Aristotelian Tragedy: A Primer

[This will, as I admit right here, not be about video games per se. Instead, it will be a break down of Poetics so that conversations can continue from there in additional posts. Before we can talk about tragedy, we need some definitions — as I tried to do before (“Tragedy drivers“) — and a common lexicon.

I’m primarily pulling from this version (txt). Alternatively, HTML, eBook or even dead tree.]


Poetry (i.e. created narrative forms) arose from two sources:

  1. Imitation
  2. Harmony


“First, the instinct of imitation is implanted in man from childhood, one difference between him and other animals being that he is the most imitative of living creatures, and through imitation learns his earliest lessons; and no less universal is the pleasure felt in things imitated. We have evidence of this in the facts of experience. Objects which in themselves we view with pain, we delight to contemplate when reproduced with minute fidelity: such as the forms of the most ignoble animals and of dead bodies. The cause of this again is, that to learn gives the liveliest pleasure, not only to philosophers but to men in general; whose capacity, however, of learning is more limited. Thus the reason why men enjoy seeing a likeness is, that in contemplating it they find themselves learning or inferring, and saying perhaps, ‘Ah, that is he.’ For if you happen not to have seen the original, the pleasure will be due not to the imitation as such, but to the execution, the coloring, or some such other cause. [Poetics, Part IV; Emphasis added]”


“Next, there is the instinct for ‘harmony’ and rhythm, meters being manifestly sections of rhythm. Persons, therefore, starting with this natural gift developed by degrees their special aptitudes, till their rude improvisations gave birth to Poetry.” [Poetics, Part IV]

In seeing Nature (i.e. world) around us, poets set about trying to imitate various aspects of both real life and the natural world. As they continued to develop styles and techniques (i.e. meters, rhythm) leading toward harmony, they found that the best use of poetry was to create allusions and metaphors — “the application of an alien name by transference either from genus to species, or from species to genus, or from species to species, or by analogy, that is, proportion. [Part XXI]” — in order that their audiences learn through inference or in the elaborate recreation — “the execution, the coloring” — of the imitation.

At some later point, Poetry then divided into what Artistole sees as two main camps of imitation:

  1. Noble actions of good people
  2. Ugly actions of mean people

“Poetry now diverged in two directions, according to the individual character of the writers. The graver spirits imitated noble actions, and the actions of good men. The more trivial sort imitated the actions of meaner persons, at first composing satires, as the former did hymns to the gods and the praises of famous men… But when Tragedy and Comedy came to light, the two classes of poets still followed their natural bent: the lampooners became writers of Comedy, and the Epic poets were succeeded by Tragedians, since the drama was a larger and higher form of art. [Poetics, Part IV; Emphasis added]”

It should be noted right here and now that he wrote from his culture. All stories, as we will get to later, are, in Aristotle’s view, always about men and noble men in particular. I have tried to make a general emphasis on all genders and people, but he will always be talking about men. That said, Aristotle also means, by the use of “noble”, that they are probable from a royal family or have some other divine right toward their wealth. This too we will deal with later when I get to Character.

There are now two basic types of narrative: Comedies and Tragedies.


“Comedy is, as we have said, an imitation of characters of a lower type- not, however, in the full sense of the word bad, the ludicrous being merely a subdivision of the ugly. It consists in some defect or ugliness which is not painful or destructive. To take an obvious example, the comic mask is ugly and distorted, but does not imply pain. [Part V; Emphasis added]”

Comedy is the emphasis of our “ugly” side. It is the same as a modern comic making light of some aspect of a politician by raising it to a “ludicrous” degree. It is, to give an example that dates me, the emphasizing of one instance of misspelling “potato” by extending to it many other common words for comedic effect.


“Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions. [Part VI]”

Returning to something I wrote before:

“We already see, from this definition, that a tragedy requires activity (‘imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude’), that this activity make sense dramatically (‘in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play’), that it be acted (‘in the form of action, not of narrative’) and that ‘through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions.'” (Can you optimize for tragedy?)

And now back to Aristotle:

“Tragedy is the imitation of an action; and an action implies personal agents, who necessarily possess certain distinctive qualities both of character and thought; for it is by these that we qualify actions themselves, and these- thought and character- are the two natural causes from which actions spring, and on actions again all success or failure depends. [Part VI; Emphasis added]”

Tragedy, as well as any other narrative work, has six parts: “Spectacular… Character, Plot, Diction, Song, and Thought”. Since their definitions and space spent on them is divided up across Poetics, I am reversing their ordering so as to tackle the least important first.


