Aristotle's Poetics: Chapters 16-17

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Chapter 16

Recognition can be broken down into several varieties or types. The first, the least artistic and the most commonly used, due to lack of imagination, is created by means of tokens. One example of a token is a birthmark which was thought to be found on all Spartoi (a group of Theban aristocrats). These tokens are marks on the body, like scars, or accessories worn, like an amulet. Scenes of recognition based on tokens of the body, like most of the techniques in Poetics, can be distinguished as on a scale. Odysseus’s is recognized in different ways by means of his scar, one by the nurse and once by the swineherds. Recognitions that occur only for the sake of establishing a character’s identity are less artistic than recognitions that develop naturally from the plot, as when Odysseus deliberately points to this token in order to establish his identity. Above recognition-by-tokens are recognitions that are contrived by the poet, citing “the voice of the shuttle” (the tapestry woven by the mute Philomela to communicate her rape) in Sophocles’s Tereus as an example that is contrived and inartistic. A recognition that follows on seeing or hearing something is slightly better, as when a lyre reminds Odysseus of the War and causes him to weep. Even better are recognitions based on reasoning.  But, for Aristotle, the best—and most artistic—form of recognition is one in which the shock of surprise follows naturally from the events themselves. Such plots are more natural because they do not rely on literary artifices such as tokens and poetic expedience.


Chapter 17

In creating plots, the poet should try to visualize them as directly as possible, attempting to see them as if they were actually occurring before him, allowing the poet the discernment to understand which actions are appropriate and which are not, and to notice discrepancies in the plot. A play by Carcinus demonstrates a failure to visualize the action on the stage, and its consequent failure in the eyes of the audience. Poets should also attempt to work in speech that is appropriate to the tone of the moment. Poets should choose the most appropriate dramatic gestures. Poets in possession of the intense passions they intend to portray are more sympathetic and convincing to an audience because they are expressing natural human emotions. Someone possessed by rage or disturbed by some emotional distress are, naturally, more closely in touch with these emotions and more able to portray them truthfully.


When composing a play, whether from a traditional plot or as an original composition, it is important to sketch out an outline, and only later expand the outline by fleshing out scenes or episodes.


Chapters 16-17, Analysis

Essentially, Aristotle here continues to argue for simplicity and naturalness in the construction of drama. Recognitions should flow naturally from the plot, and not be contrived to suit the immediate needs of the poet at the time. He identifies several types of recognition, based on various circumstances. One important prejudice underlies the description of recognitions. For Aristotle, the task of the poet is to avoid unnecessary artifice whenever possible. Plot twists that seem contrived or that lack credibility are almost always marks of a talentless artist.


Aristotle argues that when composing a play, it is essential to begin with an overview of the plot before proceeding to develop episodes. Aristotle then offers a sample outline of the Iphigenia. This exemplary outline touches on the basic aspects of that drama’s plot:


Ayoung woman is about to be sacrificed, but manages to escape from her captors. She travels to another country, in which it is customary to sacrifice foreigners to their goddess, and, in this country, she becomes a priestess of this rite. For reasons that are outside the plot, her brother arrives in the country, and upon arriving, is captured. About to be sacrificed himself, he recognizes his sister, which saves him from death.


After outlining the plot in this way, the poet can proceed to add characters’ names, flesh out the episodes, and take care to make them appropriate. Aristotle points out that the basic plot of the Odyssey is actually very simple:


A single man has been kept away from home for a number of years by a God (Poseidon). At home, his wife’s suitors are destroying his property, and plotting against his son. He arrives home after his trials at sea, reveals himself, and fights off his rivals, then ends up safe himself.


The simplicity and coherence of the Odyssey’s plot should serve as a model for other poets. Of  course, we have no knowledge today of how Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides actually wrote their plays, whether they followed an outline or not. Every writer has a different way of writing. Some use outlines; some do not, but it is interesting to see how Aristotle thought it should be done. 


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