7.1 First Introduction. Next, Aristotle will discuss what poets should do and avoid when constructing plot, and he will also discuss the effect of tragedy.
As Aristotle does not claim to discuss tragic plots specifically, as he did with the effect (catharsis) that this type of plot has on an audience, the reader can assume that his critique of plot is applicable to both tragedy and epic poetry.
7.2 First Deduction. The best tragedy is complex, not simple, and it imitates events that provoke fear and pity in the audience. This process is called catharsis, and it is a distinct feature of tragedy. A tragedy should not depict overly moral characters with a change in fortune from good to bad, because this does not produce fear or pity—it produces “disgust.” Similarly, immoral characters should not undergo a change from bad fortune to good. Such a change is not tragic, and it does not produce fear or pity.
For Aristotle, a tragedy must elicit feelings of fear and pity to be considered a tragedy, and he again alludes here to the balance needed in poetry. A good character left with bad fortune is upsetting to audiences, and a bad character left with good fortune doesn’t induce feelings of fear and pity at all. Thus, a poet must find balance between a character that is too good or too bad.
The best tragedy finds balance between good and evil character. A character shouldn’t be too moral, but the change a character undergoes should be due to an error, not immorality. A good plot does not involve a change from bad fortune to good, but from good to bad, and the best tragedies follow this structure. This is why, Aristotle says, people are wrong to criticize Euripides for writing tragedies that always end in bad fortune.
A play ending in good fortune isn’t tragic, it is happy; thus, tragedies should always end with a change to bad fortune. Because of this, no character should be too moral, since it is likely that they will end with bad fortune. Euripides’s tragedies are the best kind, Aristotle implies, because they end badly, which is most tragic and most effective for bringing about catharsis.
The second best structure of a tragedy is the “double structure,” like Homer’s Odyssey, which ends with Odysseus’s triumph and the deaths of wicked characters. However, Aristotle points out, this structure does not produce the pleasure that should come from tragedy (that is, fear and pity). This structure is more like comedy, Aristotle argues, in which enemies resolve their differences (even bitter enemies like Orestes and Aegisthus make up) and no one is killed.
At the end of Sophocles’s Electra, Orestes kills Aegisthus in revenge for Aegisthus’s murder of Orestes’s father, and the play has a tragic end for everyone. Obviously, if the play ended on a happy note and Orestes and Aegisthus reconciled, this wouldn’t be tragic at all. Likewise, it is not tragic that Odysseus triumphs in the end of the Odyssey, because this triumph does not provoke fear and pity in the audience. An effective tragic plot ends in tragedy for all, not just those who morally deserve it.
7.3 Second Introduction. It is possible for fear and pity (which create catharsis) to result from either spectacle or the events of a plot. It is preferable for catharsis to come from plot, and better poets observe this general rule. The plot of a tragedy should be constructed in such a way as to bring about catharsis by mere mention of the events, as it does to those who are told the plot of Oedipus Rex. Producing catharsis via spectacle is “less artistic,” Aristotle argues, and doing so relies on production. Poets should not seek every emotion from tragedy, but only those emotions associated with it—fear and pity—and they should do so through plot.
One does not need to watch or read Oedipus Rex to feel fear and pity. Oedipus’s story of incest and patricide is so terrible that it provokes these feelings instantly. Catharsis provoked by spectacle is “less artistic,” according to Aristotle, because spectacle includes stage production, not poetic production, which does not reflect poetic talent. This passage also implies that tragedy should make the audience feel fear and pity specifically, as compared to other emotions, because fear and pity are the emotions that tragedy seeks to imitate.
7.4 Second Deduction. Next, Aristotle considers those events which appear “terrible or pitiable.” Tragedy is generally concerned with interactions among people who are closely connected, who are enemies, or who are neutral to one another. If enemies act on enemies, there is no pity, just as there is no pity if neutrals act on neutrals. The most pitiable events are those that occur between characters who are closely connected, such as brother killing brother, or son killing mother or father, and so on.
Acts that are “terrible or pitiable” are those that elicit feelings of fear and pity in the audience, and it is best if these terrible acts occur between those who are closely related, as they are in Oedipus Rex (Oedipus kills his father and has sex with his mother). Terrible acts done onto one’s family are more “terrible and pitiable” than acts done onto unrelated enemies or neutrals.
Such a “pitiable action” can come about with a character acting in full knowledge, such as Euripides’s portrayal of Medea killing her children. However, pitiable actions can also be performed in ignorance, as in Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex. Pitiable actions can also be imitated by characters who almost perform a terrible act before being stopped by some recognition. These three possibilities are all there is, as a terrible and pitiable act is either performed or not, and that act is either performed in ignorance or in awareness.
Medea kills her children as revenge for her husband’s infidelity, and she commits the act in full awareness of the terrible thing she is doing. Oedipus, on the other hand, doesn’t initially know that the man he has killed is his father, nor does he know that the woman he has married is his mother. While Aristotle doesn’t explicitly say it here, he implies that acts committed in ignorance are more tragic because they are unintentional.
A character who is on the verge of knowingly performing a “terrible and pitiable” act but then stops is the worst kind of plot. Such a plot is not tragic, and there is no suffering; thus, it is rarely used, except for Creon in Antigone. How the pitiable action is performed is less important, but it is better if the action is performed unknowingly and followed by recognition. There is no “disgust” to be found in an act committed in ignorance, Aristotle argues, and it has a strong “emotional impact.” The best plots, Aristotle claims, are those like Merope’s actions in Cresphontes: she nearly kills her son without knowing who he is, but she stops when she recognizes him.
In Antigone, Creon’s son, Haemon, tries to kill Creon after Antigone hangs herself. When Haemon fails to kill Creon, he kills himself. Haemon fails to perform the “terrible and pitiable” act (he doesn’t kill his father), and Aristotle implies that this isn’t a tragic outcome (as compared to Haemon killing his father and then killing himself). Aristotle says that there is no “disgust” to be found in characters like Oedipus, who commit terrible acts unknowingly. Oedipus didn’t know what he was doing, unlike Medea, so Oedipus can’t be faulted; thus, catharsis is stronger and more effective. Cresphontes is a play by Euripides that did not survive antiquity, but Aristotle’s point is clear: when characters almost commit terrible acts but stop because of recognition, such a plot will produce the greatest feelings of fear and pity in the audience because it implies that a terrible act could accidentally happen to anyone.