Aristotle's Poetics: Chapters 12-14

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Chapter 12

Tragedy is divided into the following parts: prologue, episode, exode, choral part (parode, the first statement the chorus makes; and the stasimon, or choral song). Some tragedies also include melodies sung from the stage, and dirges.


Chapter 13

Certain types of plots should be avoided. The best tragedy is not simple, but complex, and incorporates the representation of both fearful and pitiable events. Virtuous men should not experience a fall from good to bad fortune, and wicked men should not experience a rise from bad fortune to good. This latter form doesn’t evoke sympathy, pity, or fear. Also to be avoided is the change in fortune of a wicked man from good fortune to bad fortune, because it excited sympathy, but not pity or fear. What is necessary is something in between: a man whose misfortune arises not because he is a bad man but because of some mistake on his part.


The best tragedy is based on this formula, and this is borne out by the fact that in competitions successful examples of this structure have been considered the most tragic.


Chapter 14

Pathos—the fearful or pathetic effect—can be evoked by the visual, by the appearance of the actors, but it can also be evoked by the structure of the events, a more complex technique that reflects the work of a more talented poet, a poet with the ability to structure the plot so that it evokes pathos through hearing alone, even without the visual element. Oedipus provides a good example of this. To achieve fear and pity through the visual, through masks and costumes, is more of a technical accomplishment than an artistic one. Again, tragedy should produce pleasure by evoking pity and fear in its imitations of life. But not all actions evoke pathos. A battle between two villains evokes little sympathy for either, but violence between people who are close to one another, as when it occurs within the family, between brothers or between parents and children, are much more emotionally affecting, and are thus better subjects for tragedy.


The most artistic, beautifully arranged tragedy presents four distinct possibilities for the representation of violent acts: (1) to perform the act knowingly, (2) to avoid performing the act, with knowledge; (3) to perform the terrible action unknowingly (as with Oedipus); (4) or to intend to inflict violence out of ignorance of facts that are later revealed. In fact, these possibilities can be ranked. The worst option is the second—refraining from action, while knowing what one is doing. The third is slightly better for the purposes of tragedy, which allows for the recognition to produce an intense and crushing emotional effect. Still, the best is the last, in which a character has the intention to carry out a violent action until a last minute recognition stays his hand, for example, in Cresphontes Merope is about to kill her son until she recognizes him.


Chapters 12-14 Analysis

The brief Chapter 12, describing the conventions by which ancient drama was divided, has often been regarded as a later interpolation into Aristotle’s text, since it interrupts his discussion of plot. The most significant point in these chapters comes in Chapter 13, in which Aristotle describes how the protagonist, who is a man held in high opinion by others, falls into misfortune because of some mistake on his part, not because of wickedness. The Greek word translated as “mistake” is hamartia, which literally means “missing the mark.” Later analysis of tragedy has often discussed this in terms of a tragic flaw in the man’s character. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, for example, Macbeth’s tragic flaw is his excesive ambition. However, this is not what Aristotle says. He refers only to a mistake, as for example in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, when Oedipus mistakenly (that is, unknowingly) kills his father and marries his mother.


In Chapter 14, Aristotle discusses the role of pathos in tragedy, and the various techniques available to the poet to produce the desirable effect of pity and fear. For Aristotle, evoking these emotions through stagecraft, costume, or purely visual elements is more of a technical accomplishment than an artistic one, and the mark of a true poet is the ability for the poetry to stand alone. Aristotle then outlines what he sees as four types of actions that could be seen to evoke fear and pity. In the first, a hero commits a violent or terrifying act with full knowledge. In the second, the hero attempts to provide an act, but then fails. In the third, the hero commits a terrible and tragic action without being aware of it. The fourth presents a scenario where the hero intends to commit a terrible act but is prevented at the last minute by a sudden revelation of facts. Aristotle ranks these plot devices by their effectiveness, and argues that the fourth structure is the most effective.


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