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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1661

Aristotle’s Poetics (c. 334-323 b.c.e..) has been criticized, discussed, distorted, and maligned for centuries. Objections focus on three problems: its fragmentary state, its transmission through lecture notes, and its concern with a restricted and relatively brief period in the development of Greek drama, that of the fifth century b.c.e.. Stephen Halliwell addresses these problems in both the introduction and commentary which accompany his new translation.

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Though one might imagine that the Poetics became the ancient world’s arbiter of taste immediately after its compilation, this was not the case. Aristotle’s interests ranged broadly through logic, metaphysics, ethics, and cosmology. Literature was a secondary concern, and the unfinished style of the extant fragment is internal evidence that the Poetics was intended as a synthesis of Aristotle’s ideas, gathered either by himself or his students. It was, therefore, a kind of textbook, used primarily by students in Aristotle’s circle and never intended for publication. If, as is generally assumed, the Poetics is actually student lecture notes, the question of how accurately it reflects Aristotle’s ideas becomes very important. Even assuming Aristotle’s editing of the extant text, how reliably can one apply the principles of criticism offered for drama to other forms of poetry? In its complete state, the Poetics considers mimetic art in general: music, painting, sculpture, dancing, poetry, and the vocal arts. Is it legitimate to apply Aristotelian critieria of “unity” or notions of “pity” and “fear” to these forms as well?

Halliwell wisely sidesteps this critical morass by focusing on what can be said reliably about the Poetics. Half of his introduction, for example, concerns the importance the Poetics held in the development of Renaissance thought and how it influenced European neoclassicism in the eighteenth century. This emphasis, absent from the other modern commentaries, is a major feature of Halliwell’s work; were Halliwell to have done nothing other than trace these influences, his contribution would have been substantial. Because he considers interpretation problems as well, his work is invaluable to contemporary students of literature and the arts.

A worthwhile observation, often overlooked, is the assumption that critical ideas found in post-Aristotelian and especially in Roman critics essentially recapitulate Aristotle’s. Clearly both Horace’s Ars poetica (c. 17 b.c.e..; The Art of Poetry) and Cicero’s de Oratore (c. 55 b.c.e..; Orations) have served as substitutes for Aristotle and offer what he might have said on certain questions of rhetoric. Halliwell notes in this vein that Sir Philip Sidney often juxtaposes Aristotelian thought with ideas derived from other sources in his Defence of Poesie (1595), the first major neoclassical study on rhetoric. Sidney’s definition of “mimesis,” for example, shifts from the Aristotelian “art of imitation” to the neo-Platonist notion of “poetic imagination” to the Horatian argument of “delight” produced upon an audience. Neither Sidney nor his readers saw a problem in such harmonizing to produce a “classical” point of view; Halliwell does, and so should any person interested in determining what Aristotle’s position actually was.

Similarly, the pseudo-Aristotelian trio of unities (that drama must have a single time, place, and action) became so taken for granted in neoclassical literature that the English critic Thomas Rymer argued a chorus in tragedy was a necessity to guarantee unity of place. He based his arguments on Aristotle, but Aristotle never wrote anything of the sort. Halliwell ranges easily over the neoclassical sources and makes similar observations on the writings of Ben Jonson, John Milton, John Dryden, Joseph Addison, and the French dramatists.

This is not to imply that Halliwell concerns himself exlusively with the neoclassical transmission of Aristotelian thought. At the heart of his work is an excellent translation of the Poetics, one which is comprehensible to students yet as faithful as possible to the Greek text. A literal translation is at best difficult to make since there has never been an authoritative variorum edition from which to work. Halliwell follows the best text available, that of R. Kassel (published by Oxford University Press in 1965), though he emends the text and indicates difficulties where he believes they exist.

Reviewing a few of the more familiar critical principles of the Poetics against Halliwell’s commentary will illustrate its different emphasis. The first of these is the principle of mimesis, that the arts involve an “imitation” of real people engaged in plausible actions. Halliwell notes the general lack of sympathy modern readers have for this notion. Implicitly, mimesis posits rational, methodical objectivity. Modern art in general, however, privileges the subjective. He continues with an insightful review of the factors which influenced Aristotle to offer a uniform system for interpreting cultural phenomena and observes that Aristotle here manages both to link his ideas with Plato’s concept of technê (productive skill which matches rational means to predetermined ends) and to distance himself from his former teacher by accepting poetry as a rational art. Harold Bloom offers this idea as “swerve” from the works of predecessors in his Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (1973). It is intriguing to find it argued in Halliwell and applied to two works of critical theory: the Poetics and Ion, one of Plato’s Dialogues (c. 400 b.c.e..).

