Poetics: Chapter 13 - Summary

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The Plots to Avoid

      Aristotle prefers the complex plot to the simple plot. In his opinion, the emotions special to tragedy are pity and fear. The plot must be such that it arouses pity and fear. It is in this light that Aristotle rejects three types of plots as unsuitable for the tragic action because they would not be conducive to the arousing of pity and fear. The plots to be avoided are:

      (1) that which represents a perfectly good man passing from happiness to misery. This would simply shock us instead of arousing pity and fear. (2) That which represents a bad man passing from adversity to happiness. Such a situation is totally unsuitable for tragedy. (3) That which represents the downfall of an utter villain from prosperity to misfortune. This would satisfy our moral sense, but would not arouse the tragic emotions of pity and fear. Pity is aroused by unmerited misfortune fear by the misfortune of men like ourselves.

The Ideal Hero

      Aristotle is clearly not in favor of two kinds of tragic heroes one is the perfect man: the other is the utterly depraved man. ln, either case identification of the spectator (or reader) with the hero is not possible and identification is necessary for the feeling of pity and fear. The ideal hero for tragedy, thus, is to be neither too good, nor depraved, but an intermediate sort of person. His misfortune is to be brought about, not through some vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty. A tragic hero should be a man, neither perfect nor utterly bad; his misfortune should arise from an error or frailty, which, however, falls short of moral taint; and he must fall from the height of prosperity and glory.

      A tragic hero must be good, but not perfect. Only such a man can arouse pity and fear in his fall from prosperity to misfortune. Nor should his suffering be completely undeserved; only, it should be in excess of what he deserved. The term used by Aristotle, for human error which causes this misfortune, is Hamartia. This is an error of judgment or 'miscalculation', rather than any moral shortcoming. Further, the fall should be of a person highly placed in society. The fall of such a person is more likely to arouse pity and fear.

Double Actions

      Aristotle firmly speaks against double actions. A tragic plot should have for its concern a single issue, and have two ends, with rewards for some and punishment for some. Such a treatment would be more suitable for Comedy rather than for Tragedy, Aristotle is not in favor of tragi-comedy. Aristotle is quite right in saying that the representation of a bad man passing from misery to prosperity is most unsuitable for tragedy. However, modern dramatists, especially those of the Renaissance (not the least, Shakespeare) have shown that tragedy is very much possible with a hero who is a villain as well Macbeth is such a play in which the hero violates the rules of hospitality and loyalty by killing his guest and king. Yet his fall does arouse pity in us, if not exactly fear. But one feels a kind of awe, all the same. In one sense, however, Aristotle is right. Even Macbeth is not utterly depraved - he shows remarkable courage when he faces certain doom at Dunsinane. That tragedy is possible with perfect persons, like saints, has been shown by Shaw and Eliot. But tragedy with perfect men as heroes is not quite usual. As for tragi-comedy, Shakespeare, again, shows that they can be quite effective.

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