selections from the Poetics.


Excuse the interruption. . .

but we interrupt our reading of Greek tragedy with selections from an ancient philosophical work about Greek tragedy. 


  • Lived a couple of generations after the period in the 5th century when tragedy flourished in Athens
  • Aristotle was a pupil of Plato and tutor to Alexander the Great
  • He founded a school in Athens called the Lyceum, where he was a prolific investigator and writer on subjects ranging from biology to forms of constitutions to ethics to literary criticism.
  • Since tragedy was performed in competition, there must have been ongoing discussion in Athens about what made a "good tragedy"; the selections you read for today seem to comprise notes for lectures Aristotle delivered on literary criticism (perhaps intended as instruction for aspiring Greek poets/tragic playwrights).
  • As your study guide suggests, the lectures may have been shaped in part in answer to the objections to poetry expressed by Aristotle's teacher, Plato. . .

Plato on the poets

  • the moral standards expressed by the Greek poets, and especially Homer, were unacceptable
  • the emotions aroused by poetry were as harmful as its moral standards, and encouraged weakness (rule by passions) rather than self-control.
  • artists and poets are guilty of deception because they represent appearance as reality (mimesis = imitation)

the Poetics

  • Aristotle had little to say about the religious or moral implications of the myths; he did, however, address the emotions aroused by poetry and the value of mimesis.
  • In sum, if tragedy imitates a certain kind of action in the most effective way, it will produce a healthy kind of emotional or psychological response in the audience.

  • Tragedy should evoke pity and fear and should result in catharsis of those emotions (cp. Plato's objection to emotions evoked by poetry)
  • History is not capable of producing catharsis because it is caught up with particulars, whereas tragedy deals in universal types of characters and actions.
  • The kind of typical actions that tragedy should imitate are serious actions in which the incidents arise out of the structure (so the outcome is unexpected, but also in consequence of what came before).
  • The poet may develop the typical action and exploit the cathartic potential of tragic drama in a plot that is simple (no PERIPETY or discovery ) or complex (containing peripety and discovery).
  • How not to write good tragedy (=an effective peripety): show a very good man passing from happiness to misfortune; show a bad man passing from misery to happiness; show an extremely bad man falling from happiness into misery. None of these plots will move humans to pity and fear.
  • How to write good tragedy (=an effective peripety): show a middling guy whose misfortune is brought upon him by hamartia (an error in judgment, a missing the mark). NB: hamartia is not "sin" (although it is frequently translated as such in later Greek) nor is it a moral flaw.

Looking back to Euripides' Medea through Aristotle's interpretive grid. . .

  • Is Medea a middling kind of human?  Is Jason?
  • Is the plot simple or complex? If complex, what constitutes the peripety?
  • Is Medea's, or Jason's, misfortune brought on by hamartia? If so, what IS her/his hamartia
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