Bust of Aristotle. Marble, Roman copy after a Greek bronze original by Lysippos from 330 BC. National Museum of Rome. Photo: Giovanni Dall'Orto
What do we mean when we say that something is tragic or a tragedy? Take a moment and think about the last time you used the word.
Was it to describe something that had happened to someone that was sad, shocking or unfair? The disappearance of Madeline McCann or the death of Princess Diana might both be thought of as tragedies. Was it to describe a film or television programme, in which things end unhappily for the characters? Ronnie Mitchell on Eastenders might be thought of as a tragic character because everything always seemed to go so terribly wrong for her. Or perhaps, it was just to say that something was really bad? The footballer Stewart Downing’s performance last season might be thought of as tragic because he failed to score a single goal.
We might describe all these things as tragic in everyday life, but technically none of them are. Tragedy is a specific theatrical genre. Its rules were first and most famously outlined by the Greek philosopher Aristotle in the Poetics, which was written sometime around 330BC. In the Poetics, Aristotle outlines the features of a well written tragedy. He mentions that tragedy has six component parts: plot, character, diction, reasoning, spectacle and lyric poetry. The most important of these are plot and then character.
Plot is the most important part of tragedy. It is more important than character. Tragedy, Aristotle says, is an imitation of life and of actions, not of people. Aristotle divides the dramatic narrative into two parts, story and plot. Story is the raw material from which a plot is made. Greek tragedies draw their plots from much longer Greek myths. As we have seen with Medea, rather than telling the whole of Medea’s story, Euripides chooses only to tell the plot of how Jason and Medea split up.
The plot is the smaller part of the larger story that the tragic playwright decides to tell. When making a plot, Aristotle says, the playwright must select a set of events from the larger story and organise them into a logical order, a unified action.
A unified action is a sequence of events that tells a single and clear narrative. Each event in the plot must cause the event that comes next. To say that the king died and then the queen died is not a unified action. The king’s death does not necessarily cause the queen’s death. To say that the king died and then the queen died of grief is a unified action, because the king’s death is clearly identified as the cause of the queen’s death. To do this produces a unity of action.
In the plot of a well written tragedy, there should be a moment of reversal. This is a moment in which the tragic hero or heroine has a drastic change of fortune. They move from good fortune to bad fortune. For example, in Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex, this happens when Oedipus, who is searching for his father’s murderer, realises that he is the murderer himself.
Many people say that Aristotle invented three unities: the unity of action, the unity of time and the unity of place. In the Poetics, Aristotle only explicitly refers to the unity of action, as we have already seen. The unities of time and place were invented much later on, in the Renaissance. They are used primarily in the work of French neo-classical playwrights, such as Racine, who also wrote tragedies based on classical mythology. The unity of time states that the action of a play must not last longer than a single day. The unity of place states that the action of play must all take place in the same location. There cannot be any set changes.
Character is the second most important part of tragedy. Aristotle outlines four rules about characterisation.
Tragic characters must be good. This means that they have the ability to make good choices about their actions.
Tragic characters must be portrayed appropriately. For example, if they are a king they must behave as you would expect a king to behave.
Tragic characters should be like us in some way, but better. They are like portraits of people. They reflect the person as they are, but they accentuate the person’s best qualities.
Tragic characters should be consistent in their behaviour. If they begin behaving in one way, they can’t suddenly start behaving in a completely different way.
Aristotle says one other very important thing about tragic heroes and heroines. He says that they must have a fatal flaw, a hamartia. This flaw doesn’t make them a bad person, but it is the thing that will cause their fall from good fortune to bad fortune.
Aristotle states that a well written tragedy produces catharsis. It produces a feeling of pity and fear in the audience watching it. The audience should feel pity for the tragic hero or heroine, a good person who falls from good fortune to bad fortune through no fault of their own. The audience should also feel fear, as they recognise that the tragic hero or heroine is a person like them, so therefore they too could suffer the same terrible fate.
Aristotle sees catharsis as having a positive effect on the audience. It helps the audience to purge themselves of dangerous flaws. They recognise the hero or heroine’s fatal flaw in themselves and through this moment of recognition, they can purge themselves of this flaw, so becoming better people.
More recent theatre practitioners, such as the Argentinian theatre director Augusto Boal, have argued that Aristotle’s catharsis has a negative effect on the audience. Boal says that catharsis is a tool that governments use to suppress their citizens. Through making people afraid of the consequences of committing certain actions, a government can effectively control people’s behaviour.