The Tragic Plot and Structure in Poetics

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Introduction: Plot given Great Importance in the Poetics

      Aristotle's Poetics has often been accused of being lopsided in its treatment of the subject of poetry, of devoting a major portion of the discussion to Tragedy rather than any other form of poetry. This accusation, however, is met by the answer that the work is fragmentary, and a lost portion might have dealt with other forms. However, within the treatment of tragedy, there is a slight imbalance. Of all the constituting elements of tragedy, Plot is given the most attention and extensive coverage. This is not surprising considering that Aristotle thought the Plot to be the very soul of tragedy. We must remember that Aristotle thought the plot to be the very 'soul of tragedy'. We must remember that Aristotle's conception of tragedy is biological', i.e., he compares tragedy to a living organism. Just as the living organism takes on a definite shape because of its skeleton, Plot gives to tragedy an important design. Plot is as important to tragedy as the skeleton is to the living organism. The plot of a tragedy must be of certain length, and must possess a certain structure.

Definition of Plot

      Aristotle states that Tragedy is an "imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude". It is an imitation of an action. It is an image of human life, which consists in a mode of action. The term 'action' includes a variety of aspects of human life. It involves not merely deeds, incidents, and situations; it encompasses the very mental processes which make men act, and the very motives behind the external events. An action can roughly be defined as the progress of an individual from position A to position Bat which he either dies, or becomes involved in a completely new set of circumstances. We see that Character and Plot cannot be unrelated. Plot contains the kernel of the action represented by a tragedy, and the action is that of human agents, involving mental processes and the manifestation' of these mental processes in external acts.

Distinction between Plot and Story: The Poet is a Maker of Plots, not the Story

      It becomes necessary, at the very outset, to clear up the confusion between 'story' and plot. When Aristotle used the term Plot', he did not imply story. We have first to understand the meaning of the word poet as it was used in Greek. In Greek, the term meant "maker". The poet is a maker not of the story, but of the plot. F.L. Lucas considers three possible meanings of the term poet : (i) a "maker" of anything ; (ii) one who makes verse on any subject (iii) one who "makes up" creative literature in verse. In his opinion, Aristotle dislikes the second meaning and prefers meaning the latter. For Aristotle, poetry must be verse literature that reflects life in creative fiction. Aristotle distinguishes between Plot and story. The poet need not make up the story; he can take any traditional story. But the plot has to be made by the poet. It is a difficult distinction, and not too easy to comprehend immediately. However, the story could easily be a rambling, amorphous" thing, as Humphry House observes and it can be taken from any source. After that comes the business of making the story into a play, shaping the vague and confusing material into a crystallized" form - the plot. The making of the plot is a creative activity. It involves artistic selection and ordering of the chaotic material of life. The plot involves the arrangement of incidents and events into a coherent pattern: the imposition of a design on a tangle of confusing matter. In the process comes the issue of inevitability and 'probability' and 'necessity'. The 'episodes' of a plot have to be logically connected.

      The poet reduces the story to its essentials; he sketches a general outline. He then realizes the plot in terms of incidents, meaning that the story's outline is to be sketched and then epitomized. The episcopizing (or making into episodes) is the essential activity of the poet as the maker of his Plot. lt requires selection, and arrangement of material. It requires the rejection of anything irrelevant to the poet's plan. It involves imagination and intellectual effort in order to organize the material into a plot.

The Construction of Plot: Beginning, Middle and End

      The making of story into plot involves what Humphry House calls "episcopizing", or making into episodes. It is implied that there should be a logical connection between the events, the whole being governed by the law of probability and necessity. Aristotle's statement regarding tragedy insists that it be a representation of an action, which is "complete". In other words, the action should contain all the relevant information needed for the understanding of that action. There has also got to be an air of 'finality' about the action.

      There is no place for the haphazard' the chaotic, or the irrational, in the construction of Plot. In this context, one remembers E.M. Foster's observation on plot and story. He says that a "story is a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence. A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falls on causality". The beginning, says Aristotle, must be clear, so that there is no need to ask how or why regarding the event is presented.

      T.R. Henn observes that, in a strict sense, no action has a definite beginning, or an end. "All events spring from past causation; all continue through time." Yet, as F.L. Lucas notes, events do tend to occur in a cluster. The volcano, though perpetually alive and rumbling, erupts all of a sudden at one moment in time. Such an eruption would be similar to the action of play "The beginning of an action might be perceived as a sort to momentary slack water before the turn of the tide," says T.R. Henn. He continues: "At the beginning of Hamlet there is every indication that, if it were not for the appearance of the ghost, events in Denmark would have settled down into a period of rest..." The Greek plays solved the problem of antecedent events, which might be relevant to the action of the play, by relating them through the Prologue. The conveying of information about events occurring before the present time of the action is best illustrated by the Sophocles's Oedipus. Each step taken by Oedipus offers an opportunity for the revelation of some happening in the past. Yet none of the information is necessary to grasp the "beginning" of the play - the moment of despair in the Thebans and their king's determination deal with it. Generally speaking, however, the Prologue soliloquy was used for the relation of any event or matter which went before the action of the play.

