Studying Aristotle’s “Poetics” — Part 18(B): Four Kinds of 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 18(B): Four Kinds of Tragedy

There are four kinds of Tragedy: the Complex, depending entirely on
Reversal of the Situation and Recognition; the Pathetic (where the
motive is passion)- such as the tragedies on Ajax and Ixion; the Ethical
(where the motives are ethical)- such as the Phthiotides and the Peleus.
The fourth kind is the Simple. [We here exclude the purely spectacular
element], exemplified by the Phorcides, the Prometheus, and scenes
laid in Hades. The poet should endeavor, if possible, to combine all
poetic elements; or failing that, the greatest number and those the
most important; the more so, in face of the caviling criticism of
the day. For whereas there have hitherto been good poets, each in
his own branch, the critics now expect one man to surpass all others
in their several lines of excellence.

Complex. Pathetic (as in “pathos”). Ethical. Simple. If Tragedy is equivalent to what we mean nowadays when we say Genre, then would these four “kinds” be considered sub-genres?

Not quite. Whereas Romantic Comedy or Contained Thriller are examples of sub-genres, these four categories Aristotle cites feel more like narrative approaches. Two of them — Pathetic and Ethical — seem like they fall into the arena of Theme, what sort of meaning the writer may be attempting to work with, whereas the other two — Complex and Simple — appear to be more about the scope of the story.

This comment — The poet should endeavor, if possible, to combine all poetic elements — is intriguing as it suggests a good story ought to have multiple dynamics at work, both in terms of plot construction and breadth, as well as theme and meaning [with the caveat Aristotle notes in the following paragraph, which we will analyze next week, wherein he tells writers to avoid “Epic structure… multiplicity of plots”].

I like to think of those “multiple dynamics” as layers, how a story can function at different levels of our human experience. There is Conscious, Subconsious, and Unconscious. Within Conscious, there is Emotional, Rational, Intuitive, Symbolic, and so forth [obviously these are all artificial categories, but ironically in keeping with Aristotle who does the same thing!]

This is yet another reason why my son’s advice — “Go into the story and find the animals” — was so prescient because one way of perceiving the use of that term “animals” is that it can refer to the multiple layers of a story. As writers, we are tasked with going beneath the surface of the narrative, finding those layers, determining how they can work as story dynamics, then do our best to wrangle everything into a coherent and comprehensive whole. That is a lot of theoretical jargon which basically means, “Write a compelling story.”

Finally there’s this observation by Aristotle: “For whereas there have hitherto been good poets, each in his own branch, the critics now expect one man to surpass all others in their several lines of excellence.”

It’s been said, “We stand on the shoulders of those who have come before us.” Aristotle seems to be suggesting that is an imperative for writers: You must climb above those who have preceded you! Whereas previously, a ‘good’ writer is one who employed one or two of these different “kinds” of tragedy, we are tasked with doing better, and one way of achieving that is to use all four narrative approaches: Complex, Pathetic, Ethical, Simple.

For screenwriters, it’s the same thing. We cannot simply replicate movies that have been produced. Rather must find a way to do something distinctive, interesting, surprising, elevate our stories beyond past iterations.

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.

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For the entire series, go here.

Studying Aristotle’s “Poetics” — Part 18(B): Four Kinds of 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