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Aristotles Theory of Tragedy

Tragedy in the Poetics
Tragedy is the
principal subject of Aristotles Poetics and its
mostdiscussed topic. Apart from the general
introduction (chs. 15) and the concluding
discussion of epic poetry (chs. 236), the main
body of the treatise is dedicated to tragedy.
But tragedy looms large also in those parts of
the Poetics which formally treat other subjects.
The very identification of poetry as representation, or mimesis, argued for in the
Introduction (see esp. 1.1447b1415 as if
[the poets] are not called poets by virtue of
mimesis), points to the authors privileging
of dramatic genres, the only ones that are fully
mimetic in that they present all the characters
as being impersonated (3.1448a1924). An
outline of the origins of tragedy and its development up to the point when it ceased to
change after it had acquired its proper
nature (4.1449a1415; presumably, with
SOPHOCLES) is also placed here. Epic poetry
(Heath 2011a), even when it is in the focus of
the discussion, is approached through the lens
of tragedy (e.g., 23.1459b24, on the unity of
the Homeric epics: Therefore out of the
Iliad or the Odyssey only one tragedy can be
made, or at most two or 24.1459b89: epic
poetry should have the same kinds as tragedy). In the concluding section of our text,
which is dedicated to comparison between
the two genres, tragedy is found superior
(kreittn) to epos (26.1462b1215).
Here and elsewhere in the Poetics, Aristotle
uses Platos theory of poetry as a mimetic art
to build a hierarchy of preferences directly
opposed to Platos (Else 1957: 97100; Lucas
1972: 228, 2356, 299; Janko 1987: xxiv;
Finkelberg 1998a: 1011, 18990). While
Plato regarded mimesis as the art of producing
phantoms of reality, for Aristotle it is an art that
enables the representation of the universal,
purified of the accidental aspects of empirical
reality; while Plato faulted Homer for the considerable part played by impersonation in his

poems, Aristotle saw this as one of Homers

greatest virtues; while Plato thought tragedy
has a harmful effect on the soul in that it feeds
the emotions that destroy its rational part, in
Aristotles eyes the emotions aroused by tragedy have a purifying effect on the soul; and
while Plato considered tragedy the least acceptable of all literary genres, for Aristotle it was the
most acceptable (see also PLATO AND TRAGEDY).
The discussion of tragedy proper (chs.
622) begins with a general definition:
Now, tragedy is a representation (mimsis)
(a) of a serious and complete action possessed of a certain scale; (b) by means of
language embellished with different kinds
[of embellishment] in each of its sections;
(c) of persons who perform actions rather
than through telling a story; (d) which
achieves, by means of pity and fear, the
purification (katharsis) of such emotions.
(6, 1449b248)

Aristotle identifies six aspects, or parts, of

tragedy: PLOT (mythos), CHARACTER (thos), LANGUAGE (lexis), thought (dianoia), SPECTACLE
(opsis), and MUSICAL composition (melopoiia).
The most important aspect of tragedy, to
which all the others are subordinated, is the
The theory of the tragic plot
For all practical purposes, Aristotles theory of tragedy is a
theory of the tragic plot. For Aristotle, the
plot is the first principle (arch) of tragedy
and, as it were, its soul (6.1450a378).
Consistently identified as the arrangement of
events (systasis, or synthesis, tn pragmatn:
6, 1450a45, 15 et passim), it should be a
whole (holon), having a beginning, a middle,
and an end (7.1450b 278) and one, that
is, present a unity (8.1451a1516); it is mandatory for it to be arranged in accordance
with probability or necessity (kata to eikos to
anankaion: 9.1451a379 et passim). These

The Encyclopedia of Greek Tragedy, First Edition. Edited by Hanna M. Roisman.

2014 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Published 2014 by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

