Aristotle’s Poetics Might Offers Insights Into Discussing Classical Greek Tragedy, but Is Less Applicable to Later Drama. How Far Do You Agree?



Aristotle’s Poetics might offers insights into discussing classical Greek tragedy, but Is less applicable to later drama. How far do you agree? I do not agree that Aristotle’s Poetics is less applicable to later drama. Aristotle’s rules for tragedy from Poetics states a formula which most modern language tragedy follows. Aristotle writes; 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; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions. . . . Every Tragedy, therefore, must have six parts, which parts determine its quality—namely, Plot, Characters, Though, Diction, Spectacle, Melody. [1]”

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To argue my point, I am going to compare Aristotle’s rules of tragedy to Euripides Medea, which was written around the same period as Poetics. I am also going to compare it to William Shakespeare’s Macbeth which though written some two thousand years later, still follows Aristotle’s rules for tragedy very closely. Both Medea and Macbeth are Tragic plays in the traditional sense. Aristotle rules that the medium of tragedy is drama, not narrative. Events that happen create a cause and effect chain that clearly shows progression, and creates genuine fear for the characters as we know their fate.

Aristotle indicates that the medium of tragedy is drama, not narrative. Tragedy shows the audience the clear effect of the actions of the protagonist, rather than telling them. According to Aristotle, tragedy is more philosophical than history because history simply relates what has happened, while tragedy shows what may happen to any given person when put into these circumstances, or as Aristotle puts it “what is possible according to the law of probability or necessity. [2]” Tragedy creates a cause and effect chain which reveals what may happen at any time or place because that is the way the world they live in operates.

Tragedy therefore arouses pity, but also fear, because the audience can see themselves within this cause and effect chain. Aristotle ruled plot as “first principle,” the most important part of tragedy. Aristotle defines plot as “the arrangement of the incidents[3],” as in the way the incidents are presented to the audience, the structure of the play. In his book Technique of the Drama, German critic Gustav Freytag proposed a method of analysing plots taken from Aristotle’s unity of action that is known as Freytag’s Triangle.

This diagram forms a triangle with one point being the beginning, which shows the incentive movement. Then there is complication as the plot moves towards its middle following rising action. The middle moves to a climax and crisis, where the cause and effects of actions are stressed. Then there is an unravelling of plot when we move to the end of the play where the causes of actions are stressed and there is resolution. Medea follows this closely, the play starts by Medea stating her anger for Jason, and the foreshadowing of events.

Medea states “Oh, may I see Jason and his Bride ground to pieces in their shattered palace for the wrong they have dared to do to me, unprovoked! [4]” The action then rises to crisis, where Medea argues with Jason about the future of her children, and Creon threatens to exile Medea for the crimes he knows she will commit, the cause and effects of Medea’s future actions are stressed. The Chorus then further foreshadow the events, “Now I have no more hope, no more hope that the children can live; they are walking to murder at this moment. 5]” This then leads to the unravelling of Medea’s plan (“Friends my course is now clear: as quickly as possible to kill the children and then fly from Corinth[6]”), where she murders Creon, Jason’s bride and her 2 children, leaving Jason alive as his punishment. The cause of action (Jason’s disownment of Medea) and the effects (The murder of all close to Jason) is stressed and the plot is resolved. Jason is heartbroken and Medea flees to Corinth. Macbeth follows the same structure as Medea and follows Freytag’s Triangle.

The play starts with Macbeth meeting the witches, who then foresee that he shall become the Thane of Cawder and later king. “All hail, Macbeth. Hail to thee, Thane of Glamis! All hail, Macbeth. Hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor! All hail, Macbeth, that shalt be King here- after! [7]” This shows the incentive movement that sets the plot in motion. There is also foreshadowing of the effects of his actions, the witches say “fair is foul, and foul is fair. [8]” this foreshadows the downfall of Macbeth, its just the audience or Macbeth doesn’t know it yet, like the start of Medea.

Macbeth then kills the king, and becomes King. This is the rising action that moves to the climax. During this climax Macbeth kills Banquo and is haunted by his ghosts, making him question what he has done. Macbeth then meets the Witches again and is told “beware Macduff; Beware the thane of Fife. ” and “… for none of woman born shall harm Macbeth. [9]” This foreshadows Macbeth’s death by the hand of Macduff who “Was from his mothers womb untimely ripped[10]” the cause of his actions (The love of his wife and his lust for power) and the effects of his actions (The eventual death of Macbeth) are foreshadowed.

The plot falls into place as the foretold consequences of Macbeth’s actions are presented. He falls from grace and is murdered, the causes of his actions are repeated as Macduff tells Macbeth “We’ll have thee, as our rarer monsters are, painted upon a pole and underwrit, ‘Here may you see the tyrant’[11]” While both Medea and Macbeth follow Aristotle’s rules for tragedy closely, it is in their presentation of characters where they differ. In Poetics character is of the second most importance. Character should support plot, Personal motivations should be clear parts of the cause and effect chain of events and actions.

