Aristotelian and Neo-Classical Tragedy

Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), probably the greatest teacher who ever lived, set out in his Poetics, a rigid framework of rules for classical drama

He defined the six necessary ‘ingredients’ as:    

  1. Plot
  2. Character
  3. Diction (i.e. high/noble language)
  4. Thought
  5. Visual spectacle (but no violence on stage)
  6. Song (e.g. choral element)

He suggested there must also be:

  1. A calamity/catastrophe
  2. Characters should be nobler than ourselves and undergo:
  3. Reversal (peripeteia) of fortune, leading to:
  4. A revelation/realization (recognition that something has been disguised) and which causes:
  5. Pathos (suffering).

The function of the tragedy was to lead to catharsis (purification).

The hero should contain a flaw (hamartia) in his character which causes his downfall.

Aristotle also said that ideally tragedy should be unified in place and time; all its parts work to one end and all events should occur/fall within 24 hours.

Aristotle’s rules became rigid prescriptions for tragedy but eventually it was realised that the rules were rather too rigid and it was considered that thematic links could instead provide the necessary unity. 

Shakespeare adopted many of Aristotle’s rules but was also influenced by Seneca and the demands of Elizabethan tastes which expected: 

  • exaggerated rhetoric
  • bloodthirsty details
  • ghosts 
  • magic

Violence was no longer merely reported - i.e. mentioned on stage by various characters - but became part of the action.

Plays were more psychological: not dependent on plot or unities, and stock ingredients often included:

  • The quest for vengeance
  • Real or feigned insanity
  • Play within a play
  • Scenes in graveyards
  • Severed limbs and heads; scenes of carnage and mutilation.

More on Aristotle’s views on Tragedy

Like his teacher, Plato, Aristotle agreed that all poetry was imitation, but differed from him in believing that imitation was both natural and good.  Of the forms of imitation poetry involves, tragedy is the most instructive and this makes it the superior dramatic form.

Because tragedy is about the moral development of human beings in actions usually against the gods, this art-form offers moral instruction to its audience.  Aristotle had rigid ideas about the elements or components of tragedy.  In the first place, it differs from comedy in involving men who are better than ourselves.  He stressed that tragedy should be about serious action that is worthy of attention or consideration, and should involve enriched language.  The plot should involve action, not narration and the events evoke pity and fear, which would lead to a catharsis or purgation of these emotions.

Aristotle explained the necessary elements of tragedy, in order of importance as: plot, character, thought, diction, song and spectacle.  The whole requires complete and proper order, and all parts are essential to overall cohesion.  If any part was incidental, or non-contributory, then this should be omitted.  A beginning, a middle and an end were required, and these should be carefully thought out and controlled – for example, the tragedy should not begin in any haphazard way.  Unlike the epic, it was preferable for the events in the tragedy to occur within approximately twenty four hours (“a single revolution of the sun” - Aristotle's Poetics).  The place or setting should take this time-scale into account.

Elements of tragedy and comedy should not be intermingled, and the type of character involved is the opposite to that in comedy.  Aristotle suggested that ideally, the main character should be someone slightly better than in actual life: ‘a man not conspicuous for virtue or justice’.  Such a man should fall to misery through error, not vice (i.e. hamartia), thus removing the moral aspect from his ‘crime’.

Because the aim of tragedy is to evoke pity and fear, it would not be appropriate for a good man to fall from well-being to misery through calculated action, for such would only inspire disgust.  Similarly, an evil man should not rise to sudden prosperity.

Tragedy utilizes specific emotions and to incorporate others would destroy the distinctive characteristics of tragedy.  In summary then, action should be carried out in ignorance, at the realization of which catastrophe can be avoided.  The usual form of hamartia is hubris – the offending of the gods, whereby retribution is exacted, bringing about the reversal, or peripeteia

Aristotle believed Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex  to illustrate all the qualities of tragedy.  If these rules are adhered to, tragedy can be both morally instructive and beneficial in controlling or channelling potentially disruptive emotions, which makes tragedy the most superior literary genre.

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