Aristotle's Concept of Tragedy in Poetics

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Introduction: "Poetics" is Chiefly Concerned with Tragedy

      The very word tragedy brings to mind Aristotle and Poetics. Some aspects of the definition and discussion of tragedy in that treatise may be considered controversial, unacceptable or outdated, but its influence continues unabated. Tragedy, indeed, is the major concern of the Poetics, as it has come down to us. Tragedy is considered by Aristotle to be the highest poetic form. His definition and theory of tragedy present remarkable insight and comprehension. It has become the type of the theory of literature, as Abercrombie says.

The Greek Conception of the Term "Tragedy"

      It is necessary at the very outset, to remember that the Greek conception of Tragedy was different from ours. In the modern age, tragedy means a drama (sometimes story) with an unhappy ending, and disastrous enough to have tragic' effect. But the origin of the term tragedy' is not too clear. Dante said that an unhappy tale was called a "tragedy" or "goat song" because goats are noisy. The real source is still under dispute. It is not certain whether the goat was a prize or whether it was sacrificed, or whether the original dancers dressed up in goat masks or goat skins. However, the Greek conception of tragedy was that it was a serious drama, not necessarily with an unhappy ending. The essence of tragedy was that it handled serious actions of serious characters, whereas comedy dealt grotesquely with grotesque characters.

      The Greeks had their dramatic festivals, with four plays being performed on each day. There were three serious plays, and one satyr play or burlesque. Tragedy, for the Greeks, simply meant "one of the three serious plays presented before the satyr play at a dramatic festival". The Greek tragedy has scenes and incidents of pain and sorrow, but need not end disastrously. This is clear from Aristotle's classification of four possible tragic plots (in ch. 13), which include two plots which represented a change from misery to happiness - a contention which seems unacceptable in the modern times.

The Origin of Tragedy and Its Superiority over The Epic

      Aristotle traces the possible origin of tragedy in his Poetics. According to him, tragedy developed from the heroic strain of poetry, which in its turn, developed from the hymns sung in praise of gods and great men. Tragedy is considered by Aristotle to be a higher form than the heroic or epic form of poetry, because it was a later development. Tragedy has greater degree of concentration and coherence than the epic, and has a greater effect. Aristotle traces the different stages in the evolution of tragedy, from the single Singer to the addition of actors and scenery. He considers tragedy to have attained full development by the time he wrote about it.

      Aristotle’s Poetics is the earliest surviving work of dramatic theory and the first extant philosophical treatise to focus on literary theory. In it, Aristotle offers an account of what he calls ‘poetry’. According to Aristotle’s Poetics, poetry is a ‘medium of imitation’ that seeks to represent or duplicate life through character, emotion, or action. Here he differentiates the kinds of poetry, explains the structure of a good poem, and the division of a poem into its component parts. Aristotle defines poetry very broadly, including epic poetry, tragedy, comedy, dithyrambic poetry, and even some kinds of music. According to Aristotle, tragedy came from the efforts of poets to present men as ‘nobler’, or ‘better’ than they are in real life. A great tragedy is characterized by seriousness and involves a great person experiencing a reversal of fortune, which he technically names Peripeteia. Tragedy depicts the downfall of a noble hero or heroine, usually through some combination of hubris, fate, and the will of the gods. The tragic hero’s powerful wish to achieve some goal inevitably encounters limits, usually those of human frailty (flaws in reason, hubris, society), the gods (through oracles, prophets, fate), or nature. Aristotle says that the tragic hero should have a flaw and/or make some mistake (hamartia). The hero need not die at the end, but he/she must undergo a change in fortune. The reversal can be both from bad to good and good to bad. Aeschylus’ Eumenides exhibits a reversal from bad to good, while in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex the change from good to bad induces pity and fear in the audiences. The emergence of pity and fear at the last of a tragic performance is technically termed as Catharsis. Giving a concise definition of tragedy Aristotle quotes in his Poetics.

