Aristotle's Poetics: Chapters 5-6
Comedy imitates inferior people, focusing on the ugly and the ludicrous, but not necessarily evil as such. The ugly can be defined as something that causes no pain or destruction. Unlike tragedy, comedy was not taken as seriously in its beginnings. Thus, by the time comic poets appeared, comedy was already an established form, and the origins of the comic traditions—masks, prologues, or groups of actors used in comedy are unclear. Like tragedy, epic poetry is composed of significant length, employed imitation, was composed in verse, and was composed in the interest of being taken seriously.
Tragedy is a process of imitation with serious implications, created with sensuous language, and presented by actors, its well-crafted language incorporating a blend of rhythm and melody, while also mixing spoken verses and song. Tragedy arouses in the audience the emotions of pity and fear, and evokes a catharis of such emotions. Tragedy is composed of six main elements, which are, in order of decreasing importance: plot (mythos), character (ethos), thought (dianoia), speech (lexis), melody (melos), and spectacle (opsis).
The most important element of tragedy is plot. Because tragedy imitates life and action, rather than men, the tone of tragedy is defined by its actions, even while its morality may be determined by character. Because a tragedy can exist without character but not without plot, plot is essential. According to Aristotle, many contemporary comedies were composed without character, but none existed without plot. The reflective or expressive speeches of a work’s characters cannot alone be the basis of tragedy. By emphasizing character at the expense of plot, a drama is like a painting with a random scattering of bright colors that would lack the definition and coherence of a simple black-and-white outline. In addition to providing structure, plot is the most basic device for manipulating the audience’s feelings.
The importance of plot can also be demonstrated by the fact that beginning poets are usually better able to perfect their verbal expression and their definition of character before they are able to construct coherent plots, suggesting the difficulty of creating a convincing plot.
Plot is thus the heart of tragedy, always superior to character. After plot, and then character, the third most important element of tragedy is “thought,” indicating the way that characters speak and convey their point of view through command of rhetoric. “Character” refers to a kind of speech that reveals a person’s morality through a defined choice, while “thought” refers to a more abstract type of argument. The fourth element, verbal expression, refers to the way thought is demonstrated through language. The least important aspects of tragedy are music and the visual. Tragedy, Aristotle argues, still has an impact even when it not performed because the aural and visual elements are secondary.
Chapters 5-6, Analysis
In these sections, Aristotle further explores the formal qualities and origins of comedy, epic, and tragedy. He reiterates the distinction he makes earlier between poetic forms and types of imitation, noting that comedy is inherently a form that represents low culture, a form that focuses on characters that can be described as ugly or ludicrous. (This is not a definition that would be accepted by modern playwrights or audiences.) Still, Aristotle observes, comedy usually avoids representing the truly ugly aspects of life, experiences that might be considered painful or violent, and that would work better as subjects of tragedy. Aristotle also traces the origins of the form of comedy, observing that because comedy wasn’t observed as closely or taken as seriously as tragedy, the precise way that its forms came about is not known, though he does refer to some of the elements that have become established—masks, prologues, groups of actors, and plots, and cites the Athenian Crates as the originator of the latter.
Going on to distinguish between epic and tragedy, Aristotle observes that epic has much in common with tragedy, following its example in both form and content, while also noting several key differences between the two.
Key to this section is Aristotle’s identification of the six elements that make up tragedy. These are: plot, character, thought, speech, melody, and spectacle. The most important element, according to Aristotle, is plot, because no tragedy can exist without it. Plot provides the most basic structure the poet can embellish with the other elements of tragedy. Character is also important. The aural and the visual elements are less important for Aristotle.
Aristotle’s statement in section 6 that tragedy arouses the emotions of pity and fear in an audience and leads to the catharis of those emotions has led to much discussion. Catharsis was a medical term meaning purgation. The idea seems to be that tragedy arouses pity (for the main character and what he has to endure) and fear (that such a thing could happen to the audience too, if they do not avoid the pitfalls that have ensnared the protagonist), and by experiening these emotions the audience is also purged or relieved of them. A kind of psychic balance is restored in the individual as a result of their experience of the tragedy.
Today, our direct knowledge of ancient Greek drama is limited to a total of thirty-three plays by Aeschlyus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Aristotle knew of many more than this, possibly hundreds of plays, all of which have been lost. For example, Aristotle mentions Crates, who is known to have been a comic poet writing around 450 BCE, but whose works survive only in fragments. It is therefore not possible to know for sure how accurate Aristotle was in his analysis of contemporary drama.