In the Poetics, Aristotle presents the principles of artistic composition. While the work treats many forms of imaginative creation, including comedy, epic, dialogue, and even music and dance, it focuses most particularly on the elements of tragedy.
Little is known about the fate of Aristotle's works after his death. It is believed by some scholars that for about two hundred years following his death, the works were either lost or hidden. They were discovered by Sulla (138-78 B.C.) and brought to Rome. According to one prominent scholar, Lane Cooper, the Poetics dates from some time prior to 323 B.C. Cooper comments that the Poetics is perhaps a version of Aristotle's lecture notes, or perhaps even a collection of notes transcribed by someone who attended Aristotle's lectures on the subject. Modern editions of Aristotle's works derive from Roman editions dating back to the late first century b.c. In the Middle Ages, Latin and Arabic translations broadened the influence of Aristotle's teachings, although, as Marvin Herrick has noted, the translations available in England during this time were often thought to be of poor quality. By the end of the fifteenth century, however, Greek versions of the text of the Poetics were available in Italy, and Englishmen traveled there to study it. From that point on, Aristotle's views on the poetic art gained and lost influencein various periods, but gradually became a significant force in the criticism of poetry, drama, and literature.
Just as Aristotle devotes most of his attention in Poetics to tragedy, modern scholars dedicate much of their critical energy to evaluating Aristotle's views on tragedy. In the English translation of Aristotle's definition, tragedy is an "imitation" of a "serious and complete" action, with a "definite magnitude," or theme, that is "humanly significant." Tragedy employs "pleasing language" or "enhanced utterance;" it is characterized by action rather than narration; and it achieves "through pity and fear" what is known as "catharsis" or "purgation." A major issue of critical debate is this concept of imitation. Often, critics attempt to answer the question of what is to be imitated, and in doing so, defend the concept of dramatic imitation against the negative connotation of an imitation being less pure or noble than the original. John W. Draper has noted that while "imitation" has often been misunderstood, it should be conceived of as art's imitation of nature, where nature is understood to be the "creative force of the universe." Charles Sears Baldwin has discussed the Aristotelian concept of imitation as the representation of the character, emotions, and actions of men. Like Draper, Laurence Berns has argued that by imitation Aristotle meant the imitation of nature. Berns goes on to explain that not only is art to imitate what is "actual in nature," but the perfection that is potential in nature as well. Norman Gulley has taken a position similar to Baldwin's by maintaining that art represents human behavior and its moral aspects.
Critics also grapple with other aspects of Aristotle's definition of tragedy, especially the role of catharsis. Catherine Lord has explained that to Aristotle, tragedy was a "goal-directed system," with the goal being catharsis. G. S. Brett has examined this goal, noting that the Greek term infers purgation and purification. Brett has also stressed that Aristotle's definition of tragedy makes no reference to the effects to be experienced by spectators, and suggests that purgation is essential to tragedy without an audience to undergo the catharsis. Berns, on the other hand, maintains that the catharsis Aristotle describes is, in effect, a moral purification in which audience members or readers are taught what to fear and what to pity.
Another major source of debate among critics is Aristotle's emphasis on the primacy of plot over all other elements of tragedy. Catherine Lord has quoted the Poetics as stating that "without action there cannot be a tragedy; there may be without character." After noting that many critics resist this notion that character is entirely subordinate to plot, Lord has argued that in fact all issues related to character are a function of plot. Lord discusses the concept of hamartia as a function of plot as well, maintaining that while this word is often interpreted as the hero's tragic flaw, it is in fact a "simple mistake," not a moral frailty. Colin Hardie, however, has contended that plot and character are inseparable within the context of Aristotle's entire theory of poetics, even though parts of the Poetics seem to identify an antithesis between plot and character. Hardie explains that within the drama, the "facts and circumstances" through which character becomes defined are the plot. It is in an effort to "guarantee the individuality of character," Hardie maintains, that Aristotle emphasizes the significance of plot.
Aristotle's treatment of tragedy, combined with his coverage of other poetic arts, has contributed to the lasting significance of this treatise. The work has greatly influenced the development of literary criticism and continues to be regarded, in the words of Lane Cooper, as "one of the most illuminating and influential books ever produced by the sober human mind."
Principal English Translations
John W. Draper (essay date 1921)
SOURCE: "Aristotelian 'Mimesis' in England," in PMLA, Vol. XXXVI, No. 3, September, 1921, pp. 372-400.
