6.1 Astonishment. It is not enough for a poet to imitate a complete action—they must also provoke emotions of fear and pity through catharsis. This is best accomplished when events occur “contrary to expectation but because of one another,” which makes events more astonishing than if they occur spontaneously.
This passage reflects Aristotle’s argument that catharsis is a key element of tragedy, and that tragedy must elicit feelings of fear and pity specifically, as compared to any other emotion. Here, Aristotle implies that catharsis is easiest to achieve when it is “contrary to expectation,” i.e., a surprise.
6.2 Simple and Complex Parts. According to Aristotle, plot is either simple or complex. A simple plot is a plot in which a single action of unity is imitated, but the change of fortune is achieved without reversal or recognition. A complex plot is one in which the change of fortune comes about through reversal, recognition, or both. Reversal and recognition must come from the structure of the plot, and they must occur because of necessity or probability. In other words, reversal and recognition must occur because of events in the plot, not simply after them.
Every tragedy involves a change of fortune, and the difference between a complex and simple tragic plot is how that change unfolds. Aristotle implies here that reversal and recognition should arise from the plot itself and be necessary or probable. This argument aligns with Aristotle’s point later in the text when he refers to Euripides’s Medea, in which the final resolution is achieved by means of a supernatural chariot.
6.3 Reversal. A reversal “is a change to the opposite in the actions being performed,” which, of course, occurs because of “necessity or probability”—that is, in a way that seems likely and that follows logically from the story’s previous events. Aristotle cites Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex as an example: a messenger brings Oedipus news meant to calm his fears that he has had sex with his mother, but in disclosing Oedipus’s true identity, the messenger confirms Oedipus’s fears instead of calming them.
Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex is an example of reversal in plot because it is expected that Oedipus’s fears will be calmed, not confirmed. This unexpected twist increases an audience’s feelings of fear and pity and makes catharsis stronger and more effective. Again, it is important to note that Aristotle’s definition is according to “necessity” or “probability.” Thus, what is necessary may not always be the most probable.
6.4 Recognition. Recognition “is a change from ignorance to knowledge, disclosing either a close relationship or enmity, on the part of the people marked out for good or bad fortune.” The best plot, according to Aristotle, is one in which recognition and reversal occur at the same time, as they do in Oedipus Rex. There are many kinds of recognition. Recognition can come about because of inanimate objects, and characters can recognize whether another character has performed a specific action.
Recognition and reversal occur at the same time in Oedipus Rex because the confirmation of Oedipus’s incestuous fears occurs at the same time as Oedipus’s recognition of his true identity and the fact that he has killed his father and had sex with his mother. Again, this simultaneous reversal and recognition leads to increased catharsis (feelings of fear and pity) in the audience.
Recognition combined with reversal involves fear and pity, which are the very foundation of tragedy, and either good fortune or bad fortune will be the outcome of such a combination. At times, only one character recognizes something; other times, recognition can occur between two characters, although not always at the same time. Aristotle gives Euripides’s Iphigeneia in Tauris as an example, in which both Iphigeneia and Orestes recognize at different times they are siblings.
Iphigeneia’s identity is disclosed through a letter in Euripides’s play, but Orestes verbally discloses his own identity. Iphigeneia and Orestes’s recognitions occur at different times; however, Aristotle implies that this type of recognition is still effective in bringing about catharsis because Orestes and Iphigeneia’s close relationship is ultimately revealed.
6.5 Suffering. Suffering is also useful in plot, and it “is an action that involves destruction or pain (e.g. deaths in full view, extreme agony, woundings and so on).”
Suffering, like the actions imitated in Oedipus Rex, is another component of plot that imitates life and that can evoke catharsis (feelings of fear and pity in the audience), too. In this way, suffering is a hallmark of tragic poetry.
6.6 Quantitative Parts of Tragedy. A tragedy can be divided into quantitative parts, which are different from the component parts, Aristotle explains. The quantitative parts of a tragedy are as follows: prologue, episode, finale, and choral parts (including entry-song and ode). The prologue occurs before the entry-song, and an episode is the part of the tragedy that occurs between choral songs. The finale is the end and does not have a following choral song.
Here, Aristotle breaks down the measurable parts of a tragedy, i.e., the exact structure that a tragedy has. Every tragedy has the parts listed here, which is another defining aspect of tragic plays. Again, in defining these terms, Aristotle makes them official for the first time in literary history.