In much contemporary dramatic thought, stress is placed on the importance of the character in the drama. This is in keeping with the relatively modern tendency to see acting as an art form, and a high art form at that. Among other things, this focus on character as the most important element of the drama has tended to sideline the significance of plot, thus representing an abandonment of a key element of Aristotle’s theory of tragedy.
For Aristotle, the plot is the most important element in tragic drama. To find out why this, is we need to start by acknowledging that Aristotle describes the plot as a “form of action.” In Aristotle’s philosophy, action is what really determines how we live our lives. And as Aristotle holds to an aesthetic of mimesis—in other words, that art should copy action and that drama should reflect certain kinds of activity that take place in the everyday world and from which we may derive important moral lessons. Aristotle’s emphasis on plot, therefore, is entirely of a piece with his moral philosophy.
The basic distinction that Aristotle draws between tragedy and other genres is that it excites the pleasure of pity and fear in an audience. The ideal dramatist presents incidents that arouse pity and fear, thereby providing the audience with catharsis, a purging and releasing of pent-up emotions. The arousal of pity and fear is to be achieved by the tragic hero: a character neither wholly good nor wholly bad and someone with whom the audience can readily identify.