ARISTOTLE: Poetics

ARISTOTLE: Poetics

  • Aristotle discusses the various forms of poetry in the Poetics. Epic Poetry, Tragedy, Comedy, Dithyrambic poetry, and music are all modes of imitation. They differ from one another in medium, objects, and manner or mode of imitation. In these arts, the imitation of various objects is produced by rhythm, language, and harmony, either singly or combined. In other arts such as drawing and painting, imitation of various objects is produced by color and form.
  • Harmony and rhythm are employed in music. Dancing imitates character, emotion, and action by rhythmical movement alone without harmony.
  • Prose or verse can imitate character, emotion, and action by language alone. Verse also utilizes rhythm of meter.
  • Tragedy, Comedy, and Dithyrambic poetry can combine rhythm, language, and harmony to imitate character, emotion, and action.
  • The objects of imitation are men in action. Poets represent men either as morally superior than in real life, or as worse, or as they are. Comedy intends to represent men as worse than they are; Tragedy aims to represent men as better than actual life. It is the same in painting.
  • The third difference between the various forms of poetry is the manner in which the objects may be imitated. The poet may imitate by narration or he may present all the characters as living and moving before us. Sophocles and Homer imitate morally superior characters, but Homer imitates by narration while Sophocles presents the characters as living and acting before us.
  • Poetry springs from two causes, each lying deep in our nature: the instinct of imitation and the instinct for harmony and rhythm.
  • Man is the most imitative of all living creatures. Mankind delights to contemplate imitations which produce pain because he learns something from the imitations. Learning gives the liveliest pleasures.
  • Poetry diverged in two directions – the graver spirits imitated noble actions of good men; the trivial spirits imitated the actions of meaner men. The graver spirits produced hymns to the gods and praises of famous men; the trivial spirits produced satires. The graver spirits became Epic Poets and Tragedians; the trivial spirits became Satirists and Comedians.
  • Aristotle raises the question of whether Tragedy has reached its proper perfection and whether Tragedy should be judged in relation to itself or in relation to the audience.
  • Tragedy advanced by degrees – Aeschylus introduced a second actor and diminished the importance of the chorus. Sophocles introduced three actors and scene-painting. Once dialogue entered Tragedy, the verse’s rhythm changed from trochaic to iambic to suit the natural rhythm of conversation and also elevated the language and form of imitation.
  • Comedies imitate meaner types of characters. These characters are not always bad; the ludicrous is a subdivision of the ugly. The ludicrous consists in some defect or ugliness that is not painful or destructive. The comic mask is ugly and distorted, but does not imply pain.
  • Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; it is in language embellished by rhythm and sometimes harmony too; it is in the form of action, not narration; it effects the purgation of pity and fear by evoking pity and fear.
  • There are six parts of a Tragedy which determine its quality: Plot, Character, Diction, Thought, Spectacle, and Song. Plot is the imitation of action; the arrangement of incidents. Character is what causes us to ascribe certain qualities to the agents. Diction is the mere metrical arrangement of words and expression of the meaning of words. Thought is required wherever a statement is proved or when a general truth is enunciated; it is the faculty of saying what is possible and pertinent given circumstances. Spectacle is the equipment that is part of a Tragedy. Song is rhythm and harmony.
  • Thought and Character are the two causes from which actions spring.
  • Tragedy is an imitation of action and of life, not of men. Thus, the most important part of Tragedy is Plot. Character determines the qualities of men, but it is by their actions that they are happy or the reverse. A set of speeches expressive of character and well finished in diction and thought will not produce the essential tragic effect nearly so well as a play which, however deficient in the delineation of character, has a plot and artistically constructed incidents. The most powerful elements of emotional interest in Tragedy are Peripeteia (Reversal of Situation) and Recognition scenes, which are parts of Plot.
  • In painting, the most beautiful colors laid on a canvas confusedly will not give as much pleasure as an accurate chalk outline of a portrait.
  • Plot is the soul of Tragedy. Character holds the second place. Thought is third.
  • Character reveals moral purpose; it shows what kind of things a man chooses or avoids. Speeches in which the speaker does not choose or avoid anything, or make manifest his choices and aversions, are not expressive of character.
  • Thought is where something is proved to be or not to be, or a general maxim is enunciated.
  • Fourth is diction. Fifth is Song. Sixth is Spectacle; it is the least artistic of all parts. The power of Tragedy should be felt even apart from representation and actors.
  • Tragedy is an imitation of action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude. A complete play is one in which there is a beginning, middle, and end. A beginning does not follow anything by causal necessity, but after which something naturally is or happens. An end naturally follows some other thing, but has nothing following it. A middle naturally follows something and precedes some other thing.
  • Beauty depends on order and magnitude. A very small thing cannot be beautiful because we cannot discern its features. Likewise a very large thing cannot be beautiful because its unity and sense of a whole is lost for the spectator. A certain magnitude of tragedy is necessary – a length which can be easily embraced by the memory. The greater the length of the tragedy, the more beautiful the piece will be by virtue of its size, provided that the whole be comprehensible. The proper magnitude is comprised within such limits that the sequence of events, according to the law of probability or necessity, will admit of a change from bad fortune to good, or from good fortune to bad.
