Since drama and theatre have long been interests of mine (although it has been too long since I pursued them in any active role), I have had some experience with the Poetics, and of course I read it through last year - for the first time, mind you - and used it (skilfully, I hope) in my literary criticism of The Goblet of Fire.
Thus I would like to write a marginal commentary on one of Aristotle's most famous, not to mention one of his shortest, works, the Poetics, in which he writes about the nature and purpose of drama, and of the elements of tragedy.
The edition I am using is the translation made for Penguin Classics by Malcolm Heath, published in 1996. The references for citation will be page number (from the Penguin Classics edition) and the convention of referring to the Bekker numbers. Here we go:
Since the primary focus of Poetics is tragedy, a form of drama, that will be the focus of my marginal commentary. Needless to say, a vast amount of ink has been spilled by much more learned and intelligent scholars than I about the Poetics, and I will be having recourse to none of them in this post.
Uh, well, doesn't that just make me sound smart?
Anyway, let's take a closer look at tragedy in the Poetics. Since Poetics (at least the extant part of it) is about defining what tragedy is, Aristotle spends a lot of time defining, well, what tragedy is.
Aristotle begins by writing:
Let us discuss the art of poetry in general and its species - the effect which each species of poetry has and the correct way to construct plots if the composition is to be of high quality, as well as the number and nature of its component parts, and any other questions that arise within the same field of enquiry. We should begin, as is natural, by taking first principles first. [p. 3; 47a8-13] As I said, then, the work has to do with definition (indeed, much of Aristotle's work has to do with definition). We shall find, moreover, that defining what poetry in general and its species are goes a long way toward determining what makes for good poetry - specifically that of tragedy. Also, a brief word on Aristotle's style. Because (it is believed) much of Aristotle's extant works are based on his lecture notes, it is sometimes the case that the earliest recoverable text is most difficult to make sense of, and often the case that Aristotle's style is dry: it has all the charm of an instruction manual. However, it does have an appealling sense of moving from thought to thought progressively and logically.
Poetry for Aristotle is not categorically unique; it is a species of imitation:
Epic poetry and the composition of tragedy, as well as comedy and the arts of dithyrambic poetry and (for the most part) of music for pipe and lyre, are all (taken together) imitations. They can be differentiated from each other in three respects: in respect of their different media of imitation, or different objects, or a different mode (i.e. a different manner). [p. 3; 47a14-19] Italics original (to the translation, that is). The art of poetry, then, is a form of imitation (for the most part, as Aristotle admits). I recall an essay by Dorothy L. Sayers (I cannot at present recall in which collection) in which she claimed that one reason for the decline in the popularity of drama (this being in the thirties or forties) was that dramaturges were increasingly disregarding the definitions of drama laid out by Aristotle in Poetics. In any case, because it is an imitation, tragedy (and drama generally) is supposed to represent or resemble actual action - human action, to be precise. Following the Aristotelean definition, more abstract or, faute de mieux, 'unreal' forms of drama are not proper imitations and so lack crucial components of drama per se. Then again, when Aristotle was writing dramatic forms were few in number. Nevertheless, the continuing popularity of tragedy which is more or less in accord with Aristotelean definitions (such as Sophocles' Oedipus Rex or Shakespearean tragedy) suggests that he had some idea of what he was doing when he defined tragedy in the manner in which he did in Poetics. I should also point out that if tragedy (and, one might say, drama in general) is not categorically unique, but a form of imitation, then the premise that drama (and, one might say, art in general) exists for its own sake is incorrect, for, as an imitation, it is for the sake of that which it does, i.e., imitates an action. (There's an Aristotelean turn of phrase, if I may say so).
I will pass over the media by which the forms of poetry, as imitations, differ from each other, as well as the 'anthropology and history of poetry' (to use the title added to part of Poetics for ease of reference) and move to focus on tragedy per se.
