Aristotle: Poetics

2. Poetry as a species of imitation
Epic poetry and tragedy, comedy also and dithyrambic poetry, and the music of the flute and of the lyre in most of their forms, are all in their general conception modes of imitation. They differ, however, from one another in three aspects – the medium, the objects, the manner or mode of imitation, being in each case distinct.

2.1 Medium
the imitation is produced by rhythm, language, or ‘harmony’, either singly or combined. /…/ In dancing, rhythm alone is used without ‘harmony’; for even dancing imitates character, emotion, and action, by rhythmical movement.

2.2 Object
Since the objects of imitation are men in action, and these men must be either of a higher or a lower type /…/, it follows that we must represent men either as better than in real life, or as worse, or as they are. It is the same in painting. /…/
Such diversities may be found even in dancing, flute-playing, and lyre-playing. So again in language, whether prose or verse unaccompanied by music.

3. The anthropology and history of poetry

3.1 Origins
Poetry in general seems to have sprung from two causes, each of them lying deep in our nature. First, the instinct of imitation is implanted in man from childhood, one difference between him and other animals being that he is the most imitative of living creatures /…/
Objects which in themselves we view with pain, we delight to contemplate when reproduced with minute fidelity: such as the forms of the most ignoble animals and of dead bodies. /…/
Imitation, then, is one instinct of our nature. Next, there is the instinct for ‘harmony’ and rhythm, metres being manifestly sections of rhythm.


4. Tragedy: Definition and analysis
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 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.
By ‘language embellished’, I mean language into which rhythm, ‘harmony’ and song enter. By ‘the several kinds in separate parts’, I mean, that some parts are rendered through the medium of verse alone, others again with the aid of song.


For tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of an action and of life, and life consists in action, and its end is a mode of action, not a quality.


4.4 The ranking completed
The plot, then, is the first principle, and, as it were, the soul of a tragedy; character holds the second place. A similar fact is seen in painting. The most beautiful colours, laid on confusedly, will not give as much pleasure as the chalk outline of a portrait. Thus tragedy is the imitation of an action, and of the agents mainly with a view to the action.


5. Plot: Basic concepts
5.1 Completeness
Now, according to our definition tragedy is an imitation of an action that is complete, and whole, and of a certain magnitude; for there may be a whole that is wanting in magnitude. A whole is that which has a beginning, a middle, and an end. A beginning is that which does not itself follow anything by causal necessity, but after which somwthing naturally is or comes to be. An end, on the contrary, is that which itself naturally folloes some other thing, either by necessity, or as a rule, but has nothing following it. A middle is that which follows something as some other thing follows it. /…/

5.2 Magnitude
Again, a beautiful object, whether it be a living organism or any whole composed of parts, must not only have an orderly arrangement of parts, but must also be of a certain magnitude; for beauty depends on magnitude and order. Hence a very small animal organism cannot be beautiful; for the view of it is confused, the object being seen in an almost imperceptible moment of time. Nor, again, can one of vast size be eautiful; for as the eye cannot take it all in at once, the unity and sense of the whole is lost for the spectator; as for instance if there were one a thousand miles long. As, therefore, in the case of animate bodies and organisms a certain magnitude is necessary, and a magnitude which may be easily embraced in one view; so in the plot, a certain length is necessary, and a length which can be easily embraced by the memory.


5.3 Unity
Unity of plot does not, as some persons think, consist in the unity of the hero. For infinitely various are the incidents in one man’s life which cannot be reduced to unity; and so, too, there are many actions of one man out of which we cannot make one action.


5.4 Determinate structure
As therefore, in the other imitative arts, the imitation is one when the object imitated is one, so the plot, being an imitation of an action, must imitate one action and that a whole, the structural union of the parts being such that, if any of them is displaced or removed, the whole will be disjointed and disturbed. For a thing whose presence or absence makes no visible difference, is not an organic part of the whole.