The Definition of Tragedy

      Aristotle's famous definition of tragedy says: A tragedy is the imitation of an action that is serious, and also as having magnitude, complete in itself in language with pleasurable accessories, each kind brought in separately in the parts of the work; in a dramatic, not in a narrative form: with incidents arousing pity and fear; wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions. (Ch. 6)

      The definition clearly falls into two parts. The first part tells us about the nature of tragedy, its object, manner, and medium of imitation; the second part points out the function of tragedy.

      Tragedy is the “imitation of an action” (mimesis') according to “the law of probability or necessity.” Aristotle indicates that the medium of tragedy is drama, not narrative; tragedy “shows” rather than “tells.” According to Aristotle, tragedy is higher and more philosophical than history because history simply relates what has happened while tragedy dramatizes what may happen, “what is possible according to the law of probability or necessity.” History thus deals with the particular, and tragedy with the universal. Events that have happened may be due to accident or coincidence; they may be particular to a specific situation and not be part of a clear cause-and-effect chain. Therefore they have little relevance for others. Tragedy, however, is rooted in the fundamental order of the universe; it creates a cause-and-effect chain that clearly reveals what may happen at any time or place because that is the way the world operates. Tragedy therefore arouses not only pity but also fear, because the audience can envision themselves within this cause-and-effect chain.

Tragedy: Difference from Other Forms of Poetic Imitation

      Tragedy, like all other forms of art, is a form of imitation. It differs from other arts in the object, manner, and medium of imitation. Its objects of imitation are 'serious actions'. It is always to be kept in mind that imitation' in the Aristotelian sense is not slavish copying. It involves grasping and presenting the essence of a universal truth. Poetic imitation is re-creation or a creative reproduction of objects. Tragedy, then, differs from comedy, because its object of imitation is a serious action. Comedy imitates a groteseque' action. The term "serious' has aroused controversy. Generally, critics have said that it implies 'weighty' or important. It is something that matters, and hence of permanent significance.

      In its manner of imitation, tragedy is different from the epic. The epic uses the manner of narrative, while tragedy represents life through acting. It differs from other forms of poetry in that it employs embellishments of pleasurable accessories of different kinds. It uses, for instance, verse for dialogues, and song for the chorus.

The Action: Complete with a Beginning, Middle, and End

      Aristotle does not define the word 'action'. But we get the implication through the qualities which Aristotle ascribes to it. For convenience's sake, one can say that an action shows the progress of an individual from one position to another, at which he either dies, or becomes involved in a completely changed set of circumstances. Action is the plot, consisting of the logical and inevitable sequence of incidents. The action must be complete, which means that it must have a beginning, middle and end "The beginning is that which does not itself come after anything else in a necessary sequence, but after which some other thing does naturally exists or come to pass." In one sense, there is nothing that has a beginning or an end. There is a continuous causal relationship between events. What Aristotle means, however, is that a play should have good reason for beginning where it does, and for ending where it does. As F. L. Lucas comments, events do tend to occur in clusters. A volcano, even when continuously active has eruptions, which form episodes complete in themselves; and the events of a tragedy are like such an eruption. T.R. Henn remarks that the beginning of an action might be perceived to be "a sort of a momentary slack water before the turn of the tide. At the opening of Hamlet, there is every indication that, if it were not for appearance of the Ghost, events in Denmark would have settled down into a period of rest". The end is that which naturally comes after something else, but has nothing else following it. And a middle is that which follows something else, and leads to something else. In every case, there is the clause of 'inevitability, probability and logicality'.

The Magnitude

      Besides being serious, the action must have a certain magnitude. The term has been wrongly interpreted as "important' or dignified. It actually refers to the size. A tragedy must of a correct length. It must not be so long that it cannot be grasped in its entirety without confusion. Neither must it be so short that its parts cannot be comprehended properly. Aristotle compares the tragic plot to a living organism in order to bring out the importance of the correct size. The plot or action should be of such a size that it allows human memory Lo encompass the whole of it. It should, at the same time, be long enough to permit the orderly and natural development in the change of fortune, leading to the catastrophe". The parts and the whole should form a coherent, complete and intelligible pattern.

