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.

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