      It has been observed by all critics and readers that the Greek tragedy play began at a later moment in the hero's life than a Shakespearean tragedy. This naturally led to a greater concentration and unity of action. The beginning was followed by the middle. The middle is that which follows a situation, and in turn, is followed by the end of the catastrophe. The end is consequent on the middle, either by necessity, or as a rule. It does not have anything following it. The beginning middle, and the end are to have a logical connection, a causal relationship. What Aristotle is insisting upon is that a play should have a good reason for beginning where it does, and ending where it does. Its incidents should follow one another in a logically connected sequence, and not haphazardly. A clear chain of causation should be imposed on the events of the play. There should not be Coincidence and irrelevance. As F. L. Lucas remarks. In such a case there shall be nothing which is not clearly caused by what precedes, nothing which is not clearly the cause of what follows. In such a case we would not have Falstaff, for what is he but a magnificent irrelevance in a play about Henry IV And Falstaff may well seem a heavy price to play for logic.

Plot Should be an Artistic Whole

      Artistic wholeness demands a logical link-up of various events and situations that are realized in the plot. The view that the beginning of the plot is an incident which initiates a process of change, and that this process leads to the end, is in keeping with Aristotle's observation that tragedy depicts a change from happiness to misery or vice versa. It must be remembered that Aristotle lists four plots, which include the change from happiness to misery, and from misery to happiness. This last might seem odd to the modern sensibility, which insists on the unhappy end as a prerequisite for tragedy. In the Greek sense, however, tragedy merely meant 'serious drama', not necessarily one with an unhappy end. Aristotle, however, appears to favor the unhappy ending. He appreciates the unhappy endings of Euripides' plays and says that they are more tragic because of it.

The Magnitude of the Plot

      The term "magnitude" has been interpreted to mean "dignity" or "importance". Aristotle, however, seems to have nothing more in mind than the length or size of the plot when he says "magnitude The plot, then, should be of a certain magnitude. The proper magnitude demands that the plot be neither too short, nor too long. Beauty depends upon size. If an object is too small, it cannot be fully appreciated, its parts would be too minute and would appear indistinct. On the other hand, an animal of a length of a thousand miles cannot be appreciated, because one cannot form a clear impression of the whole in a single view.

      Beauty consists of the proper relation between the parts, and between the parts and whole. There has to be a proportionate relationship. The length of the plot should be such that its parts can be easily remembered in relation to the whole. The plot should be long enough to allow for the change of fortune, through a series of events, happening in a probable and inevitable manner. There is thus a clear relationship established between magnitude, order, symmetry and design.

Organic Unity of Action

      It is significant that Aristotle compares the action of a tragedy to a living organism. He calls for the same unity in a plot, as that which is found in a living organism. The action as imitated in the tragedy, should be single and whole. It is absolutely vital that there is structural unity. In a living organism, the removal or transposal of any of the parts would lead to a destruction of the whole. Each part is found to bear an essential relationship to other parts, and to the whole. It is similar to a good piece of art.

      In a tragedy, too, the plot structure should be such that the removal or transposal of any part would disrupt or dislocate the whole. Aristotle means that, though action is made up of episodes, the plot should not be 'episodic'. By 'episodic' it meant a set of events or incidents or situations, which are not causally connected with one another. In the episodic plot, the removal of any of the events would not have much of an effect on the play, i.e., the events would not be relevant and inevitable.

      It is, furthermore, not a mechanical or formal unity alone. There is "an inward principle, capable of admitting the complexity of living things, while possessing also the vital relationship of parts". Thus the variety in the plot need not or should not exclude unity. It is thus that Aristotle reacts strongly against what he calls 'episodic plots, in which the episodes are presented without a sense of probability or necessity in their sequence.

Probability and Necessity: The Likely Impossibility is Preferable to the Unlikely Possibility

      Throughout the Poetics, Aristotle emphasizes the need to be governed by the laws of probability and necessity. This is, indeed, a valid artistic truth. It is necessary that the scheme of events be reduced to an intelligible system. Organic unity is linked with the principles of probability and necessity. The action of a play is not necessarily something that has really happened in the past. The action of the play need not be historically true. The poet deals with something that might happen, or ought to happen in a certain set of circumstances. The events and situations should follow one another with inevitability. Chance or the 'marvelous' should not be encouraged in the essential action of a play. It is the law of probability and necessity which governs that speech and behavior of the agents, also. The words and actions of the dramatic characters should be in keeping with their character.