  • There must be a unity of plot. The plot is an imitation of one complete action. If any one of the incidents of the plot is removed or displace, the whole will be disjointed and disturbed. When a part’s presence or absence makes no visible difference, it is not an organic part of the whole. Thus whether by art or natural genius, Homer composed the Odyssey so that the inconsequential incidents which occurred to Odysseus were not narrated.
  • The poet’s function is to relate what might happen, not what has happened. Thus, poetry is a more philosophical and higher thing than history; for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular.
  • Incidents in the play should conform to the law of probability or necessity. The worst plots are the episodic – ones in which the incidents succeed one another without probable or necessary sequence.
  • Tragedy is an imitation of a complete action and incidents that arouse fear and pity. Such an effect is best produced when the events come on us by surprise. The effect is heightened when they follow as cause and effect. Even coincidences are more striking when they have a sense of design. The statue of Mitys falling on his murderer while he was a spectator at a festival seems not to be due to chance.
  • Plots are either Simple or Complex. A Simple Plot is one in which the change of fortune occurs without Reversal of the Situation and without Recognition. A Complex Plot is one in which the change of fortune is accompanied by Reversal, or Recognition, or both. The change of fortune should be the probable and necessary result of the preceding action. It makes all the difference whether any given event is a case of propter hoc (because of this) or post hoc (after this).
  • Reversal of Situation is a change by which the action veers roud to its opposite. The messenger comes to cheer Oedipus and free him from alarms about his parents, but by revealing his parentage, he produces the opposite effect. In the Lynceus, Danaus leads Lynceus away, meaning to slay him; but Danaus is slain and Lynceus is saved.
  • Recognition is a change from ignorance to knowledge, producing love or hate between the people destined for good or bad fortune. The best form of Recognition is accompanied by Reversal, as in the Oedipus. We may recognize inanimate things or that a person has done a thing or not; but the recognition most intimately connected with plot and action is the recognition of persons. This Recognition combined with Reversal will produce either pity or fear.
  • Reversal of Situation and Recognition are two parts of Plot that turn upon surprise. A third part of Plot is the Scene of Suffering – a destructive or painful action, such as death on the stage, bodily agony, wounds, etc.
  • The Tragedy is divided into Prologue, Episode, Exode, and Choric Song; the last of which is divided into Parode and Stasimon; some plays also possess a Commoi Song. The Prologue is the entire part of the play that precedes the Parode of the Choric Song. The Episode is the entire part between the two Choric Songs. The Exode is the entire part which has no Choric Song after it. The Parode is the first undivided utterance of the Chorus. The Stasimon is a Choric ode without anapests or trochaic tetrameters. The Commos is a joint lamentation of Chorus and actors.
  • A perfect tragedy should be arranged on a complex plot and imitate actions which arouse pity and fear. The change of fortune must not be the spectacle of a virtuous man brought from prosperity to adversity because it does not arouse pity or fear, but merely shock. The change of fortune should not be that of a bad man passing from adversity to prosperity because nothing is more alien to tragedy; it does not satisfy the moral sense, nor does it arouse pity or fear. The downfall of the utter villain should not be exhibited; it would satisfy the moral sense, but would not arouse pity or fear. Pity is aroused by unmerited misfortune, fear by the misfortune of a man like ourselves. The perfect tragic character is a man 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. The change of fortune should be from good to bad.
  • Spectacle can arouse pity and fear, but the plot ought to arouse pity and fear without the aid of Spectacle. This is the superior way, and indicates a better poet. He who merely hears the tale ought to thrill with horror and melt to pity at what is narrated.
  • Let us consider what circumstances strike us as terrible or pitiful. Actions capable of this must happen between persons who are either enemies, or friends, or indifferent towards one another. If an enemy kills and enemy, there is nothing to excite pity or fear except so far as the pain itself is pitiful; likewise with indifferent persons. But when the tragic incident occurs between those who are dear to one another – a brother kills or intends to kill his brother, a son his father, a mother her son, a son his mother, or any other deed of this kind – pity and fear are aroused. The poet need not alter the structure of the ancient legends – Orestes kills his mother Clytemnestra, but they ought to skillfully handle the traditional material.
  • The tragic deed may be done consciously and with knowledge of the persons – Medea slays her children. The tragic deed may be done in ignorance of the person, but the tie of kinship or friendship is discovered afterwards – Oedipus kills his father Laius. A third case is when a person is about to act with knowledge of the persons and then does not act; this is the worst because no disaster follows. The fourth and final case is when a person is ignorant of the person, but makes the discovery before the tragic deed is done. These are the only ways because the deed must be done or not done –and that wittingly or unwittingly.
  • The best way is the fourth case; then the second; then the first; and finally the third.
