 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 it would be if there were a creature a thousand miles long. As, therefore, in the case of living 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 length which can be easily embraced by the memory. [. . .] And to state the matter roughly, we may say that the proper length is such as to allow for a sequence of necessary or probable events that will bring about a change from calamity to good fortune, or from good fortune to calamity. [. . .]

Unity of plot does not, as some persons think, consist of having a single man as the hero. For infinitely various are the incidents in one man’s life which cannot be reduced to unity; and so, too, there are many actions of one man out of which we cannot make one action. Hence the error, as it appears, of all poets who have composed a Heracleid, a Theseid, or other poems of the kind. They imagine that as Heracles was one man, the story of Heracles must also be a unity. But Homer, as in all else he is of surpassing merit, here too—whether from art or natural genius—seems to have happily discerned the truth. In composing the Odyssey he did not include all the adventures of Odysseus—such as his wound on Parnassus, or his feigned madness at the mustering of the host—incidents between which there was no necessary or probable connection: but he made the Odyssey and likewise the Iliad center around an action that in our sense of the word is one. As therefore, in the other imitative arts, the imitation is one when the object imitated is one, so the plot, being an imitation of an action, must imitate one action and that a whole, the structural union of the parts being such that, if any one of them is displaced or removed, the whole will be disjointed and disturbed. For a thing whose presence or absence makes no visible difference is not an organic part of the whole.