Ancient Greek Tragedy 101: Aristotle’s Six Elements on Tragedy

Ancient Greek Tragedy 101 series intends to deepen the reader’s knowledge of the Greek Tragedies rooted in sixth century B.C. The fundamental purpose of this series is to present a detailed informative background and understanding of the elements of Greek tragedy as well as its prominent tragedians.

Ancient Greek Tragedy 101 is divided into Six Chapters:

1. Ancient Greek Tragedy 101: The Introduction

2. Ancient Greek Tragedy 101: Aristotle’s Six Elements on Tragedy

3. Ancient Greek Tragedy 101: Prominent Tragedy Playwrights: AESCHYLUS

4. Ancient Greek Tragedy 101: Prominent Tragedy Playwrights: EURIPIDES

5. Ancient Greek Tragedy 101: Prominent Tragedy Playwrights: SOPHOCLES

6. Ancient Greek Tragedy 101: Tragedy & Shakespearian Tragedy


Aristotle’s Six Elements on Tragedy

Figure 1

Bust of Aristotle


Note: A photograph of The Bust of Aristotle, (Kitsantonis, 2016).


Aristotle, one of the pupils of Plato, is a Greek philosopher who has numerous works on logic, ethics, metaphysics, politics, natural sciences and poetics. His works have influenced Western thought. He answered several philosophical questions related to politics, happiness, rhetoric, art, human relationships, and morality in his works. His theories on these philosophical subjects became the origins of Western philosophy. In one of his famous works Poetica, he analyzes the elements of poetry, including tragedy, comedy and epic in their order of importance and presents conclusions about how 'the perfect poetry' must be. In Poetica, he defines tragedy as:


“Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions… Every Tragedy, therefore, must have six parts, which parts determine its quality —namely, Plot, Character, Thought, Diction, Spectacle, Song” (Aristotle, 8).


He states that tragedy is drama, rather than narrative, showing the possibilities in life by using a cause-and-effect chain. In that sense, the core emotion of tragedy is both pity and fear. By analyzing each element one by one, the philosopher strictly portrays how tragedies must be literally constructed to be perfect.


He was an admirer of Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, which he called 'the perfect tragedy': “He analyzes the perfections of its plot only because they heighten the feelings excited by the downfall of Oedipus: the plot is so admirably constructed . . . a reader will experience the same intensities of pity and fear” (Myers, 119). Hence, Sophocles utilizes the elements of 'the perfect tragedy' so ideally that it can be thought of as a prime example in relation to Aristotle’s Poetica.


“A perfect tragedy should be arranged not on the simple but on the complex plan. It should, moreover, imitate actions which excite pity and fear” (Aristotle, 14). The philosopher claims that tragedy must closely construct a cause-and-effect chain of actions to present unity with a beginning, middle, and end followed one by another in proper order. Each part of the tragic plot must bear its proper greatness in length, complexity, seriousness, and significance. Aristotle argues that plots of tragedies must carry a universal significance arranged in accordance with probability or necessity as a united plot nourishing pity and fear. He states that the complex plots are way better though tragic plots might be either simple or complex. While simple plots consisted of catastrophe, meaning change of fortune, complex plots consist of peripeteia, reversal of intention and of anagnorisis, recognition connected with the inevitable catastrophe without intervention from outside (no deus ex machina).


Figure 2

Heroes Of The Trojan War Stock Illustration


([Heroes Of The Trojan War Stock Illustration], 2013).


Similar to his ideas on the tragic plot, he states that the portraiture of a character must be united properly in terms of goodness, propriety, realism, and consistency to be able to reach out to each class in society and to construct the tragic plot according to the law of probability or necessity. Therefore, Aristotle claims that the tragic hero must mistakenly bring about his own downfall, not because of the fact that he is sinful or immoral. He conducted his analysis on the art of rhetoric as a function to form impact on the audience in his other works as well; however, in Poetica, he claims ‘thought’ as the third element of the perfect tragedy since it is associated with how speeches must reveal the moral purpose of the tragic hero. “Thought is found where something is proved to be, or not to be, or a general maxim is enunciated” (Aristotle, 9). While constructing the plot and the character, rhetoric plays a significant role. It literally means the intellectual ability of the speaker to indicate the right thing at the right time.


Aristotle states that “the expression of the meaning in words; and its essence is the same both in verse and prose” (Aristotle, 9). The Poet’s choice and the arrangement of the words, and proper diction produce the essential tragic effect. The plot, consisting of actions, gestures and emotions must be portrayed with the utmost vividness regarding its general outline and its details between episodes in order to seize the universal significance. The philosopher argues that spectacle also is an “emotional attraction of its own” (9) having the least contribution to the art of poetry. The success of the production of spectacle effect is bound to the stage rather than to the poet. However, it is still one of the elements of the ideal tragedy since it is tightly related to the success of the tragedy in terms of forming pity and fear.


Figure 3

Burial at Thebes, the Chorus


(Soper, 2019)

Though the Chorus has no direct action in the play, the members make comments on the plot by singing their lines, initiating the dramatic effect. He argues that the Chorus has a prominent role in tragedies and is an integral part of the whole just like actors. It must have a great contribution to the unity rather than being a “mere interludes” (Aristotle, 21) since the Chorus is one of the key elements which can directly contribute to nourishing pity and fear in the audience.


Being a quite prominent Greek philosopher, Aristotle analyzes and argues how ‘the perfect tragedy’ must be constructed in his work of Poetica. He claims there must be six different well-constructed elements of 'the perfect tragedy': the Plot, the Tragic Hero, Thought, Diction, Spectacle and the Chorus. If well-constructed and united forming the law of probability or necessity and also the universal significance, these elements arouse the emotions of pity, fear and aesthetic pleasure.


Resources


Aristotle, (2008). The Poetics (S. H. Butcher, Trans.) Retrieved on March, 2022. Available from https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1974/1974-h/1974-h.htm


Else, G. F. (1938). Aristotle on the Beauty of Tragedy. Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, 49, 179–204. https://doi.org/10.2307/310703


Grube, G. M. A. (1958). A Note on Aristotle’s Definition of Tragedy. Phoenix, 12(1), 26–30. https://doi.org/10.2307/1086783


Myers, H. A. (1949). Aristotle’s Study of Tragedy. Educational Theatre Journal, 1(2), 115–127. https://doi.org/10.2307/3203554



Image Resources


Heroes Of the Trojan War Stock Illustration. (2013, March). [Website]. istockphoto. Retrieved from https://www.istockphoto.com/vector/heroes-of-the-trojan-war-gm168857158-23439685


Kitsantonis, N. (2016). The Bust of Aristotle. [Photograph]. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/27/world/europe/greece-aristotle-tomb.html


Soper, K. (2019). Burial at Thebes, the Chorus. [Photograph]. The Small Hours. Retrieved from

https://hollymatherunit12.wordpress.com/2019/04/08/greek-chorus/


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Melis Güven

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