Jun 2, 2020 in Literature

Aristotle’s Theory of Tragedy and Its Manifestation in Greek Classical Plays

The tradition of poetry is very wide and appears in a variety of forms. In Ancient Greece, Aristotle recognized tragedy as one of the main genres and provided a profound analysis of its nature and structure. It may be argued that the theory described by Aristotle is a foundational work that helps comprehend the major aspects and defining features of tragedy as a genre. Greek classical plays, such as Euripides’s Iphigenia in Tauris and Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, are bright examples of Aristoteles’s theory put into practice. The work of Mae Smethurst is used to assess philosopher’s ideas in the context of literary criticism. 

The Definition of Tragedy

In order to discuss the theory and its manifestation, it is important to define the key notion, which is tragedy. According to The Norton Anthology of Drama, tragedy is a genre characterized by a dramatic representation of events (for example, the fall of nobles) that have a happy beginning and end with catastrophes. In some academic writings, tragedy is viewed “as a thematic genre that is best exhibited in drama because tragedy is of action and not character”. Smethurst and other scholars apply Aristotle’s definition, which is derived from “plays written and performed by others” and, therefore, is objective and applicable in different cases.

Consequently, the current paper uses the definition offered by the great philosopher: “tragedy, then, 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 paper analyses tragedy of the classic period, as this time is characterized by dramatic glory that integrated the knowledge about myths and legends and stage performances. In this context, Euripides’s Iphigenia in Tauris and Sophocles’ Oedipus the King are believed to be the tragedies that “might have influenced and actually helped to shape Aristotle’s views on tragedy”. Aristotle used the method of textual analysis and provided examples from these two works to extend the description of his ideas on Poetics. This book is known to be the most influential source of a rhethorical analysis. 


The Authority of Aristotle’s Theory of Tragedy

Tragedy is a principle subject that has been discussed by philosophers and writers of the ancient world (Plato, Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles, and others). Tragedy as a genre with its particular features has its impact on modern dramatists (Beckett, Brecht, Eliot, Ibsenm and others). It has to be noted that the understanding of tragedy as genre is based on the theory proposed by Aristotle in his Poetics; however, he is not the first philosopher to conduct research on tragedy.

For example, Anaximenes of Lampsacus is known to be the author of Rhetoric to Alexander and another work under the title Art of Rhetoric. Poetics takes precedence over other works as it introduces a system of literary criticism, focusing on the nature of art. As the head of the Lyceum, Aristotle studied different fields and conducted research to produce a system of knowledge that could structure and explain the most basic forms of human activities. His philosophical and scientific ideas established an understanding of the essential problems, including tragedy. Additionally, Poetics is full of original ideas that apply to the tendencies of art and are as true today as when first formulated.

The Origin of Tragedy 

While conducting his research on tragedy, Aristotle raised a question concerning the origins of tragedy theatre in an attempt to determine functions and nature of this form of art. The philosopher concluded that mythology influenced the Greek theater that emerged from the cult of Dionysus who was the god of wine, pleasure, and fertility. The process of worship included a chorus and a protagonist. These roles were given to people who had to sing and dance in order to honor the god. The songs that one could hear during such ceremonies were called dithyrambs. Actors performed rhapsodes and told stories about brave heroes and powerful gods. Tragedy is also associated with goat song. The meaning of this notion lies within the ritual that took place during ceremonies. To show respect to the god Dionysos, people scarified a goat. Furthermore, a goat was often offered as a price for the best performances. Such celebrations gave the origin to the theatre. The term tragedy was also related to events that were hard to explain but affected lives of people by brining frustration and sufferings. As a result, tragedy was associated with negative sides of the human existence, disappointments, and pain.

Tragedy to a great extent was an improvisation with no certain form and composition. With time, tragedy advanced and new elements were introduced (for example, the number of actors). Presently, the term applies to different literal pieces; however, according to Aristotle, it always culminates in a tragic end with the leading character suffering. Three famous writers who have created the earliest plays are Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. For this reason, the paper focuses on the works of these authors. 

The Theory of Tragedy

Aristotle states that tragedy is a mean of representation, using the term mimesis. Tragedy, as another form of art, represents nature by imitating it. The objects of imitation are shown in action and represent aspects of life. In tragedy, action is achieved through various forms of activities that consist of actual deeds, feeling, and thoughts. These activities constitute action. In theoretical system of tragedy, there is a “distinction between action and tragic action”, where tragic action is “a change from happiness to misfortune that is the result of a mistake made by a person of good character”. Aristotle establishes a action as a foundation for all drama. Thus, when he writes about the goal of tragedy, he identifies it as “some sort of action, not quality”. Apart from action, which is a general setting for tragedy, there are six parts in a tragic narrative. According to Aristotle, they include a plot, characters, thoughts, diction, melody, and spectacle.