  • Any speech or action that manifests moral purpose of any kind will be expressive of Character. First, the Character must be good; his moral purpose must be good, as evidenced in the speeches. Second, Character must be proper; men are valorous, women are not. Third, Character must be true to life. Fourth, Character must be consistent; and though a character might be inconsistent, he must be consistently inconsistent.
  • There are four kinds of Recognition. First, Recognition by signs; it is the least artistic form and includes recognition by bodily marks, scars, external tokens, and the like things acquired after birth. Second, Recognitions invented at will by the poet, and on that account wanting art; this occurs when a character merely tells another character who he is. Third, recognition depending upon memory when the sight of some object awakens a feeling; as when Odysseus, hearing the minstrel sing of Troy, recalls the past and weeps, and hence is recognized as Odysseus. Fourth, recognition by process of reasoning; as when Electra reasons that Orestes must be at the grave of Agamemnon because someone resembling her has come to the grave, and there is no one that resembles her except Orestes. The best Recognition is one which arises naturally from the incidents themselves, such as in Oedipus.
  • A poet needs either a sympathetic nature or to be a madman. The poet who actually experience the emotions of their characters are most able to convincingly express those emotions.
  • Whether the story is borrowed or entirely constructed by the poet himself, the poet should first sketch a general outline, and then fill in the episodes and amplify in detail.
  • After this it remains to fill in the episodes. The episodes must be relevant to the action.
  • There are two parts of every tragedy – Complication (tying) and Denouement (unraveling). The Complication is the entire part of the tragedy before the turning point to good or bad fortune. The Denouement is that which extends from the beginning of the change to the end.
  • There are four kinds of Tragedy: the Complex, depending entirely on Reversal of Situation and Recognition; the Pathetic, where the motive is passion (Ajax); the Ethical, where the motive is ethical; and the Simple, depending entirely on Spectacle, such as scenes laid in Hades. The poet should endeavor to combine all types.
  • The perfection of style in Diction is to be clear without being common. Diction is lofty and raised above the commonplace when it utilizes rare words and metaphor – in short anything that differs from the normal idiom. Yet dialogue composed entirely of metaphors is a riddle, and dialogue composed wholly of rare words is jargon. Thus, a certain balance of rare words, metaphors, and current words is necessary to render the speeches lofty and comprehensible. The greatest thing by far is to have command of metaphor. This alone cannot be imparted by another; it is the mark of a genius because to make good metaphors implies an eye for resemblances.
  • Epic Poetry ought to follow the dramatic principles; it should have for its subject a single complete action with a beginning, middle, and end.
  • Epic poetry also has as many kinds as Tragedy: Simple, Complex, Pathetic, and Ethical. It also requires Reversals of Situation, Recognitions, and Scenes of Suffering. The Iliad is Simple and Pathetic, relying on the spectacle of war and the passion of Achilles. The Odyssey is Complex because there are several recognition scenes running throughout the poem, and at times Ethical because Odysseus is motivated by ethical principles.
  • Epic Poetry should have the same scale or length as Tragedy – a beginning and end capable of being brought within a single view. But Epic Poetry has the capacity for enlarging its dimensions because it can represent several lines of activity carried on simultaneously, whereas Drama on the stage cannot. This advantage produces a grander effect, diverts the mind of the hearer, and relieves the story with varying episodes.
  • The irrational has wider scope in Epic Poetry because there the person acting is not seen. The pursuit of Hector around Troy would have been ludicrous on stage.
  • The wonderful is pleasing, and Homer has taught other poets the art of lying skillfully. The secret of it is found in a fallacy. Assuming that if one thing is true or happens, then a second thing is true or happens, men will imagine that if the second thing is true or happens, then the first thing is true or happens. This is demonstrated in the bath scene of the Odyssey – Odysseus tells Penelope that he is a Cretan from Gnossus who entertained Odysseus in his home. As evidence he describes Odysseus’ dress and companions. Penelope commits the fallacy of inferring the truth of the antecedent from the truth of the consequent: If his story were true, he would know these details; He does know them; therefore his story is true; He is a Cretan from Gnossus who entertained Odysseus in his home.
  • Diction should be elaborate in pauses of action where there is no expression of character or thought.
  • The poet must imitate one of three objects – things as they were or are, things as they are said or thought to be, and things as they ought to be.
  • Poems are censured for being either impossible, or irrational, or morally destructive, or contradictory, or contrary to artistic correctness. “ Any expression that is criticized should be considered with reference to (1) things as they were; (2) things as thy are; (3) things as they are said to be; (4) things as they seem to be; (5) things as they ought to be. Further, we should consider whether (6) a rare word or (7) a metaphor is used; what is the right (8) accent and (9) punctuation; also where there may be (10) ambiguity and what is (11) the habitual use of the phrase; also we may refer to (12) the proper standard of correctness in poetry as distinct from other arts.”
  • The most refined art is the highest art, which is that which most appeals to the better sort of audience. Tragedy is superior to Epic Poetry because it produces the most vivid of pleasures with music and spectacle; it has a vividness of impression in reading as well as in representation; it attains its end within narrower limits , and thus the concentrated effect is more pleasurable than one which is spread over a long time and so diluted.

