What is Peripeteia? Definition and Meaning

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      Peripeteia (a Greek word) is a reversal of circumstances, or turning point. The English form of peripeteia is peripety. It 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”. According to Aristotle, peripeteia is “a change by which the action veers round to its opposite, subject always to our rule of probability or necessity.” He argues that the best plots combine these two as part of their cause-and-fleet chain (i.e. the peripeteia leads directly to the anagnorisis)., this in turns creates the catastrophe, leading to the final “scene of suffering”. Aristotle says that peripeteia is the most powerful part of a plot in a tragedy along with discovery. In tragedy, peripeteia is most incomparable element which can bring about a twist in the plot. It can bring about terror or mercy, and smiles or tears. Such a function of peripeteia draws attention of the readers or audiences in the play. Pity and fear are aroused through the reversal and recognition. These are the “most powerful elements of emotional interest in Tragedy. Thus, peripeteia or reversal of the situation and anagnorisis or recognition scenes are parts of the plot. Good uses of peripeteia are those that especially are parts of a complex plot, so that they are defined by their changes of fortune being accompanied by reversal, recognition, or both”.

      Peripeteia is not necessarily an internal change (good to bad or vice versa) of the protagonists; it may be an external change of the situation. A character that becomes rich and famous from poverty and obscurity also refers to peripeteia, even if his character remains the same. Peripeteia and anagnorisis or discovery which are normally distinguished from each other, often occur at the same time as a mark of superior tragedy. For example, in Oedipus Rax, these two elements are almost amalgamated. Peripeteia occurs towards the end of the play when the Messenger brings Oedipus news of his parentage. In the play, Oedipus is fated to murder his father and marry his mother. His parents, Laius and Jocasta, try to forestall the oracle by sending their son away to be killed, but he is actually raised by Polybus and his wife, Merope, the rulers of another kingdom. The irony of the Messenger’s information is that it was supposed to comfort Oedipus and assure him that he was the son of Polybus. Unfortunately for Oedipus, the Messenger says, “Polybus was nothing to you, (Oedipus) that’s why, not in blood”. The Messenger received Oedipus from one of Laius’ servants and then gave him to Polybus. The plot comes together when Oedipus realizes that he is the son and murderer of Laius as well as the son and husband of Jocasta. Martin M. Winkler says that here, peripeteia and anagnorisis occur at the same time “for the greatest possible impact” because Oedipus has been “struck a blow from above, as if by fate or the gods. He is changing from the mighty and somewhat arrogant king of Thebes to a figure of woe” (Winkler 57). Aristotle identified Oedipus Rex, as the principal work demonstrating peripety. Similarly in Euripides’ Iphigenia in Tauris, where Iphigenia realizes that the strangers she is to sacrifice are her brother and his friend, resulting in all three of them escaping Tauris. These plots he considered complex and superior to simple plots without anagnorisis or peripeteia, such as when Medea resolves to kill her children, knowing they are her children, and does so.

      Another classic example of peripeteia is seen in The Three Apples (in One Thousand and One Nights collection). In The Three Apples, a medieval Arabian Nights explains his reasons behind the murder in a flashback, which begins with him going on a journey to find three rare apples for his wife, but after returning finds out she cannot eat them due to her lingering illness. Later at work, he sees a slave passing by with one of those apples claiming that he received it from his girlfriend, a married woman with three such apples her husband gave her. He returns home and demands his wife to show him all three apples, but she only shows him two. This convinces him of her infidelity and he murders her as a result. After he disposes of her body, he returns home where his son confesses that he had stolen one of the apples and that a slave, to whom he had told about his father’s journey, had fled with it. The murderer thus realizes his guilt and regrets what he has just done.

      The second use of peripety occurs near the end. After finding out the ultimate culprit behind the murder, the protagonist Ja’far ibn Yahya is ordered by Harun al-Rashid to find the tricky slave within three days, or else he will have Ja’far executed instead. After the deadline has passed, Ja’far prepares to be executed for his failure and bids his family farewell. As he hugs his youngest daughter, he feels a round object in her pocket, which is revealed to be the same apple that the culprit was holding. In the story’s twist ending, the daughter reveals that she obtained it from their slave, Rayhan. Ja’far thus realizes that his own slave was the culprit all along. He then finds Rayhan and solves the case, preventing his own execution. That was a plot twist.

      Peripeteia provides the plot of tragedy a dark moment when the plot twists and the protagonist’s life changes forever. Whether the change is from wealth to poverty, safety to danger, or good to evil, peripeteia leaves the audience feeling dismayed, sad, and shocked. As such, peripeteia is the most necessary and striking element of the tragic plot.

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