Aristotle: “Poetics” (I disagree, slightly)

Socrates, we’ll remember, felt a reverent awe in the face of poetry. In Ion, god-inspired rhapsody had an effect on the audience akin to possession. In Republic, the emotions aroused by poets threatened the polis. We can disdain his censoriousness, but at least Socratic dread in the face of art is an improvement over our own indifference toward its power.

Aristotle shares this veneration, but abandons the claim that poetry poses a threat to rational society. Unlike Plato, Aristotle embraces the salutary effects of emotion aroused by art. He just wants to know how it works. And he makes it safe by explaining it. In Aristotle, philosophical/rationalist rule-making finally triumphs over pre-rational ritual; Camille Paglia calls his pity and fear, “a broken promise, a plea for vision without horror”. It is an attempt to explain the effect that epic poetry and tragedy has on him, and as such is a foundational text of Western aesthetics. It’s a text we must absorb and, I think in the end, reject.

Poetics deals, in great part, with tragedy, a Western literary form. Japan, for example, only developed tragedy in the late nineteenth century. Drama, developing from religious ritual and epic storytelling, is fairly universal; but tragedy is a specific genre that requires the audience to conceive of a hubristic individual will coming into conflict with the larger reality: social, existential, or divine. In some sense, the main character’s way of being becomes unfeasible and they try to extricate themselves from that situation. Usually, someone winds up dead.

Where does drama come from? Aristotle agrees with Socrates that poetry is basically imitative. He adds an anthropological note: children imitate at an early age, so perhaps all humans take part in imitation. Poetry imitates with language, taking on the voices of different characters. Tragedy is a form of poetry whose object is an individual who is better than average, but only slightly. The audience watches as the character undergoes a change, usually from good fortune to a bad fortune.

This means action- a tragedy, according to Aristotle, is an imitation of an action that it complete (with a beginning, middle and end) and has emotional magnitude. The action in Medea, for instance, is the vengeful murder of the children and the princess. The poet shows what would likely happen in a particular kind of situation involving a particular type of character- this gives tragedy its universality. Tragedy is also pleasurable- watching a character go from good to bad fortune evokes fear and pity in a way that is cathartic- that is, it purifies us.

The idea of Katharsis is key to the Poetics. Socrates often acknowledged that poetry is enjoyable, but he did not suggest it was good for our well-being. Aristotle believes that intense emotions are aroused by art, in much the same way as Socrates said they are in Ion, but that allows us to safely experience the emotions and be cleansed as a result. Tragedy is what we would now call a “safe outlet”.

Another key idea is that the tragic hero plays a role in his own reversal of fortune. It is often claimed that Aristotle is talking about a character’s “fatal flaw” here; and yet this doesn’t seem correct. Clearly a misstep on the hero’s part sets events in motion, according to Aristotle. But he believes the ideal tragic hero should be slightly better than us, in order to evoke pity and not disgust; and a character with a ‘fatal flaw’ would not be slightly better than us. I think it’s more that an action on their part is flawed- it’s an error. They make some mistake that sets the plot in motion.

For Aristotle, plot is considerably more important than character. He has several rules about plot. He thinks plots should be simple and unified in terms of character, place, and length of time- a good tragedy takes place in a day. The story consists of conflict and finally resolution. And the most interesting plots show the character’s recognition, reversal and suffering. The “recognition” comes from realizing that an evil act was performed in ignorance. The best resolutions are organic to the plot; Medea is out. The language should not be too elevated, but it should include interesting and unique words and creative use of metaphor. Characterization should aim at goodness, appropriateness, likeness, and consistency.

As a description of how drama is constructed and why it moves us, this is absolutely unparalleled. You could easily write a drama along these lines and do reasonably good work. And it’s hard to imagine an introductory course on drama or aesthetics that does not include reading the Poetics. The text is a cornerstone of aesthetic philosophy and western thought more generally. Make no mistake: You should read the Poetics.

