Six elements of tragedy as enunciated by Aristotle

During the classical period of the Greeks emerged the polymath and philosopher Aristotle. He was a student of Plato and founded the Peripatetic school of philosophy, and the Aristotelian tradition. He then became the first theorist of theatre, manifesting form his work Poetics, which is the basis for all subsequent theatre criticism. About hundred years after the prime of Greek theatre was when his work Poetics came into being, thus he was illustrating, describing, criticizing and theorizing about the writers of the past. Aristotle was enunciating numerous macro and micro features of a ‘great’ tragedy to then categorize them into six main elements. Primarily tragedy according to Aristotle is an imitation of an action that is complete and whole and of a certain magnitude, having serous and far reaching consequences These are the mandatory conditions for a tragedy to get constituted. ‘Tragedy imitates the actions of the best people in society, and comedy the worst sorts of people in society’. Tragedy being the serious matter according to Aristotle has to distance itself from the trivial, such as the domain of comedy, and become a timeline of great personalities because only their actions will be of consequence to the larger community. Modernists such as the Arthur Miller, the American playwright would later come to disagree with Aristotle on this regard, saying that tragedy (modern) should deal with the lives of ordinary people. This is one of the main points of Aristotelian tragedies, which is also of the Greeks, that the emphasis should be put on the community, as individuality was seen as something negative, adherence to authority (city-state). These notions come in handy for Aristotle Poetics as he starts to point out the differences between good and bad tragedy. He starts off with the notion of Pathos, it means suffering and to him this was a very important aspect. Although Pathos isn’t an element it is nevertheless required, but only in the tragedies where there is a reversal from good to bad, or to final destruction. Aristotle was going against the grain of his time by standing for a final destruction in tragedies; that it isn’t its aversion but its finality that makes up a good tragedy. 

In Poetics, the features or elements that Aristotle presents are a cornerstone for tragedy. The very first one of the elements is the soul of tragedy according to him, which is ‘myth’ or plot. His argumentation for myth being the soul of tragedy is that it is myth that holds all the other elements of tragedy together structurally. The importance of ‘wholeness’ and ‘magnitude’ in his theory is high; the ‘myth’ should have a beginning, a middle and an end, with it being easy to be embraced in the view, to be placed in the memory and presents itself as a total picture. The plot’s (myth) construction should be such that the events must follow in a manner that is credible. Aristotle argues that plot has to have a continuous sequence of beginning, middle and end, which is the ‘wholeness’. The beginning initiates an action is such a way that makes the reader look forward to the next phase, the middle runs on the presumption of what has been done and requires an addition to that to carry the plot forward, the end thus is nothing more than a flow of what has occurred and requires nothing more, giving a satisfying end hence completing the plot. Now as plot is an imitation of action, he says that it should have “unity of action”. He further elaborates on plot into its types, which is that they can be divided into either simple or complex. The simple plot is defined as a unified construct of necessary and probable actions accompanied by a change of fate or fortune. The complex plot, says Aristotle, is accompanied by two other features, namely; peripeteia or reversal, and anagnorisis, or recognition. It is this which Aristotle feels is the best kind of tragic plot, in that it provides the best possibility of delivering tragic pleasure.

Ethos or character is another element, there are certain prescriptions made about ethos, firstly, that characters in tragedy had to be good men. Characters in comedy and satire were not necessarily good men, but people who are understood as mean characters, they fell in the category of admirable people or laughable folks. Aristotle gave the idea of what a tragic character should be like. Not necessarily exceptional, but someone who could be relatable, one that could be easily identified with. Characters serve to advance the story, the way in which the character acts is how the story progresses to its outcome. Aristotle mentions certain traits of good and bad characters that character must have ‘goodness’, this is reflected through his/her speech. Speech because when the protagonist speaks, his/her utterances must reflect a moral purpose. Propriety: It means that if there’s a man as a protagonist than he should show valour and courage, and according to his time, valour in women was not seen as proper. Propriety is an important requirement for a protagonist. There should be no inappropriate conduct reflected, which would violate the notion of propriety and he believed that if women are to be presented as good protagonist, they have to be subdued if they are to reflect ‘goodness’. He also said that a protagonist shouldn’t be outlandish, he/she should conduct him/herself in a manner which is true to life. One of the important aspects is of consistency, that the character has to be consistent, at least in thoughts, one can’t show inconsistency, because saying something (reflecting a moral purpose) one has to be very consistent with that moral. If someone is inconsistent, he/she has to be consistently inconsistent. This was his notion of the Ethos. 

Thought and diction went hand-in-hand in his theory. Thought means what the characters think or feel during their career in the development of the plot. The thought is expressed through their speeches and dialogues. Diction is the medium of language or expression through which the characters reveal their thoughts and feelings. Aristotle assigned great significance to Dianoia, as an essential element of tragedy. The diction according to him should be ‘embellished with each kind of artistic element’. The song is one of these embellishments. The concept of Dianoia added to it, which was the process of wilful sharing of moral with the audience. It was this element that made it possible to know what was on the character’s mind as the tragedy was unfolding. The moral choices were preceded by the character’s thoughts, that were to be presented to the audience. As there is no utility if the character writes the thoughts down for presentation purposes the best tool is of proper diction of his thoughts. When the tragedy is unfolding, the dialogue makes one understand as to what is on the character’s mind. The character might come up with general maxims, he/she might take recourse to those maxims to support the action or argument. Thinking is for choosing, actions follows decision. The culmination of actions is how Ethos is understood. The way action culminates, that action, what it leads to is the best way to judge the Ethos. In a character the idea of Hermarcia also came into being, which is the attribute of a tragic failing or flaw which drives the play forward, hence becoming responsible for the tragedy.

Song or Melos which is an external element given its obvious importance wasn’t as discussed by Aristotle as the other elements. Lexis means language in theatre. It has two parts, spoken and sung word. Natural conversational speech is what characterizes spoken word, this form wasn’t much used in ancient theatre. There used to be language spoken in pitched variation, ranging from entuned speech to full embellished song. They could also be variety of variation between entuned word and song as well. It had musical and linguistic content. It was expected and suggested that sound would generate meaning in two ways: language and music. Aristotle said that there has to be a balance between clarity produced by the usage of the current words and the loftiness achieved by extraordinary usage. Given a playwright’s tendency to use loftiness in the dialogues, Aristotle suggests to use what is clear and has absolute clarity. There is also a musical element to it, known as Melopoeia, which is application of music in theatre Greek chorus and actors had the liberty to use all the prevalent musical forms. It had subtle nuances and that could be a cultural reference to the life of that society. Given the function of music in amplifying emotions, its application was of significance in tragedy. 

The spectacle or Opsis is the final elements in the making of tragedy according to Aristotle. It concerns the visual content of theatre from the formation of dancers in the chorus and the costumes to the movements, gestures and hand-signs of the actors. But it is suggested as far as Poetics is considered that Aristotle had limited the sense of the word to stage scenery only. Although unlike the internal elements of tragedy like Dianoia and Ethos, Aristotle didn’t speak about the external elements such as Opsis and Lexis to the same length, however, that doesn’t take them away from the matter of significance. 

Aristotle provides a framework with his six elements to understand the art of tragedy in its totality and how this art leads to a theatrical experience. He attempts to analyse tragedy, as it was to be found in Greek culture, he doesn’t come up with a prescriptive idealism. For him tragedy is a theocratic experience, having theocratic value, as what he understands as catharsis.

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