Importance of Plot and Character in Poetics

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Introduction: Aristotle's Controversial Statement on Plot

      Aristotle lists six formative elements of tragedy. Of these, he gives the primary place of importance to the plot and Character. Indeed, he devotes a major portion of his discussion of tragedy to the Plot. The plot he says, is the very soul of a tragedy; it is the principle of tragedy. He then makes the famous statement which led to such a great deal of controversy. He declares: "A tragedy is impossible without plot, but there may be one without character." The statement has led to plenty of hostile criticism, especially from the modern critics, who consider that Aristotle is depressing the value of character to that of plot. Some critics have misread Aristotle's statement, and have accused him of being absurd. How, they ask, can there be tragedy without 'character' as used by Aristotle, before we go into the relative importance of plot and character in a tragedy.

The Necessity of Plot

      Aristotle defines tragedy as in imitation of an action. What is action? It is a process of change, and in tragedy, a process of change from happiness to misery. The action is made up of a number of logically connected incidents. One can say that the plot is the arrangement of the incidents. However, it is important to note that Aristotle did not consider the term 'action' as clearly and wholly external. It involves inward activity also, To him, plot did not mean an abstract pattern of action largely independent of the specific character, or agent.

      In drama characters are not described; they act. They reveal themselves through their speech and action. Without action in this sense, there can be no drama at all. The plot contains the kernel of the action. It is through the plot that the change from happiness to misery is shown. Aristotle defines tragedy thus: Tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of an action of life, and life consists in action, and its end is a mode of 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 a subsidiary to the actions. Hence the incidents and plot are the ends of tragedy, and the end is the chief thing of all. Again, without action there cannot be a tragedy; there may be without character.

      We see that the two elements of plot and character seem to be set against one another in sharp and impossible opposition. It is also obvious that one cannot take the last sentence of the, above quotation in a literal sense. The confusion in the discussion of this question arises from the ambiguity in the use of the words plot and character In the popular sense, the antithesis, between the two terms is based on the fact that the term 'character' is not seen in its full dramatic value. It is made to stand for the abstract impression of character, rather than signifying "characters producing action," as it should in the dramatic sense.

      The 'plot' in the full sense of the term is the 'action', and includes not only the circumstances and incidents which form the main part of 'plot' as popularly thought, but also 'character in the full dramatic sense of 'characters producing action'. Thus we find that an antithesis between 'plot' and character is not possible.

Two Aspects of Character: Ethos and Dianoia

      In one sense, 'character' can be taken to mean the dramatic personages. If used in this sense, the antithesis between plot and character at once becomes absurd, for how can there be a plot without the agent? It is apparent that Aristotle did not use the term to mean dramatic personage.

      In the second sense, character is that bent or tendency or habit of mind, which is revealed only through the speech and action of a dramatic personage. It is in this sense that Aristotle uses the term Character, when he says that tragedy is possible without character. He means that tragedy is possible even if character delineation is not too strong, i.e., even if the characters are mere types, or marked only by class characteristics, or lacking in those distinctive qualities out of which dramatic action grows.

      Aristotle uses two words for the elements in the character of a person-ethos and dianoia. Both these elements determine the cause of action, as well as the quality of action. Ethos is the moral element, while dianoia is the intellectual element. It is through character consisting of both these elements that the moral self of a person finds "outward expression." Both these elements reveal themselves in the speech and action of the personage. If a person has a tendency to do good, he is called virtuous. As Humphry House says, this tendency to do good or bad is not realized if it is merely inherent"; it is realized only through actions, and it is only through the past actions that one forms an idea of the character's character.

Character is Formed Through Action

      We have certain qualities or abilities inherent in us, such as the ability to see, hear, etc. Our moral self is acquired by our actions in the past. We learn to become good or bad by acting well or ill, just as a builder learns to build building by building. "By repeated acts of a certain kind, we acquire a habit or a certain bent of character. In this way, qualities of characters are legacies of past acts," says Humphry House.

      Character is formal through action, and is revealed through actions. When Aristotle talks of tragedy without character, he means that the dramatic personages do not reveal their character, their moral bent which makes them act in a particular manner. This moral bent is revealed in the purpose of an action, as well as in the means adopted to bring about that end. In some plays, the moral bent need not be revealed because there is no situation which demands the person to make a choice. There may not be a situation in which the person has to decide on a course of action. As such, in the absence of the need to make a choice, a moral choice involving intellectual reasoning, the character of the person is not required to be revealed. In such a tragedy all that matters, is the plot. Thus tragedy is possible without character, but it is not possible without plot.

      It will be noted that the necessity of making a choice, which requires deliberation and thought about the means, is conducive to the individualized' characters. Aristotle's theory thus allows for individualized characters. Each situation would demand a choice from such characters; each choice would require deliberation and thought, which would be expressed in their speech. Such speeches would be in the nature of presentation of an action, for they reflect an inward mental activity; an inward activity which would soon be manifested externally. They would reflect the inward 'movement towards the choice' ultimately made by the dramatic character.

