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Contexts and Comparisons Chapter 3 - Classical Drama  


Aristotle's Description of Tragedy

As the son of the Macedonian court physician, Aristotle developed an early interest in biology that probably contributed to his characteristic philosophical method of identifying, defining, and demonstrating the nature of the essential components of his subject. In his Poetics, which probably comprise lectures on literature delivered over a span of time, Aristotle set the model for the intellectual discipline that we call literary criticism by subjecting poetry to careful scientific analysis.

Plato, who had been Aristotle's teacher, also wrote about literature, condemning it as a mere imitation of life and deploring its influence. Aristotle, too, assumes art to be imitation, but instead he stresses the pleasure and value that audiences may derive from exposure to images of experience.

In the early medieval period, the Poetics were translated into Arabic; Averroes of Cordova, the greatest Islamic scholar of the era, wrote a commentary about the book in 1174. But the Poetics was not known in Christian Europe until the end of the fifteenth century. Aristotle's treatise exercised its greatest influence at the end of the Renaissance, especially among the French neoclassicists, who turned his essentially descriptive comments on the practice of the Greek classical authors into a set of rigid rules, and as a consequence, rejected the work of many who, to their mind, "violated" those rules. Aristotle probably would have been quite surprised to see his analysis treated as sacred, and the texts he discussed simply because they were what he and his students knew, regarded as somehow superior to all others.

In the most influential part of the Poetics, after mentioning epic poetry, choral lyrics, comedy, and tragedy, Aristotle decides that tragedy is the highest literary art form. He concentrates on Sophocles' Oedipus, paying particular attention to the development of character and plot. In describing the nature of the tragic protagonist, Aristotle used the Greek word "hamartia," translated below as "error or frailty." The literal meaning of this term, "missing the mark," as when shooting an arrow, suggests that the kind of error Aristotle had in mind was akin to a slip of the hand. Over the centuries, however, some commentators have promoted the misleading idea that the tragic hero is morally wrong because of some "tragic flaw." In the following excerpts from the Poetics, translated by S. H. Butcher, Aristotle prefers the genre of tragedy and enumerates the qualities he attributes to the form.

Excerpts from the Poetics

All the elements of an Epic poem are found in Tragedy, but the elements of a Tragedy are not all found in the Epic poem. . . .

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Tragedy . . . 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 narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions. The Plot . . . is the first principle, and, as it were, the soul of a tragedy: Character holds the second place. . . .

Third in order is Thought,--that is, the faculty of saying what is possible and pertinent in given circumstances. . . . Fourth. . . comes Diction . . . the expression of the meaning in words . . .[followed by] Song [and] Spectacle

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. . . . Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is complete, and whole, and of a certain magnitude; for there may be a whole that is wanting in magnitude. A whole is that which has a beginning, a middle, and an end. . . .

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. . . . The poet and the historian differ not by writing in verse or in prose. The work of Herodotus might be put into verse, and it would still be a species of history, with metre no less than without it. The true difference is that one relates what has happened, the other what may happen. Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular.

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A perfect tragedy should . . . imitate actions which excite pity and fear, this being the distinctive mark of tragic imitation. It follows plainly, in the first place, that the change of fortune presented must not be the spectacle of a virtuous man brought from prosperity to adversity: for this moves neither pity nor fear; it merely shocks us. Nor, again, that of a bad man passing from adversity to prosperity: for nothing can be more alien to the spirit of Tragedy; it possesses no single tragic quality; it neither satisfies the moral sense, nor calls forth pity or fear. Nor, again, should the downfall of the utter villain be exhibited. A plot of this kind would, doubtless, satisfy the moral sense, but it would inspire neither pity nor fear; for pity is aroused by unmerited misfortune, fear by the misfortune of a man like ourselves. Such an event, therefore, will be neither pitiful or terrible. There remains, then, the character between these extremes,--that of a man who is not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty. He must be one who is highly renowned and prosperous,--a personage like Oedipus, Thyestes, or other illustrious men of such families.

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The Deus ex Machina should be employed only for events external to the drama,--for antecedent or subsequent events, which lie beyond the range of human knowledge, and which require to be reported or foretold; for to the gods we ascribe the power of seeing all things. Within the action there must be nothing irrational. If the irrational cannot be excluded, it should be outside the scope of the tragedy. Such is the irrational element in the Oedipus of Sophocles.

Again, since Tragedy is an imitation of persons who are above the common level, the example of good portrait-painters should be followed. They, while reproducing the distinctive form of the original, make a likeness which is true to life and yet more beautiful. So too the poet, in representing men who are irascible or indolent, or who have other defects of character, should preserve the type and yet ennoble it. In this way Achilles is portrayed by . . . Homer.

Questions for Discussion

  1. The classical idea of art as an imitation of life is not shared by all cultures; some traditions, among them the Chinese and the Islamic, admit no separation between art and life and see words as having essential, not representational, power in themselves. In other traditions, art embodies much greater imaginative range. What sorts of works of art does a definition like Aristotle's exclude?
  2. Explain why Aristotle insists that the fall of a virtuous man "merely shocks us" instead of being tragic. What kind of character does he think is eligible for tragedy?
  3. At the end of James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen Dedalus announces to his college friends, "Aristotle has not defined pity and terror. I have." What do you think "pity and terror" mean? How are the emotions "purged" by attendance at a tragic performance?
  4. Aristotle dislikes the "irrational" element in tragic plots and insists that they have a beginning, a middle, and an end. How do these expectations demonstrate Western classical thought?


Classical Drama
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