“There are three differences which distinguish artistic imitation- the medium, the objects, and the manner or mode of imitation.”

“First, the instinct of imitation is implanted in man from childhood, one difference between him and other animals being that he is the most imitative of living creatures, and through imitation learns his earliest lessons; and no less universal is the pleasure felt in things imitated. We have evidence of this in the facts of experience. Objects which in themselves we view with pain, we delight to contemplate when reproduced with minute fidelity: such as the forms of the most ignoble animals and of dead bodies. The cause of this again is, that to learn gives the liveliest pleasure.”

“Every Tragedy, therefore, must have six parts, which parts determine its quality- namely, Plot, Character, Diction, Thought, Spectacle, Song. Two of the parts constitute the medium of imitation, one the manner, and three the objects of imitation.”

“Character determines men’s qualities, but it is by their actions that they are happy or the reverse.”

“The most powerful elements of emotional interest in Tragedy- Peripeteia or Reversal of the Situation, and Recognition scenes- are parts of the plot.”

“The power of Tragedy should be felt even apart from representation and actors.”

“Beauty depends on magnitude and order.”

“It is not the function of the poet to relate what has happened, but what may happen- what is possible according to the law of probability or necessity. Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular. By the universal I mean how a person of a certain type on occasion speak or act, according to the law of probability or necessity.”

“Pity is aroused by unmerited misfortune, fear by the misfortune of a man like ourselves. The perfect tragic character is a man 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.”

“The best tragedies are founded on the story of a few houses- on the fortunes of Alcmaeon, Oedipus, Orestes, Meleager, Thyestes, Telephus, and those others who have done or suffered something terrible.”

Aristotle begins the Poetics with an analysis of poetry. The genres of poetry can be distinguished from one another by analyzing the medium, objects, and method of imitation various poems utilize. The mediums of poetry are rhythm, language, and harmony. The objects of poetry are the actions of men; the subjects of Tragedy and Epic Poems are important virtuous men who are superior to the audience while the subjects of Comedy are men on the same level as the audience or men inferior to the audience. The manners of imitation are narration and drama.

Tragedy is composed of 6 parts: Plot, Character, Thought, Diction, Song, and Spectacle. Plot is the most important element followed by Character, Thought, Diction, Song, and Spectacle. A perfect Tragedy should contain Reversal of Situation (Peripeteia), Recognition Scenes (Anagnorisis), and Scenes of Suffering (Pathos). The protagonist of the Tragedy should be good, appropriate, and consistent; he ought to incur tragedy as a result of a mistake (Hamartia) that he makes. The mistake may be done knowingly or unwittingly. The protagonist might leave the deed undone because he discovers some timely knowledge.

This essay by Aristotle is very helpful in assessing the merit of a particular play, and understanding how poets evoke the emotions of fear and pity through a systematic utilization of Peripeteia, Anagnorisis, Pathos, and Hamartia. After reflecting on some of the Shakespeare plays that I have read and seen performed, I would choose King Lear as Shakespeare’s best Tragedy according to the standards of a perfect tragedy outlined by Aristotle. In King Lear, Lear’s Hamartia is his rejection of his daughter Cordelia because he mistakenly believes that she does not love him. Throughout the play, Lear gradually recognizes his error and suffers a reversal in fortune, falling from the status of a king to a homeless man bereft of his loving daughter Cordelia.

Complete Works of Aristotle

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