Aristotle defines tragedy as “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.” The terms of this definition have undergone much interpretation. Butcher states that action (praxis) for Aristotle included the whole life of the mind, as well as mere motion of the body—an inner energy working outward. This is the object imitated by drama and other arts; and under this interpretation, dramatic action is much more than physical action alone. Imitation (mimesis) was a term used disparagingly by Plato, and perhaps popularly, to which Aristotle gave a new meaning. Because the object of poetic imitation was human life and human nature, imitation meant an expression of the universal element in human life. Aesthetically, the real and the ideal come together in this way; the ideal is the real freed from limitations of alien influences and chance and enabled to work out its own development from beginning to end. Thus imitation became a creative process that could improve on nature.
Purgation (katharsis) is applied, in the definition, to pity and fear, by which the spectator is moved. Reference to Politica (second Athenian period, 335-323 b.c.e.; Politics, 1598) to Techn rhetoriks (second Athenian period, 335-323 b.c.e.; Rhetoric, 1686), and to contemporary medical writings shed more light on this purgation than Poetics alone does. Aristotle considered pity and fear to be painful emotions. Pity is what one feels upon observing another in a situation in which he would fear for himself. Just as the playing of frenzied music has the effect of calming those possessed (an actual practice in Aristotle’s times), the presentation of events arousing pity and fear would allay these emotions latent in the spectator, and thus bring pleasure. These are the universal elements of human nature that it is proper for tragedy in particular to imitate.
Tragedy requires six parts: rhythm, song, metrical wording—these three are the kinds of ornament that embellish the language—spectacle (the staging of the play), character of those portrayed, and their thought. What the completeness of tragedy requires, however, is that the piece have a beginning, a middle, and an end. A beginning is that which does not necessarily follow anything but is naturally followed by something else. An end is what must follow another thing but need not be followed by anything. A middle both follows and must be followed by something else. As to magnitude, the imitation should not be so long as to give difficulty in remembering or comprehending the action; but within this limitation, the longer it may be, the finer a creative production. Further, it must be long enough to allow naturally a change from good to bad fortune, or bad to good. The action must be both single and complete, such that to add or subtract an element of plot would disorganize or disrupt, rather than enhance, the action. In these descriptions, Aristotle recognized the dramatic principle of unity of action, which, along with the unities of time and place that he suggested, were zealously observed in neoclassical times.
Plot, Aristotle says, is the very soul of tragedy. Being the arrangement of the incidents, it is what portrays the action. “For Tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of an action and of life, and life consists in action, and its end is a mode of action, not a quality.” Character determines people’s qualities, and these...