When Halliwell discusses Aristotle’s presentation of the forms of dramatic poetry (dithyramb, or purely choral poetry, comedy, and tragedy), he carefully notes that Aristotle’s emphasis remains with effects produced on the audience. It is, therefore, an objective and teleological analysis concerned with function and purpose. In contrast, Friedrich Nietzsche becomes for Halliwell a symbol of Romanticism since his Die Geburt der Tragödie (1872; The Birth of Tragedy, 1910) privileges the Dionysiac satyr chorus of dithyramb.

Aristotle defines tragedy as representation of an action which is serious, complete, and ample, presented in dramatic (non-narrative) form; it arouses the emotions of pity and fear in an audience which in turn effects the catharsis (purging or release) of these emotions. Halliwell notes, with a certain amusement, Matthew Arnold’s praise of Aristotle’s use of the word “serious.” This clearly is the weakness of Aristotle’s definition, for it disregards Euripidean tragicomedy completely. It also reflects the conservatism of the fourth century. Aristophanes, after all, had quickly disposed of Euripides in Bastrachoi (405 b.c.e..; The Frogs) in a staged debate with Aeschylus on the nature of tragic poetry.

Halliwell justifiably wonders what Aristotle’s definition of catharsis would be. He tentatively suggests that Aristotle might be responding to Plato’s view in The Republic (c. 400 b.c.e..) that tragedy arouses emotions which ought to be kept in check. Could Aristotle have also understood catharsis as a broader experience which goes beyond the emotional experience of the performance itself? Halliwell does not attempt to answer this moot question; still, that he deals with what is essentially a Freudian concern, the psychology which underlies tragic drama, illustrates the commentary’s modern originality.

Aristotelian notions of “pity” and “fear,” the emotions he believed tragic drama should inspire in its audience, also demand discussion. Presumably Aristotle meant that an audience should recognize that they too could be exposed to the same sufferings as the tragic characters and respond to this feeling. In effect, this entails an individual projection upon tragic models. Halliwell rightly notes the mingled elements of altruistic feeling and self-interest implicit in the experiencing of tragedy. He notes further the affinity of fear as tragic emotion to apprehension as a constituent of life in general. Anxiety of change for the worse characterizes life in every society, but the theme of fate appears in nearly every significant work of Greek literature; this is some indication of its special importance in Greek daily life.

Tragic action should have unity of action. Halliwell understands this as “wholeness,” possessed of beginning, middle, and end. It does not, as he believes, imply that indirectly related themes must be eliminated, only that they must be integrated with the major action. Taken this way, an epic poem like Homer’s Iliad (c. 800 b.c.e..) possessed dramatic unity since all action relates to the wrath of Achilles even though Achilles’ appearances are limited to crucial episodes.

Aristotle stipulated that the unified tragic action should deal with possible and probable events. This suggests that historical subjects are unsuitable material for tragedy. Halliwell, however, believes that Aristotle did not intend absolutely to eliminate historical details from drama. Aeschylus, for example, incorporates historical details in his Persai (472 b.c.e..; The Persians. It appears that Aristotle was more concerned with historical details which overly particularize action and thereby lessen its universal applications.

Halliwell’s commentary on dramatic peripeteia (reversal) and anagnorisis (recognition, or as Halliwell translates it “discovery”) is particularly valuable. He notes that a secondary character may be the agent of reversal as the messenger in Sophocles’ Oidipous Tyrannos (c. 429 b.c.e..; Oedipus Tyrannus), but the reversal must relate directly to the fortunes of the central characters. In a similar manner, a secondary character may recognize the reversal first, but this recognition must quickly be shared by the principals. In the Oedipus Tyrannus, the herdsman knows that Laios and Iocasté are Oedipus’ parents and that Oedipus has killed Laios and lives with Iocasté as her husband. Iocasté recognizes the truth before Oedipus, but Oedipus discovers independently what he has done.

These explications of Aristotelian drama theory are well taken; they have the virtue of separating what actually appears in the Poetics from interpretations made since the Renaissance. Unfortunately, many of these have become so entangled with Aristotle’s theories that students of the theater, particularly those unable to read Greek or to penetrate the excellent scholarly textual commentary of Gerald F. Else (Harvard University Press, 1967), have often seen the Poetics as dogmatic and unsuitable for contemporary use. Halliwell’s book, historical rather than textual, is particularly useful for such readers. A brief list of additional readings and a glossary of names and technical terms add to its considerable worth.

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