Poetics: Chapter 15 - Summary

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      The Four Essentials of Character In this chapter Aristotle discusses essentials of the tragic character. In characterization, four points are to be aimed at:

      (1) Goodness is one requirement of the character. The character must be shown to be good. The requirement has caused some surprise and controversy among scholars and critics. Aristotle is totally in disfavor of wickedness unless it is absolutely necessary for the plot. The character of the personage shows goodness if the purpose shown by him is good. This is irrespective of the class to which he may belong. Aristotle, rather condescendingly, remarks that if women and slaves are introduced in a tragedy, they, too, must be shown to be good. Aristotle clarifies his meaning in the last lines of the chapter where he says that the tragic poet should present men as being then in real life (i.e., as more intense), while at the same time, the human infirmities should not be ignored. Aristotle asks for a good man, not a perfect man. It would do well here to remember that, in the Greek sense, goodness involves any virtues of courage, temperance, magnificence, truthfulness, liberality, etc.

      In a way, even Macbeth can be explained in the light of this statement. One could not in truth feel the admiration and pity for Macbeth if he were not also a courageous and steadfast man besides being a villain - he is not completely deprived. "Good' is not to be interpreted in a Christian sense.

      (2) Appropriateness. This, too, has been interpreted variously. According to some critics, it means that the characters should be true to type. Aristotle creates the difficulty because he does not clarify as to what the character should be appropriate. This has led another group of critics to says that the characters must be represented as they are in traditional sources and the myths. What Aristotle probably meant was that the character must be true to the status he belongs to for Greek society was one in which social and legal status was strictly adhered to. Thus manliness would be inappropriate in a woman, and dignity and nobility in a slave.

      (3) Truth to Life or Reality. The next essential aspect of a successful characterization is that characters must be true to reality. This is an easily understood observation. It is closely connected with the fact that we feel pity and fear, the special tragic emotions only for men with whom we can identify ourselves. And we can identify ourselves only with those men who show correspondence to actual life. Poetry imitates like through the actions of men. The actions of men are motivated by inner nature. Characters should act and speak as they would indeed do, if the circumstances presented in the play existed in reality.

      (4) Consistency. The fourth essential is that of consistency. It is an essential that has been universally recognized by writers, be they poet, dramatists, or novelists.

      Aristotle simply means that a character should be represented in a consistent manner throughout a single work. If the dramatist has to present an inconsistent character i.e., one who is impulsive and rash, say, he should present him as such in a consistent manner. He should, in other words, show inconsistency all through the play.

      Aristotle further stipulates that the behavior of a character, what he says and does, should be the natural outcome of his qualities. Just as the incidents are governed by the laws of probability and necessity, so too, are the characters. Aristotle lays great emphasis on the laws of probability and necessity all through the Poetics. This is in keeping with his contention that Plot should present a unified whole.

      Aristotle then digresses on the weakness of denouement which are not the necessary outcome of the preceding events. He allows supernatural intervention and other such mechanical devices only for those events which are not represented in the play.

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