Aristotle's concept of tragedy
“The Poetics” is chiefly about Tragedy which is regarded as the highest poetic form. Abercrombie says:
“But the theory of Tragedy is worked out with such insight and comprehensions and it becomes the type of the theory of literature.”
Aristotle reveals that imitation is the common basis of all the fine arts which differ from each other in their medium of imitation, objects of imitation and manner of imitation. Poetry differs from music in its medium of imitation. Epic poetry and dramatic poetry differs on the basis of manner of imitation. Dramatic poetry itself is divisible in Tragic or Comic on the basis of objects of imitation. Tragedy imitates men as better and comedy as worse then they are. Thus, Aristotle establishes the unique nature of Tragedy.
Aristotle traces the origin and development of poetry. Earlier, poetry was of two kinds. There were ‘Iambs’ or ‘Invectives’, on one hand, which developed into satiric poetry, and ‘hymns’ on the gods or ‘panegyrics’ on the great, on the other, which developed into Epic or heroic poetry. Out of Heroic poetry developed Tragedy, and out of satiric came the Comedy. Both Epic and Tragedy imitate serious subjects in a grand kind of verse but they differ as Epic imitates only in one kind of verse both for Choral odes and dialogue. The Epic is long and varied but the Tragedy has greater concentration and effectiveness. The Epic lacks music, spectacle, reality of presentation and unity of action which the Tragedy has.
“All the parts of an epic are included in Tragedy; but those of Tragedy are not all of them to be found in the Epic.”
Aristotle comes to a consideration of the nature and function of tragedy. He defines tragedy as:
“the imitation of an action, serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude, in a language beautified in different parts with different kinds of embellishment, through actions and not narration, and through scenes of pity and fear bringing about the ‘Catharsis’ of these emotions.”
The definition separates tragedy from other poetic forms. Firstly, its objects of imitation are serious actions unlike Comedy which imitates the non-serious. ‘Serious’ means important, weighty. Secondly, Tragedy on the basis of manner differs from Epic which narrates and does not represent through action. Thirdly, on the basis of medium it differs from Lyric. It employs several kinds of embellishments.
Aristotle considers plot as the soul of tragedy. Tragedy imitates ‘actions’ and its plot consists of a logical and inevitable sequence of events. The action must be a whole. It must have a beginning, a middle and an end.
The tragic plot must have a certain magnitude or ‘length’. ‘Magnitude’ here means ‘size’. It should be long enough to allow the change from happiness to misery but not too long to be forgotten before the end. Action, too short, cannot be regarded as proper and beautiful for its different parts will not be clearly visible. Its different parts must be well-related to each other and to the whole. It must be an ‘organic’ whole.
Aristotle divides the tragic plot into ‘Simple’ and ‘Complex’. In Simple Plot the change in the fortunes of hero takes place without Peripety and Discovery; while the Complex Plot involves one or the other, or both. The Peripety is the change in the fortunes of the hero, and the Discovery is a change from ignorance to knowledge. Aristotle prefers complex plot for it startles, captures attention and performs the tragic function more effectively. He regards episodic plot, lacking probability and necessity, as worst of all.
Aristotle lays great emphasis on the probability and necessity of the action of a tragedy. It implies that there should be no unrelated events and incidents. They must follow each other inevitably. No incident or character should be superfluous. The events introduced must be probable under the circumstances.
By various embellishments in various parts, Aristotle means verse and song. Tragedy imitates through verse in the dialogue and through song in the Choric parts. Verse and song beautify and give pleasure. But Aristotle does not regard them as essential for the success of a tragedy.
Aristotle points out that the function of tragedy is to present scenes of ‘fear and pity’ and to bring about a Catharsis of these emotions. It would be suffice to say that by Catharsis of pity and fear, he means their restoration to the right proportions, to the desirable ‘golden means’.
Aristotle lists six formative or constituent parts of Tragedy; Plot, character, diction, thought, spectacle and song. Two of these parts relate to the medium of imitation, one to the manner of imitation, and three to the object of imitation. Song is to be found in the Choric parts of a tragedy. The Spectacle has more to do with stagecraft than with the writing of poetry.
'Thought' is the power of saying what can be said, or what is suitable to the occasion. It is the language which gives us the thoughts and feeling of various characters. The language of Tragedy must be unusually expressive. The Language of Tragedy ‘must be clear, and it must not be mean’. It must be grand and elevated with familiar and current words. ‘Rare’ and ‘unfamiliar’ words must be set in wisely to impart elevation.
Aristotle stresses four essential qualities for characterization. First, the characters must be good, but not perfect. Wicked characters may be introduced if required by the plot. Secondly, they must be appropriate. They must have the traits of the profession or class to which they belong. Thirdly, they must have likeness. By likeness he means that the characters must be life-like. Fourthly, they must have consistency in development. There should be no sudden and strange change in character.
Aristotle lays down that an ideal tragic hero should not be perfectly good or utterly bad. He is a man of ordinary weakness and virtues, like us, leaning more to the side of good than of evil, occupying a position of eminence, and falling into ruin from that eminence, not because of any deliberate sin, but because of some error of judgment of his part, bringing about a Catharsis of the emotion of pity and fear.
The plot should arouse the emotions of pity and fear which is the function of tragedy. A tragic plot must avoid showing (a) a perfectly good man passing from happiness to misery (b) a bad man rising from misery to happiness (c) an extremely bad man falling from happiness to misery.
While comparing the importance of Plot and Character, Aristotle is quite definite that Plot is more important than Character. He goes to the extent of saying that there can be a tragedy without character but none without plot.
Aristotle emphasizes only one of the three unities, the Unity of Action; he is against plurality of action as it weakens the tragic effect. There might be numerous incidents but they must be related with each other, and they must all be conducive to one effect. As regards the Unity of Time, Aristotle only once mentions it in relation to dramatic Action. Comparing the epic and the Tragedy, he writes:
“Tragedy tries, as far as possible, to live within a single revolution of the sun, or only slightly to exceed it, whereas the epic observes no limits in its time of action.”
According to Aristotle, the end of poetry is to give pleasure, and tragedy has its own pleasure beside. Proper aesthetic pleasure can be possible only when the requirements of morality are satisfied. Verse and rhyme enhance the pleasure of poetry. Peripeteia and Anagnorisis heighten the seductive power of the action. Pure pleasure results from the exercise of our emotions and thoughts on the tragic action.
Such are the main features of Aristotle's theory of Tragedy. Aristotle knew only Greek Tragedy. His conclusions are based entirely on the drama with which he was familiar and often his views are not of universal application. His view might have been challenged but their history is the history of Tragedy.