Aristotle's Poetics Elements of Tragedy According to Essay

Excerpt from Essay :

Aristotle's Poetics

Elements of Tragedy

According to Aristotle, tragedy needs to be an imitation of life according to the law of probability or necessity. Tragedy is serious, complete, and has magnitude. It must have a beginning, middle, and end and be spoken in language that is fit for noble characters. Furthermore it must be acted, as opposed to epic poetry, which is narrated. Tragedy shows rather than tells. Finally it must result in the purging of pity and fear, or a catharsis. Tragedy is based in the fundamental order of the universe, it creates a cause-and-effect chain that clearly reveals what may happen at any time or place because that is the way the world operates. Tragedy arouses not only pity but also fear, because the audience can envision themselves within this cause-and-effect chain.

Tragedy as a whole is composed of six elements: plot, character, language, thought, spectacle and melody. Melody and language are the media by which the effect of imitation of action is carried out, spectacle is the manner or way the tragedy is carried out, and plot, character and thought are the means that initiate the action.


Of these plot is the most important feature of tragedy. This is the arrangement of incidents, not the story itself, but the way the incidents are presented, the structure of the play. Tragedies where the outcome is based on a tightly developed cause and effect chain of actions are better than those that depend on the character and personality of the protagonist. Aristotle says the plot must be self-contained with incidents connected by internal necessity, each leading inevitably to the next. It must have a beginning, middle and end. The beginning must start the cause and effect chain. The middle, or climax, must be caused by earlier incidents, and it must cause the incidents that follow. The end must be caused by the preceding events and should solve or resolve the problem. The plot must have a certain magnitude of length, complexity, and seriousness in order to achieve a universal significance. The plot may be either simple or complex, however complex is better. A simple plot leads only to a change of fortune, while a complex plot has both a reversal of intention and recognition connected with the change of fortune.


Character supports the plot; personal motivations connect the cause and effect chain of actions. Aristotle contends the protagonist should be renowned and prosperous so his change of fortune can be from good to bad. This change should be the result of some great error or frailty in a character as opposed to a vice. The protagonist mistakenly brings about his own downfall not because he is sinful or morally weak, but because he does not know enough. This scenario is most likely to produce pity and fear in the audience, pity aroused by unmerited misfortune, fear by the misfortune of a man like ourselves. Tragic heroes must be good or fine, true to type, realistic, consistent ion personality and motivation, necessary or probable, and noble.

Language and Thought

Language is the expression of the meaning of words that are proper and appropriate to the plot, characters and end of the tragedy. Aristotle describes embellished language as having a rhythm and melody where some parts are carried out in speech and others are sung. Thought is the process through which character is revealed through speeches. This is where something is proved or disproved or a general truism is stated.

Spectacle and Melody

Spectacle, the manner in which a play is staged, creates an emotional attraction to the play. Melody is the musical element of the chorus. Aristotle holds that the chorus should be fully integrated into the play like an actor and choral odes should not be mere interludes, but should contribute to the unity of the plot.

Aristotelian Model of Tragedy as Applied to Oedipus the King, Antigone and Medea

Oedipus the King

Briefly, the story begins as a plague has fallen upon Thebes and the citizens ask their King, Oedipus, to help them. Oedipus has sent his brother-in-law, Creon, to the oracle in Delphi to find out what needs to be done. Creon returns and reports that the plague will end when the murderer of the former King of Thebes, Laius, is caught and expelled. Oedipus vows to solve the mystery and drive out the murder.

Oedipus seeks the council of the blind prophet Tireias to find what he knows of the crime. Tireias reveals the murderer is Oedipus. Oedipus refuses to believe Tireias and accuses him and Creon of conspiring against him. Before Tireias leaves tells Oedipus that the murder of Laius will be both father and brother to his own children and the son of his own wife. Eventually it comes out that all that has been foretold true and Oedipus' mother, Jocasta, hangs herself. Oedipus stabs out his eyes and begs to be exiled. By doing this he ends the plague that has been set upon Thebes.

Sophocles' play Oedipus the King contains several of the elements of tragedy as defined by Aristotle. The plot is complex, driven by cause and effect, and has a beginning, middle and end. The protagonist is of noble character and is undone by what he does not know and his inability to accept his fate. He has a fatal flaw, he is arrogant and motivated by the belief that those around him are conspiring against him. Oedipus also suffers a reversal and recognition when he finds that he is responsible for his father's death and has married his mother. For this he suffers publicly losing his position and his mother/wife. There is a catharsis for the audience, and a universal truth about the limitations of men and the foolishness of challenging the gods.


This play, also by Sopholes, concerns Antigone and Ismene, Oedipus' daughters. The drama begins as the two daughters are discussing the deaths of their brothers Polynices and Eteocles who have killed one another in a battle over the control of Thebes. Creon is now king and has ordered that Polynices, who had brought a foreign army against Thebes be denied proper burial rites. Antigone tells her sister that she is going to bury Polynices despite the king's orders.

When Creon discovers what Anigone is up she freely admits her defiance. Creon condemns her and Ismene to death, even though Antigone is going to marry his son Haemon. Haemon breaks with his father over the issue because of his petty vindictiveness. Creon pardons Ismene, but plans to kill Antigone by walling her up in a tomb.

Tiresias, the blind prophet advises Creon to bury Polynices, however Creon refuses. Tiresias predicts the gods will bring down curses upon the city. Creon has a change of heart and decides to free Antigone only to find that she has hung herself. Haemon, distraught at her death kills himself. Eurydice, Creon's wife then stabs herself cursing her husband for his pride.

The plot of this play is complex as well dealing with Creon's pride and vindictiveness as well as Antigone's belief that there is a higher law than men's. Creon is unable to come to terms with the concept that his judgment may be wrong until it is too late and as a consequence loses everything. He experiences recognition, reversal and suffers greatly for his flaws. Antigone is also noble, staying true to her beliefs, even in the face of death. The play moves logically through events and the characters remain true to their motivations.


This play by Euripedes revolves around revenge. Jason has abandoned his wife Medea in order to marry Glauce, the daughter of Creon king of Corinth, and improve his position in society. Medea is devastated by the betrayal and curses her own existence as well as that of her two children. Creon fearing what Medea might do banishes her from Corinth, however grants her wish of one more day before she must leave. Medea plans her quest for justice, the murder of Creon, Glauce, Jason and eventually her own children.

When Aegeus, King of Athens, arrives unexpectedly he offers Medea sanctuary if she can cure his sterility. Medea pretends to sympathize with Jason and offers his wife gifts meant to convince her to ask her father to allow the child to stay in Corinth. However, the gifts are poisoned killing Glauce, and causing her father to kill himself as well by ling by her side and absorbing some of the poison himself. Medea then murders her children and flees and Jason loses everything he had left Medea to obtain.

The plot Medea is less complex than Oedipus the King or Antigone. The protagonist Medea is motivated by revenge. She kills her children, not because they have done anything wrong, but because it would hurt Jason. The change of fortune that Aristotle speaks of is not so much a fall from prominence as a loss generated by Jason's selfish desire to improve his position.…

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