An introduction to the first great work of literary criticism
Aristotle was the first theorist of theatre – so his Poetics is the origin and basis of all subsequent theatre criticism. His Poetics was written in the 4th century BC, some time after 335 BC. The important thing is that when Aristotle’s writing his Poetics, Greek theatre was not in its heyday, but was already past its peak, and Aristotle was writing a good 100 years after the Golden Age of Greek tragic theatre – so in many ways it’s like a contemporary critic writing about the plays of Chekhov or Oscar Wilde. It’s past, the writers of the plays are already long dead, but they’ve survived and Aristotle is writing about them and highlighting their importance. What follows are some notes towards a summary of, and introduction to, Aristotle’s Poetics – the first great work of literary criticism in the Western world.
So, what does Aristotle say? ‘Tragedy imitates the actions of the best people in society, and comedy the worst sorts of people in society’. His Poetics is really an attempt to analyze those features that make some tragedies more successful than others. What makes a great tragedy? His essay is an early example of Empiricism – a philosophical tradition which regards observation of sense experience as the basis of knowledge. Observation: we need to remember the theoros of both ‘theory’ and ‘theatre’: the act of adopting the role of the spectator in order to analyse something. So he’s not just going to sit at home and think about theatre, he’s going to go and watch it to get a sense of how it works. Aristotle is very concerned with the knowledge gained by the spectator via his experience of theatre.
Aristotle’s definition of tragedy might be summed up as: an imitation of an action which has serious and far reaching consequences. Nothing trivial, in other words, which is the domain of comedy. Comedy deals in the trivial and the inconsequential. For this reason, tragedy must deal with the lives of great men because only their actions will be of consequence to the larger community. (Arthur Miller would later disagree, arguing that modern tragedy can and should depict the lives of ordinary people.) Misfortune versus tragedy – there is unsurprisingly a very big gap between the way we view life and the viewpoint of the ancient Greeks. We place a great deal more value on the individual, but to the ancient Greeks, individuality was seen as a negative thing because it was anti-social, which they believed would lead to social breakdown. So it’s all about joining people, but also sort of trying to make them all the same, with the same ideas and adherence to the city-state, so they’d behave themselves.
Plot is the most important element of a tragedy: the sequence of events and actions in a play. A tragedy should have only one plot and all of its action should relate to this plot. Aristotle uses the analogy of painting to show how, in theatre, plot is far more important than character: ‘It is much the same case as with painting: the most beautiful pigments smeared on at random will not give as much pleasure as a black-and-white outline picture.’
Character is second to plot in terms of its importance. Tragedy imitates an action performed by a person primarily for the sake of the actions they perform, rather than out of any interest in the psychology of character: ‘For tragedy is an imitation not of men but of a life, an action, and they have moral quality in accordance with their characters but are happy or unhappy in accordance with their actions; hence they are not active in order to imitate their characters, but they include the characters along with the actions for the sake of the latter. Thus the structure of events, the plot, is the goal of tragedy, and the goal is the greatest thing of all.’ What Aristotle is saying here is, essentially, that the actions of the character influence the character, so action – plot – comes first because it colours the character.
A character’s aims must be good; they must be appropriate; there should be a likeness to human nature in general. They should be consistent. Even if the person being imitated is inconsistent, Aristotle says, he must be inconsistent in a consistent fashion. So if a character is mad and so behaves in a disordered fashion, that’s fine – but he can’t be mad in one scene and then sane in the next.
The protagonist is, of course, the main character. His actions are most significant to the plot (remember plot is primary over character). All of the protagonist’s or tragic hero’s habits must tend toward the good, except for one – the hero’s hamartia or tragic flaw. That’s not going to tend towards the good: indeed, that’s got to mess everything up for the hero.
The Unities of time, place, and action were of central importance in Greek theatre. All action is interconnected. Tragedy will represent a complete action – a clear beginning, middle and end. The protagonist’s hamartia is the only impurity that exists in his (or, in the case of Sophocles’ Antigone, her) make-up. The protagonist should be written in such a way that the audience is motivated to empathize or identify with him because the overall aim of tragedy as a genre is to excite pity and fear in the spectator. Pity and fear will be provoked only if the protagonist’s fortunes go from good to bad.
A change in fortune should come about as a direct result of an action motivated by the protagonist’s tragic flaw. This is frequently hubris or pride. The change needs to be logical and to have a clear cause, rather than be accidental.
Oedipus Rex is Aristotle’s example of a great tragedy. It’s arguably one of a handful of the most influential literary texts ever written, along with Hamlet and certain passages from the Bible. And yet to give you an idea of how much great Greek drama we have lost – that has not survived down the ages – Oedipus Rex only came second at that year’s City Dionysia. First prize went to a play by the nephew of Aeschylus. We’ve offered a short recap of the plot of Oedipus Rex here.
The play is bound up with the idea of fate. It’s out of Oedipus’ control that he will kill his father and marry his mother, as this has already been decreed by the gods. Therefore it’s a little unfair to describe his ‘tragic flaw’ as his own fault. So, that deepens our sympathy for Oedipus, since what happens came about thanks to accident, or to fate – neither of which was ever in his control.
However, it’s possible to argue that Oedipus’ tragic flaw is his pride. Pride has led Oedipus to kill his father, albeit without realising the man he kills is his father. This results in his mother, Jocasta, being widowed and free to remarry. This is the moment of his reversal in fortune, which leads Oedipus to recognize his error or flaw: this happens when Oedipus discovers he killed his father, which led to him unwittingly marrying his mother. This precipitates the hero’s fall.
Following this reversal of fortune, we have the reparation: in the best of tragedy, the character suffers the consequences of his mistake. In Oedipus Rex, Oedipus blinds himself and is ostracized from the state; Jocasta, even though the fault was Oedipus’, hangs herself. Tragedy must end on a note of equilibrium. The social order must be restored and reaffirmed.
This isn’t the happiest of endings; so, what’s the aim of tragedy? To teach you how to be a better person. This means being a good (Greek) citizen. Because the spectator empathizes with the protagonist, he will be led to recognize his own tragic flaw whatever that may be – and he will want to root it out so that he does not end in the same way as the fallen hero. Aristotle’s term for this is catharsis: the spectator should be purged of undesirable elements that prevent his happiness. The flaw is both individual and social – an undesirable element that would lead a person to go against the laws of land. The spectator can still empathize with the hero because he is not an unregenerate figure. We pity Oedipus’ decline because, except for one or two faults, he is basically a good man. Thus, what happens to him is tragic. The tragic element also arises from his status in society – because he is the king and what happens to him will have wide social repercussions.
We might summarise the structure of tragedy as follows: beginning = prosperity of hero. Middle = stimulation of hamartia – tragic flaw; peripetiae – reversal of fortune; anagnorisis – moment of realization. End = catastrophe – hero suffers consequences. Catharsis – spectator motivated to purge his own tragic flaw.
If you enjoyed this summary of Aristotle’s Poetics, you might also enjoy our brief history of tragedy.
Image: Bust of Aristotle via Wikimedia Commons.