      Furthermore, the action should be long enough for the Characters to develop the sympathy and interest of the spectator. This is especially so if the drama is about characters who are not familiar, traditional figures. A certain amount of length is necessary to create the impression of the plot pattern being a complete and inevitable' story in which the events are logically and causally connected. However, the length should be proportionate; the play should be an organic whole.


      Aristotle means verse and song by the term, 'embellishment'. Tragedy uses different kinds of 'embellishment'. Verse is used for the dialogues. Chorus speaks in song. These add beauty and decor to tragedy, and their end is to please the spectator or reader. Melody and Verse, however, are not indispensable or absolutely essential parts of tragedy, according to Aristotle.

The Function is to Arouse Pity and Accomplish Its Catharsis of such Emotions

      The most debated term in the Poetics perhaps, is 'Catharsis'. Used only once in the whole of the Poetics, the term has unfortunately been left unexplained. Critics have been given scores of explanations- contradictory, controversial, and confusing. In the main, interpretation of the term goes along three lines. One set of critics has explained the term in the sense of purgation. Tragedy arouses pity and fear through its painful and horrific incidents. The sight and experience of these purge the human mind of such emotions, or rather, reduce such emotions to a proper balance in the human psyche. There is the homeopathic explanation of the like curing the like'. It says that the excitement of tragedy provides a safe outlet for our pent up feelings, which we cannot express in actual life. Plato for instance says: "When babies are restless, you do not prescribe quiet for them; you sing to them and rock them to and fro". The external agitation overcomes the internal agitation and leads to calm and peace.

      Another set of critics interprets the term as purification'. The emotions are purified of their morbidity and distressing quality, which accompany them in real life. The emotions are purified and reduced to their just measure.

      The clarification' theory of Catharsis relates the term to the structure of incidents rather than to the emotional response of the audience. The tragedy by presenting an integrated whole of incidents arousing pity and fear, brings about a clarification of such events. It presents these incidents in such a way that the relation between the particular and the universal is brought out. The poet takes his material and selects and orders it according to probability and necessity. The incidents will be clarified in the sense that their relation, in universal terms, will be manifest in the tragedy. This leads to the pleasure peculiar to tragedy, and this pleasure comes out of the representation of incidents of pity and fear.

      Catharsis, in any case, has to do with the function of tragedy, which is to provide the tragic variety of pleasure.

The Quantitative Elements of Tragedy

      Aristotle divides tragedy into five quantitative parts. These are not relevant to modern drama and apply only to the typical Greek tragedy. It thus has little interest for the modern reader. The quantitative elements are Prologue, Episode, Exode, and Choric Song; Choric song is further divided into Parode and Stasimnon.

The Formative Elements of Tragedy

      After having given a definition of tragedy, Aristotle comes to the consideration of the formative elements of tragedy. He gives six formative elements of tragedy-Plot, Character, Thought, Diction Spectacle and Song. Three of these i.e. Plot, Character, and thought are internal aspects; three, namely, Diction, Spectacle, and Song, are external aspects. Diction and Song are concerned with the medium of imitation, while Spectacle, with the manner of imitation. Plot, Character, and Thought are concerned with the objects of imitation.

      The Spectacle according to Aristotle, has more to do with the stage effects. A successful poet depends on his own writing than on Spectacle to produce the effect he wants. Fear and pity, for instance, can be produced by Spectacle, but that would be rather vulgar. Spectacle obviously means the appearance of the actors on stage, costume, scenic effect, and so on.

      Diction is, of course, the language through which the characters express themselves. The Diction is a means of interpreting the thought, feelings and sentiments of the character. It includes technical devices such as, metaphor, rare words, etc., made use of by the poet. The language of tragedy must be highly expressive. The gift of metaphor is valuable, says Aristotle, and cannot be taught. At the same time, the language of tragedy must be clear, though not mean or low. Thought is the intellectual element in the tragedy, and is expressed through the character. It is the "power of saying whatever can be said, or what is appropriate to the occasion".

      Thought is there whenever something is proved or disproved. Thought and diction are related in the sense that it is through diction that thought is expressed. The speech of the character expresses the views and feelings of a character.