      In other words, the plot is not real in the sense of dealing with what actually happened - that would constitute historical truth'. Poetic truth implies that the events be arranged and ordered in such a way that it seems convincing and credible: as if it could all happen in real life, given the conditions and characters. It is true that we do demand a greater sense of logicality and credibility from art than we do from real life, Thus we have the famous and true dictum of Aristotle that a plausible? impossibility is preferable to an implausible possibility. In real life, we believe even the fantastic, because we know that it is real. In art, even the possible seems unbelievable, if not treated or presented convincingly. For, the "willing Suspension of disbelief" works only to some extent.

Fatal and Fortunate Plots

      The purpose of tragedy is to arouse pity and fear, the emotions special to tragedy. Though Aristotle considers the possibility of the change of fortune from misery to happiness (after all, tragedy simply meant serious drama), he seems to prefer the ones in which the change is from happiness to misery. The change from happiness to misery seemed more appropriate to the arousal of pity and fear. He agrees with other critics in calling Euripides the most tragic of the poets because his plays had unhappy endings. Aristotle seems to prefer a fatal plot to a fortunate plot.

Kind of Plot: Simple and Complex

      Aristotle classifies plots into three kinds: (i) simple plots, (ii) complex plots; and (i) plots based on scenes of suffering. A simple plot is one in which there is no Peripety or Anagnorisis. The change in fortune, from good to bad takes place without any violent or sudden reversal. It is a continuous plot developing towards the conclusion without any of the sudden surprises of peripety and discovery.

      Aristotle, however, prefers the complex plot. An ideal tragic plot, in Aristotle's mind, would be one in which there is Peripety, or the reversal, and Anagnorisis, or the discovery of the truth. In the case of the complex plot. Tragedy is not brought about by some outside evil agent. The reversal arises from the structure of the plot itself. It is brought about by human error, human blindness. The result of good intentions going awry' because of a an error of judgment and an ignorance of the real situation. Aristotle thus recognizes Tragedy of Errors to be the deepest of all types of tragedies.

Peripety and Discovery: Parts of Complex Plot

      Hamartia, Peripety, and Discovery, are all connected in the ideal schematization of the tragic plot, as Humphry House declares. A successful plot is closely connected with the error of the character, which causes a chain of events resulting in the change of fortune. Both Peripety and Discovery are parts of the plot. Peripety is the fatal working of the plot to the opposite of what is intended. Discovery (or Anagnorisis) is the recognition of the truth of the identity of persons, or the truth of the situation. Peripety can be said to be a result of one's actions. It is a significant change which leads to the crisis in the play. It involves irony - it is irony of circumstances brought about by human misjudgment, miscalculation, or blunder. It leads to the catastrophe because a deed done with the best of intentions has gone awry. And the ideal tragedy is one in which the reversal of situation happens through the good intentions of a friend or kinsman of the hero producing the opposite of what is intended. Man's actions are motivated by the best of intentions. But he works in blindness' and hence, to his own destruction or to the destruction of those he loves. This is what makes tragedy great, deep and moving, and awesome. This is when the deepest irony occurs.

      Discovery, as Aristotle tells us, is a transition from ignorance to knowledge. It is capable of producing hate or love between characters. After the Discovery, the plot must veer off in a new direction. Thus we find that Discovery is closely linked with the reversal of situation. Peripety and Discovery can occur separately in a tragedy. It is also possible that only one of them is used in a tragedy. But the best tragedy used both simultaneously. Peripety and Discovery occurring simultaneously heighten the tragic effect. However, in all cases, Peripety and Discovery must occur according to the laws of probability and necessity, and not arbitrarily.

      Aristotle cites the example of Oedipus as the best example of a play that combines Peripety and Discovery. The combined reversal recognition produces the shock element in tragedy. It is this and not the novelty of the story which causes the surprise element. Through Peripety and Discovery, pity and fear are aroused.

The Tragedy of Suffering

      The tragedy of suffering which depends for its effect upon the Scenes of suffering such as murder, woundings, etc., is not rated too highly by Aristotle. Scenes of suffering do have a part in the tragic plot. But these must arise naturally in the course of action and not be presented merely for effect. Tragic effects, says Aristotle must be Created through the natural sequence of events; they should not be produced artificially, or through mechanical aids. If the poet finds it necessary to depict murder and violence on stage to produce the tragic effect, it speaks for a deficiency in his art.