The problem is the primacy of plot: for Aristotle, plot is more important than characterization or even language; these make a difference in quality, but a play with a deficient plot is an abject failure. However, contrary to Aristotle, I think it’s quite possible to imagine a play in which the plot is mediocre and the tragic character at the center overwhelms us. Many of us consider the greatest drama ever written, in fact, to be one in which the fully realized main character, a melancholy Danish prince, almost destroys the feeble plot structure entirely. In general, Shakespearean language and characterization tower above the often chintzy plots. I don’t mean this as a criticism either- in Shakespeare, the plots hardly matter, and the writing is matchless. We can think of other examples; Persona, for instance, is a staggering film about the very nature of individual personality; but I’d be hard-pressed to outline its plot and not make it sound terrible.

Conversely, there are countless examples of plots that follow the guidelines for conflict and resolution to the letter, usually within a tidy three act structure, that would bore you to tears; most television programs and movies, in fact. Unlike Aristotle, we have seen hundreds of dramatic stories in our lives. Many of these plots seem artificial. To some extent, this is because our own lives so seldom seem plotted. Events in life rarely have a beginning, a middle, and an end, or bring any recognition on our parts. Art imitates life, but by formatting it- giving it a plot- it somehow falsifies life as well.

The problem for us is that most of the dramas we encounter are plotted within in an inch of their lives and populated by lifeless avatars. The inner lives of the characters cannot compete with the audience’s own lives, which have swelled in importance and crowded out psychology in drama. We don’t want to know about some Danish Prince’s problems- who cares if he’s going to be, or not to be? We want simple plots that get to the point. And we’re offended with characters that are slightly better than us or too aware of their inner lives. Who do they think they are? It sometimes seems that our technologies are now designed to drown out the inner life, while our entertainments deny an inner life is even a possibility.

So, in order to revive theatre, and art- as a discussion about what it means to be human- I think we need to relearn drama: to begin with characterization and see what sort of plots develop from fascinating characters. Humanity- that is characterization- needs to replace plot in importance. Our dramas are drowning in plot.

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15 thoughts on “Aristotle: “Poetics” (I disagree, slightly)

  1. I want to quibble with this:

    Drama, developing from religious ritual and epic storytelling, is fairly universal; but tragedy is a specific genre that requires the audience to conceive of a hubristic individual will coming into conflict with the larger reality: social, existential, or divine

    It’s not a bad distinction, but if we insist on it then we have to exclude a lot of (extant) Greek drama from the tragic genre. So maybe Aristotle missed the mark.

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      • @Rufus F.,

        I’ve never actually read the Poetics, but your interpretation sounds pretty standard, so I’m pretty sure it’s Aristotle that deserves the blame. Jaybird hits on what I was trying to say below, so the only suggestion I’ll add is to get your aesthetic theory of Attic tragedy from The Frogs instead.

        The question I have is whether Aristotle make his purpose clear? If his project is descriptive, he pretty clearly fails since a substantial chunk of what survives* falls outside his definition of tragedy. And if it’s prescriptive, identifying the best bits of plot mechanics as a sort of canon within the canon, then it leaves us with the problem you identify of rote, lifeless applications of the theory** by generations of subsequent hacks.

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        • @Paul B, Well, much of the post is just me summarizing. But, the idea that tragedy requires a fairly strong will bashing up against a larger reality that contradicts that will- hence the tension- was my suggestion. I think Aristotle talks more about it in terms of events forcing the character to face a problem and resolve it somehow.

          The problem I have with Aristotle is that a lot of what survives and goes against his ideas about good tragedy is actually fine, so long as we consider those plays failures. And, indeed, maybe time has given all Greek tragedies a sheen that some don’t deserve, but it’s hard for me to think of Medea as a failure because its conclusion is such a deus ex machina. Indeed, though, I think Aristotle describes that as indicating a deficient plot at one point. And, you know, maybe it is. I just find the main character so interesting that it hardly matters to me that the end is so contrived.