“…it is a term whose sense every one understands. [Part VI]”

“…holds the chief place among the embellishments… [Part VI]”


“[C]oncerning Thought, we may assume what is said in the Rhetoric, to which inquiry the subject more strictly belongs. Under Thought is included every effect which has to be produced by speech, the subdivisions being: proof and refutation; the excitation of the feelings, such as pity, fear, anger, and the like; the suggestion of importance or its opposite.[Part XIX; Emphasis added]”


“The Spectacle has, indeed, an emotional attraction of its own, but, of all the parts, it is the least artistic, and connected least with the art of poetry. For the power of Tragedy, we may be sure, is felt even apart from representation and actors. Besides, the production of spectacular effects depends more on the art of the stage machinist than on that of the poet. [Part VI: Emphasis added]”


“…the expression of the meaning in words; and its essence is the same both in verse and prose.” [Part VI]

“Next, as regards Diction. One branch of the inquiry treats of the Modes of Utterance. But this province of knowledge belongs to the art of Delivery and to the masters of that science. It includes, for instance- what is a command, a prayer, a statement, a threat, a question, an answer, and so forth. To know or not to know these things involves no serious censure upon the poet’s art… We may, therefore, pass this over as an inquiry that belongs to another art, not to poetry. [Part XIX; Emphasis added]”

[Parts XX, XXI and XXII deal with linguistics and how they might apply to diction. It’s quite interesting but out out of my frame of reference since I am not qualified to make comparisons between Ancient Greek and Modern English.]


“Now, according to our definition Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is complete, and whole, and of a certain magnitude; for there may be a whole that is wanting in magnitude. A whole is that which has a beginning, a middle, and an end. A beginning is that which does not itself follow anything by causal necessity, but after which something naturally is or comes to be. An end, on the contrary, is that which itself naturally follows some other thing, either by necessity, or as a rule, but has nothing following it. A middle is that which follows something as some other thing follows it. A well constructed plot, therefore, must neither begin nor end at haphazard, but conform to these principles. [Part VII; Emphasis added]”

“As to that poetic imitation which is narrative in form and employs a single meter, the plot manifestly ought, as in a tragedy, to be constructed on dramatic principles. It should have for its subject a single action, whole and complete, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. [Part XXIII]”

Believe it or not, this is where the entirety of Western civilization comes to the idea of a three-act structure. It is also, from the additional work Technique of the Drama (1863), that we get the currently understood Freytag Triangle of complication, climax and denouement.

“As, therefore, in the case of animate bodies and organisms a certain magnitude is necessary, and a magnitude which may be easily embraced in one view; so in the plot, a certain length is necessary, and a length which can be easily embraced by the memory. The limit of length in relation to dramatic competition and sensuous presentment is no part of artistic theory. For had it been the rule for a hundred tragedies to compete together, the performance would have been regulated by the water-clock- as indeed we are told was formerly done. But the limit as fixed by the nature of the drama itself is this: the greater the length, the more beautiful will the piece be by reason of its size, provided that the whole be perspicuous. And to define the matter roughly, we may say that the proper magnitude is comprised within such limits, that the sequence of events, according to the law of probability or necessity, will admit of a change from bad fortune to good, or from good fortune to bad. [Part VII; Emphasis added]”

“As therefore, in the other imitative arts, the imitation is one when the object imitated is one, so the plot, being an imitation of an action, must imitate one action and that a whole, the structural union of the parts being such that, if any one of them is displaced or removed, the whole will be disjointed and disturbed. For a thing whose presence or absence makes no visible difference, is not an organic part of the whole. [Part VIII; Emphasis added]”

“Tragedy is an imitation not only of a complete action, but of events inspiring fear or pity. Such an effect is best produced when the events come on us by surprise; and the effect is heightened when, at the same time, they follow as cause and effect. The tragic wonder will then be greater than if they happened of themselves or by accident; for even coincidences are most striking when they have an air of design. [Part IX; Emphasis added]”

While it should be obvious, it is worth stating that Aristotle is making the point that only important details be part of the plot (“if any one of them is displaced or removed, the whole will be disjointed and disturbed”), that some change should come about as the result of the story (“according to the law of probability or necessity, will admit of a change from bad fortune to good, or from good fortune to bad”) and that the events make sense together (“they follow as cause and effect”).

