Aristotle and Tragedy
To Aristotle, tragedy had to follow certain characteristics. These included certain rendering of protagonist, the style of the writing, the direction of the plot, the diction, the reflection, the context, and the melody. Each and everything had its own nuances and meaning and the ideal Tragedy would be written in such a way that the reader or spectator would find the protagonist similar to himself and pity him all the more. Seeing the protagonist as a naive person whose misfortune came about through error rather than through vice, the reader may identify with himself and see the same situation occurring to him. This purging of fear will cause a catharsis that will balance the emotions and leave the person with a greater emotional well-being than he had before.
It is in this manner, that Aristotle considered Tragedy to be a greater tool than history since it dramatizes the cause-and-effect and makes the person feel a part of the incident bringing the person into it.
Of all Tragedies, the story of Oedipus seems to personify Aristotle's characteristics of Tragedy most succinctly. This essay, therefore, is an elaboration of Aristotle's treatise of Tragedy when contrasted to the tragedy of Oedipus. Many of Aristotle's principles are evidenced in Oedipus. Using the story as example, we can better understand his characteristics of attributes of a tragedy.
The Characteristics of Aristotelian Tragedy.
In his volume Poetics, Aristotle comments that:
"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; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its katharsis of such emotions. . . . Every Tragedy, therefore, must have six parts, which parts determine its quality -- namely, Plot, Characters, Diction, Thought, Spectacle, Melody. (Aristotle; Poetics)
According to Aristotle, Tragedy is the kind of situation that personifies real life as closely as possible and leads the spectator or reader to a certain feelings. These feelings are called catharsis where the reader emotes, or feels a certain implode of emotion as he identifies with the hero.
The best heroes therefore, are those who the reader can most accurately identify with, who overcome tremendous suffering, where the fates have already arraigned themselves against the hero and placed enormous obstacles in his path, and which the hero, resourceful and adventurous as he is, will hardly overcome.
The spectator, watching the story and above it all, knows that the hero will fall. This is the tragedy of it. For, identifying with the hero and wanting him to succeed, he knows that the gods have the hero in the palm of their hand and that it is they ultimately who w ill win.
Tragedy, therefore, according to Aristotle, is artistry supreme.
In a practical manner, the author constructs his tragedy by delineating it into six parts. These are in turn:
Plot -- the theme of the story by which the hero starts his adventures, something happens to the hero, he appears as though her were about to win. He fails and is vanquished. Most plots commence with the hero being in a fortunate situation and apparently able to vanquish all odds.
Characters - the hero is generally someone who the reader can identity with. He is extremely human.
Diction -- The diction pertains to style and technique that carries the tragedy along and, in intelligent, creative way brings the tragedy alive so that it moves the audience
Thought -- there is reflection and sometimes a lesson behind the tragedy. The lesson usually was (at least to the ancient Greeks) that the gods control life and that there is little one can do about that. Namely, that one is a plaything to the gods capriciousness.
Spectacle -- this is the background / context of the Tragedy. There are often props, such as
Aristotle considered Tragedy to be higher than History and to serve a more noble function since it shows rather than tells. The individual feels himself as part of the chain in the cause and effect nocturnal system called life. That such is so can clearly be seen in Oedipus where few plays have the power that Oedipus has to move the reader to such an extent that he feels pity for the suffering, innocent King. The King did not deserve the tragedy. On the contrary, he sought to do all that was good and correct. Yet from the beginning, we behind the scene are aware that something cruel will happen to him and that, he blind to his actions will yet suffer from them. Oedipus' tragedy, in a way, was foretold before his birth.
History relates the sequence of events. A drama such as Oedipus related with such pathos and depth as well as with such beauty moves us and brings us into the life and times of the victim. Along with the Chorus we cry and feel for Oedipus and knowing the future, yet rue it and wish it not to occur. Tragedy therefore also arouses fear since it dramatizes the fact that many areas of life lie beyond our control and can destruct us regardless of our ability or distinction. There is a cause -- and -effect chain that lies beyond our commands. Oedipus illustrates this reality perfectly.
Aristotle's requirements of the plot having a beginning, middle and end are also clearly epitomized in the Oedipus story..
The plot too must be complete and self-contained with no sub-plots residing within the larger whole. Rather, each must lead towards the other in an intractable whole. There must be unity and all must happen to the same person. In Oedipus this too is the case, with the story centering consistently around one figure: Oedipus.
The plot must be of a certain qualitative and quantitative magnitude. In other words, it must contain a certain seriousness (but not be overdone in it), and it must be also of a certain length. The more universal and significant the plot, the better the story.
Oedipus is a plot with universal and eternal significance.
The plot should be either simple or complex, although Aristotle prefers complex plots. Simple plots contain only a "change of fortune" (catastrophe). Complex plots, on the other hand, have both "reversal of intention" (peripeteia) and "recognition" (anagnorisis) that serve as surprise and give far more richness and depth to the plot. Oedipus the King it can be said is a complex plot since the twist (or peripeteia) in the play is the messenger. Seeking to help him by revealing that Polybus and Merope are not his real parents, the messenger instead creates a different twist of affairs. This is later recreated by Jocusta and the herdsman with twists in the story leading from fortune to suffering.
Aristotle's other requirement for a perfect tragedy was character. Character should support plot in that the protagonist is seen as someone who is renowned and prosperous so that this downfall is all the more miserable. Oedipus is certainly like this. In fact, he is described as someone who seemed to have it all. His downfall, therefore, was particularly miserable.
Says the Chorus:
What man, what man on earth wins more-of happiness than a seeming -- and after that turning away?
Oedipus, you are my pattern of this, Oedipus, you and your fate! (stasimon 5)
The change in fortune to the character should "should come about as the result, not of vice, but of "some great error or frailty in a character." Such a situation is more likely to arouse pity and fear in the reader for the protagonist is someone more like ourselves whom we can identity with. We, too, are prone to folly and misstep and an unintentional blunder on our part can lead us into a chain of events that can ruin our lives. Spinning on fate, life can herald either luck or misfortune. It is a wheel that the gods are in charge of and a man, similar to ourselves, who falls at this spin of roulette tortures our hearts. The ideal protagonist, according to Aristotle, who falls does so simply because he does not know enough about what the is doing or what life has in store for him.
Oedipus, poor man, was unaware of the implantations…
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