Aristotle defines tragedy thus:
Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is admirable, complete and possesses magnitude; in language made pleasurable, each of its species separated through different parts; performed by actors, not through narration; effecting through pity and fear the purification [katharsis] of such emotions.
(By 'language made pleasurable' I mean that which possesses rhythm and melody, i.e. song. By the separation of its species I mean that some parts are composed in verse alone; others by contrast make use of song.) [p. 10; 49b25-30] This is the only reference in the work to catharsis, or katharsis. It is probable, as editor and translator Malcolm Heath notes in his introduction to the work (p. xxxvii) - incidentally, the introduction is nearly as long, if not longer, than the Poetics itself - it is probable that Aristotle developed a fuller definition of katharsis than what we now possess (indeed it would be surprising if he did not do so, given his predilection for definition). But whatever discussion he had in Poetics about katharsis is now lost. In order to effect the katharsis (whatever that may be) of pity and fear, a tragedy must, according to Aristotle, be the imitation of actions which evoke pity and fear in those who view it. To evoke such feelings, the action to be imitated must be 'admirable' (other translations say 'serious') because unadmirable, disgraceful, or funny actions do not evoke pity or fear but arouse other emotions. We do not feel pity or fear with respect to people whose actions we deplore or find contemptible, but we do feel pity or fear with respect to those whose actions we admire but who are brought to ruin by events (about which more later). Additionally, the action being imitated must be 'complete', or else it cannot purify (effect katharsis) the feelings of pity and fear it evokes in its audience, because if left incomplete it leaves the audience suspended. (If a playwright's goal were to evoke such feelings but leave them unpurged, then he or she may leave the action being imitated incomplete, but such a play would not, following Aristotle's definition, be a tragedy.) In any case, it must be said that Aristotle's definitions are sometimes unclear (a function of the nature of the texts that have come down to us), and from our perspective, not always helpful, now that forms of drama have proliferated. But where Aristotle's work has been most influential, I think, has been in his later discussion of the components of tragedy, to which we now turn.
The most important component of tragedy, for Aristotle, is the plot. Although (as we have seen) in other forms of literary art, the plot may not be most important (indeed, in some cases it may be absent) or else share primacy (if such a thing may be said to be possible), Aristotle makes a case for its importance for tragedy:
Virtually all tragedians, one might say, use these formal elements; for in fact every drama alike has spectacle, character, plot, diction, song and reasoning. [There is an endnote in which the translator states that '[t]he text and interpretation of this sentence are extremely uncertain. [p.51]'] But the most important of them is the structure of the events:
(i) Tragedy is not an imitation of persons, but of actions and of life. Well-being and ill-being reside in action, and the goal of life is an activity, not a quality; people possess certain qualities in accordance with their character, but they achieve well-being or its opposite on the basis of how they fare. So the imitation of character is not the purpose of what the agents do; character is included along with and on account of the actions. So the events, i.e. the plot, are what tragedy is there for, and that is the most important thing of all.
(ii) Furthermore, there could not be a tragedy without action, but there could be one without character. ...
(iii) Also, if one were to compose a series of speeches expressive of character, however successful they are in terms of diction and reasoning, it will not achieve the stated function of tragedy; a tragedy which, though it uses these elements less adequately, has a plot and a structure of events will do so much more effectively.