      In Prometheus, there is no outward movement the main situation at the end is what it was at the beginning. There is a conflict of two superhuman wills, neither of which can surrender to the other. Yet the dialogue is not mere conversation. Each of Promet heus' speeches is a step forward in the action. His words are equivalent to deeds. This is action, though not consisting of outward doing. Thus we find that some of the Greek plays were not only devoid of intricate plots, but presented an unchanging situation.- Similarly, in Milton's Samson Agonistes, the speeches of Samson form an integral part of the action.

Character is Realised Through Action and thus Subordinate to Plot

      It has to be realized that dramatic characters exist through what they say or do. The character is 'actualized' through the action. It is the action of the person that leads to either happiness or misery The plot is the ground work, or the design through the medium of which ethos derives its meaning and dramatic value. "The most beautiful colors", says Aristotle, "laid on confusedly, will not give as much pleasure as the chalk outline of a portrait" Ethos, divorced from plot is like a daub of color, beautiful in itself, but, which apart from form gives little pleasure. A play is like a living organism. Its animating principle is the plot, according to Aristotle. Without it the play could not exist. It is the plot which gives to the play its inner meaning and reality, as the soul does to the body. The true significance of the tragedy lies in the plot. It is through the plot that the end, or the intention, of tragedy, is realized. It is the sequence of events which produces the emotional effect special to tragedy. In the plot there is the reversal of situations and Discoveries, which most powerfully evoke the tragic feeling. Thus plot is supreme and character is Subordinate to it, says Aristotle.

Aristotle's Doctrine: Disputed by Modern Critics

      Modern critics have assailed the doctrine of the primary importance of plot as propounded by Aristotle. They argue that plot is a mere external framework, a piece of mechanism devised to illustrate the working of character. The Character' of a person lies in thought before action, and is implied in it. Events have no meaning or interest, except in so far as they are supposed to proceed from will. A man's character defines, expresses and interprets action. But the issue has been confused by such questions. The actual question is not whether one element can be shown ultimately to contain the other. The question is, which of the two is the more fundamental as regards the artistic conception and dramatic structure of a play.

      Action is the first necessity to a play. But mere action is not enough. Action, to be dramatic, must stand in relation to certain mental states. We like to see the feelings out of which it grows, the motivating force of will which carries it out to the end, Drama is will or emotion in action. But in real life, all mental activity does not manifest itself in outward activity. However, the action of drama cannot consist in an inward activity that does not go beyond the sphere of thought and emotion. Even where the main interest is centred in the internal conflict, this conflict must manifest itself in individual acts, and in concrete relations with the world outside. The action and reaction within the mind itself become dramatic, only when they are brought out into a plot which gives them significance. In this connection, Butcher observes that only certain characters are capable of dramatic treatment. Passive characters are not fit for drama. Plot is not, as some critics say, a mere external, or an accident of inner life. In the action of drama, character is revealed and defined. Plot does not overpower characters, it is the very medium through which character is discerned.

The Trend in Modern Drama

      Modern drama shows a marked tendency to lay greater stress on the delineation of individual characters. Greek dramatists of the ancient age were, to some extent, impeded" in the development of character, because of the ready material they had to work with. They were more or less confined to a group of legends whose main outlines were already fixed. The freedom of the Greek poet in delineating character was restricted by the choice of subject matter.

      Modern drama brings us to another world. A richer and more varied inner life is opened up. The sense of personality is developed. Characters become more complex. Actions tend more and more to take place within the human mind itself. The frontier between action and passion threatens to fade away.

      In Shakespeare, character assumes infinite variety, contradictory elements are brought together-contradictions which do not yield to psychological analysis. Love, honor, ambition, and jealousy are the prevailing motives of modern tragedy. But Shakespeare, while deepening the subjective personality of man, does not lose sight of the "objective ends of life and corresponding phases of character." He maintains a balance between these two sides of human experience. He does not permit the dramatic action to become subservient to the portrayal of individual characters.

      Hamlet, as F.L. Lucas says, could be said to be the first modern man, who realized that,

"Action is transitory - a step, a blow, The motion of a muscle - this way or that - Tis done, and in the alter vacancy We wonder at ourselves like men betrayed Suffering is permanent, obscure, and dark, And shares the nature of infinity."

      In Hamlet, it is true that character becomes dramatic by an intellectual and masterly inactivity which offers resistance to that prompt ordinary man to action. Events seem to be brought about by acts of arrested volition, and not by the energy of free will. We find that the inaction is indeed an active force making Hamlet desist from doing anything. Just as some men are compelled to act. Hamlet has this energetic resisting force which stops him from acting. Thus the non-acting itself becomes a form of action.

