Aristotle's Poetics: Chapters 18-19
Every tragedy consists of a tying and then an untying (or denouement) of plot. The tying encompasses events outside of the play and even some of the events within it; the other events are the denouement. Tying occurs in the space from the beginning of the play until the scene just before a shift from good to bad fortune. The denouement, in turn, begins with that shift in fortune, and continues until the end of the play. InTheodectes’s Lynceus, for example, the tying includes the events that occur before the play begins as well as the capture of the child and the couple, while the denouement consists of everything that happens from the indictment for murder until the end of the play.
There are four types of tragedy. These are: complex tragedy, which consists of reversal and recognition; fatal tragedy, exemplified by the plays such as Ajax or Ixion; moral tragedy, like Women of Phthia and Peleus; and episodic tragedy, like Daughters of Phorcys, Prometheus, and the plays set in Hades.
When evaluating the relative merits of tragedy, the most important feature to consider is plot. Many poets are accomplished the tying of plot, but fail with the denouement. The two aspects should be balanced with one another.
Moreover, the poet should not attempt to construct a tragedy on the basis of an epic poem, where “epic” indicates a form composed of many stories, as would be the case if one tried to dramatize the entirety of the Iliad. In epic, because of its length, all of the episodes are an appropriate size, but this is not the case with drama. Those who have attempted to dramatize the entirety of the Sack of Troy instead of focusing on a single episode, as Euripides, or the storyline involving Niobe, as Aeschylus did, will inevitably fail in dramatic competitions. In both peripeties (complex plots) and simple plots the poets keep themselves focused on their intended effects: the tragic effect and the effect of sympathy. An audience feels sympathy when a clever and villainous man is fooled, as Sisyphus was or when a brave and unjust man is defeated, a logical outcome, in light of Agathon’s comment that it is logical that many illogical things will occur.
The chorus should be thought of as an actor, as part of the whole, integrated into the performance in the way of Sophocles rather than Euripides. In other poets, the choral songs are not relevant to the plot, and may as well have been part of other plays entirely. In common practice, the chorus tends to sing interludes, following Agathon’s example, a practice that is hardly different from the insertion of a speech or episode from some other play.
Aristotle now moves to discuss language and thought. Thought includes all of the effects that are consciously achieved through speech, and these consist of proof and refutation, the stimulation of emotions (pity, fear, anger, and the like). In their actions and speech, people will use thought to inspire pity or terror or impart a sense of importance or plausibility by what they do. Acts make an immediate impression, and speech must be deliberately produced by the speaker and be the result of his speech. A speaker’s use is to produce things in the intended way through speech.
One theory of language has to do with utterance, knowledge that belongs to the art of elocution or delivery, concerning the specialist critic. Whether a poet knows anything about these matters is not a basis for criticism of his art. Protagoras’s criticism of Homer as committing an error by thinking he is uttering a prayer when he is really giving a command is an example of an overly technical and irrelevant criticism.
Chapters 18-19, Analysis
Here, Aristotle focuses on several peripheral elements of tragedy. He begins with a discussion of a basic method that he uses the metaphor of the tying of a knot to explain. The opening of a tragedy should be like an initial tying, in which more and more complexity is added until a certain point. Once the hero of tragedy experiences a fall, a shift from good fortune to bad fortune, the poet’s task is denouement, a process of unfolding and wrapping up that proceeds until the end of the play. Sometimes in modern analyses of plot, Aristotle’s tyring of a knot (complication) is referred to as the “rising action.” The reversal in the antagonist’s fortunes is referred to as the “falling action.” The term denouement (a French word literally meaning “unknotting”) is still used by modern critics for the final scenes of a play in which everything is resolved.
Aristotle also distinguishes between several types of tragedy. He observes that tragedy, unlike epic, is a tighter, more focused form that should unify around a more concise episode. He also comments on the role of the chorus, noting that the chorus is not peripheral to the tragedy, but a central actor in it, and criticizing a common practice of not adequately integrating the chorus into the action of the play. This section also includes an analysis of language and thought, and Aristotle discusses how the poet is able to use rhetoric and thought in order to evoke specific emotions in the audience.