Studying Aristotle’s “Poetics” — Part 13(A): A Perfect Tragedy
As I’ve been interviewing screenwriters, I typically ask what some of their influences are. One book title comes up over and over again: Aristotle’s “Poetics.” I confess I’ve never read the entire thing, only bits and pieces. So I thought, why not do a daily series to provide a structure to compel me to go through it. That way we’d all benefit from the process.
For background on Aristotle, you can go here to see an article on him in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
To download “Poetics,” you can go here.
Part 13(A): A Perfect Tragedy
As the sequel to what has already been said, we must proceed to consider
what the poet should aim at, and what he should avoid, in constructing
his plots; and by what means the specific effect of Tragedy will be
A perfect tragedy should, as we have seen, be arranged not on the
simple but on the complex plan. It should, moreover, imitate actions
which excite pity and fear, this being the distinctive mark of tragic
imitation. It follows plainly, in the first place, that the change
of fortune presented must not be the spectacle of a virtuous man brought
from prosperity to adversity: for this moves neither pity nor fear;
it merely shocks us. Nor, again, that of a bad man passing from adversity
to prosperity: for nothing can be more alien to the spirit of Tragedy;
it possesses no single tragic quality; it neither satisfies the moral
sense nor calls forth pity or fear. Nor, again, should the downfall
of the utter villain be exhibited. A plot of this kind would, doubtless,
satisfy the moral sense, but it would inspire neither pity nor fear;
for pity is aroused by unmerited misfortune, fear by the misfortune
of a man like ourselves. Such an event, therefore, will be neither
pitiful nor terrible. 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. He must be one who is highly renowned and prosperous-
a personage like Oedipus, Thyestes, or other illustrious men of such
I find this pretty fascinating on several fronts. First, there is Aristotle’s specific articulation of what constitutes a “perfect tragedy”:
* …arranged not on the simple but on the complex plan: This circles back to what Aristotle discussed in Part 10:
A Complex action is one in which the change is accompanied by such
Reversal, or by Recognition, or by both. These last should arise from
the internal structure of the plot, so that what follows should be
the necessary or probable result of the preceding action.
* …imitate actions which excite pity and fear: Apparently the emotional goal of the writer for a Tragedy.
Then three examples of what a Perfect Tragedy is not:
* …the change of fortune presented must not be the spectacle of a virtuous man brought from prosperity to adversity.
* Nor, again, that of a bad man passing from adversity to prosperity.
* Nor, again, should the downfall of the utter villain be exhibited.
Then what arouses “pity”:
* …unmerited misfortune, fear by the misfortune of a man like ourselves.
In the end, Aristotle presents an ideal character as the subject for a Perfect Tragedy:
…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.
So it would seem Aristotle is playing the sympathy card: (1) A character with whom we can relate. (2) The cause of the Tragedy cannot emerge from wanton and egregious acts of debilitation, but rather a more nuanced cause: errors, frailty.
In both cases, Aristotle grounds sympathy in the proximity of the character to the audience. They are a “man like ourselves.” They are not hugely overrun by consumptive or corrupting instincts, but rather mere mortals prone to mistakes.
In modern parlance, we might refer to this character as a “good guy” or “good gal.”
What this reminds me of is how in screenplays, one of our primary goals is to create reader (or audience) identification with the Protagonist. This is critical to engage a reader and get them hooked on the journey and outcome of the narrative. Sympathy and proximity are a solid one-two punch to engender that identification.
All of which leads me to my second thought: Why was Tragedy such a big deal to the Greeks? Why was it considered to be the acme of contemporary literature and cultural art? How and why did ancient Greeks find Tragedies so entertaining? Something to do with the power of morality tales? Witnessing misfortunes befalling a “good guy” and left to think, “There but the grace of God go I”?
Next there is Aristotle’s use of the Greek word ἁμαρτία (Hamartia). Here “errors.” In the New Testament, it is translated as “sin.” While the latter would seem to have more existential heft to it (sin against God), they both have this in common: Bolstering the universality of the human experience.
Each of us has made errors. Each of us has frailties. Each of us has sinned and “fallen short of the glory of God.”
It’s that guy (or gal), the mere mortal, who is the subject of Tragedies per Aristotle, which helps us to relate to such characters.
Final thought: Whereas Aristotle may have found “pity and fear” to be something of a “pleasurable” experience, mainstream Hollywood movies for the most part go in an entirely opposite direction. Not pity and fear, but empathy and hope… for a happy ending. So in effect, Aristotle as a representative and cheerleader for Tragedy could serve as a reverse barometer for contemporary commercial movies at least as far as Hollywood’s conventional wisdom is concerned, that most consumers want upbeat resolutions to stories.
A reminder: I am looking at “Poetics” through the lens of screenwriting, what is its relevance to the craft in contemporary times. And I welcome the observations of any Aristotle experts to set me straight as I’m just trying to work my way through this content the best I can.
See you tomorrow for another installment of this series.
For the entire series, go here.
Studying Aristotle’s “Poetics” — Part 13(A): A Perfect Tragedy was originally published in Go Into The Story on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.
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Author: Scott Myers