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Oct 19, 2011

Theory of Tragedy: Aristotle

All the discussion on the nature, function and the effect of the tragedy begins with Aristotle’s definition of tragedy. Aristotle had before him the great tragedies written by three Greek dramatists: Sophocles’ Oedipus the Rex, Electra and Antigone; Euripides’ Alcestis and Medea; and Aeschylus’ The Seven against Thebes and Eumenides—Aristotle drew some common characteristic from these great tragedies and on their basis evolved his own definition and theory of the tragedy which says:
“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 the action, 
not of narration; through pity and fear effecting the proper
 purgation of these emotions”.

This definition has been accepted as the standard definition of the tragedy from the age of Aristotle to the present day with the slight variations in the status of the hero.

According to Aristotle, there are six constituent parts of a tragedy: Plot, Character, Thought, Diction, Song and Spectacle. Of these six parts, which one is the most important? To this question, Aristotle himself remarks that “Plot” is the most important part because it involves ‘action’; and according to the definition, ‘A tragedy is the imitation of action’ not of men or characters. According to him, action is first, character is second. So he says: “Tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of an action and of life, and life consists in action”. And so he concludes that “Without action there cannot be a tragedy, there may be without character”.

“Hence the incidents and the plot are the end of a tragedy; and the end is the chief thing of all”, writes Aristotle:
“the plot then is the first principle, and as if it were,
the soul  of a tragedy. Character holds the second……
thus tragedy is the imitation of an action, and of
the agents mainly  with the view of the action”.

“Third in order is thought—that is, faculty of saying that what is possible and permanent in given circumstances. In case of oratory, this is the function of the political art and of the art of rhetoric; and so indeed the older poets makes their characters speak the language of civic life.”

“Forth among the elements enumerated comes Diction; by which I mean, as has been already said, the expression of the meaning in words; and its essence is the same both in verse and prose. “Of the remaining elements song holds the chief place among the embellishments”.

“Speculate has, indeed, an emotional attraction of its own, but, all the parts, is the least artistic; and connected least with the art of poetry. We may be sure, is felt even apart from the representation and actors. Besides, the production of speculator effects depends more on the art of stage machinist that on that of the Poet.”

A tragedy must have a beginning, middle and end: “A beginning is that which does not itself follow anything by casual necessity, but after which something naturally is or comes to be. An end, on the contrary, is that which itself follows that some other things, either by necessity, or as a rule but has nothing following. A middle is that which follows something as some other thing follows.”

The chief function of tragedy, according to Aristotle, is to arouse “Pity and Fear”; he always uses them as a pair
“pity is occasioned by undeserved misfortunes
and fear by that of one like ourselves.”
Aristotle described pity as a type of pain at an evident evil of a destructive or painful kind in case of somebody who does not deserved it, the evil being one which might be expect to happen to ourselves or some of our friends.

We cannot confine the emotions of pity and fear to the narrow boundaries of self. We feel pity for Oedipus not because we fear that the same might happen to us, but because he is basically noble. Butcher seems to be quite convincing when he says that we do not always fear for ourselves and adds:

“the spectator is lifted out of himself. He becomes one with the
 tragic sufferer and through him with the humanity at large”.

Aristotle wanted to communicate this effect of tragedy to Plato, who depreciated tragedy saying that it makes man lose his proper personality. Aristotle suggests that the tragic experience helps man to forget his own petty sufferings and identity himself with the fate of mankind.

In his Poetics, Aristotle projected the theory of Catharsis as a reply to Plato’s objections to the tragedy. Catharsis refers to the effect of the tragedy on the human heart. Catharsis means cleansing of the heart from the harder passions by arousing the feelings of fear and pity through the sufferings and death of a tragic hero. The Catharsis is obviously an answer to Plato’s criticism. It is catharsis, which transforms disturbing emotions into what Milton calls “Calm of mind, all passions spent” that is why Herbert Read consider catharsis a medical term, which stands for purgation but F.L. Lucas remarks that the theatre is not a hospital.

To conclude, Aristotle’s Poetics is obviously much more than a mere defence of poetry but it does constantly echo Plato’s attack on poetry.


  1. i m very happy getting these notes thank you......

  2. thank you so much...very helpful.

  3. Thnku so much .......v helpful 4 me.

  4. Thank you soooo much... Your notes are so helpful. It is also amazing that there's no need for signing in and all the crap.

  5. it has recalled my post graduation days.. thanks

  6. Extremely helpful... thank you for giving such a precise explanation... :)

  7. very good note. easy to comprehend. thanks.


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