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A Short Summary of Aristotle’s Poetics

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. Read the rest of this entry