Six Formative Components of Tragedy

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1. Plot

      Plot is the “first principle”, the most important feature of tragedy. Aristotle defines plot as “the arrangement of the incidents: i.e. not the story itself but the way through which the incidents are presented to the audience, the structure of the play. The plot must be ‘a whole’ with a beginning, middle, and end. The beginning, called by modern critics the incentive moment, must start the cause-and-effect chain but not be dependent on anything outside the compass of the play (i.e. its causes are downplayed but its effects are stressed). The middle, or climax, must be caused by earlier incidents and itself cause the incidents that follow it (i.e. its causes and effects are stressed). The end, or resolution, must be caused by the preceding events but not lead to other incidents outside the compass of the play (i.e. its causes are stressed but its effects downplayed); the end should therefore solve or resolve the problem created during the incentive moment. Aristotle calls the cause-and-effect chain leading from the incentive moment to the climax the “tying up” (desis), in modern terminology the complication. He therefore terms the more rapid cause-and-effect chain from the climax to the resolution the “unraveling” (lusis) in modern terminology the denouement.

      The plot must be “complete”, having “unity of action”. By this Aristotle means that the plot must be structurally self-contained, with the incidents bound together by internal necessity, each action leading inevitably to the next with no outside intervention, no deus ex machina. According to Aristotle, the worst kinds of plots are “episodic”, in which the episodes or acts succeed one another without probable or necessary sequence”; the only thing that ties together the events in such a plot is the fact that they happen to the same person. Playwrights should exclude coincidences from their plots; if some coincidences are required, it should “have an air of design”, i.e. seem to have a fated connection to the events of the play. Similarly, the poet should exclude the irrational or at least keep it “outside the scope of the tragedy”, i.e. reported rather than dramatized. While the poet cannot change the myths that are the basis of his plots, he “ought to show invention of his own and skillfully handle the traditional materials” to create unity of action in his plot.

      The plot must be “of a certain magnitude”, both quantitatively (length, complexity) and qualitatively (“seriousness” and universal significance). Aristotle argues that plots should not be too brief; the more incidents and themes that the playwright can bring together in an organic unity, the greater the artistic value and richness of the play. Also, the more universal and significant the meaning of the play, the more the playwright can catch and hold the emotions of the audience, the better the play will be.

      The plot may be either simple or complex, although complex is better. Simple plots have only a “change of fortune” (catastrophe). Complex plots have both “reversal of intention” (peripeteia) and “recognition” (anagnorisis) connected with the catastrophe. Both peripeteia and anagnorisis turn upon
surprises. Aristotle explains that a peripeteia occurs when a character produces an effect opposite to that which he intended to produce, while an anagnorisis “is a change from ignorance to knowledge, producing love or hate between the persons destined for good or bad fortune.” He argues that the best plots combine these two as parts of their cause-and-effect chain (i.e. the peripeteia leads directly to the anagnorisis); this in turns creates the catastrophe, leading to the final “scene of suffering”.

2. Character

      Character has the second place in importance. In a perfect tragedy, character will support plot, i.e. personal motivations will be intricately connected parts of the cause-and-effect chain of actions producing pity and fear in the audience. The protagonist should be renowned and prosperous, so his change of fortune can be from good to bad. This change “should come about as the result, not of vice, but of some great error or frailty in a character”. Such a plot is most likely to generate pity and fear in the audience, for “pity is aroused by unmerited misfortune, fear by the misfortune of a man like ourselves”. The term Aristotle uses here, hamartia, often translated “tragic flaw”, has been the subject of much debate. The meaning of the Greek word is closer to “mistake” than to “flaw”, and it is best interpreted in the context of what Aristotle has to say about plot and “the law or probability or necessity”. In the ideal tragedy, claims Aristotle, the protagonist will mistakenly bring about his own downfall - not because he is sinful or morally weak, but because he does not know enough. The role of the hamartia in tragedy comes not from its moral status but from the inevitability of its consequences. Hence the peripeteia is really one or more self-destructive actions taken in blind, leading to results diametrically opposed to those that were intended (often termed tragic irony), and the anagnorisis is the gaining of the essential knowledge that was previously lacking. According to Aristotle, the characters in tragedy should have the following qualities:

(i) A tragic character is “good or fine”. Aristotle relates this quality to moral purpose and says it is relative to class: “Even a woman may be good, and also a slave, though the woman may be said to be an inferior being, and the slave quite worthless.”

(ii) A tragic character should befit its role (“Fitness of character” or true to type); e.g. valor is appropriate for a warrior but not for a woman.

(iii) It should be “true to life” or realistic in occurrence.

(iv) The behavior of the tragic figure should be affluent with “consistency” (true to themselves). Once a character’s personality and motivations are established, these should continue throughout the play.

(v) The nature of character should be “necessary or probable.” Characters must be logically constructed according to “the law of probability or necessity” that governs the actions of the play.

(vi) It should be “true to life and yet more beautiful” (idealized, ennobled).

3. Thought

      Thought is third in importance, and is found “where something is proved to be or not to be, or a general maxim is enunciated.” Aristotle says little about thought, and most of what he has to say is associated with how speeches should reveal character. However, we may assume that this category would also include what we call the themes of a play. Thought that is, the faculty of saying what is possible and pertinent in given circumstances. “Thought is the intellectual element in a tragedy.” And it is expressed through the speech of a character.

4. Diction

      Diction is fourth, and is “the expression of the meaning in words” which is proper and appropriate to the plot, characters, and end of the tragedy. In this category, Aristotle discusses the stylistic elements of tragedy; he is particularly interested in metaphors: “But the greatest thing by far is to have a command of metaphor; . . . it is the mark of genius, for to make good metaphors implies an eye for resemblances”. In the modern sense it means ‘choice of words.’ Aristotle meant by it use of various kinds of verses fit for evoking emotions which the poet wanted to evoke.

5. Music or Melody

      Song, or melody, is fifth, and is the musical element of the chorus. Aristotle argues that the Chorus should be fully integrated into the play like an actor; choral odes should not be “mere interludes”, but should contribute to the unity of the plot. Song or the lyrical element is to be found in the choric parts of a tragedy. It is the ‘embellishment’ spoken of earlier which distinguishes the tragedy from the epic. The songs and dialogues sung out loud would pin the attention of the spectators in the vast Greek theater on the spectacle, spur their imagination, sustain the illusion of reality and move them to tears and transport.

6. Stage or Spectacle

      Spectacle is last, for it is least connected with literature; “the production of spectacular effects depends more on the art of the stage machinist than on that of the poet.” Although Aristotle recognizes the emotional attraction of spectacle, he argues that superior poets rely on the inner structure of the play rather than spectacle to arouse pity and fear; those who rely heavily on spectacle “create a sense, not of the terrible, but only of the monstrous”. It is one of the sources of the pleasures of tragedy. The spectacle or the scenic effects have more to do with stagecraft than with the writing of poetry, and hence Aristotle is of the view that the dramatist must depend for his effects on his own powers, rather than on spectacle. Since the production of spectacular effects depends more on the art of the stage machinist than on that of the poet, there can be no worse enemy of the art of the dramatist, than the theater manager, and reliance on the theatrical and the sensational has spoiled many an excellent play.

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