One of the earliest and most influential of all definitions of tragedy was proposed by the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle in his work known as The Poetics. Aristotle greatly admired Sophocles’ play Oedipus the King (Oedipus Rex), and indeed he seems to have considered it the finest tragedy in existence. Certainly the play exhibits a number of traits that Aristotle considered crucial to a successful tragedy, including the following:
- The play exhibits a reversal of the sort Aristotle admired, as when he writes,
Reversal of the Situation is a change by which the action veers round to its opposite, subject always to our rule of probability or necessity. Thus in the Oedipus, the messenger comes to cheer Oedipus and free him from his alarms about his mother, but by revealing who he is, he produces the opposite effect. (Butcher translation)
- The play exhibits recognition, which Aristotle defines as “a change from ignorance to knowledge. He also writes that
The best form of recognition is coincident with a Reversal of the Situation, as in the Oedipus.
- Aristotle thought that the best tragic figure would be “highly renowned and prosperous,” as Oedipus is initially.
- Aristotle thought that the tragic effects of pity and fear could be produced simply from hearing the plot of a tragedy, so that a tragedy’s success did not necessarily depend on being staged with spectacular means. He felt that hearing the plot alone of Sophocles’ Oedipus could produce pity and fear, thus indicating Sophocles’ skill as a dramatist.
- Aristotle felt that a good tragedy usually involved some “deed of horror” occurring between friends or between members of the same family, as in Oedipus.
- Aristotle felt that a tragedy should exclude the “irrational element,” either from its plot or from its presentation on stage. He thought that the latter exclusion occurred in Oedipus, particularly concerning Oedipus’s ignorance about the manner of Laius’s death.
- Aristotle believed that
of all recognitions, the best is that which arises from the incidents themselves, where the startling discovery is made by natural means. Such is that in the Oedipus of Sophocles.
- Aristotle commended Oedipus for being neither too long nor too short. He considered it exactly the right size to be an effective tragedy.
Above all, Aristotle believed that Oedipus revealed all the key elements of an effective tragedy – elements that Aristotle explained succinctly when he wrote that
Tragedy . . .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.
Aristotle's definition of tragedy is perhaps the most influential that has ever been proposed. In formulating his definition, he seems to have had Sophocles' play in mind and to have tested his definition at practically every point to make sure that Oedipus Rex would be the perfect illustration of his theory.