Plots can either be Simple or Complex


“An action which is one and continuous in the sense above defined, I call Simple, when the change of fortune takes place without Reversal
of the Situation and without Recognition. [Part X]”


“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. It makes all the difference whether any given event is a case of propter hoc or post hoc. [Part X]”

“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. [Part XIII; Emphasis added]”

The tagic flaw (hamartia;translated sometimes “tragic mistake“) should be that which leads to the “Reverse of the Situation” (peripeteia) and not that they are just virtuous and beat down (“merely shocks us”) or, alternatively, “downfall of the utter villain”. Neither are tragedies. The best stories, as highlighted by Kurt Vonnegut, are those where the protagonist is around the middle and moves more, as the story ends, towards greater Wealth (fortune good) or Illness (fortune bad).

“A well-constructed plot should, therefore, be single in its issue, rather than double as some maintain. The change of fortune should be not from bad to good, but, reversely, from good to bad. It should come about as the result not of vice, but of some great error or frailty, in a character either such as we have described, or better rather than worse. [Part XIII; Emphasis added]”

The plot, as Aristotle points out, should be around a theme (“single in its issue”) and have the fortune go from “good to bad”. If the protagonist wins against the antagonist, then their fortune has, inevitably, gone from “bad to good” — they were in conflict but the protagonist won.

Role of Fear and Pity

“Fear and pity may be aroused by spectacular means; but they may also result from the inner structure of the piece, which is the better way, and indicates a superior poet. For the plot ought to be so constructed that, even without the aid of the eye, he who hears the tale told will thrill with horror and melt to pity at what takes Place. This is the impression we should receive from hearing the story of the Oedipus. But to produce this effect by the mere spectacle is a less artistic method, and dependent on extraneous aids. Those who employ spectacular means to create a sense not of the terrible but only of the monstrous, are strangers to the purpose of Tragedy; for we must not demand of Tragedy any and every kind of pleasure, but only that which is proper to it. And since the pleasure which the poet should afford is that which comes from pity and fear through imitation, it is evident that this quality must be impressed upon the incidents. [Part XIV;Emphasis added]”

[In one of the rare moment in this post that I will address video games directly, I could not help but to notice the rather damning portrayal of those within the video game industry that would prefer to increase the graphic fidelity in a game while the story and thus any narratives pulled from said game suffer. Of course, this is not limited to video games. Hollywood is just as bad — hello, Avatar.]

“Actions capable of this effect must happen between persons who are either friends or enemies or indifferent to one another. If an enemy kills an enemy, there is nothing to excite pity either in the act or the intention- except so far as the suffering in itself is pitiful. So again with indifferent persons. But when the tragic incident occurs between those who are near or dear to one another- if, for example, a brother kills, or intends to kill, a brother, a son his father, a mother her son, a son his mother, or any other deed of the kind is done- these are the situations to be looked for by the poet. [Part XIV]”

During the course of the story, irony develops between the characters within the story and the audience watching them. This is what I have been calling asymmetrical knowledge (“What happen next: asymmetrical knowledge in tragedies“) in the consideration of who knows what in the story. In tragic irony, the audience knows more than than the characters and thus are waiting to see how the end they know will happen will come about.

Such actions (i.e. moments of irony) can come in four forms:

  1. Character(s) know(s) — “done consciously and with knowledge of the persons [Part XIV]”
  2. Character(s) do not know — “done in ignorance, and tie… discovered afterwards [Part XIV]”
  3. “to be about to act with knowledge of the persons and to not act [Part XIV]”
  4. Gains knowledge right before action — “about to do an irreparable deed through ignorance, and makes the discovery before it is done. [Part XIV]”

“These are the only possible ways. For the deed must either be done or not done- and that wittingly or unwittingly. But of all these ways, to be about to act knowing the persons, and then not to act, is the worst. It is shocking without being tragic, for no disaster follows It is, therefore, never, or very rarely, found in poetry… The next and better way is that the deed should be perpetrated. Still better, that it should be perpetrated in ignorance, and the discovery made afterwards. There is then nothing to shock us, while the discovery produces a startling effect. The last case is the best… [Part XIV; Emphasis added]”

Reversal of Situation

“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. [Part XI]”


“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. [Part XI]

“Again, we may recognize 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 recognized by the other- when the latter is already known- or it may be necessary that the recognition should be on both sides. [Part XI; Emphasis added]

Recognition (i.e. the “discovery” mentioned in the listing of ironic moments) can take four forms:

  1. “Signs” — “congenital… stars… bodily marks… external tokens [Part XVI]”
  2. “[I]nvented at will by the poet” — “saying what the poet, not what the plot requires [Part XVI]”
  3. Memory — “sight of some object awakens a feeling [Part XVI]”
  4. Logical — “process of reasoning [Part XVI]”