principles are violated in the so-called episodic plots, in which the acts (ta epeisodia),
following one another, display neither probability nor necessity (9.1451b345; cf.
Metaph. 1090b1920). This is the worst
kind of plot.
Plots may be simple or complex. The latter
are characterized by RECOGNITION (anagnrismos, anagnrisis) and REVERSAL (peripeteia), both of which should arise from the
arrangement of the plot itself and agree with
probability or necessity (10.1452a1820,
11.1452a381452b1; see also ARISTOTLE:
ELEMENTS OF GREEK TRAGEDY). The third element of the plot is SUFFERING (pathos), understood as enactment of destruction or pain
(11.1452b913). In virtue of recognition
and reversal, the complex plots produce PITY
or FEAR, both of them distinctive (idion) of
tragic representation (13.1452b303). The
plot which has a single focus and whose reversal is from good to bad fortune is the best
one; the reversal should occur as a result of a
major error (HAMARTIA) committed by a man
who is like ourselves in that he is neither
entirely blameless nor entirely mean: such
plots produce pity and fear and result in the
kind of pleasure (hdon) that is specific to
tragedy (13.1453a717, 356). The genuine
tragic pleasure is therefore the one that comes
from pity and fear by way of representation
Aristotles theory of the plot is holistic, in
that it embraces both the form and the content of the tragic play, both its inner structure
and the response of the AUDIENCE (cf.
6.1450a324: Those [elements] that especially affect the soul, namely, the reversals and
recognitions, are parts of the plot). Its
fundamental principles form an indissoluble
chain in which the arrangement of events
leads to the protagonists error; the error
results in recognition and reversal; recognition and reversal arouse pity and fear; and pity
and fear culminate in KATHARSIS (so in the
general definition) or in the specific tragic
pleasure (so in the rest of the text). All this is
presented as a quasi-real event with no mediation of the authorial or narrative voice.

It follows from this that for Aristotle the

objective of tragedy is in bringing the
audience (or the reader) to a certain state,
alternately designated as either katharsis or
pleasure. Although the exact meaning of
Aristotles katharsis has been debated for
centuries, on any interpretation it would
amount to a profound purifying effect on the
soul. Pleasure as the objective of tragedy
should not be taken lightly either. The
thorough treatment of pleasure in book 10 of
the Nicomachean Ethics is especially helpful in
this respect (Finkelberg 1998a: 1317).
Every activity has its end (telos) in the kind of
pleasure specific to it: the pleasure specific
toa worthy activity is good and that specific
to an unworthy one is bad (1174b314,
1175a1921, 249). If, then, a work of
poetry is ethically worthy (and in ch. 13 of
the Poetics Aristotle supplies well-defined criteria for distinguishing between ethically
worthy and unworthy plots), then the pleasure in which it culminates would lead, as with
other virtuous activities, to the attainment of
happiness (eudaimonia; cf. 1177a211). This
would place the pleasure caused by tragedy
among those pleasures that belong with the
activities of the perfect and blessed man:
such is first and foremost the activity of reason (1176a268, 1177b1921). On this
interpretation, the pleasure caused by the
right kind of tragedy would be akin to the
pleasure of spiritual contemplation experienced by the philosopher.
What Aristotle leaves out
The other aspects of tragedy receive a much less thorough
treatment. CHARACTERIZATION is considered
secondary to the plot, and it too should agree
with probability or necessity (6.1450a38;
15.1454a336). This is why sudden changes
of character as, for example, in EURIPIDES
IPHIGENIA AT AULIS should be avoided, and
the same holds good of the dramatic device of
DEUS EX MACHINA as introduced, for example, in
EURIPIDES MEDEA (15.1454a313, 1454b12).
To avoid inconsistencies at the time of performance, the poet should keep the scenic action
before his eyes (17.1455a229); the CHORUS

should be treated as one of the ACTORS and
part of the whole (18.1456a2530), and so
on. The concluding chapters of Aristotles discussion of tragedy (chs. 1921) deal with language and thought, although not everything
here seems to have originally belonged to the
The performative aspects of tragedy, namely,
the spectacle and the musical composition, are
deliberately skipped over: The spectacle does
indeed affect the soul, but it is the most unsophisticated (atechnotaton) and the least germane to the art of poetry, for the power of
tragedy holds even without performance and
actors (6.1450b1720). The experience of
the reader or the listener of a tragic play is
therefore acknowledged as just as effective a
form of reception as that of the spectator.
Aristotles other omissions are no less revealing. He ignores the entire genre of lyric poetry
and hardly even mentions the choral odes of
tragedy, obviously on account of their nonmimetic character (see L YRIC POETRY AND
TRAGEDY). He never refers to religious aspects
of tragedy nor to the role played in it by GODS,
apparently because their workings add nothing to the overarching principles of probability and necessity. He ignores such generally
acclaimed masterpieces as EURIPIDES TROJAN
both of them episodic, or AESCHYLUS
dominated by the chorus. His exemplary tragedies are SOPHOCLES OEDIPUS TYRANNUS and
both fitting to perfection his requirements for
the best plot (Else 1957: 446).
Aristotles strategies of inclusion and exclusion show clearly enough that his discussion
of tragedy has never been intended as a piece
of literary criticism or a balanced overview of
the extant corpus of ATTIC drama. The Poetics
is a philosophical treatise purported to present
a theory of mimetic art of which the genre of
tragedy happens to be the most adequate
Partisans and critics
For a number of
reasons, Aristotles theory of tragedy exerted

