(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)


In the Poetics, Aristotle presents the principles of artistic composition. While the work treats many forms of imaginative creation, including comedy, epic, dialogue, and even music and dance, it focuses most particularly on the elements of tragedy.

Textual History

Little is known about the fate of Aristotle's works after his death. It is believed by some scholars that for about two hundred years following his death, the works were either lost or hidden. They were discovered by Sulla (138-78 B.C.) and brought to Rome. According to one prominent scholar, Lane Cooper, the Poetics dates from some time prior to 323 B.C. Cooper comments that the Poetics is perhaps a version of Aristotle's lecture notes, or perhaps even a collection of notes transcribed by someone who attended Aristotle's lectures on the subject. Modern editions of Aristotle's works derive from Roman editions dating back to the late first century b.c. In the Middle Ages, Latin and Arabic translations broadened the influence of Aristotle's teachings, although, as Marvin Herrick has noted, the translations available in England during this time were often thought to be of poor quality. By the end of the fifteenth century, however, Greek versions of the text of the Poetics were available in Italy, and Englishmen traveled there to study it. From that point on, Aristotle's views on the poetic art gained and lost influencein various periods, but gradually became a significant force in the criticism of poetry, drama, and literature.

Critical Reception

Just as Aristotle devotes most of his attention in Poetics to tragedy, modern scholars dedicate much of their critical energy to evaluating Aristotle's views on tragedy. In the English translation of Aristotle's definition, tragedy is an "imitation" of a "serious and complete" action, with a "definite magnitude," or theme, that is "humanly significant." Tragedy employs "pleasing language" or "enhanced utterance;" it is characterized by action rather than narration; and it achieves "through pity and fear" what is known as "catharsis" or "purgation." A major issue of critical debate is this concept of imitation. Often, critics attempt to answer the question of what is to be imitated, and in doing so, defend the concept of dramatic imitation against the negative connotation of an imitation being less pure or noble than the original. John W. Draper has noted that while "imitation" has often been misunderstood, it should be conceived of as art's imitation of nature, where nature is understood to be the "creative force of the universe." Charles Sears Baldwin has discussed the Aristotelian concept of imitation as the representation of the character, emotions, and actions of men. Like Draper, Laurence Berns has argued that by imitation Aristotle meant the imitation of nature. Berns goes on to explain that not only is art to imitate what is "actual in nature," but the perfection that is potential in nature as well. Norman Gulley has taken a position similar to Baldwin's by maintaining that art represents human behavior and its moral aspects.

Critics also grapple with other aspects of Aristotle's definition of tragedy, especially the role of catharsis. Catherine Lord has explained that to Aristotle, tragedy was a "goal-directed system," with the goal being catharsis. G. S. Brett has examined this goal, noting that the Greek term infers purgation and purification. Brett has also stressed that Aristotle's definition of tragedy makes no reference to the effects to be experienced by spectators, and suggests that purgation is essential to tragedy without an audience to undergo the catharsis. Berns, on the other hand, maintains that the catharsis Aristotle describes is, in effect, a moral purification in which audience members or readers are taught what to fear and what to pity.

Another major source of debate among critics is Aristotle's emphasis on the primacy of plot over all other elements of tragedy. Catherine Lord has quoted the Poetics as stating that "without action there cannot be a tragedy; there may be without character." After noting that many critics resist this notion that character is entirely subordinate to plot, Lord has argued that in fact all issues related to character are a function of plot. Lord discusses the concept of hamartia as a function of plot as well, maintaining that while this word is often interpreted as the hero's tragic flaw, it is in fact a "simple mistake," not a moral frailty. Colin Hardie, however, has contended that plot and character are inseparable within the context of Aristotle's entire theory of poetics, even though parts of the Poetics seem to identify an antithesis between plot and character. Hardie explains that within the drama, the "facts and circumstances" through which character becomes defined are the plot. It is in an effort to "guarantee the individuality of character," Hardie maintains, that Aristotle emphasizes the significance of plot.

Aristotle's treatment of tragedy, combined with his coverage of other poetic arts, has contributed to the lasting significance of this treatise. The work has greatly influenced the development of literary criticism and continues to be regarded, in the words of Lane Cooper, as "one of the most illuminating and influential books ever produced by the sober human mind."