8.1 Character. There are four things that go into making a good character. The first is goodness: speech and actions have character, as they reveal the essence of a specific choice. If the choice is good, the character is good as well. The second is appropriateness: if a character is courageous, they must be courageous in accordance with what type of character they are. For example, it is inappropriate for a woman to demonstrate “courage or cleverness” in the same way as a man.
Women during Aristotle’s time were not stereotypically “courageous and clever,” since most believe that these were traits more likely found in men. Therefore, Aristotle argues that it is inappropriate (during his time, that is) for women to be depicted as such. A character must be either good or bad, but that character must be in keeping with whom, or rather what, they are meant to imitate.
The third thing that makes a good character is likeness, but this is not to say that a character is likable. The fourth is consistency: even if a character’s specific actions are inconsistent and this is fitting of their supposed character, such inconsistencies should be “consistently inconsistent.” Menelaus in Orestes is an example of “unnecessary badness” in a character, and Iphigeneia in Aulis, when Iphigeneia pleads for her life, is an example of inconsistency. However, in these examples, it is necessary or probable that the characters behave in precisely such ways, so they can be considered “consistently inconsistent.”
Likeness refers to the appropriateness of an imitation (how well it imitates something)—not a character’s likability. Aristotle’s language here is a bit tricky, but what he means to say is that if it is in a specific character’s disposition to be inconsistent, they must be inconsistent in the same way all the time. The only exception to this rule is if inconsistency is necessary or probable. Iphigeneia is Aristotle’s example. When Iphigeneia is first set to be sacrificed, she begs for her life, but she soon comes to except her fate and embraces death. This inconsistency in Iphigeneia’s actions is probable—she isn’t likely to escape sacrifice, so she accepts it. She does escape, but for Aristotle, this is beside the point.
The resolution of the plot should come about from the plot as well—it shouldn’t rely on “theatrical device” as in Medea or the Iliad. “Theatrical devices” can be employed for things outside of the play, such as the power of gods, but there should be nothing irrational in the plot itself.
At the end of Medea, Medea escapes by way a supernatural chariot. Medea’s escape is irrational, and Aristotle implies that the resolution would be better if it came directly from the plot itself. Similarly, in the Iliad, the goddess Athene must intervene to keep the Greeks fighting the Trojan War. Aristotle implies that it would have been better for this resolution to come from the plot itself, not from the gods.
A tragedy should imitate people who are better than us, Aristotle repeats, so poets “should imitate good portrait-painters.” Good portrait-painters paint subjects as they are, only they make them better-looking. Even characters who have bad traits should be portrayed as good people, like Homer’s portrayal of Achilles.
In Homer’s Iliad, Achilles kills Hector, the prince of Troy, in a duel. Achilles is a fierce warrior, and he kills easily, but he is also loyal and good to his men, the Myrmidons. Achilles has some immoral traits, but since he is still depicted as a good person, his death at the end of the Iliad is that much more tragic.
8.2 Kinds of Recognition. The first and least artistic kind of recognition involves tokens: some tokens are congenital, like a birthmark, and some are acquired, like a scar. Tokens can also be external, like jewelry or a boat. For example, Odysseus is recognized by a scar. If recognition is employed merely for confirmation, this is less artistic than recognition that comes about from reversal, which is best. This superior kind of recognition can be observed “in the bath-scene” of Homer’s Odyssey.
In the “bath-scene” of Homer’s Odyssey, a nurse washes Odysseus’s feet and spots his telltale scar that identifies him as Odysseus. Odysseus doesn’t intend to impart his identity to the nurse in the bath-scene, which is where the reversal comes in. This kind of recognition that also involves reversal is more artistic than the parts of the Iliad when Odysseus states his identity and uses his scar as confirmation.
The second kind of recognition is created by the poet, and this form of recognition is not very artistic either. In the Iphigeneia, Orestes reveals his own identity, but Iphigeneia’s identity is revealed through a letter. “Orestes declares in person what the poet (instead of the plot) requires,” Aristotle says. That is, Orestes tells Iphigeneia he is her brother, but he could just as easily have been identified through a token of some kind, so this recognition isn’t really superior to the kind that tokens can trigger.
Aristotle’s language in this section can be difficult to interpret, but the edition notes explain that Orestes blurting out who he is isn’t artistic either, since the same thing can be accomplished with a token of some kind. Whether Orestes is identified from his own confession or a token, such recognition is contrived and does not come from the plot, as Iphigeneia’s letter does.
The third kind of recognition is the kind that arises from memory, when a character suddenly realizes something they forgot. Aristotle again raises the example of Odysseus, who weeps at the sound of a lyre because he is reminded of his past. This reminder results in a recognition. The fourth kind of recognition are those that come about from inference, like in the Sons of Phineus, in which the women surmise that it is their fate to die. There is also recognition that comes from “false inference,” as it does in Odysseus the False Messenger. The best kind of recognition comes from the plot—the course of events—and it is probable, as in Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex and the Iphigeneia (Iphigeneia’s letter, Aristotle points out, “is probable”). This is the best kind of recognition because it doesn’t rely on any kind of token, and inference is the second-best kind of recognition.
