Aristotle's Poetics: Theme Analysis

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Poetry as Mimesis (Imitation)

Aristotle defines all poetry as mimesis (imitation). In other words, poetry imitates nature, which is to say it imitates life, whether natural objects or human actions. For Aristotle, tragedy is an imitation of human action. The concept of art as imitation proved vastly influential in Western literature right up until the eighteenth century, when the Romantic age gave birth to the expressive theory, that poetry arises from the emotions, feelings and impressions of  the artist. Aristotle insisted, perhaps consciously in opposition to Plato, that poetry represents something that is real, something that exists in the world. Whereas Plato believed that the poet was cut off from reality, Aristotle saw the poet’s act of imitation as directly connected to life itself, instead of an attempt to reach a larger ideal. In his analysis of the origins of poetry, Aristotle argues that imitation is natural to childhood, and children learn most of their first life lessons through the imitation of others. People are also naturally given to taking pleasure in imitation.

Unity of Plot

In his analysis of tragedy, Aristotle argues that the most important element is plot. Further, he insists on the necessity of unity in the plot. All the events portrayed must contribute to the plot. There must be no subplots or superfluous elements. Every element of the plot must work together to create a seamless whole. If any part were to be altered or withdrawn, this would leave the play disjointed and incomplete in some way. The plot must have a beginning, a middle, and an end, in which each event follows either in likelihood or necessity from the previous one. There must be a clear cause and effect relationship in the events depicted.

The Structure of Tragedy

In his analysis of the structure of tragedy, Aristotle uses four terms that are of particular importance: reversal (peripety), recognition or discovery (anagnorisis), purification (catharsis), and tragic error (harmartia). Reversal means a sudden reversal in the hero’s fortunes, a shift from one thing to the opposite. In tragedy this would mean from good to bad; in comedy it would mean the opposite. The reversal often marks a climax or turning point in the action. The example Aristotle gives is from Sophocles’ play, Oedipus Rex, in which a messenger informs Oedipus that the man he believes was his father, and who is now dead, was his foster father but not his biological father. This sets in motion a new stage in the play, leading to Oedipus’s discovery of his real parents and the tragic outcome. Reversals often depend (as in this case), on a “discovery” or “recognition,” which refers to a move from a lack of knowledge to the possession of knowledge, the recognition of a situation. One of the clearest examples of recognition occurs in Oedipus at the moment when Oedipus achieves an awareness of his true identity. Recognition combined with peripety can arouse an audience’s emotions to pity or fear. This results in the purification (catharsis) of those emotions. Catharsis is a Greek word that has passed into the English language. In catharsis the emotions are aroused but then released, resulting in a restored state of equilibrium. Tragedy therefore serves a useful function for the audience since it experiences the downfall of the hero vicariously, feels deep emotion at witnessing the spectacle, but then emerges from it in a more balanced psychological condition. “Tragic error” refers to the mistake made by the hero that leads to his downfall. One common example of the tragic error in Greek literature is that of hubris or pride, as for example when a man refuses to acknowledge the authority of divine law. An example would be Pentheus, the king of Thebes in Euripides’ The Bacchae, who refuses to acknowledge the power of the god Dionysus, resists the god with all his might, and ends up paying for his defiance with his life.

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