Unified Plot: Element of Primary Importance in Tragedy

      Tragedy imitates 'men in action', The men, or the dramatis personae, must have the two qualities, namely moral and intellectual: what Aristotle calls the ethos and dianoia. But even speeches, which are expressive of character, would not be producing the tragic effect as powerfully as a well-constructed plot.

      Aristotle considers plot to be the most important part of tragedy; indeed, it is the very soul of tragedy. The plot is the arrangement of the incidents in a logical sequence.

      Significantly enough, the plot is compared to a living organism. Just as the parts of a living organism must be probably related to each other and to the whole, the part of a tragedy should relate to one another and produce a unified effect. Each event should further the action, and no part should be superfluous or irrelevant. If any part can be removed without damaging the effect of the work, then that part is superfluous. Aristotle does not advocate a formal or mechanical unity, as his comparison of a plot with a living organism shows.

      Furthermore, unity does not arise from a play having a single hero. A single person may experience several incidents, all of which cannot, and should not, be presented in one play. Plurality of action is appropriate for an epic, but not for a tragedy. Thus, the tragic poet should select and arrange his material to give it artistic unity. We will now discuss the main formative elements of tragedy.

Plot: Simple or Complex

      Plot, says Aristotle, is the most important aspect of a tragedy. The Plot can be of two types, simple and complex Plots are either simple or complex, since the actions they represent are naturally of this two-fold description. The action proceeding in the way defined, as one continuous whole, I call simple, when the change in the hero's fortunes takes place without Peripety or Discovery; and complex, when it involves one or the other, or both. These should each of them arise out of the structure of the Plot itself, so as to be necessary and probable, of the antecedents. There is a great difference between a thing happening proper hoc and post hoc.

      Simple plots have continuous movements, and involve no violent change. Complex plots involve changes arising out of Peripety and Anagnorisis. "The turns in a complex plot, it is emphasized, must arise out of the structure of the Plot.

Peripety and Anagnorisis in a Complex Plot

      Peripety, or reversal, is the change in the fortune of the hero. The change of reversal in the situation is brought about by human actions producing the results very opposite to what was intended. It is, as P. R. Lucas remarks, working in blindness to one's own defeat. Anagnorisis or recognition is the change from ignorance to knowledge, i.e. knowledge of the true identity of persons, or the truth of facts, or circumstances. The effect of tragedy is greatest if the Peripety and discovery come together as in Sophocles's Oedipus the King. Aristotle prefers the complex plot, for it is more effective in capturing attention.

      The third kind of tragedy depends on its effect on scenes of Suffering, or of painful incidents, such as murders, violent deaths, torture, wounding, etc., on the stage.

Probability and Necessity: Plot is a Complete Whole

      Probability and necessity are aspects on which Aristotle lays great emphasis. It is necessary that the plot of a tragedy be a coherent whole, in which the events are connected to each other and to the whole, logically and causally. There should be nothing superfluous or irrelevant in the Plot. The removal or the transposal of any part should disjoin the whole, otherwise, that part is superfluous. What is presented should be presented in a convincing manner, so that the sequence of events seems credible and probable. In this context, Aristotle makes a statement which is acute for its artistic truth - that a likely impossibility is better than an unlikely possibility. The scheme of events, in other words, should be reduced to a comprehensible and intelligible pattern. This is what constitutes a sense of inevitability. Aristotle condemns the 'episodic plot' which is not a unified whole and where episodes seem unconnected. Play of chance should be limited, and preferably confined to narration and not presented on stage.

Fatal Plots: Aristotle's Implied Preference

      There can be four types of plots. It is necessary to remember here that in the Greek sense of the term, tragedy could have what is called a happy end. The plots to be avoided are enumerated by Aristotle as follows:

      (i) that which shows a perfectly good man passing from happiness to misery; (ii) that which shows a bad man passing from happiness to misery; (iii) that which shows a bad nan passing from misery to happiness.

      The first kind will merely shock us, and arouse pity and fear. The second would satisfy our moral sense, but again fail to arouse pity and fear, the proper tragic emotions. The third one is obviously unsuitable for tragic action. The best plot, therefore, will be of a good, but not perfect man suffering as a result of some error or fault of judgment, namely Hamartia.