(iv) Additionally, the most important devices by which tragedy sways emotion are parts of the plot, i.e. reversals and recognitions. [pp. 11-2; 50a12-40] I have omitted one of the items Aristotle uses in support of his claim that the plot is the most important component of tragedy, as well as part of his discussion of the possibility of tragedy without character. The reason for the latter omission is that it is not quite clear how tragedy can function without character; Aristotle says that there are poets who compose tragedies without character, but doesn't name any (how inconsiderate of him not to think of twenty-first century readers), instead comparing two painters, one whose works have character, and one whose don't. He prefers neither. Also, his previous reference to 'character' is brief and, I would say, oblique: 'character' he writes, 'is that in respect of which we say an agent is of a certain kind' (p. 11; 50a4-5; italics original to trans.). I'm not clear on what he means by 'character', so it is hard to see how a tragedy could take place without it. Obviously Aristotle does not mean by 'character' what we would mean by using the word 'character' to refer to a person being imitated in a play by an actor. Later in Poetics (54a15-54b21), Aristotle has more to say about character. What I imagine he means by defining character as 'that in respect of which we say an agent is of a certain kind' is that 'character' is the sum of the qualities which a given person possesses. Thus, Achilles (as Aristotle later points out) is 'portrayed' by Homer 'as both a good man and a paradigm of obstinacy. [p. 25; 54b15-16]' If it seems odd to say that plot is necessary for tragedy and character not, it is worth considering other forms of drama and even literature. In fairy tales, for example, the agents rarely display what Artistotle would describe as 'character', yet we enjoy and appreciate the stories and the structure of events. The same could be said about action films, not that I mean to suggest that fairy tales are as bad as most action films. Moreover, as point (iii) shows, 'speeches expressive of character' will not 'achieve the stated function of tragedy'. A speech which tells us what sort of character an agent has will not necessarily move us to feel pity or fear, or be purified of such feelings (katharsis of pity and fear being, for Aristotle, the 'stated function of tragedy'.)
And now a digression. Of the component parts of tragedy (spectacle, plot, character, diction, reasoning, and song), Aristotle ranks plot as the most important, as we have seen. The least important (it would seem) is spectacle:
Spectacle is attractive, but is very inartistic and is least germane to the art of poetry. For the effect of tragedy is not dependent on performance and actors; also, the art of the property-manager has more relevance to the production of visual effects than does that of the poets. [p. 13; 50b20-24] The latter part of the sentence seemed a bit unclear when I read it at first, but on second thought makes sense. Spectacle is not a necessary component of poetry, so the art of poetry is not necessarily concerned with it; whereas spectacle is categorically and necessarily a component of the art of property-managers, for their art is by definition concerned with spectacle. It seems a bit odd to say that the effect of tragedy is not dependent on performance and actors, when the medium through which tragedy effects its stated goal is the performance of actors imitating agents in action. Even if it is not quite the case that (as Marshall McLuhan famously put it) 'the medium is the message', it is certainly so that the medium affects or influences the message being transmitted through it; a shoddy performance of Hamlet is, I would think, less likely to effect katharsis than a (literally) spectacular performance of one of the Bard's lesser tragedies. The favouring of spectacle over plot by lesser dramaturges, which Aristotle warns against, shows that this has been a besetting sin of drama since earliest times. Yet Aristotle's point is well-made: all things being equal, a better tragedy (by virtue of the composition of its plot) will effect katharsis more effectively than an inferior one. Many unspectacular (meant literally, again) films with well-constructed plots are more satisfying and give more lasting pleasure than the many slick, spectacular films whose plots are rubbish. Spectacle provides its own forms of pleasure, and this must not be discounted, but for tragedy (and other forms of drama), plot is the source of its strength, not spectacle.
To return to plot, I will pass over Aristotle's discussion of some of the 'qualities the structure of the events [i.e., the plot] should have'; namely, completeness, magnitude, and universality, although if you can get your hands on a copy of Poetics you should read those sections of Aristotle's discussion about plots. I want to begin by looking at Aristotle's discussion of unity, then at the determinate structure of plots. Finally, I will look at and comment upon simple and complex plots, reversals, and recognition, which are either species or components of plots. I am skipping over a number of other things Aristotle has to say about plot, though, but that's how it goes in a marginal commentary. I can't quote the whole book, right?
