Poetics

by

Aristotle

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A plot is a component of tragedy and, according to Aristotle, the most important part. Per Aristotle, tragedy is an imitation of “actions and of life,” and those events constitute the plot. Plots can be either complex, simple, or based on suffering. The best plots, Aristotle contends, are those in which reversal and recognition occur simultaneously, as in Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex. A plot must have magnitude, Aristotle says, but it should not be so large as to disrupt unity, which means it should be comprehensible with a single view. Plots with a change of fortune from good to bad are best for producing maximum catharsis, Aristotle says, and the mere mention of a tragic plot should elicit emotions of fear and pity in a listener. Tragedy and epic poetry are often judged by their plots; thus, Aristotle argues that plot should be carefully constructed.

Plot Quotes in Poetics

The Poetics quotes below are all either spoken by Plot or refer to Plot. For each quote, you can also see the other terms and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Tragedy vs. Epic Poetry  Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Penguin Classics edition of Poetics published in 1997.
Chapter 1 Quotes

Let us discuss the art of poetry in general and its species—the effect which each species of poetry has and the correct way to construct plots if the composition is to be of high quality, as well as the number and nature of its component parts, and any other questions that arise within the same field of enquiry. We should begin, as it natural, by taking first principles first.

Related Characters: Aristotle (speaker)
Page Number: 3
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 4 Quotes

So tragedy as a whole necessarily has six component parts, which determine the tragedy’s quality. The medium of imitation comprises two parts, the mode one, and object three; and there is nothing apart from these.

Related Characters: Aristotle (speaker)
Page Number: 11
Explanation and Analysis:

Tragedy is not an imitation of persons, but of actions and of life. Well-being and ill-being reside in actions, and the goal of life is an activity, not a quality; people possess certain qualities in accordance with their character, but they achieve well-being or its opposite on the basis of how they fare. So the imitation of a character is not the purpose of what the agents do; character is included along with and on account of the actions. So the events, i.e. the plot, are what tragedy is there for, and that is the most important thing of all.

Related Characters: Aristotle (speaker)
Page Number: 11
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 5 Quotes

Any beautiful object, whether a living organism or any other entity composed of parts, must not only possess those parts in proper order, but its magnitude also should not be arbitrary; beauty consists in magnitude as well as order. For this reason no organism could be beautiful if it is excessively small (since observation becomes confused as it comes close to having no perceptible duration in time) or excessively large (since the observation is then not simultaneous, and the observers find that the sense of unity and wholeness is lost from the observation, e.g. if there were an animal a thousand miles long). So just as in the case of physical objects and living organisms, they should possess a certain magnitude, and this should be such as can readily be taken in at one view, so in the case of plots: they should have a certain length, and this should be such as can readily be held in memory.

Related Characters: Aristotle (speaker)
Page Number: 14
Explanation and Analysis:

It is also clear from what has been said that the function of the poet is not say what has happened, but to say the kind of thing that would happen, i.e. what is possible in accordance with probability or necessity. The historian and the poet are not distinguished by their use of verse or prose; it would be possible to turn the works of Herodotus into verse, and it would be a history in verse just as much as in prose. The distinction is this: the one says what has happened, the other the kind of thing that would happen.

Related Characters: Aristotle (speaker), Herodotus
Page Number: 16
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 6 Quotes

So there are these two parts of the plot—reversal and recognition; a third is suffering. Of these, reversal and recognition have already been discussed; suffering is an action that involves destruction or pain (e.g. deaths in full view, extreme agony, woundings and so on).

Related Characters: Aristotle (speaker)
Related Symbols: Oedipus Rex
Page Number: 19
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 7 Quotes

It is possible for the evocation of fear and pity to result from the spectacle, and also from the structure of events itself. The latter is preferable and is the mark of a better poet. The plot should be constructed in such a way that, even without seeing it, anyone who hears the events which occur shudders and feels pity at what happens; this how someone would react on hearing the plot of the Oedipus. Producing this effect through spectacle is less artistic, and is dependent on the production. Those who use spectacle to produce an effect which is not evocative of fear, but simply monstrous, have nothing to do with tragedy; one should not seek every pleasure from tragedy, but the one that is characteristic of it. And since the poet should produce the pleasure which comes from pity and fear, and should do so by means of imitation, clearly this must be brought about in the events.

Related Characters: Aristotle (speaker), Oedipus, Sophocles
Related Symbols: Oedipus Rex
Page Number: 22
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 8 Quotes

(Clearly, therefore, the resolutions of plots should also come about from the plot itself, and not by means of a theatrical device, as in the Medea, or the events concerned with the launching of the ships in the Iliad. A theatrical device may be used for things outside the play—whether prior events which are beyond human knowledge, or subsequent events which need prediction and narration since we grant that the gods can see everything. But there should be nothing irrational in the events themselves; or, failing that, it should be outside the play, as for example in Sophocles’s Oedipus.)