The Dramatic Unities

      Aristotle wrote Poetics as an analysis of the extant practice in dramatist art. As such, he lays down no hard and fast rule. But there is one Unity he stresses upon - the Unity of Action. That the action of the tragedy is a logical sequence and a coherent whole, directed towards a single end, Aristotle does stipulate.

      As regards the Unity of Tine, Aristotle merely states a general observation that tragedies tended to limit the time to a single revolution of the sun, or a little more. But the observation is of a tentative kind and not a rigid rule.

      The Unity of Place he does not mention, let alone stress upon. The three unities came into force with later critics, who wrongly ascribed two of them to Aristotle.

Character: The Four Essentials

      Four essentials are enumerated by Aristotle for successful characterization in tragedy: (i) Goodness (ii) Appropriateness (ii) True to life (iv) Self-consistency

      The most important aspect of characterization in tragedy, says Aristotle, is goodness. The character should be good. This is so, if the purpose he shows is good. The tragic characters should be better than ordinary life. Secondly, the character must be appropriate to the status or type he represents. Thus it would be improper to ascribe valor to a woman, and nobility to a slave. Thirdly, the character has to show truth to life. The character must be true representatives of actual human nature. Or, they must be like the historical persons names they bear.

      Fourthly, the character should be self-consistent. A person of given character should speak or behave in a given way. The inconsistent character should be represented as inconsistent all through the play. Character should also be governed by the laws of probability and necessity. The speech and behavior of the character should be the outcome of his nature.

The Ideal Tragic Hero

      The ideal tragic hero should not be perfectly good, nor utterly depraved. He should be a man not "pre-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".

      Thus a tragic hero should be a mixture of virtue and human frailty; his misfortune should come about from an error of judgment; and he must fall from a height of glorious position. Such a man would arouse the tragic emotions of pity and fear.

Comparative Importance of Plot and Character

      According to Aristotle, plot is of supreme importance in a tragedy. Plot in tragedy is like an outline in painting; it gives meaning to the work. Colors thrown haphazardly on a canvas have little significance the outline gives meaning. Similarly, the soul of tragedy is to be found in the plot. Aristotle goes so far as to say that there can be a tragedy without character, but none without plot. Such a statement seems absurd on the face of it, for how, one may ask, can there be a play without characters? it is, however, to be noted that Aristotle's concept of "character here does not mean the dramatis personae, but the "moral bent" of a person He means the tendency of a person to act in a certain way. Now, the moral bent of a character is only revealed when he is faced with a dilemma, where choices become necessary. In his choice, he will reveal his nature, and it is this 'nature' which Aristotle refers to as character. In a tragedy, there may or may not be such situations of choice where 'character' is revealed, and in this sense, there can be a tragedy without 'character'. But there can be no play without some form of action'. Even a modern audience will agree that a plot is essential if a play is to succeed on stage.

The Tragic Pleasure

      Tragedy, Aristotle correctly remarks, has its special kind of pleasure. He recognized the emotional effects of tragedy, and said at it aroused the feelings of pity and fear. And he accepted that these feelings excited in the human psyche need not be harmful.

      The pleasure is also derived from the instinctive response of human beings to imitation and harmony. It is also derived from the satisfaction one gets from learning. Tragedy clarified certain incidents for us, relates the particular to the universal; it increases our understanding of life. The unity of plot, the diction and the spectacle add to the pleasure, i.e. the pleasure of art.

Place of Accident in Tragedy

      Ans. At the very outset, it must be kept in mind that Aristotle insists on the probability and necessity of all the incidents in a tragedy. No incident, he contends, should be irrelevant or unconvincing. Each event should be causally related to the one preceding it, and logically lead to the one following it. The structure of the plot should, in other words, give rise to incidents of fear and pity in a tragedy. From this, it would appear that 'chance' or the element of accident had little or no place in the scheme of tragedy. But Aristotle is never too rigid in the principles he lays down. There is always room for exceptions to the rule. Thus, chance can be allowed into the scheme of tragedy if it is unavoidable, or absolutely necessary, to the development of the action.

