Aristotle on Tragedy

Aristotle on Tragedy

The Nature of Tragedy:

In the century after Sophocles, the philosopher

Aristotle analyzed tragedy. His definition: Tragedy then, 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 separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of
narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these

Aristotle identified six basic elements:
(1) plot; (2) character; (3) diction (the choice of style, imagery, etc.);
(4) thought (the character's thoughts and the author's meaning); (5) spectacle
(all the visual effects; Aristotle considered this to be the least important
element); (6) song.

According to Aristotle, the central character
of a tragedy must not be so virtuous that instead of feeling pity or fear
at his or her downfall, we are simply outraged. Also the character cannot
be so evil that for the sake of justice we desire his or her misfortune.

Instead, best is someone"who is neither outstanding in virtue and righteousness;
nor is it through badness or villainy of his own that he falls into misfortune,
but rather through some flaw [hamartia]". The character should be famous
or prosperous, like Oedipus or Medea.

What Aristotle meant by hamartia cannot
be established. In each play we read you should particularly consider the
following possibilities. (1) A hamartia may be simply an intellectual mistake
or an error in judgement. For example when a character has the facts wrong
or doesn't know when to stop trying to get dangerous information. (2) Hamartia
may be a moral weakness, especially hubris, as when a character is moral
in every way except for being prideful enough to insult a god. (Of course
you are free to decide that the tragic hero of any play, ancient or modern,
does not have a hamartia at all). The terms hamartia and hubris should
become basic tools of your critical apparatus.

The Concept of Tragedy:

The word tragedy can be applied to a genre
of literature. It can mean 'any serious and dignified drama that describes
a conflict between the hero (protagonist) and a superior force (destiny,
chance, society, god) and reaches a sorrowful conclusion that arouses pity
or fear in the audience.' From this genre comes the concept of tragedy,
a concept which is based on the possibility that a person may be destroyed
precisely because of attempting to be good and is much better than most
people, but not perfect. (Irony, therefore, is essential and it is not
surprising that dramatic irony, which can so neatly emphasize irony, is
common in tragedies.) Tragedy implies a conflict between human goodness
and reality. Many scholars feel that if God rewards goodness either on
earth or in heaven there can be no tragedy. If in the end each person gets
what he or she deserves, tragedy is impossible. Tragedy assumes that this
universe is rotten or askew. Christians believe that God is good and just,
hence, for certain scholars tragedy is logically impossible. Of course
a possible variation of the tragic concept would allow a character to have
a fault which leads to consequences far more dire than he deserves. But
tragic literature is not intended to make people sad. It may arouse pity
and fear for the suffering protagonist, or for all humanity, especially
ourselves. But usually it also is intended to inspire admiration for the
central character, and by analogy for all mankind. In the tragic hero's
fall there is the glory in his or her misfortune; there is the joy which
only virtue can supply. Floods, automobile accidents, children's deaths,
though terribly pathetic can never be tragic in the dramatic sense because
they do not occur as a result of an individual man's grandeur and virtue.

After reading each book in the course, be sure you know whether it presents
a tragic view of life. (Incidentally, although some plays we read are certainly
tragic in all scholars' opinions, many Greek plays produced as tragedies
are not tragic by anyone's definition, including Aristotles'.)

Aristotle's Poetics: Basic Concepts

You should be aware of the following concepts
and opinions of Aristotle's which have tremendously influenced drama in
the Western World.
a. Tragedies should not be episodic. That
is, the episodes in the plot must have a clearly probable or inevitable
connection with each other. This connection is best when it is believable
but unexpected.
b. Complex plots are better than simple
plots. Complex plots have recognitions and reversals. A recognition is
a change from ignorance to knowledge, especially when the new knowledge
identifies some unknown relative or dear one whom the hero should cherish
but was about