Complication and Denouement: The Need for a Single End

      The tragic plot falls in two parts - the Complication and the Denouement. Complication is that part of the tragedy which extends from the beginning to the part where the turning point occurs. It may sometimes include certain relevant information, which may fall outside the proper action of the tragedy. The Denouement is that which extends from the turning point to the end of the tragedy. One could call it 'unraveling'. The denouement demands logicality and natural development of events. Chance and the intervention of the Supernatural elements should not be brought in. "Gods should intervene only where it becomes necessary to explain the past, or announce future events external to the action.

      The Denouement should be aimed towards a single end, and not towards a 'double end' in which there are rewards for some of the persons, and punishment for some. This kind of double ending would weaken the tragic effect, and would be more suitable for Comedy. The action should be aimed at a single end, with the arousal of pity and fear as its main concern. Thus we see that Aristotle firmly spoke against "poetic justice" in tragedy. He is also against tragicomedy.

Dramatic Unities

      Aristotle insists on the single action being fit for tragedy. He is against a plurality of actions. He also speaks categorically against the concept of poetic justice where there is the meting out happiness to some and misery to others, in a tragedy. The essence of tragedy lies in suffering beyond what one deserves - only that would arouse pity and fear. Thus we see that Aristotle stresses upon the Unity of Action. But the other unities, such as that of Time and Place, are not insisted upon as rigidly. Aristotle merely makes general observations on the Unity of Time-observations based upon the practice of dramatists in his day - But Castleverto and other Renaissance critics made it into a rigid rule. Aristotle's flexible attitude is reflected in his use of the phrase "as far as possible". As regards the Unity of Place, he does not even mention it. Later critics, especially the Renaissance and French critics, as in many other aspects misunderstood him, and ascribed these Unities to him.

Aristotle's Statement about the End of Tragedy

      Ans. The theory of Catharsis has, of course, been accepted as true through the ages. That tragedy has an emotional effect on the audience, is admittedly true. But whether this effect is due to the purgation of pity and fear, is debatable. It is here that Aristotle's opinion has been accepted on its face value in an "uncritical fashion. If we consider the term "Catharsis" in the sense of purgation, the theory seems fraught with limitation. It restricts the effect of tragedy to the emotional sphere alone, whereas the pleasure of tragedy certainly has an element of intellectual appreciation as well. The effect is too complex to be restricted to "purgation" of pity and fear. It includes awe and admiration for the courage of man in facing defeat, and the intellectual appreciation of the universality of certain aspects of human life. The purgation theory is thus not quite adequate, though it has been accepted for so long as being true.

      However, recent critics have put forward a theory of Catharsis which takes up its meaning as "clarification". The theory is, perhaps, the most acceptable, for it endeavors to explain Catharsis in terms of the structure of a play rather than its emotional effect. It also takes into account the intellectual of tragedy i.e., the bringing about of a consciousness of the way in which human life is organized.


      Aristotle's concept of the Plot is in keeping with what we have come to call 'classical'. There is an insistence on order, pattern, and design. The chaotic material of life should be brought under systematic discipline so that events seem to happen in a logical sequence with no irrelevancies. There has to be a single action consisting of episodes, which are logically connected and causally related. Aristotle considers the fatal plot as being more tragic. He prefers that plot which shows a change from good to bad fortune as being more fit for tragedy. Further, the complex plot involving Peripety or Discovery, or both, is preferable to the simple plot. The tragic effect is further enhanced if the actions capable of arousing pity and fear occur between characters who are related or friendly to one another. Over everything, there has got to be the air of 'probability' and 'necessity'. It is true that the modern concept of tragedy has changed a great deal-any living literature naturally involves change and modifications. Yet we find that in some aspects Aristotle's theory of Plot is still very much valid, for they are universal principles.


      1. "The perfect plot.....must have a single, and not (as some tell us) a double issue; the change in the hero's fortune must be not from misery to happiness, but on the contrary from happiness to misery and the cause of it must lie not in any depravity, but in some great error on his part: the man himself being either such as we have described, or better, not worse than that. The theoretically best tragedy, then, has a plot of this description."

      2. The tragic fear and pity may be aroused by the Spectacle; but they may also be aroused by the very structure and incidents of the play which is the better way and shows the better poet. The Plot in fact should be framed in such a way that, even without seeing the things take place, he who simply hears an account of them shall be filled with horror and pity."

      3. The tragic pleasure is that of pity and fear, and the poet has to produce it by a work of imitation; it is clear, therefore, that the causes should be included in the incidents of his story."


1. What are the various types of plots .listed by Aristotle? What is his conception of the ideal plot?
2. "Episodic plots are the worst", Elucidate.
3. Compare and contrast a simple plot with a complex plot. Why does Aristotle prefer the complex plot?
4. Critically examine Aristotle's conception of organic unity or wholeness of plot.

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