A plot is not (as some think) unified because it is concerned with a single person. An indeterminately large number of things happen to a single person, not all of which constitute a unity; likewise a single individual performs many actions, and they do not make up a single action. So it is clear that a mistake has been made by all those poets who have composed a Heracleid or Theseid, or poems of that kind, on the assumption that, just because Heracles [Hercules] was one person, the plot too is bound to be unified. Just as Homer excels in other respects, he seems to have seen this point clearly as well, whether through art or instinct. When he composed the Odyssey he did not include everything which happened to Odysseus (e.g. the wounding on Parnassus and the pretence of madness during the mobilization: the occurrence of either of these events did not make the occurrence of other necessary or probable); instead, he constructed the Odyssey about a single action of the kind we are discussing. The same is true of the Iliad. [p. 15; 51a22-37] As a note by the editor remarks, Homer recounts the wounding at Parnassus in the Odyssey, but it is the retelling of what happened to Odysseus, rather than the action of the wounding itself, that is part of the plot of the Odyssey. Aristotle's point is that a tragedy is concerned with a single and complete action (although 'action' here is, I presume so constituted so that more than one thing happens to make it complete; after all, since tragedy requires movement from good fortune to bad fortune). I should also mention that the editor has a lengthy discussion on plot (as defined by Aristotle) in the introduction to the work, and mentions that Aristotle's conception of plot is, in the Poetics, somewhat abstract, which should be kept in mind. Also, not everything in an individual tragedy comprises the whole of the plot. For instance, in Sophocles' tragedy Oedipus Rex, it is revealed that Oedipus killed his father and married his mother, but the deeds themselves have taken place before the start of the play; nevertheless, they are part of the plot (in the wider sense), in that they are parts of the single and complete action which relates Oedipus' change from good to bad fortune. That the action in a tragedy should be unified, according to Aristotle, means that everything that happens in should relate to a single event and there should be a logical connection between what happens.
On determinate structure:
Just as in other imitative arts the imitation is unified if it imitates a single object, so too the plot, as the imitation of an action, should imitate a single, unified action - and one that is also a whole. So the structure of the various sections of events must be such that the transposition or removal of any one section dislocates and changes the whole. If the presence or absence of something has no discernible effect, it is not a part of the whole. [p. 15; 51a38-44] Everything in the plot, then, should relate somehow to everything else. Admittedly this seems somewhat restrictive. Imagine, for example, the Harry Potter books without any of the brief snippets of day-to-day life at Hogwarts; the action of the plot would not be affected, but I think it would be fair to say that there would be (at least with respect to the enjoyment of the story) a discernible effect. More along the lines of what Aristotle is talking about, one reason why the adaptation into film of The Goblet of Fire was poor, compared to the book, is that it omitted 'various sections of events' which indeed dislocated and changed the whole.
On simple and complex plots:
Some plots are simple, others complex, since the actions of which the plots are imitations are themselves also of these two kinds. By a simple action I mean one which is, in the sense defined, continuous and unified, and in which the change of fortune comes about without reversal or recognition. By complex, I mean one in which the change of fortune involves reversal or recognition or both. These must arise from the actual structure of the plot, so that they come about as a result of what has happened before, out of necessity or in accordance with probability. There is an important difference between a set of events happening because of certain other events and after certain other events. [p. 18; 52a12-22] Italics original to the translation. Elsewhere, Aristotle uses 'simple' to refer to plots in which there is no change from one kind of fortune to another, so the comment 'in the sense defined' and what immediately follows are important to remember. As for events arising from the structure of the plot, coming about as a result of what has happened before, think of how irritating it is in every suspense, horror, or science fiction film when things happen, as it were, out of the blue. By contrast, we enjoy twists and turns in the plot when it is demonstrable that they follow (either, as Aristotle says, 'out of necessity or in accordance with probability') what came before. I would argue that one of the reasons that the Harry Potter books are so enjoyable is because Rowling is actually very good, for the most part, at establishing plots with strong logical connections between parts of the action (all the more impressive considering she is writing books about people capable of using magic). One of her commentators, John Granger, has frequently mentioned how Rowling's extensive knowledge of literary greats is observeable in the Potter books. I expect that it is without a doubt that Rowling has read the Poetics.