      Accident may be excused if it is introduced for the sake of speeding up the action. But a given situation must always rise out of the given characters and plot. Change cannot be used to determine the course of action. That would make it illogical and irrational,

      Even if introduced, the laws of probability and necessity should govern the element of 'chance', Coincidences should happen with an appearance of design, as if they were unavoidable in the course, of things. Aristotle cites such an example: when the statue of Mitys falls on the man, who was responsible for the death of Mitys, and kills him. This is an element of accident which has an air of design, and which does not seem to be the result of chance alone. There seems to be the illusion that some outside power, awesome and inflexible, is taking part in the scheme of things. There is a sense of inevitability about the whole thing. This keeps up the dramatic illusion of reality. But the arbitrary introduction of 'accident' in the plot of a tragedy cannot be excused, for it would lessen the tragic effect. The tragic effect is very much dependent on the sense of inevitability of the incidents.

      Aristotle does allow for the element of chance, if it is brought in so well and treated so excellently, that the spectator does not notice the improbability of the incident. In such a case, the element of chance or accident would be part of the whole design, and made to seem probable.

      On the whole, however, Aristotle prefers the exclusion of accident in tragedy. Whatever is represented in a tragedy should be probable and necessary. If accident can be introduced within the laws of this inevitability, it can be excused. If it is introduced to accelerate the development of action, again it is justifiable. But if it is introduced as a pure accident, as a determinant factor in the plot, it is to be condemned as unsuitable to tragedy.

Limitations in Aristotle's Concept of Tragedy

      It is true that the concept of tragedy put forward by Aristotle is no mean achievement. It lends itself to a remarkable amount of adaptation, beyond what was immediately present to the mind of the writer. Yet, the fact that Aristotle was writing of only the Greek tragedy he knew, does put a limitation to his concept of tragedy. Later experience in the field of tragedy has shown the immense scope for modification in Aristotle's theory, especially regarding the tragic hero.

      There is another limitation in Aristotle's theory. He does not take into account the religious origins of tragedy. Neither does he give enough importance to the outside forces which interact with the an forces in a play. In other words, he does not discuss a very basic issue in tragedy-conflict, both inner and outer conflict. In Greek tragedy itself, one feels the existence of the mysterious and divine forces; there is the effect of the unseen on the seen. It is the tragic choice faced by the heroes and heroines which makes the greek tragedy so awesome. Greek tragedy dramatizes the struggle between contending moral forces. Aristotle does not discuss the collision of forces: the collision between man, who is imprisoned within the limits of the actual, and the forces outside, belonging to a superior power which restricts man's freedom.

      The conflict between man and outside forces, between problems of good and evil, is very much a part of tragedy of all ages. It is unfortunate that Aristotle does not discuss these factors.


      The main features of Aristotle's conception cannot be ignored easily There are weaknesses as there are bound to be. His conception is based on Greek tragedy alone. Yet his views lend themselves to a remarkable amount of universalization. Today, we may not agree with his 'essentials' of tragic characterization - Shakespeare has shown us the possibilities of a tragic characterization - Shakespeare has shown us the possibilities of a tragie 'villain'. But what he says regarding Peripety and Discovery and Hamartia, are conceptions which are still valid. At any rate, "Aristotle's theory of Tragedy is the foundation on which all subsequent discussion of literary aesthetics has most securely based itself. His views on tragedy are the "history of tragedy.


1. Examine critically Aristotle's definition of tragedy. What according to the him are the formative elements of a tragedy?
2. What are the limitations, if any, of Aristotle's definition of Tragedy?
3. "Aristotle's views on tragedy require considerable modification in the view of later developments in the field of tragedy." Elucidate.
4. Compare and contrast Aristotle's theory of tragedy with Elizabethan and modern conceptions.
5. What, according to Aristotle, are the elements that constitute a proper tragedy? Do you consider them as essential and equally important? discuss.
6. What is the place of accident in tragedy, according to Aristotle? Discuss.
7. Aristotle insists that the rules of probability and necessity should govern chance happening in drama. Elaborate the statement.

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