Excuse the interruption. . .
but we interrupt our reading of Greek tragedy with
selections from an ancient philosophical work about Greek
- 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
- 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
- artists and poets are guilty of deception because they
represent appearance as reality (mimesis = imitation)
- 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
- 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?