      There is the increased tendency to exhibit character in growth, in successive stages of its development. A Greek tragedy takes a few significant scenes out of a hero's life; these are bound together by an a causal relationship, and made to constitute a single concentrated action. The modern would not have such a concentrated action. They could include much more than the Greek dramatists. In modern drama, the dramatic theme often encompasses the whole process, beginning at the moment when a deed is dormant' in the mind until it has developed into action and brought about its consequences. The period encompassed by the action is enlarged. It is only natural that the characters should also expand in new and complex directions. The ancient stage gives us no such example of character development as we have, for instance, in Macbeth.

      The mystery of the human personality becomes of supreme interest in modern drama starting with Ibsen. He fastens on the contrast between what man dreams of and what he really is, and works towards the culminating moment of disillusionment. Strindberg dramatizes obsessive egotism. And Chekov celebrates the frustrated and inarticulate' hero. There is an impulse towards self-discovery, which splits up the human psyche into abstractions (the theatre of the soul). Modern drama has indeed brought the delineation of character into new and stronger relief.

There can be a Tragedy without Character but none without Plot

      Aristotle considers plot to be the most important element in Tragedy Tragedy is the imitation of men in action and thus an imitation of human life which consists of action. It includes feelings and thoughts which are incorporated into action.

      Plot is Soul of Tragedy: Plot is the action. In tragedy, the plot involves the change in fortunes, preferably from happiness to misery. It involves an arrangement of incidents in a sequence which projects a sense of the inevitable. The character is revealed to us through their actions. Thus the plot is of supreme importance.

      Character Comes Next in Importance to Plot: Now, when Aristotle says that there can be a tragedy without character but none without plot, he obviously does not intend character" to mean dramatic characters, for that would make his statement absurd. The term, character, apparently means moral bent or tendency. What Aristotle means, is that dramatic action does not mainly aim at the presentation of character or nature of a human beings, but presents the action or incident. It is thus that Characterization is not as important as plot

      The Validity of Aristotle's View: Modern drama has opened out a richer and more varied inner life to us. Sense of personality has deepened. Thus Aristotle's view is not much in favor today. Character and plot, in fact, are connected in a causal manner. Action itself implies feelings, emotions, thoughts and decisive power, which are obviously human qualities of character. Situation and character are shown to interact and it is in the resulting clash and conflict that great tragedy could be written, as Shakespeare showed. Aristotle does not discuss the element of conflict. However, drama cannot be successful without a total concentration on the inner life of man. At least a suitable balance has to be maintained between character analysis and plot. To that extent, we can say that Aristotle was correct to say that there can be drama without characterization, but that without a plot it would fail.

Character and Plot Should be Harmoniously Blended in an Ideal Tragedy

      Modern dramatists have explored the deep recesses of human mind. They have represented the abnormal and strange impulses of man. But too much of this can hamper dramatic art. Too much of Subjectivism and psychological interest can lead to dramatic lyrics but not to successful drama. Goethe, for example, with all his poetic genius did not surmount this pitfall. His reflective, emotional characters, who view life through the medium of individual feeling, Seldom have the requisite energy to carry out a tragic action, as S.H. Butcher comments. Drama demands a balance between plot and character. Drama is a representation of a complete and typical action, whose lines converge on a determined end, which evolves out of human will in such a manner that action and character are each in turn the outcome of the other. Drama requires a fusion of the two elements, plot and character.


      When Aristotle says that a tragedy can be possible without character, but not without plot, it is to be noted that he is not saying that a tragedy without character is the ideal type. Indeed, he says that a poet should utilize all the formative elements of tragedy to produce an ideal tragedy. He is merely talking about possibility of drama with, or without, one or the other element. The characters cannot act without reference to the situation in which they are placed. Thus the situation influences their very feelings, the very motives, that spring them to action. In this sense, plot becomes fundamental to drama. A passive character will produce no action and as such, has no place in drama.

      Unfortunately, Aristotle has not discussed an essential aspect of drama-namely conflict. The tragic action is in essence the outcome of conflict. And to be tragic, the conflict must be both inside and outside man. It is out of this conflict that plot and character both develop. Ultimately, however, plot is the first necessity of drama, artistically speaking.


1. Critically examine Aristotle's views on the relative importance of Plot and Character in tragedy.
2. The plot, then, is the first principle, and, as it were, the soul of tragedy; character holds the second place." Discuss with suitable examples.
3. What does Aristotle mean when he"says that "there can be a tragedy without character, but none without plot."
4. "Aristotle exalts, plot to depress character, and this may be regarded as one of the major drawbacks of the Poetics." Discuss with reference to plays you have read.
5. Discuss briefly Aristotle's views on the relative importance of plot and character.

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