Odysseus’s recognition comes about because of the events of the plot rather than being forced through admission or token; thus, Aristotle argues that recognition from memory is more effective in producing catharsis. Nothing is known about the Sons of Phineus or Odysseus the False Messenger, neither of which appear to have survived antiquity; however, Aristotle’s point is still clear. Recognition from inference is better than recognition from token, but the best recognition arises from events in the plot, as with the messenger in Oedipus Rex. Iphigeneia’s letter can be considered a token, but Aristotle implies it is probable for one to reveal their identity in a letter, so this recognition isn’t contrived in quite the same way as other tokens, like a scar.
8.3 Visualizing the Action. Poets should always visualize the plot as they construct it. In doing so, a poet can spot inconsistencies and inappropriateness. Plots should also include the use of gestures, and such gestures are most believable if they are performed by those who are actually feeling the emotion the gesture is meant to imitate. “This is why,” Aristotle says, “the art of poetry belongs to people who are naturally gifted or mad.” The actions of the insane or talented appear the most authentic.
The idea that “the art of poetry belongs to people who are naturally gifted or mad” was a popular one during Aristotle’s time, and it’s also reflected in Aristophanes plays, such as Thesmophoriazusae. The idea is that those who are naturally talented or insane are more convincing than those who are simply trying to act.
8.4 Outlines and Episodization. Stories should bet set out first in “universal terms,” and then they should be turned into episodes and expounded on. An example of what Aristotle means by “universal terms” is the Iphigeneia, in which a girl is supposed to be sacrificed but disappears without anyone knowing. She goes to another country where the custom is to sacrifice foreigners, but instead she’s hailed as a priestess and spared. Her brother arrives and is captured, but before he is sacrificed, he discloses his identity and escapes. These are the “universal terms” of the Iphigeneia, Aristotle says, and Euripides turned these terms into episodes in his play.
Aristotle’s explanation here of “universal terms” is different than the universals expressed and imitated though poetry that he explains elsewhere in the text. Instead of being something relatable that an audience will empathize with and that will therefore increase their catharsis, “universal terms” refers to the bare-bones structure of a story—in this case the myth of Iphigeneia—which is then expanded through episodes and made into a tragedy.
Episodes must be appropriate and concise in tragedy, but in epic poetry, they are often used to make a story longer. Take Homer’s Odyssey. The story itself is short: a man is alone and away from home under close watch by Poseidon. While he is gone, his property is misspent and a plot is executed against his son. The man is shipwrecked, but he manages to get home, where he reveals his identity and destroys his enemies. Most of the Odyssey, Aristotle says, “is episodes.”
A tragedy can’t be extended to great lengths by episodes because creating a tragedy that is too long will disrupt unity. A tragedy the length of Homer’s Odyssey would be impossible to keep readily in one’s memory or view; thus, numerous episodes in tragedy are inappropriate and better left to tragic poems.
8.5 Complication and Resolution. A tragedy must have complication and resolution. According to Aristotle, the complication is “everything from the beginning up to and including the section which immediately precedes” the change of fortune. The resolution, he says, is “everything from the beginning of the change of fortune to the end.” A complication can occur even outside the events of a play, as in Lyceus, Aristotle says, in which the child is taken before the play starts.
Very little is known about Lyceus, so it is difficult to interpret Aristotle’s point exactly. However, he seems to imply that complications occurring outside the events of a play—like Agamemnon’s murder in Sophocles’s Electra, which takes place before the play—can still have bearing on the events of a play. Thus, a complication does not necessarily have to occur during a tragedy.
8.6 Kinds of Tragedy. According to Aristotle, there are four different kinds of tragedy: complex tragedy, which relies on reversal and recognition; tragedy of suffering, like plays about Ajax; tragedy of character, like Women of Phthia; and simple tragedy, like Prometheus and plays about the underworld. A tragedy should include all the component parts, but it is usually judged by its plot. Therefore, both complication and resolution should be constructed with the same attention.
Ajax was a great warrior during the Trojan War who, after losing Achilles’s armor to Odysseus, kills himself with a sword given to him by Hector. Stories about Ajax involve both physical and emotional suffering, which, Aristotle implies, are best for bringing about catharsis. Little is known about the Women of Phthia or exactly which Prometheus Aristotle is referencing to here; however, the mythical Prometheus was punished by Zeus for giving fire to man and was chained to the side of a mountain and tortured for all eternity. Prometheus’s story is also rife with suffering and therefore fear and pity.
8.7 Tragedy and Epic. A tragedy should not be constructed from material that would be better be as an epic. For instance, the Iliad contains many stories and is not appropriate for a tragedy because it’s so long that the stories wouldn’t have the right magnitude.
Again, a tragedy that is too long, with too great of magnitude, cannot be readily held in memory and would not have unity. An epic can sustain a multitude of stories, whereas a tragedy cannot.
8.8 Astonishment. Poets should use astonishment when constructing reversals and simple actions. This is achieved when characters who are “clever but bad” are deceived. Such an action is not improbable, Aristotle argues, because it is likely for unlikely things to happen.
Aristotle argues that since improbable things have happened before, it is likely that improbable or unlikely things will happen again. Aristotle’s language can be confusing for modern readers, but his point is that just because something is unlikely doesn’t mean that it couldn’t or wouldn’t happen.
8.9 The Chorus. The chorus is like any actor in a play and should contribute to the play as a whole. However, the poet need not write choral lyrics as they do the rest of the play—musical interludes can simply be marked and left to the producer to fill in.
Aristotle’s language in this section is difficult to interpret as well, but the text notes indicate that Aristotle’s point is that musical selection need not be the work of the poet; music, like spectacle can be delegated to the producer of a theatrical play.