What is Aristotle's view of tragedy?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Aristotle discusses tragedy at great length in his treatise known as The Poetics. A particularly crucial passage in that treatise contains the following statements:

Tragedy is the imitation of an action; and an action implies personal agents, who necessarily possess certain distinctive qualities both of character and thought. . . . [In fact, every tragedy]  must have six parts, which parts determine its quality- namely, Plot, Character, Diction, Thought, Spectacle, Song.

This passage reveals a number of important aspects of Aristotle’s thinking about tragedy, including the following:

  • His tendency to think of tragedy as a distinct genre, with its own particular criteria,
  • His emphasis on tragedy as one of the various kinds of imitation of life, by which people learn.
  • His emphasis on the imitation of an action as the crucial aspect of a tragedy.
  • His distinction between the action itself and the plot as the particular arrangement of the incidents in an action. An action consists of particular elements, but a plot consists of a particular arrangement of those elements (thus, a tragic writer might jump into the middle of an action rather than proceeding chronologically).
  • His assumption that the choice of a particular kind of action will determine the choice of appropriate characters, thought, diction etc.  Thus, if one decides to write a play about the usurpation of the throne of Denmark, particular kinds of characters, thoughts, and speech will be appropriate to that particular play, while other kinds will not be appropriate (for example, making Hamlet a complete buffoon who speaks with a Cockney accent and who thinks mostly about eating nuts would not be appropriate).
  • His assumption that all the parts of a tragedy must be logically consistent with one another.
  • His assumption that a good tragedy will have a high degree of complex unity for all the reasons just discussed.
  • His tendency to de-emphasize the final two elements he mentions (spectacle and song) as the least crucial, the least important to a true tragedy.
  • His tendency to think very logically about tragedy, so that all the elements of tragedy just mentioned are necessarily connected with one another in ways that contribute to the artistic unity and emotional and intellectual impact of the play.

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