This applies directly to Medea, as she commits the horrific actions out of heartbreak and lust for Jason, while Macbeth’s personal motivation is his love for his wife. Tragedy should create fear and pity in the audience as they should be able to see themselves in the cause and effect chain, The actions of the characters should be mimesis. Both Medea and Macbeth are relatable as they both perform their actions as a result of lust. According to Denys L. Page Introduction in the 1938 oxford press translation of Medea, “Medea’s emotions are far moving than her evenge: Jason’s mind state of mind is more interesting than his calamity. The murder of children, caused by jealousy and anger against their father, is mere brutality: if it moves us at all, it does so towards incredulity and horror[12]” Medea’s actions closely follow Aristotle’s rules for character, as her brutal murder of her children, provoked by an action that could easily happen to any given person. This arouses fear and pity in the audience. Macbeth also follows this, as Macbeth’s fatal flaw is only his love for his wife, and his lust for power.

The characters show that they are true to life, by the crimes they commit. Aristotle claimed that in ideal tragedy the protagonist will cause his own downfall, because they do not know enough, and go ahead with their actions due to their emotional feeling. This is definitely true for both Macbeth and Medea. The next two rules for tragedy are hard to define, Aristotle mentioned little about thought even though it is third in importance. Most of what Aristotle has to say about thought is related to how speeches should reveal character’s motives.

Medea does this throughout the play, as she constantly re-enforces the actions she will commit and the reasons behind them “Oh, what sufferings are mine, sufferings that call for loud lamentation! O accursed children of a hateful mother, may you perish with your father and the whole house collapse in ruin! [13]” Macbeth also shows similar reason for action after he learns of his wife’s death; “She should have died hereafter. There would have been time for such a word. Tomorrow, tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day to the last syllable of recorded time. And all our yesterdays have but lighted fools he way to dusty death. Out, out brief candle! Life is but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot; full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. [14]” This speech proves Macbeth’s motivation was his wife, and with her gone, there is little reason to live as he contemplates the frailty of life; “Life is but a walking shadow, a poor player. [15]” Poetics states the protagonist should experience a change in fortune, or a fall from grace. Both Medea and Macbeth suffer this, but one thing separates them. This is where the two protagonists differentiate.

Medea gets away with her crimes, while Macbeth pays for them. This means that Macbeth is truly a tragic figure in the traditional sense, as he suffers a fall from grace that eventually ends in his death (where the cause of his death is stressed by the witches foretelling. ) This does not happen to Medea, she commits the crimes but has not real downfall towards the end of the play. One may argue that the death of her children by her own hand is punishment enough to make her a tragic figure, but the fact she gets away with her crimes with the help of Helios means the play differs from Aristotle’s rules for ideal tragedy.

This then means that Macbeth sticks to Aristotle’s rules for tragedy more than Medea does. This leads me to believe that the insights into tragedy stated in Poetics are applicable to discussing later drama, as one of the most famous works of tragedy Macbeth follows Aristotle’s rules almost perfectly. While Medea, an ancient Greek tragedy written around the same period as Poetics does not fit this template as well as more modern tragedies do. Bibliography: Butcher, S. H, Aristotle’s theory of poetry and fine art, with a critical text and translation of the Poetics. New York Dover Publications,1951, 4th edition) Euripides, Medea and Other Plays (Penguin Books, 1963) McManus, Barbara F, Freytag’s Triangle Diagram (Adapted from Gustav Freytag’sTechnique of the Drama,1863) http://www2. cnr. edu/home/bmcmanus/freytag. html (Accessed 18th February 2013) Shakespeare, William, Macbeth, (Cambridge University Press, 2005, 2nd Edition) Page, Denys L. Medea (Oxford University Press, 1938) ———————– [1] S. H. Butcher, Aristotle’s theory of poetry and fine art, with a critical text and translation of the Poetics. New York Dover Publications,1951, 4th edition) p. 2 [2] (S. H. Butcher,1951, p. 17) [3] Ibid, p11 [4] Euripides, Medea and Other Plays (Penguin Books, 1963) p. 22 [5] (Euripides, 1963, p. 47) [6] Ibid, p. 55 [7] William Shakespeare, Macbeth, (Cambridge University Press, 2005, 2nd Edition) p. 11 [8] Ibid, p. 3 [9] (Shakespeare, 2005, p. 103) [10] Ibid, p. 103 [11] Ibid, p. 153 [12] Denys L. Page, Euripides Medea (Oxford University Press, 1938) Introduction pages ix-xii [13] (Euripides, 1963, p. 49) [14] (Shakespeare, 2005, p. 147) [15] Ibid, p. 147


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