The plot is the most significant part that determines the character of a tragedy and the nature of action presented in a story. The scheme is completed by “the ‘events’ (pragmata) and ‘the plot’ (ho muthos), which is the ‘structure of events’ (he sunsthesis ton pragmaton) and ‘the goal’ (telos)”. A plot may be simple or complex, but in both cases, it includes an inherited change of fortune (metabasis). A simple plot is characterized as one that lacks recognition and reversal. A complex plot has in its structure preceding events that define recognition. Aristotle identifies three main parts in the structure of tragedy, such as the initial part, the middle, and the end. In some cases, it is not important for the audience to witness the events preceding the development of the plot. Therefore, preliminaries help to frame the initial part by introducing characters, their main features, as well as constitute the play. The initial part is followed by the middle part, which is characterized by the turn of events. In the end, tragic events occur (for instance, death or pain of the main hero) that are supposed to involve and emotionally impress the audience. Writers adhere to this structure as it allows develop the plot and experience the drama.

In tragedy, characters are responsible for the action and they advance the narrative. The reaction of characters to different circumstances helps convey ideas of a tragedy more efficiently. The plot is in the center of tragedy and is more significant than the characters and the peculiarities of their personalities. For this reason, the audience may notice rapid changes in the plot of a tragedy, while characters remain monolithic and consistent. In fact, every character has a main characteristic, which establishes a frame for actions. For example, "the tragic hero is a man who fails to attain happiness, and fails in such a way that his career excites, not blame, but fear and pity in the highest degree". The image of Oedipus is considered as one of the most common characters of a tragedy.

Thoughts, melody, and diction do not shape the tragic narrative but simply articulate ideas. Thoughts deal with the meaning of words, and together with diction, the composition of recited lines, they compose a playwright. In classical Greek tragedies, music (melody) was used to emphasize a scene of significance that corresponded to the staging of a tragedy (spectacle). Aristotle described these items as accessories to a tragedy. 

In Poetics, Aristotle sets a few rules that tragedy follows. A special stress is placed on the three unities, including time, place, and action. In accordance with these rules, a tragic play is supposed to last a certain amount of time (usually, a day) and be set within the limits of one locality. Furthermore, action in a tragedy should be centered on a set of incidents that create a line of causes and effects. Aristotle says that there can be deviations from the notion of the three unities but most tragedies fit the tendency. 

In order to successfully convey the meaning and translate ideas into action, a writer needs to maintain a proper length. The length is responsible for the impact that a tragedy has on the audience. The time of performance should not exceed the limit of three hours. This time frame helps to stay focused. It should be noted that a long spectacle results in the disintegrated flow of the story. 

Language is another significant part of tragedy. Language makes the narrative complete and supplements a story with rhyme, rhythm, harmony, and songs. Tragedy belongs to poetry of a high quality and for this reason it employs a number of literary elements (poetry, dialogues, and songs) and requires the use of elated language. The language also creates an emotional connection between characters and the audience. This type of connection is related to the notion of catharsis.

Catharsis is an important element of tragedy that formulates the tragic experience, which is a function of a tragedy. The idea is substantiated within the definition given by Aristotle who writes that tragedy is “an imitation of an action … that is pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these similar emotions”. The catharsis lies in the belief that “when one has gone through suffering one emerges ‘white washed’ or rather chastened”. Catharsis is responsible for purification of the audience. Emotions and feelings of people who witness a tragedy are purged through the sufferings of the characters that evoke fear and pity. It may be concluded that tragedy aims to represent nature by imitating men in action and appealing to the feelings of the audience. 

Elements of Tragedy in Iphigenia in Tauris and Oedipus the King 

Aristotle’s Poetics presents an accurate and comprehensive description of tragedy as a genre, and his elements of the theory are evident in numerous plays. To demonstrate the statement, two classical tragedies are analyzed. The paper focuses on Euripides’ Iphigenia in Tauris and Sophocles’ Oedipus the King and stresses manifestation of Aristotle’s theory in these tragedies, including a plot (action, structure, recognition and reversal), characters, and emotional elements.

In relation to the plot, the paper discusses such elements as “action, which is at the core of an Aristotelian plot, recognition scenes that involve fatal or harmful events”. As it was mentioned above, a tragedy is created as a work that carries a destructive or painful action, such as deaths, physical agony, suffering, or any other experience that inflicts pain. The painful action is always included in a tragedy. In Iphigenia in Tauris and Oedipus the King, for instance, the need to sacrifice Orestes and the death of Oedipus’ father give rise to fear and pity that, by definition, are the key features of tragedy.