A reversal is a change to the opposite in the action being performed, as stated - and this, as we have been saying, in accordance with probability or necessity. For example, in the Oedipus someone came to give Oedipus good news and free him from his fear with regard to his mother, but by disclosing Oedipus' identity he brought about the opposite result; and in the Lynceus, Lynceus himself was being led off to be killed, with Danaus following to kill him, but it came about as a consequence of preceding events that the latter was killed and Lynceus was saved. [p. 18; 52a23-31] That reversals are potent means by which emotions can be affected explains why they are so often used (and not only in tragedy); that such reversals come about not always 'as a consequence of preceding events' explains why the 'sudden plot twists' in many stories are the source, not of pleasure, but of irritation. Consider romantic comedies: without fail there will be a point at which the budding relationship between the protagonists appears to be destroyed. Usually the comedic reversal, in which the fortune of the lovers goes from bad to good, does not happen in accordance with probability or necessity, which is one reason why most romantic comedies are so bad. Yet we cannot help but feel affected by the turn of events. If I may digress, it is interesting to think about what Aristotle says about spectacle not being necessary for plots to effect katharsis, in relation to his discussion of reversal. For I, at least, feel affected by Lynceus' fate as revealed here (a reversal from bad to good fortune), even though all I know of the play comes from Aristotle's discussion of it in Poetics, and have never seen it so as to be affected by spectacle.
Recognition, as in fact the term indicates is a change from ignorance to knowledge, disclosing either a close relationship or enmity, on the part of people marked out for good or bad fortune. Recognition is best when it occurs simultaneously with a reversal, like the one in the Oedipus.
There are indeed other kinds of recognition. Recognition can come about in the manner stated with respect to inanimate and chance objects; and it is also possible to recognize whether someone has or has not performed some action. But the one that has most to do with the plot and most to do with the action is the one I have mentioned [i.e., a 'change from ignorance to knowledge, disclosing either a close relationship or enmity', &c.]. For a recognition and reversal of that kind will involve pity or fear, and it is a basic premise that tragedy is an imitation of actions of this kind. Moreover, bad fortune or good fortune will be the outcome in such cases.
Since the recognition is a recognition of some person or persons, some involve the recognition of one person only on the part of the other, when it is clear who the other is; but sometimes there must be a recognition on both sides (e.g. Iphigeneia is recognized by Orestes from the sending of the letter, but the recognition of Orestes by Iphigeneia had to be different). [pp. 18-9; 52a32-52b9] Again, think of the inartistic 'sudden plot twists'; they are almost always a form of recognition. In the film High Crimes, for example, Morgan Freeman's character discovers via recognition that the husband of Ashley Judd's character (whom they have been working to free from prison) has been the 'bad guy' all along. Although a mediocre film with a poor plot, the use of recognition is effective, because recognitions are of themselves effective. The effectiveness of recognition and reversal, no matter how poor the plot in which they occur, explains, I think, why films, musicals, plays, operas, television shows, and books with mediocre or downright poor plots are popular. The translator and editor notes that the term he translates as 'close relationship' is the Greek word philos, literally 'brother', but one which denotes a wide range of relationships in which one party, due to blood, marriage, or other networks of kinship, bears the responsibility to care for another. Aristotle later discusses types of recognition, which I won't get in to here.
If anything, my marginal commentary shows that much of what Aristotle has to say about plots with respect to tragedy can be applied to a whole range of other kinds of imitative forms of drama. This should not, perhaps, be surprising, given that Aristotle was treating universal structures of drama; it would follow that they should apply to more than one kind of imitation. Moreover, the pleasure recognition and reversal bring are such that, poor though a story's plot may otherwise be, if it has either one (or both) of these two components, it will provide some measure of enjoyment. So much, then, for Aristotle's discussion of plot with respect to tragedy.