a considerably greater influence on modern

European than on Hellenistic and Roman
tradition (Halliwell 1986: 28790). From c.
1500, the Poetics became a seminal text which
dominated western thought on art and literature in the subsequent three centuries; from
c. 1800, its authority started being questioned, and it was alternately attacked or
endorsed for another 200 years; today, it continues to be an integral part not only of literary theory but also of the theory of drama,
cinema, and art in general (see, e.g., Jauss
1973/4; Dolezel 1988; 1998; Eco 1990).
Still, the history of its reception is to a
large degree a history of misinterpretation
(Halliwell 1987: 291323). The most notorious case is that of the so-called Aristotelian
UNITIES of action, place, and time which
were regarded as normative in the neoclassical theory of drama. Yet, although
onlythe unity of action is actually mentioned
by Aristotle, in the reaction against neoclassicism that started with the Enlightenment
the three unities were habitually regarded
as representative of Aristotles theory. The
still persistent habit of narrowing the focus of
the Poetics by translating the Greek mimsis as
imitation has been equally misleading.
Asarule, both the admirers and the detractors of the Poetics fail to approach it as a whole,
thus distorting the thread of Aristotles argument and eventually missing its point. Bertolt
Brechts theory of non-Aristotelian theater
is a unique attempt at challenging the Poetics
in its totality. Just as Aristotle in the Poetics,
Brecht proceeded from the structure of the
play to the reaction of the audience; as a result,
his theory of drama is a mirror image of
Aristotles (Finkelberg 2006). Brecht rejected
the Aristotelian model of a lifelike illusion
which lures the spectator into the state of a
complete identification with the hero, resulting in feelings of fear and pity and, ultimately,
an emotional katharsis: instead, he strove to
prevent the spectators from experiencing
emotions and to encourage them to think.
This is why, as against the cause-effect continuity of Aristotelian plot, he adopted the episodic plot structure detested by Aristotle. This

is also why he replaced the audiences identification with the characters, leading to what he
saw as passive acceptance of the existing order
of things, by the emotional estrangement
from what was happening on the scene (compare his famous I laugh when they weep, I
weep when they laugh). Brechts vision of
non-Aristotelian theater has been highly
influential, and in its questioning of such
notions as artistic illusion, identification with
the characters, or unity of the plot the contemporary theory owes much to Brechts
insights and, through them, to Aristotle.
Dolezel, L. 1988. Mimesis and Possible Worlds.
Poetics Today 9: 47596.
Dolezel, L. 1998. Possible Worlds of Fiction and
History. New Literary History 29: 785809.
Eco, U. 1990. Thoughts on Aristotles Poetics,
in C.-A. Mihalescu and W. Hamarneh (eds.),
Fiction Updated: Theories of Fictionality,
Narratology, and Poetics. Toronto: University of
Toronto Press: 22943.

Else, G.F. 1957. Aristotles Poetics: The Argument.

Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Finkelberg, M. 1998a. The Birth of Literary Fiction
in Ancient Greece. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Finkelberg, M. 2006. Aristotle and Episodic
Tragedy. G&R 53: 6072.
Halliwell, S. 1986. Aristotles Poetics. London:
Heath, M. 2011a. Aristotle and Homer, in
M. Finkelberg (ed.), The Homer Encyclopedia.
Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell: 936.
Janko, R. 1987. Aristotle, Poetics, with the Tractatus
Coislinianus, reconstruction of Poetics II, and the
fragments of the On Poets. Indianapolis: Hackett
Jauss, H.R. 1973/4. Levels of Identification of
Hero and Audience. New Literary History 5:
Lucas, D. 1972. Aristotle: Poetics. 2nd edn. Oxford:
Clarendon Press.

Further Reading
Andersen, . and J. Haarberg (eds.). 2001.
Making Sense of Aristotle: Essays in Poetics.
London: Duckworth.
Belfiore, E. 1992. Tragic Pleasures: Aristotle on
Plot and Emotion. Princeton, NJ: Princeton
University Press.
Oksenberg Rorty, A. (ed.). 1992. Essays on
Aristotles Poetics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton
University Press.