Aristotle’s Concept of Tragedy

Aristotle’s Concept of Tragedy

In his work “Poetics,” Aristotle outlines the fundamental principles of artistic composition. Among other literary forms, he particularly emphasizes on the elements of tragic composition, i.e. Tragedy, providing insights and recommendations that contribute to a comprehensive understanding of the genre of tragedy.

Oedipus Rex

Oedipus Rex – Source:

Tragedy is Mimetic 

In Aristotle’s Poetics, a seminal examination of Greek dramatic art, he draws comparisons between tragedy, comedy, and epic poetry. Aristotle asserts that tragedy, a form of poetry, involves imitation (mimesis) but distinguishes it by its serious purpose and use of direct action over narrative. He asserts that poetic mimesis is imitation of things as they could be, not as they are — such as, of universals and ideals — thus poetry is a more philosophical and exalted medium than history, which merely records what has actually happened.

Aristotle identifies the primary objective of tragedy as inducing “catharsis” in spectators—eliciting feelings of pity and fear to subsequently purify and uplift them. The cathartic effect aims to get the audience cleansed and enlightened, offering a heightened understanding of the ways of gods and men. This purification occurs through witnessing a significant and emotionally charged change in the protagonist’s fortunes, with Aristotle acknowledging that the transformation need not always be tragic but positing that the best tragedies typically feature such adversity. For instance, while Oedipus at Colonus is deemed a Greek tragedy, it deviates from the conventional unhappy ending.

Aristotle outlines six key elements of tragedy: plot, character, diction, thought, spectacle, and song. Among these, plot and character are asserted as primary. The majority of Poetics is dedicated to analysing these elements and their proper utilization, drawing examples mainly from tragedies, notably those by Sophocles, though other playwrights like Aeschylus and Euripides are also referenced. Aristotle emphasizes the paramount importance of the plot in tragedy:

Tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of action and life, of happiness and misery. And life consists of action, and its end is a mode of activity, not a quality. Now character determines men’s qualities, but it is their action that makes them happy or wretched. The purpose of action in the tragedy, therefore, is not the representation of character: character comes in as contributing to the action. Hence the incidents and the plot are the end of the tragedy; and the end is the chief thing of all. Without action there cannot be a tragedy; there may be one without character. . . . The plot, then, is the first principle, and, as it were, the soul of a tragedy: character holds the second place”.

Aristotle discusses the structure of the ideal tragic plot and asserts that they must possess a cohesive structure, comprising a distinct beginning, middle, and end. The plot’s length should facilitate audience comprehension of both individual components and overall unity. Emphasizing a single central theme, Aristotle underscores the logical connection among elements to portray the protagonist’s changing fortunes, with a focus on dramatic causation and event probability.

Aristotle has relatively less to say about the tragic hero because the incidents of tragedy are often beyond the hero’s control or not closely related to his personality. The plot is intended to illustrate matters of universal rather than individual significance, and the protagonist is viewed primarily as the character who experiences the changes that take place. This stress placed by the Greek tragedians on the development of plot and action at the expense of character, and their general lack of interest in exploring psychological motivation, is one of the major differences between ancient and modern drama.

Aristotle posits that the purpose of a tragedy is to evoke pity and fear by altering the central character’s status. This character should be relatable to the audience, and their fate should evoke these emotions. Aristotle notes that “pity is aroused by unmerited misfortune, fear by the misfortune of a man like ourselves.” In other words, pity arises from undeserved misfortune, while fear stems from the misfortune of someone similar to ourselves. After considering various character types, he defines the ideal protagonist as:

. . . a man who is highly renowned and prosperous, but one who is not pre-eminently virtuous and just, whose misfortune, however, is brought upon him not by vice or depravity but by some error of judgment or frailty; a personage like Oedipus.

The ideal protagonist for a tragedy is a figure of high reputation and success but lacks outstanding virtue and a sense of justice. However, their misfortune results from errors in judgment or personal frailty, such as lack of self-control, rather than outright vice—a character like Oedipus. Additionally, the hero must adhere to societal moral standards, and their character should be authentic, realistic, and internally consistent.

The concept of the hero’s error or frailty i.e. hamartia (pronounced ‘ha-mah-tee-yah’), is often inaccurately equated with a simplistic “tragic flaw” leading to downfall. This oversimplified interpretation focuses excessively on personal traits rather than the deeper philosophical implications of the plot’s resolution (We need to focus on action, not the character). While the hero’s actions may trigger tragedy due to ignorance or poor judgment, a more nuanced perspective can reveal the existence of the cosmic moral order as well as the role of chance or destiny in shaping human fate. To truly grasp the essence of tragedies, as intended by the dramatists, one must transcend a narrow focus on the protagonist’s flaws and recognize the broader philosophical context inherent in the denouement. Failure to do so risks overlooking the sophistication of Greek moral systems.

Some scholars argue that Aristotle may have intentionally included the “flaw” or hamartia in his definition of a tragic hero. They suggest that this imperfection serves as a necessary element, preventing the hero from being too ideal and making it easier for the audience to relate to them. In this perspective, hamartia is seen as a means to humanize the protagonist, evoking sympathy from the audience. This view tends to give the “flaw” an ethical definition but relates it only to the spectators’ reactions to the hero and doesn’t elevate its significance in understanding the tragedies.

Aristotle’s concluding remarks in the Poetics delve into essential elements of tragedy, emphasizing two key plot features linked to hamartia. “Reversal” (peripeteia) unfolds when the protagonist’s plans take an unforeseen and disastrous turn, exemplified in Oedipus’ investigation leading to an unexpected conclusion. The second crucial element is “recognition” (anagnorisis), marking the moment when the protagonist grasps the truth, unveils another character’s identity, or gains self-realization. This sudden revelation triggers a powerful emotional response in the audience, as when Oedipus finds out his true parentage and realizes what crimes he has been responsible for.

Aristotle wrote Poetics nearly a century after the death of renowned Greek tragedians, in a period when there had been radical transformations in nearly all aspects of Athenian society and culture. To a certain extent, it must have been written as a historical study of a genre that no longer existed rather than as a description of a living art form.

However, it serves as a valuable historical study of this lost art form. Applying the same analytical methods that he used in his studies of politics, ethics, and science, Aristotle sought to identify the fundamental principles of tragedy in terms of its composition and content.

Though this approach, at times, may seem overly formulaic or artificial for a literary analysis, the Poetics remains the only critical study of Greek drama written by someone close to the time period. It provides invaluable insights into the origin, methods, and purpose of tragedy, offering a glimpse into how the Greeks themselves perceived their theatrical art.

Furthermore, Aristotle’s work exerted a profound and enduring influence on the development of drama. The ideas and principles outlined in the Poetics resonated throughout the drama of the Roman Empire and continued to shape tragic composition in Western Europe for centuries, particularly during the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries.

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©2023 Md Rustam Ansari []


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