Other aspects of tragedy are also incorporated in the stories under consideration. Iphigenia in Tauris and Oedipus the King serve as examples of recognition and reversal. Aristotle perceives reversal as “a change to the opposite direction of events in accordance with probability or necessity”. For instance, reversal is when a person wants to reveal the identity of Oedipus with a purpose to raise Oedipus’s mood and help him overcome fear, but creates a situation with the opposite result. Another example can be found in Iphigenia in Tauris. Smethurst focuses on the scene when Iphigenia and Orestes recognize each other. It should be noted that to Orestes's knowledge Iphigenia was dead. The scene of recognition is a vivid example of Aristotle's theory. In addition to this illustration, other scientists stress that “according to Aristotle, the best plot will have recognition and reversal occurring simultaneously, as in Oedipus the King”. Furthermore, this sequence of actions leads to cathartic experience, “when this marriage between reversal and recognition occurs because both pity and fear will accompany these elements of the tragedy”. Furthermore, the emotional part of tragedy appears when other elements are balanced.

As it was mentioned above, a complex plot of tragedies includes in its structure preceding events that dictate further development of a plot. These events may be incorporated into different parts of a tragedy. This pattern is followed in Iphigenia in Tauris. A sequence of events happened at the beginning of the story and determined the general mood of the tragedy. Thus, Orestes believes that his sister, Iphigenia, is sacrificed and is ignorant about the fact that she has settled in Tauris and become a member of priesthood. The author of the story is able to create a tragic effect by placing Iphigenia under the circumstances in which her father is forced to kill her. These actions reflect difficult choices and are followed by the actions that lead to recognition. Thus, all elements of tragedy are represented and connected.

Сharacters are considered to play next most significant role. Aristotle also gave a definition to the tragic hero that is considered together with “the notion of a ‘tragic flaw’ that is inapplicable to many ancient Greek tragedies, including Oedipus Rex”. In many ways, Oedipus is a most recognizable image that demonstrates the theory of Aristotle and matches all the criteria. Oedipus fulfils the function by creating an emotional effect and “arousing fear and pity in the highest degree”. He implements the idea of fatalism and demonstrates its influence on human lives. These emotions complete the image of the protagonist and have an “ability to adjudicate equitably the character of the protagonist”. As an illustration, one may consider a scene when Oedipus receives a message that reveals the king that his father who is in Corinth has passed away due to the natural cause. Oedipus and the audience felt relief and happiness to know that Oedipus did not cause his father's death (as he was warned by a prophecy). However, the pleasant situation changes when more messengers arrive and notify Oedipus about the fact that a man in Corinth is not his real father. It is horrifying and shocking to hear this information. In the scene, “two messengers who recognize each other after many years, provide the missing information that reveals the error in Oedipus's action”. Therefore, terrible circumstances dictate the development of events, in which the character is trapped facing his tragic role.

As alleged by Aristotle, tragedy has an element of complication (desis) of the plot “as extending from the beginning to the furthest point before the change to ‘good fortune’ (eutuchia) or ‘bad fortune’ (dustuchia)”. In Iphigenia in Tauris, good and bad fortunes are marked by certain events. Iphigenia acknowledges the fact that her fate is indeed destined to fail. Orestes also calls himself unfortunate. Thus, Euripides establishes corresponding conditions and implements changes to have a good fortune. After recognition, Iphigenia says that the fortune of her brother and herself will be good. This statement is supported by the words of chorus that sings about saved lives and happiness. This effect is known as reversal of fortune and is one of the Aristotle’s criteria that “entails a particular kind of act with a particular kind of outcome, with implications for the integrity of the plot and thus the play”.

Iphigenia in Tauris and Oedipus the King manifest the elements of Aristotle’s theory of tragedy. It should be taken into consideration that the theory is supported not only by classical plays but also by some modern works. For example, Smethurst discusses the theory and its relation to modern Japanese plays. Brecht stressed the importance of the Aristotle’s Poetics. The theory is accurate and can be applied to many tragedies. Authors can use the knowledge to create their stories and impress the audience.


After the emergence of tragedy as a dramatic form of art, Aristotle conducted the most foundational study on the new type of drama. In his Poetics, Aristotle considers the elements that compose tragedy. In an analytical fashion, the philosopher describes the plot, characters, thoughts that are used to present an object of tragedy; spectacle, melody, and diction that are the means and manner of representation. Aristotle also includes and evaluates the matter of catharsis. These significant elements find its manifestation in different classical plays. The current paper interprets these elements using such tragedies as Euripides’s Iphigenia in Tauris and Sophocles’ Oedipus the King. It may be concluded the theory proposed by Aristotle can be explicated by numerous tragedies and a detailed analysis of their structure.


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