Related Characters: Aristotle (speaker), Medea , Euripides, Sophocles, Oedipus, Homer
Related Symbols: Oedipus Rex
Page Number: 25
Explanation and Analysis:

The best recognition of all is that which arises out of the actual course of events, where the emotional impact is achieved through events that are probable, as in Sophocles’ Oedipus and the Iphigeneia (her wish to send a letter is probable). Only this kind does without contrived tokens and necklaces. Second-best are those which arise from inference.

Related Characters: Aristotle (speaker), Oedipus, Iphigeneia, Odysseus, Sophocles, Euripides, Homer, Orestes
Related Symbols: Oedipus Rex
Page Number: 27
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 10 Quotes

Probable impossibilities are preferable to implausible possibilities. Stories should not be constructed from irrational parts; so far as possible they should contain nothing irrational—or, failing that, it should be outside the narration (like Oedipus’ ignorance of the manner of Laius’ death) and not in the play itself (like the report of the Pythian Games in Electra, or the man who comes from Tegea to Mysia without speaking in the Mysians). Saying that the plot would have been ruined otherwise is absurd; plots should not be constructed like that in the first place. But is one does posit an irrationality and it seems more or less rational, even an oddity is possible; the irrationalities involved in Odysseus’ being put ashore in the Odyssey would be manifestly intolerable if a second-rate poet had composed them, but as it is the poet conceals the absurdity with other good qualities, and makes it a source of pleasure.

Related Characters: Aristotle (speaker), Oedipus, Orestes, Odysseus, Homer, Sophocles
Related Symbols: Oedipus Rex
Page Number: 41
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 12 Quotes

Tragedy has everything epic does (and it can even make use of its verse-form), and additionally it has a major component part music and spectacle; this is a source of intense pleasure. […] Also, the end of imitation is attained in shorter length; what is more concentrated is more pleasant than what is watered down by being more extended in time ( I mean, for example, if one were to turn Sophocles’ Oedipus into as many lines as the Iliad has).

Related Characters: Aristotle (speaker), Sophocles, Homer
Related Symbols: Oedipus Rex
Page Number: 47
Explanation and Analysis:
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Plot Term Timeline in Poetics

The timeline below shows where the term Plot appears in Poetics. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1. Introduction
Tragedy vs. Epic Poetry  Theme Icon
Imitation  Theme Icon
Fear, Pity, and Catharsis Theme Icon
Component Parts and Balance  Theme Icon
...discuss the effect poetry has on others and the proper way to construct a good plot. He will address the components and parts of poetry and consider any other relevant questions... (full context)
Chapter 3. The Anthropology and History of Poetry
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...the number of actors to two, and Sophocles added a third actor and introduced scene-painting. Plot became more complex, satire was abandoned, and tragedy became associated with dignified people. Iambic form... (full context)
Tragedy vs. Epic Poetry  Theme Icon
Imitation  Theme Icon
Fear, Pity, and Catharsis Theme Icon
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...poets were responsible for the development of comedy. However, it is clear that construction of plot came from Sicily, and Crates was the first to develop universal storylines rather than just... (full context)
Chapter 4. Tragedy: Definition and Analysis
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...are the media through which the imitation is performed. A tragedy imitates an action (the plot) that is performed by actors, and these actors have a certain kind of character (they... (full context)
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4.3 The Primacy of Plot. Every tragedy, Aristotle repeats, has spectacle, character, plot, diction, lyric poetry, and reasoning; however, plot... (full context)
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4.4 The Ranking Completed. Plot is the most important component part of tragedy, Aristotle repeats, and character is second in... (full context)
Chapter 5. Plot: Basic Concepts
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Aristotle claims that plot is the most important component part of tragedy, and so it is important to discuss... (full context)
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...and they should be readily taken in with just one view. The same goes for plot, which should be of a very specific length and should be easily held in memory.... (full context)
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5.3 Unity. Focusing on a single person is not what makes a plot unified—lots of things can happen to any one person, and any combination of these things... (full context)
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...is considered to have unity if it imitates a single object. The same goes for plot, which should imitate a single and complete action. The structure of a plot must be... (full context)
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...or say. Because poetry is universal, it is more serious and philosophical than history. The plot of a comedy, for instance, is constructed based on probabilities, and then characters are selected.... (full context)
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A poet is “a maker of plots,” Aristotle clarifies, not a maker of verses, and the object of a poet’s imitation is... (full context)
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5.6 Defective Plots. Episodic plots are by far the worst of the simple plots, Aristotle argues, which means... (full context)
Chapter 6. Plot: Species and Components
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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... (full context)
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...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,... (full context)
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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,... (full context)
Chapter 7. The Best Kinds of Tragic Plot
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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. (full context)
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...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,... (full context)
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Imitation  Theme Icon
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...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... (full context)
Tragedy vs. Epic Poetry  Theme Icon
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...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... (full context)
Chapter 8. Other Aspects of Tragedy
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The resolution of the plot should come about from the plot as well—it shouldn’t rely on “theatrical device” as in... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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...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.   (full context)
Chapter 10. Epic
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10.3 Differences between Tragedy and Epic. Epic is different from tragedy in that the plot of an epic is longer; however, one should still be able to appreciate its unity.... (full context)