Aristotle’s concept of tragedy | Aristotle’s Poetics

Tragedy is the main concern of Aristotle in Poetics and it is the utmost argued and debated subject. According to Plato, tragedy has a damaging and detrimental result on the soul in that it caters to the feelings and passions that ruin its logical side.

 On the other hand, according to Aristotle, feelings, and passions evoked by tragedy have a purgative result on the soul. While Plato regarded tragedy as unimportant, for Aristotle, it was of utmost importance and the most admissible.

Aristotle’s definition of tragedy:

Aristotle states, “Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is serious, complex, and of a certain magnitude, in embellished language…arousing pity and fear…its catharsis of such emotion.” (Poetics, Aristotle).

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In his definition of tragedy, Aristotle points out some of the important characteristics of tragedy:

a)            Aristotle states that the poet doesn’t merely imitate the external world, instead represents reality itself and provides meaning to that world. So for Aristotle, imitation is not just copying but recreation.

b)            Secondly, Aristotle states that tragedy should include actions that are thoughtful and serious. By serious, he means that actions that are morally, psychologically, and socially serious and which can evoke emotions like pity and terror.

c)            Thirdly, Aristotle points out that a tragedy should have “a certain magnitude” and be coherent. According to Aristotle, a tragedy should not be just a sequence of incidents but should have a proper beginning, middle, and end. The concept of imitation is crucial at this moment: the poet doesn’t only blindly imitate everything linked to action but chooses only those facets which provide a form to eternal truth.

d)             The fourth point is embellishment. By embellishment, Aristotle denotes songs and verses. Verses are employed for the dialogues particularly in monologues and soliloquies. Songs are used for Chorus. These provide refinement and adornment to tragedy.

e)            The fifth point is “act not narration”. Aristotle prefers tragedy over epic by stating that tragedy depends on the staging, and performance not on description or “narrative”.

f)           The last point is “catharsis”: Aristotle expounds that tragedy arouses the feelings like pity and terror in the audience and then purges them.

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As Aristotle stated in Poetics, there are six factors in a tragedy that decides its standard:

1.            Plot: Aristotle describes the plot as “the arrangement of incidents”. According to Aristotle, there should be wholeness and coherence in a plot and a proper start, middle, and conclusion. The plot needs to be constitutionally self-sufficient and complete, with the actions united by inner necessity, all actions directing naturally or automatically to the next with no external intervention. The plot should have a certain “magnitude”. By “magnitude”, Aristotle means that the plot of a tragedy should have a certain length and at the same time it should also have seriousness. Aristotle also points out that plots should not be too short; the more actions and subjects that the playwright can join together, the higher the aesthetic value and grandness of the tragedy.

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Aristotle distinguishes between complex and simple plots. Simple plots consist of just one “change a fortune”. For example, one character becomes rich from poor or gets justice, etc. But complex plots consist of both peripeteia and anagnorisis related to catastrophe. Aristotle describes that a peripeteia takes place when a character creates an effect contrary to what he expected to create.  Anagnorisis means the point where a character discovers something he or she was previously unaware of. It can either be about a character or it can also be about a situation. Aristotle states that the perfect tragedy blends peripeteia and anagnorisis as sections of their cause-and-effect chain.

2.            Character: Aristotle states that in an ideal tragedy, character always aids the plot. The protagonist must be noble and distinguished so that his reversal of fortune can be from right to wrong. This change should be due to some flaw in the character. In a perfect tragedy, Aristotle proclaims, the hero will give rise to his own destruction not because the hero is wicked or immoral, but because of the ‘tragic flaw’ (Hamartia).

3.            Thought: Thought is the third main part of the tragedy, about which Aristotle has said very little. But we can assume that by thought Aristotle means about dialogues of the play since by medium of speeches characters express their thoughts. So thought can be equivalent to dialogues.

4.            Diction: Diction is the fourth important part of the tragedy. By diction, Aristotle means the formulation of meanings in words i.e how to give meaning to words and how to express words. In this section, Aristotle talks about the stylistic factors of tragedy in which he especially prefers metaphors.

5.            Melody: Melody is the fifth important part of the tragedy. By melody, Aristotle means songs and the rhythmic aspect of the chorus.  Aristotle asserts that the chorus must be united into the tragedy like a character. The Chorus moves forward the story by revealing the entry of characters and disclosing answers that assist in the progression of the plot and it also aids the spectators to watch the play from a new angle, giving a complete portrait of a situation.

6.            Spectacle: The spectacle is the sixth part of the tragedy and is less associated with literature. Spectacle means all those visual effects like costumes, make-ups, scenery, and special effects. Although Aristotle understands the visual appeal of spectacle, he claims that best playwrights depend on the coherence and other constituent parts of the tragedy like plot, character, diction, etc., to evoke pity and terror rather than spectacles.


So, in the end, we can say that in a perfect tragedy, all the characters should unite the plot with their speeches, dictions, thoughts, actions, and Chorus to evoke the ultimate result of tragedy i.e. pity and terror in the audience.

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