Aristotle’s Theory of Tragedy

Aristotle was a Greek philosopher and scientist. He was an influential public figure and a teacher at the Lyceum. Throughout his life (384 – 322 B.C), he turned his mind to a range of subjects varying from the problems of classification, psychology and logic before trying his hand at Tragedy, a genre of ancient Greek play.

Greek plays were either a comedy or tragedy. Whilst comedies were satirical, mocking leaders and men in power for their vanity or foolishness, tragedies were based on human suffering designed to invoke pity or fear from the audience. Tragedies portrayed the downfall of a good person through misjudgement, a moral weakness or a fatal error; the main character often suffers extreme sorrow or is brought to ruin by events started by their own actions controlled by their weakness.

Tragedy often focuses on themes of love, loss, pride, abuse of power and the relationship between men and their gods. The ancient Greek culture focused around these Gods, if a man moved against them, then, the Gods would react cruelly.

Aristotle published his theories on Tragedy in Poetics (Poetics in Greek is poiêtikê which translates as ‘productive’). Most of Poetics is devoted to his theories on tragedy, however rather than focusing on how to judge a tragedy as successful; Aristotle focuses on how to construct one, and be ‘productive’ in creating something that moves the human heart (the audience).

In Poetics, the discussion on tragedy starts from Aristotle’s definition;

Tragedy, then, is process of imitating an action which has serious implications, is complete, and possesses magnitude; by means of language which has been made sensuously attractive, with each of its varieties found separately in the parts; enacted by the person themselves and not presented through narrative; through a course of pity and fear completing the perfection of such emotions.

This definition is easy to understand when broken down into manageable sections. By calling a tragedy a ‘process of imitating an action’, it reflects Aristotle’s beliefs that a tragedy is designed to imitate and reflect life, in all its parts, of happiness and misery (whether desired or not), which when combined create a complete life, and ergo a tragedy. ‘Complete’ may refer to how tragedy is a complete replica of life or how to be a Tragedy the plot needs to be complete with a definite beginning, middle and end.                                                                                                              ‘By means of language’, Aristotle is referring to word choice and how that is important in the construction of a tragedy, as the word choice is what provokes emotion in the script or in the audience. Words have to be chosen to create an ambience and to portray the characters effectively. ‘Enacted by the person themselves and not presented through narrative’ refers to the format a tragedy should take, in this case a play which does not rely heavily on the narrative to portray the emotions and action of the plot and character.                                                       ‘Through a course of pity and fear completing the perfection of such emotions’ is relating to the emotional response the audience should have whilst witnessing the tragedy and downfall of a good person. Aristotle later in Poetics states “Pity is aroused by unmerited misfortune, fear by the misfortune of a man like ourselves”, this suggests that tragedies were also designed to deter people from making the same mistake as the hero, whether that is disobeying the gods or succumbing to greed and pride, for if someone similar to oneself being brought to ruin by a action not impossible for one to do could create fear and fuel the desire of self-preservation.

Aristotle believed tragedies were constructed of six main parts: plot, character, diction, thought, spectacle and song. Diction is the choice of words. Thought is the theme of the tragedy, in a plot there should only be a single central theme. Spectacle is a scenic effect, or play scenery; the setting of the play is important to the plot and play. If a plot was to include a meeting of the Gods, then the meeting would most likely take place in Olympus, rather than a stable. Song refers to the music or melody of the play, the chorus of such should contribute the unity of the play and help to link the six parts together to create something successful and whole. Tragedy is derived from Tragos, meaning Goat, and oide meaning song. In Ancient Greece, the He-Goat was the god of all things, referred to in Mythology as Pan. Pan was considered the principle of animal and plant life, he was also the son of Zeus, and considered the son of Jupiter (as Zeus’s planetary form was Jupiter). This could be a reference to how Gods and fate were important parts of tragedy.

According to Poetics, the plot must be complete, with a beginning, middle and end; but must also be long enough to show the different components of a story and how they link together clearly, without becoming too long and confusing. The plot must show the various stages of action followed by downfall, often in a chain of cause and effect.  An ideal plot would create pity and fear whilst portraying the events as beyond the hero’s control. The ancient Greeks believed in fate; definition states it is the will or determining cause by which things in general are believed to come to be as they are or events to happen as they do. It is often linked to destiny. The Greeks believed that their lives were prescribed for them by Gods, and they were sealed within their fates with no means of escaping their destiny or fate. Tragedies portray this belief as they highlight the power of fate when the hero is shown powerless to stop his destiny or their approaching doom.

The hero or main character of the tragedy must be carefully constructed. They must be admirable and good, but not completely so as to keep them human and relatable. They must have a flaw or weakness that is the key of their downfall. The audience must be able to connect with them in order to feel pity for them. If they are not likeable then the audience may not respond to the display of pain the hero suffers through. The hero should contribute to the action, whilst also being unable to stop the universal chain of cause and effect, as their demise must come as a result of a personal decision.

There are three key events that occur during a tragedy, Hamartia, Peripateia and Anagorisis. Hamartia is referred to as the tragic error, this where the hero (protagonist) makes a simple mistake which turns into a fatal error as it causes a chain of events that lead to the final catastrophe and the downfall of the hero. Harmatia is a term that comes from archery; it’s a metaphor for the shot that misses the bulls eye.                                                                                         Peripateia is known as the plot reversal. It is where the hero makes a crucial action that changes their situation from seemingly stable to one that is vulnerable, where they are possibly at risk of danger or downfall. Anagorisis means tragic recognition or insight, it refers the moment where the tragic hero gains understanding or ‘mystic insight’ as they release that they are entangled in the web of fate from which they cannot escape. This moment of clarity occurs just before their downfall when they are helpless to battle the fate the God’s have created for them.

These three events are designed to cause Catharsis (meaning transformation through transaction). It is the purge of emotions the audience feel during the tragedy. The audience’s views may be transformed slightly by the events they witness happening to the hero.

In summary, Aristotle believed that Tragedy was made of different aspects that are woven together to create an effective plot with human characters capable of moving the audience with the main emotions of pity and fear. The six main parts must be linked carefully to ensure that the play is whole. Catharsis is achieved through the plot which navigates through Anagorisis, Hamartia and Perpateia. Finally, Aristotle believed the ability to create a tragedy capable of an emotional reaction was productive both in production and performance, for the playwright creates and is productive and the play warns the audience of dangers related to fatal flaws and fate.


One thought on “Aristotle’s Theory of Tragedy

  1. Pingback: Mythology and Literature: Melpomene | Morgan

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