Scene of Suffering

“A third part is the Scene of Suffering. The Scene of Suffering is a destructive or painful action, such as death on the stage, bodily agony, wounds, and the like. [Part XI]”


“In respect of Character there are four things to be aimed at. First, and most important, it must be good. Now any speech or action that manifests moral purpose of any kind will be expressive of character: the character will be good if the purpose is good. This rule is relative to each class. Even a woman may be good, and also a slave; though the woman may be said to be an inferior being, and the slave quite worthless. The second thing to aim at is propriety. There is a type of manly valor; but valor in a woman, or unscrupulous cleverness is inappropriate. Thirdly, character must be true to life: for this is a distinct thing from goodness and propriety, as here described. The fourth point is consistency: for though the subject of the imitation, who suggested the type, be inconsistent, still he must be consistently inconsistent. [Part XV; Emphasis added]”

Characters, as part of any narrative, must be “consistently inconsistent” in all their actions in their worldview. If they are, they will fulfill the other requirements as well.

“As in the structure of the plot, so too in the portraiture of character, the poet should always aim either at the necessary or the probable. Thus a person of a given character should speak or act in a given way, by the rule either of necessity or of probability; just as this event should follow that by necessary or probable sequence. It is therefore evident that the unraveling of the plot, no less than the complication, must arise out of the plot itself, it must not be brought about by the Deus ex Machina- as in the Medea, or in the return of the Greeks in the Iliad. The Deus ex Machina should be employed only for events external to the drama- for antecedent or subsequent events, which lie beyond the range of human knowledge, and which require to be reported or foretold; for to the gods we ascribe the power of seeing all things. Within the action there must be nothing irrational. If the irrational cannot be excluded, it should be outside the scope of the tragedy. [Part XV; Emphasis added]”

Types of Tragedy

  1. Complex — “depending entirely on Reversal of the Situation and Recognition [Part XVIII]”
  2. Pathetic — “motive is passion [Part XVIII]”
  3. Ethical
  4. Simple

Comparison on Epic Poetry and Tragedies

“…the poet should remember what has been often said, and not make an Epic structure into a tragedy- by an Epic structure I mean one with a multiplicity of plots– as if, for instance, you were to make a tragedy out of the entire story of the Iliad. In the Epic poem, owing to its length, each part assumes its proper magnitude. In the drama the result is far from answering to the poet’s expectation. The proof is that the poets who have dramatized the whole story of the Fall of Troy, instead of selecting portions, like Euripides; or who have taken the whole tale of Niobe, and not a part of her story, like Aeschylus, either fail utterly or meet with poor success on the stage. Even Agathon has been known to fail from this one defect. In his Reversals of the Situation, however, he shows a marvelous skill in the effort to hit the popular taste- to produce a tragic effect that satisfies the moral sense. This effect is produced when the clever rogue, like Sisyphus, is outwitted, or the brave villain defeated. Such an event is probable in Agathon’s sense of the word: ‘is probable,’ he says, ‘that many things should happen contrary to probability.’ [Part XVIII; Emphasis added]”

“The question may be raised whether the Epic or Tragic mode of imitation is the higher. If the more refined art is the higher, and the more refined in every case is that which appeals to the better sort of audience, the art which imitates anything and everything is manifestly most unrefined. The audience is supposed to be too dull to comprehend unless something of their own is thrown by the performers, who therefore indulge in restless movements. Bad flute-players twist and twirl, if they have to represent ‘the quoit-throw,’ or hustle the coryphaeus when they perform the Scylla. Tragedy, it is said, has this same defect. We may compare the opinion that the older actors entertained of their successors. Mynniscus used to call Callippides ‘ape’ on account of the extravagance of his action, and the same view was held of Pindarus. Tragic art, then, as a whole, stands to Epic in the same relation as the younger to the elder actors. So we are told that Epic poetry is addressed to a cultivated audience, who do not need gesture; Tragedy, to an inferior public. Being then unrefined, it is evidently the lower of the two. [Part XXIII; Emphasis added]”

“Moreover, the art attains its end within narrower limits for the concentrated effect is more pleasurable than one which is spread over a long time and so diluted. What, for example, would be the effect of the Oedipus of Sophocles, if it were cast into a form as long as the Iliad? Once more, the Epic imitation has less unity; as is shown by this, that any Epic poem will furnish subjects for several tragedies. Thus if the story adopted by the poet has a strict unity, it must either be concisely told and appear truncated; or, if it conforms to the Epic canon of length, it must seem weak and watery. [Part XXVI;Emphasis added]”