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          • @Rufus F.,

            “maybe time has given all Greek tragedies a sheen that some don’t deserve”

            Probably so. But I’m more inclined to say that it’s the successes that depart from the pattern while the failures work like so much Aristotelian clockwork. (I want to call Aeschylus rudimentary here, but that’s hardly fair since he was essentially inventing tragedy as he went along.) And anyway I suppose we shouldn’t disputare de gustibus.

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      • @Rufus F.,

        *Off the top of my head, in half of Aeschulus and Sophocles (i.e. The Suppliants, Libation Bearers, Eumenides, Ajax, Antigone, Trachiniae, and Electra) the closest thing to hamartia is either caused by god-induced delusion or is better characterized as a dilemma prompted by incompatible external pressures, scenarios which would seem to fall short of Aristotle’s demands. And Euripides is all over the map: if his plays don’t have a deus ex machina to disrupt their unity, they’re hardly anything we or Aristotle would recognize as tragedy at all (I’m thinking especially of Helen in Egypt and Iphigenia in Tauris here).

        **Poe is a notable exception. His theory of the short story is notably similar to Aristotle’s, and he stuck to it with admirable results.

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  2. It is very difficult for me to read Aristotle fairly.

    His take on what makes for a good play reads like it can easily be swapped out for what makes a good meal.

    “A good meal begins with a bowl of cold soup! A Gazpacho! A vichyssoise, perhaps. Maybe a fruit soup. Then there must be a salad!”

    There is part of me that says “yeah, that does sound like a meal that I would enjoy” while the rest of me is *SCREAMING* “De gustibus non est disputandum!

    Would I enjoy a play that uses all of Aristotle’s rules? Heck, yes. Shakespeare’s big four tragedies use many of the rules to the point where one feels like he had the book nearby when he was writing his plays… and, humorously (I find it funny, anyway), it feels like he follows the rules (in the big four anyway) more than Sophocles, Aeschylus, or Euripides does.

    At the end of the day, though, I can’t help but think that Aristotle is missing out on oh so very much.

    Hot soup, for example.

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  3. I sympathize with your disliking of drama that is poorly draped over unlikely plot points but I think you misread Aristotle a bit. In his discussion of the formal elements of drama, plot falls in among the other key elements he writes about: spectacle, character, diction, song and reasoning. These elements combine with plot to create a robust piece of theatre. But “plot” does not indicate certain milestones the playwright works toward and past, running weak or strong characters from the beginning to the middle to the end of the play. Rather, plot points to the quality of drama that conveys a sense of animation or life. As he writes in the section titled “The primacy of plot:” “Tragedy is not an imitation of persons, but of actions and of life. Well-being and ill-being reside in action, and the goal of life is an activity, not a quality; people possess certain qualities in accordance with their character, but they achieve well-being or its opposite on the basis of how they fare.” As you rightly point out, Aristotle discusses the way children imitate as they foster an awareness of how to act in the world. But when you divide this action from character as starkly as you do, insisting that Hamlet is a man of character and not action, you do damage Aristotle’s notion of action as it is conveyed in plot. There is certainly action in Hamlet and there is certainly character. But if we imagine what the play would be like if there was no bloodbath after all of the Dane’s hemming and hawing, we lose the power of Shakespeare’s drama. In the read of Aristotle I find most productive, plot is something more unseen than “one fucking thing after another” (History Boys). It indicates the nature of a changing world. For Aristotle, actions are both the measure and formative moments of character and, as such, he sets it at the center of drama, which is a temporal display of human life, which I think he rightly ties strongly to notions of action. If we allow a conception of drama to rest on character and not plot, we endanger an understanding of drama (and thus an understanding of humanity) that includes the ability to change, the notion of hard choices, and we endorse a sort of prejudice about good and bad guys, based on the assumption one can be essentially one, the other, or some vague mixture of both.

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    • @drapier, That helps a lot actually. Admittedly, I was starkly separating plot and character in order to be a bit provocative. But I think yours is a much better explanation of plot and, indeed, Hamlet as a one-man soliloquy wouldn’t work nearly as well. There has to be tension, doesn’t there?