[In the following essay, Draper studies the way in which the understanding of "mimesis," or imitation (as discussed by Aristotle in Poetics), changed over the course of the eighteenth century in England. Draper notes that, in general, the concept was largely misinterpreted.]
Of the many disputed terms in the Poetics, [mimēsis] "imitation," has always been one of the most fruitful of discussion and of misconception; and these misconceptions are particularly significant because, for whole periods, they were potent in moulding creative activity not only in...
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G. S. Brett (essay date 1922)
SOURCE: "Reflections on Aristotle's View of Tragedy," in Philosophical Essays Presented to John Watson, Queen's University, 1922, pp. 158-78.
[In the following essay, Brett examines the concept of catharsis, or purgation, which Aristotle discusses in Poetics. Brett suggests that while Aristotle's definition of tragedy omits direct reference to purgation as experienced by an audience, the concept is still a significant part of his definition of tragedy.]
In all literature, ancient and modern, there are a few conspicuous passages which afford the perennial charm of mystery. Each generation of students looks on them, as Desire looks on...
(The entire section is 6549 words.)
Lane Cooper (essay date 1923)
SOURCE: "Character, Antecedents, and General Scope of Poetics," in The Poetics of Aristotle and Its Meaning and Influence, Cornell University Press, 1923, pp. 3-14.
[In this brief overview, Cooper reviews such textual issues as the date of composition of Poetics and the possible sources on which Aristotle drew to write the treatise. Cooper also discusses the structure, function, and goal of poetry as analyzed by Aristotle.]
The Poetics of Aristotle is brief, at first sight hard and dry, and yet one of the most illuminating and influential books ever produced by the sober human mind. After twenty-two centuries it remains the most stimulating and...
(The entire section is 2332 words.)
Charles Sears Baldwin (essay date 1924)
SOURCE: "The Poetic of Aristotle," in Ancient Rhetoric and Poetic, Peter Smith, 1959, pp. 132-66.
[In the following essay, Baldwin offers a general overview of Aristotle's Poetics, discussing in particular the role of imitation in Aristotle's poetic theory.]
Veneration of Aristotle has been impatiently classed with "other mediæval superstitions," both by those who disliked authority and by those who revolted against the inlaying and overlaying of his text with centuries of interpretations.1 Since the Renaissance the Poetic has, indeed, fared in this regard somewhat as the Bible; and in both cases those deviations from the original intention...
(The entire section is 10569 words.)
Marvin Theodore Herrick (essay date 1930)
SOURCE: "The Middle Ages and the Renaissance," in The Poetics of Aristotle in England, Yale University Press, 1930, pp. 8-35.
[In the following essay, Herrick traces the influence of Aristotle's Poetics on English literature from Roger Bacon's (c. 1214-1294) mention of the treatise in his works through the possible influence of Aristotle's ideas on Shakespeare.]
The first Englishman to mention Aristotle's Poetics was Roger Bacon (c. 1214-1294). Like most of his learned contemporaries, Bacon pursued philosophical and scientific studies as means to the greater study of theology. While his primary aim, then, was neither philosophical, scientific (in...
(The entire section is 9619 words.)
Humphrey House (essay date 1956)
SOURCE: "The Relation of Character and Plot," in Aristotle's Poetics, Rupert Hart-Davis, 1967, pp. 68-81.
[In the following essay, written in 1956, House maintains that Aristotle's views regarding the importance of plot in tragedy actually reveal his "attempt to guarantee the individuality of character."]
This brings us to the famous argument by which Aristotle says that "plot" is more important than "character"; it is stated in the second half of ch. vi (pp. 36-9) and has produced a great deal of discussion. It is absurd in any language (quite apart from questions of translation) to bandy about complicated terms like "character", "plot" and "action" as if they were...
(The entire section is 4711 words.)
Humphrey House (essay date 1956)
SOURCE: "The Tragic Action and Character," in Aristotle's Poetics, Rupert Hart-Davis, 1964, pp. 82-99.
[In the following essay, written in 1956, House analyzes the features of dramatic characters which Aristotle discusses in Poetics. In particular, House focuses on the tragic hero and on the concept of hamartia, noting that the understanding ofhamartia as the hero's "tragic flaw" is misleading.]
In the definition of Tragedy in ch. vi, Bywater's version makes Aristotle say that Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is "serious"; this is also Butcher's translation at that point. But in fact the Greek word here in the definition [spoudaīos] is the same...
(The entire section is 5859 words.)
Laurence Berns (essay date 1964)
SOURCE: "Aristotle's Poetics," in Ancients and Moderns: Essays on the Tradition of Political Philosophy in Honor of Leo Strauss, edited by Joseph Cropsey, Basic Books Inc., Publishers, 1964, pp.
