Aristotle's Poetics: Chapters 7-9
Tragedy imitates an action that is complete and “whole,” meaning something with a beginning, middle, and end, where “beginning” means something after which something else happens, and “end” something that happens after something else, and then nothing happens afterward. Plots must follow this basic structure. Size and order are essential parts of beauty, and because of this, neither a tiny creature nor a huge creature can be beautiful. Plots cannot be either overly complex or long or overly short or simple, in the same way that an animal that is too big to be taken in all at once so small as to be almost invisible are both frustrating to the senses. Plots should be able to be remembered.
A coherent, unified plot cannot be achieved simply by limiting the number of characters because many unrelated events can happen to a single individual, suggesting the tragedies Heracleïds and Theseïds err in the belief that by focusing on a single person they also achieve a singleness or unity of plot. Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad, by contrast, are based on unified action, and avoid accounting for every event that occurred in the life of Odysseus, for example. Poetic imitation should be unified.
The poet shouldn’t be concerned with relating fact, with what really happened, but with probabilities of actions. The historian and the poet are different not only in the poet’s use of verse over prose, but because the historian relays fact, while the poet is concerned with possible actions. History is concerned with the particular, and poetry is concerned with the universal, where “universal” speaks to the things a character might be likely to say or do and “particular” the character’s name or the specific events represented.
In general, the comic poets are better at adhering to this idea of probabilities than the tragic ones, who have been given to dealing with historical figures. Some tragedies include a mix of real historical figures and invented characters, as with Agathon’s Antheus. In Antheus both the names and the events are invented and it is just as pleasurable as other tragedies that concern themselves with historical figures. Plot is, in summary, the key element the poet should be concerned with.
There are simple plots and complex plots, and of simple plots the “worst” type is the episodic plot. An episodic plot is a plot that lacks probability for its sequence of events, and is constructed of a series of episodes that follow one another. Episodic plots can be either the result of a bad poet or a good poet who is forced to distort an otherwise coherent plot to meet the needs of actors. A well-organized plot sequence is more likely to be emotionally affecting because wonder is produced by a sense of purpose. An incident that occurred when the statue of Mitys at Argos fell and killed Mitys’s murderer provides an example of an incident that produced wonder by the sense that it was not a chance event, but part of a larger system.
Chapters 7-9, Analysis
In these sections, Aristotle extends his analysis of tragedy as a form. For Aristotle, plot is the most important element of tragedy, and a good plot must be, above all, unified, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Each event should follow the previous event either out of likelihood or necessity. This is why Aristotle scorns the episodic plot, because such a plot contains merely a series of incidents that are not clearly connected, unlike the ideal plot, in terms of cause and effect. It should be noted that many of William Shakespeare’s plays would not fit Aristotle’s definition of the ideal plot, since they often contain sub-plots, which violates Aristotle’s principle of the unity of the plot.
At the same time, a good plot is one that achieves a balance of simplicity and complexity, being neither too short nor too long. Aristotle then cites examples of contemporaries who illustrate or complicate his project. Limiting the number of characters alone is not enough to achieve a balanced plot. From here, Aristotle develops several distinctions between poetry and history. The fact that historians use prose and poets verse is not enough of a distinction. The real distinction between the poet and the historian is that the historian is concerned with the particular, while the poet is concerned with the universal. In other words, Aristotle states that the poet is concerned with meanings, with why things happen as they do, as an expression of a universal law (a man does x, and y will likely follow); the historian, in Aristotle’s understanding, is not required to draw out universal meanings but merely to record the events, whatever they might be, in the order they took place. (Once again, this is not how a modern historian would see his or her task.)
The relationship between the particular and the universal is central to Aristotle’s definition of poetry. Being concerned with the universal, rather than the particular, Aristotle argues, the poet should be less concerned about staying true to historical fact; instead, a talented poet will give the feeling of probability and reality by developing certain aspects of plot.