Poetics: Chapter 6 - Summary

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Chapter 6

Definition of Tragedy

      This is the most important portion of the Poetics. It presents the definition of tragedy. The following chapters are devoted to an exposition of the nature and function of tragedy. Aristotle summarises his observations on tragedy in his definition of it. "Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete and of a certain magnitude, in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in several parts of the play, in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity, fear effecting its catharsis of such emotions."

      The definition lends itself to a division. It deals with the nature as well as the function of tragedy. As for its nature, it is embodied in the three aspects of imitation--object, medium, manner. The object of imitation in tragedy is an action of grave seriousness, complete in itself and having a magnitude. By magnitude is implied that it should be long enough to produce the rise and fall in the circumstances of the hero. The medium is language and all the embellishments it allows. The manner of imitation is dramatic and not narrative, i.e., one in which characters act out the action.

The Function

      The function of tragedy is implied in the statement that it arouses pity and fear and purges the audience of these emotions, i.e., provides an outlet for these emotions. The term catharsis has been interpreted as a pleasurable outlet, i.e., a sense of relief accompanying the emotional release. Critics have interpreted it to mean a safe outlet. Fear and pity cannot be fully suppressed and they might otherwise have bad effects on the human being. Through tragedy, these emotions can find a safe outlet, and thus have a beneficial effect.

      Plato was most distrustful of emotions and favored the suppression of them. Aristotle shows a greater realistic wisdom when he says that the relief offered by art can be not only pleasurable but also beneficial. For, repression is harmful. Aristotle counters the argument of Plato that art has a dangerous effect on human nature as it might excite emotions, which should be suppressed in the interest of public morality.

Six Constituent Elements in Tragedy

      Tragedy has six constituent elements. Of these three, are concerned with the objects of imitation - (i) plot or piece of life (human actions or experiences); (ii) the characters of the agents or dramatis personae or the qualities of the agents; (iii) the thoughts which are expressed by the agents of action. Two elements are to do with the medium of imitation-(iv) diction and (v) melody. The sixth element is that of 'spectacle'. It is the mode of imitation, by which the story is presented on the stage before an audience.

      Aristotle considers plot the most important of these six elements. It is the life and soul of tragedy. Characters may be drawn with great psychological skill; there may be great poetic and rhetorical brilliance; but that does not constitute a tragedy. Tragedy, in its essence, is a story. There cannot be a picture without a shape or design. The insistence on the importance of plot is consistently kept up throughout the Poetics.

Plot's Importance

      Plot in the drama, in its fullest sense, is the artistic equivalent of action in real life. It is to be remembered that to Aristotle, 'action' is not a purely external act, but an inward process which works outward, or the expression of a man's rational personality. In the drama, the characters are not described, but they enact their own story and so reveal themselves. We know them not from what we are told of them, but by their performance before us. Without action, in this sense, a poem would not be bad drama, but on the other hand no drama at all.

      Aristotle seems to set action and character against one another in sharp and impossible opposition. Indeed, the remark that drama without character is possible should not be taken in a literal sense. The probable meaning is that there may be a tragedy in which the moral character of the individual agents is so weakly portrayed as to be of no account in the evolution of the action. The persons may be mere types. One cannot help but agree that 'action' must ever remain the primary principle in drama.

      A number of terms used by Aristotle in this chapter have been the issue of controversy among critics. The most prominent of them is the term "Catharsis". Critics have also interpreted variously the terms "serious" and "magnitude". Aristotle's views on the importance of plot have also been the basis of hot debate. Incidentally, the word thought in Greek implies all that is expressed by the use of words.

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