5.5. Universality
/…/ The poet and the historian differ not by writing in verse or in prose. /…/ The true difference is that one relates what has happened, the other what may happen.
Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular. /…/

It clearly follows that the poet or ‘maker’ should be the maker of plots rather than of verses; since he is a poet because he imitates, and what he imitates are actions. /…/

5.6 Defective plots
Of all plots and actions the episodic are the worst. I call a plot ‘episodic’ in which the episodes or acts succeed one another without probable or necessary sequence. /…/

6.1 Astonishment
But again, tragedy is an imitation not only of a complete action, but of events inspiring fear or pity. Such an effect is best produced when the events come on us by surprise; and the effect is heightened when, at the same time, they follow as cause and effect.


6.3 Reversal
Reversal is a change by which the action veers round to its opposite, subject always to our rule of probability or necessity. /…/

6.4 Recognition
Recognition, as the name indicates, is a change from ignorance to knowledge, producing love or hate between the persons destined by the poet for good or bad fortune. The best form of recogition is coincident with a reversal, as in the Oedipus. /../

6.5 Suffering
Two parts, then, of the plot – reversal and recognition – turn upon surprises. A third part is the scene of suffering. The scene of suffering is a destructive or painful action, such as the death on the stage, bodily agony, wounds, and the like. /…/

7. The best kinds of tragic plot
There remains, then, the character between these two extremes – that of a man who is not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty. /…/
The change of fortune should not be from bad to good, but, reversely, from good to bad. It should come about as the result not of vice, but of some great error or frailty.


8.2 Kinds of recognition
What recognition is has been already explained. We will now enumerate its kinds.
(i) First, the least artistic form, which, from the poverty of wit, is the most commonly employed – recognition by signs. /…/
(ii) Next come the recognitions invented at will by the poet, and on that account wanting in art. /…/
(iii) The third kind depends on memory when the sight of some object awakens a feeling /…/
(iv) The fourth kind is by process of reasoning. /…/
(v) Again, there is a composite kind of recognition involving false interference on the part of one of the characters /…/
(vi) But, of all recognitions, the best is that which arises from the incidents themselves, where the startling discovery is made by natural means.


8.5 Kinds of tragedy
There are four kinds of tragedy: the complex, depending entirely on reversal and recognition; the pathetic (where the motive is passion) /…/; the ethical (where the motives are ethical) /…/. The fourth kind is the simple.


8.7 Tragedy and epic
Again, the poet should remember what has been often said, and not make an epic structure into a tragdy – by an epic structure I mean one with a multiplicity of plots – as if, for instance, you were to make a tragedy out of the entire story of the Iliad.


10.3 Differences between tragedy and epic
In tragedy we cannot imitate several lines of action carried on at one and the same time; /…/ But in epic poetry, owing to the narrative form, many events simultaneously transacted can be presented;


The poet should speak as little as possible in his own person, for it is not this that makes him an imitator.


11. Problems and solutions
(i) The poet being an imitator, like a painter or any other artst, must of necessity imitate one of three objects – things as they were or are, things as they are said or thought to be, or things as they ought to be.


12. Comparative evaluation of epic and tragedy
The question may be raised whether the epic or tragic mode of imitation is the higher.

12.1 The case against tragedy
If the more refined art is the higher, and the more refined in every case is that which appeals to the better sort of audience, the art which imitates anything and everything is manifestly the most unrefined. /…/
Bad flute-players twist and twirl, if they have to represent ‘the quoit-throw’, or hustle the coryphaeus when they perform the Scylla. /…/
Tragic art, then, as a whole, stands to epic in the same direction as the younger to the elder actors. So we are told that epic poetry is addressed to a cultivated audience, who do not need gesture; tragedy, to an inferior public. Being then unrefined, it is evidently the lower of the two.

12.2 Reply
Now, in the first place, this censure attaches not to the poetic but to the histrionic art; for gesticulation may be equally overdone in epic recitation /…/

Once more, the epic imitation has less unity; as is shown by this, that any epic poem will furnish subjects for several tragedies. Thus if the story adopted by the poet has a strict unity, it must either be consisely told and appear truncated; or, if it conforms to the epic canon of length, it must seem weak and watery.