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Although the POETICS of Aristotle was not generally known in the Greek or in translation until the Renaissance, its importance as the "founding document" of western literary criticism has made it the standard against which the success or failure of drama written in every age has been measured. Such is not without risk, in that misinterpretations abound. For example, the celebrated tragic flaw a hero is supposed to possess is taken in the Christian scheme to be a moral error, but to the pre-Christian Greek philosopher Aristotle, the term did not imply a moral error, but rather an intellectual one, an error in judgment. Therefore whether the POETICS can successfully be applied to Shakespeare remains problematic. Nonetheless, we will outline some of Aristotle's most important beliefs and see if the dramatic literature under consideration fits his criteria: His remarks will serve as a guide from OEDIPUS to OTHELLO to O'NEILL.

Aristotle on the nature of literature as mimetic:

It is clear that the general origin of poetry was due to two causes, each of them part of human nature. Imitation is natural to man from childhood, one of his advantages over the lower animals being this, that he is the most imitative creature in the world, and learns at first by imitation. And it is also natural for all to delight in works of imitation. The truth of this second point is shown by experience: lo though the objects themselves may be painful to see, we delight to view the most realistic representations of them in art, the forms for example of the lowest animals and of dead bodies. The explanation is to be found in a further fact: to be learning something is the greatest of pleasures not only to the philosopher but also to the rest of mankind, however small their capacity for it; the reason is of the delight in seeing the picture is that one is at the same time learning-gathering the meaning of things, e. g. that the man there is so-and -so; for if one has not seen the thing before.

Aristotle on the nature of tragedy:

Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and possessing the mode of action; not narrated; and effecting pity and fear [what we call catharsis] of such emotions.

The imitation of the action is the plot. Tragedy is not an imitation of men but of actions and life. It is in action that happiness and unhappiness are found, and the end which we aim at is a kind of activity...It is for the sake of their actions that [agents] take on the characters they have. Thus what happens--that is, the plot, is the end for which a tragedy exists, and the end or purpose is the most important thing of is whole, [having] a beginning, middle and end.

Dramatic poetry's function is...not to report things that have happened, but rather to tell of such things that might express the universal.

[Aristotle speaks of the need for mature tragedy to have a complex action by which he meant that reversal and recognition result logically from a change in fortune]:

Reversal of the Situation is a change by which the action veers round to its opposite, subject always to our rule of probability or necessity. Thus in the Oedipus, the messenger comes to cheer Oedipus and free him from his alarms about his mother, but by revealing who he is, he produces the opposite effect. ... Recognition, as the name indicates, is a change from ignorance to knowledge, producing love or hate between the persons destined by the poet for good or bad fortune. The best form of recognition is coincident with a Reversal of the Situation, as in the Oedipus. There are indeed
other forms. Even inanimate things of the most trivial kind may in a sense be objects of recognition. Again, we may recognise or discover whether a person has done a thing or not. But the recognition which is most intimately connected with the plot and action is, as we have said, the recognition of persons. This recognition, combined, with Reversal, will produce either pity or fear; and actions producing these effects are those which, by our definition, Tragedy represents. Moreover, it is upon
such situations that the issues of good or bad fortune will depend. Recognition, then, being between persons, it may happen that one person only is recognised by the other-when the latter is already known--or it may be necessary that the recognition should be on both sides...


Good men ought not to be shown passing from prosperity to misfortune, for this does not inspire either pity or fear, but only revulsion; nor evil men rising from ill fortune to prosperity...neither should a wicked man be seen falling from prosperity into misfortune...We are left with the man whose place is between these extremes. Such is the man who on the one hand does not fall into misfortune through vice or depravity. He falls because of some mistake ...[This is often mistranslated as the tragic flaw.]

[The parts of the poetics that Aristotle wrote concerning the nature of comedy are lost. Fragments survive, some of which is printed below. Note that the material relevant to comedy is closely linked to the observations made about tragedy. We know from human experience that the link between comedy and tragedy is often very hard to distinguish:]

Aristotle on the nature of comedy:

The objects the imitator represents are actions, with agents who are necessarily either good men or bad-the diversities of human character being nearly always derivative from this primary distinction, since the line between virtue and vice is one dividing the whole of mankind. It follows, therefore, that the agents represented must be either above our own level of goodness, or beneath it, or just such as we are; in the same way...This difference it is that distinguishes Tragedy and Comedy also; the one would make its personages worse, and the other better, than the men of the present day.

As for Comedy, it is (as has been observed) an imitation of men worse than the average; worse, however, not as regards any and every sort of fault, but only as regards one particular kind, the Ridiculous, which is a species of the Ugly. The Ridiculous may be defined as a mistake or deformity not productive of pain or harm to others; the mask, for instance, that excites laughter, is something ugly and distorted without causing pain.

Though the successive changes in Tragedy and their authors are not unknown, we cannot say the same of Comedy; its early stages passed unnoticed, because it was not as yet taken up in a serious way.


A source and Notes to explain the Poetics:

An excellent new book which examines afresh Aristotle's Poetics and Shakespearean drama is Colin McGinn's Shakespeare's Philosophy: New York: Harper, 2006. {pp. 187-198 entitled Shakespeare and Tragedy}. McGill disputes the 'tragic flaw' theory as applied to Hamlet, Lear and Macbeth regarding their moral worthiness, and as too limited in scope to fit these protagonists. He prefers (p.194) to speak of tragedy stemming from a mismatch of "character and situation."



Reversal ...situation turns on the agent who is attempting to deal with it (irony of destiny; dramatic irony today)

...words are charged with a fuller meaning than the speaker intended. When recognition occurs, the speaker becomes aware of the irony which therefore ceases to be dramatic irony.

Philosophy, Ethics and the Poetics:






6. CONCEPT OF CATHARSIS: three connotations:

7. THE TRAGIC FLAW: There are several connotations regarding the so-called tragic flaw:


Shakespeare inherited the traditions described above. How then in the Renaissance are these traditions reflected in the play's he wrote? Can Aristotle's definition of a tragic hero be successfully applied? A problem, for example, is the notion of a tragic flaw. The Greek definition implies an error in judgment, while the Medieval / Renaissance definition was modified by Christianity implying a flaw with moral, not judgmental connotations. How far then do Hamlet, Macbeth, Lear or Othello fit the Aristotelian model? Would Aristotle regard your favorite TV sitcom as funny? What makes something funny, and is there a relationship between comedy and tragedy that Shakespeare as well as writers today address?

9. Not all plays may be approached the same way, just as poems often differ in how they must be analyzed. However, critic Len Mozzi suggests six key questions which, although appearing simple, can be quite provocative in discussing key issues:

1) Who is talking and to whom?
2) What does this character want?
3) Where is the character--how does he/she feel about being there?
4) When does the character want what he/she wants? Why insistent? What is at stake?
5) Why cannot the character get what he/she wants? Obstacles? What actions are taken?