[In the following essay, Berns reviews several aspects of Aristotle's Poetics which he believes have been misunderstood. He examines what Aristotle meant by the term "imitation"; the role of pity and fear in enabling purgation; and character traits of the "tragic hero."]
Henry Jackson, the highly respected classical scholar, an editor of some texts of Aristotle, paid the following compliment to Aristotle's Politics. "It is an amazing book," he said. "It...
(The entire section is 8315 words.)
Catherine Lord (essay date 1969)
SOURCE: "Tragedy without Character: Poetics VI.1450a 24," in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. XXVIII, No. 1, Fall, 1969, pp. 55-62.
[In the following essay, Lord examines Aristotle's elevation of plot above all other elements of tragedy and argues that he does indeed assert that all aspects of character, including the concept of "hamartia," are a function of plot.]
It is commonly believed that there are two kinds of readers or spectators. There are those who read primarily for plot, story, action, narrative, and who especially enjoy spectacle—the vulgar. Then there are those, the connoisseurs of letters,...
(The entire section is 4870 words.)
Norman Gulley (essay date 1979)
SOURCE: "Aristotle on the Purposes of Literature," in Articles on Aristotle: 4. Psychology and Aesthetics, edited by Jonathan Barnes, Malcolm Schofield, and Richard Sorabji, Duckworth, 1979, pp. 166-75.
[In the following essay, Gulley studies Aristotle's use of the term "imitation" and the relationship between that which the dramatic or literary artist represents and that which is "true."]
In beginning this inaugural lecture I am aware that the notion of inauguration carries the notion of what is propitious. To inaugurate, in its literal Latin sense, is to take omens from the flight of birds. It has a transferred sense of consecrating a place or installing a person in...
(The entire section is 6427 words.)
Mark Packer (essay date 1984)
SOURCE: "The Conditions of Aesthetic Feeling in Aristotle's Poetics," in British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol. 24, No. 2, Spring, 1984, pp. 138-48.
[In the following essay, Packer argues that the 'formal and psychological requirements of good tragedy "outlined by Aristotle in Poetics cannot be thought of as a definition of tragedy. Rather, Packer maintains, Aristotle intends them as "the premises and conclusion of a demonstration" that identifies the causal relationship between the formal features of tragedy and the psychological response of the audience or reader.]
An important question raised by Aristotle's analysis of tragic art concerns the relative...
(The entire section is 5328 words.)
Stephen Halliwell (essay date 1986)
SOURCE: "Aristotle's Aesthetics 1: Art and Its Pleasure," in Aristotle's "Poetics," Duckworth, 1986, pp. 42-81.
[In the following essay, Halliwell examines Aristotle's conceptualization of "mimetic arts" and argues that the pleasure which results from experiencing a work of mimetic art is "a response to the intelligible structure imposed on his material by the artist's rational capacity."]
There is evidence to be found in the Poetics, and it receives some confirmation from material elsewhere in the corpus, that Aristotle's thoughts on poetry were not formed in isolation from comparative reflections on other related activities, especially the visual arts, music...
(The entire section is 18136 words.)
Deborah H. Roberts (essay date 1992)
SOURCE: "Outside the Drama: The Limits of Tragedy in Aristotle's Poetics," in Essays on Aristotle's 'Poetics ', edited by Amelie Oksenberg Rorty, Princeton University Press, 1992, pp. 133-49.
[In the following essay, Roberts contends that in discussing the natural limit of plot length, Aristotle conceived of some action as taking place "outside" of the drama's plot. Roberts analyzes what types of action might fall into this category and the methods by which events taking place outside of the play's action could be conveyed to the audience.]
In Chapter 7 of the Poetics (1450b26-31). Aristotle notes that the action of which a play is an imitation must be...
(The entire section is 10534 words.)
Herrick, Marvin T. "A Supplement to Cooper and Gudeman's Bibliography of the Poetics of Aristotle." The American Journal of Philology LII, No. 2 (April, May, June 1931): 168-74.
Introduces new titles and includes titles that were omitted from Lane Cooper and Alfred Gudeman's 1928 A Bibliography of the Poetics of Aristotle.
Adkins, Arthur W. H. "Aristotle and the Best Kind of Tragedy." The Classical Quarterly New Series, Vol. XVI, No. I (May 1966): 78-102.
Examines Aristotle's qualifications for the appropriate subject matter of tragedy and the relevancy of such...
(The entire section is 665 words.)