      What you get at here, and what I think you’re right that Aristotle is really talking about is an organic plot– one that seems to the audience like we’re simply observing life in its most natural state. I don’t know if Aristotle really touches on just how maddeningly hard that is to write. It seems like it would be easy, if we keep to some basic guidelines, but writing a plot that feels natural and doesn’t telegraph its major points is about as hard as it gets, and again I think it’s because it’s so hard to make sense of the events of our lives in this way. Of course, the problem, like you suggest with the Hamlet example, is that an audience watching a play without a beginning, middle, and end, or in which the characters go through no major events and change in no way, is really having their time wasted in some way. It’s tedious. So I think there does need to be some plot hook, or even just what Hitchcock called a Macguffin- an excuse for us to watch- and some sort of payoff.

      The subtext to this discussion, I should mention, is that I’ve been trying to write a play for several months now and find that the absolute hardest thing is showing the events of life unfolding in a way that doesn’t seem like plot mechanics. But, whenever I try to write characters and just let them speak, without any plot, it’s extremely tedious after about five pages.

      So thanks for your comments! I’ll keep them in mind.

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      • @Rufus F.,

        Yes, when one is talking about writing a play, this notion of substantive plot is perhaps not very useful. In my opinion, it is mostly helpful in a reflective sense – helping us to think about the fullness of plot and its rewards. But in thinking about how to get stuff on the page, “plot,” in whatever form, holds that magic “golden mean” that Aristotle loves and will always be just a little bit religious. Because ultimately, he is talking about – life – which is a always bit more than plot or character or anything else can convey. Perhaps a bit less than they convey too.

        This is a long way of saying happy churning on your play.

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    • @drapier,

      This is a really good comment and made me realize the extant that Aristotle’s aesthetics are (of course!) informed by his ethics.

      It also reminds me that the intertwining of plot and character is especially deep in Greek tragedy, since so much plot happens offstage and comes to us secondhand — and not just through characters, but also intertwined with language and lyric. Maybe it’s only after playwrights got around to actually showing those action-packed swordfights and whatnot that we can talk about “pure” characterization of the Hamlet-dithering-about type?

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  4. Regarding plot and character — one thing that no one has touched on yet is the difference of context between the Classical, Elizabethan, and contemporary drama. With the sole exception of Aeschylus’ PERSIANS, a tragedy based on then-recent events, every surviving tragedy is based in the framework of myth. (Well, there is the possibility of a handful of other historical plays that Aeschylus may have written — but it’s unclear whether those dealt with history or foundation myths.) That is, the characters were already defined by the traditional stories that were known to everyone sitting in the audience. Even though Shakespeare recycled old plotlines (his ending of LEAR might be likened to what Euripides did with his MEDEA), I’d argue a distinction based on the fact that these stories simply were not as ingrained in Elizabethan society as the myths of tragedy were in Classical Athens.

    Creating “new” character came not through inventing new details or backgrounds — though there are certainly variant traditions for many mythological figures — but through creative action. For example: it is entirely possible, if not likely, the Euripides’ MEDEA was the first version of that myth in which she kills her children; before the 5th century, they were killed by angry townspeople. Uniqueness in plot would have been more possible/plausible/effective than uniqueness in character alone. (Though Medea’s character is certainly changed by the plot.)

    Further, thinking of Greek tragedy, which is what Aristotle knew, as a retelling of these ancient inherited myths might also shed light on the importance of plot insofar as myth is story-centric in a way that modern, character-centric writing is not. (That might even be the more fundamental difference between Joyce and Homer than their respective languages.)

    That being said — none of this really deals with the matter of organic plot, etc.; and I admit that considering the POETICS this way is not terribly useful for considering it in relation to any non-Classical text. But if the POETICS is going to be a pesky book like that anyway (and it is), then trying to see what its assumptions — otherwise, I suppose, its flaws — might tell us about the workings of Classical tragedy is one of its more important uses.

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