Poetics

by

Aristotle

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Tragedy is one of the five forms of poetry, and it is the form Aristotle pays most attention to in Poetics. Tragedy, according to Aristotle, “is an imitation of an action that is admirable, complete and possesses magnitude.” Tragedy is written in “language made pleasurable” (meaning that language that has rhythm and melody), and it can be separated into parts of verse or song. Tragedy is performed by actors, not by narration, and it purifies the audience by producing in them the emotions of fear and pity in a process known as catharsis. Tragic poems have six component parts—lyric poetry, spectacle, plot, character, diction, and reasoning—and these parts determine a tragedy’s quality. A tragedy should be whole and possess unity (meaning it should have a definite beginning, middle, and end) and can be one of four types: complex, simple, based on suffering, or based on character. Aristotle ultimately argues that tragedy is superior to epic poetry, mainly because tragedy produces catharsis and is more artistic.

Tragedy Quotes in Poetics

The Poetics quotes below are all either spoken by Tragedy or refer to Tragedy. 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 2 Quotes

Epic poetry and the composition of tragedy, as well as comedy and the arts of dithyrambic poetry and (for the most part) of music for pipe or lyre, are all (taken together) imitations. They can be differentiated from each other in three respects: in respect of their different media of imitation, or different objects, or a different mode (i.e. a different manner).

Related Characters: Aristotle (speaker), Homer, Sophocles, Aristophanes
Related Symbols: Oedipus Rex
Page Number: 3
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 4 Quotes

Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is admirable, complete and possesses magnitude; in language made pleasurable, each of its species separated in different parts; performed by actors, not through narration; effecting through pity and fear the purification of such emotions.

(By “language made pleasurable” I mean that which possesses rhythm and melody, i.e. song. By the separation of its species I mean that some parts are composed in verse alone; others by contrast make use of song.)

Related Characters: Aristotle (speaker)
Page Number: 10
Explanation and Analysis:

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

The construction of the best tragedy should be complex rather than simple; and it should also be an imitation of events that evoke fear and pity, since that is the distinctive feature of this kind of imitation. So it is clear first of all that decent men should not be seen undergoing a change from good fortune to bad fortune—this does not evoke fear or pity, but disgust. Nor should depraved people be seen undergoing a change from bad fortune to good fortune—this is the least tragic of all: it has none of the right effects, since it neither agreeable, nor does it evoke pity or fear. Nor again should a very wicked person fall from good fortune to bad fortune—that kind of structure would be agreeable, but would not excite pity or fear, since the one has to do with someone who is suffering undeservedly, the other with someone who is like ourselves (I mean, pity has to do with the underserving sufferer, fear with the person like us); so what happens will evoke neither pity nor fear.

Related Characters: Aristotle (speaker)
Page Number: 20-1
Explanation and Analysis:

We are left, therefore, with the person intermediate between these. This is the sort of person who is not outstanding in moral excellence or justice; on the other hand, the change of bad fortune which he undergoes is not due to any moral defect or depravity, but to an error of some kind. He is one of those people who are held in great esteem and enjoy great good fortune, like Oedipus, Thyestes, and distinguished men from that kind of family.

Related Characters: Aristotle (speaker), Oedipus, Sophocles, Euripides
Related Symbols: Oedipus Rex
Page Number: 21
Explanation and Analysis:

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:

Since tragedy is an imitation of people better than we are, one should imitate good portrait-painters. In rendering the individual form, they paint people as they are, but make them better-looking. In the same way the poet who is imitating people who are irascible or lazy or who have other traits of character of that sort should portray them as having these characteristics, but also as decent people. For example, Homer portrayed Achilles as both a good man and a paradigm of obstinacy.

Related Characters: Aristotle (speaker), Homer, Achilles
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 9 Quotes

The most important quality in diction is clarity, provided there is no loss of dignity. The clearest diction is that based on current words; but that lacks dignity (as can be seen from the poetry of Cleophon, and that of Sthenelus). By contrast, diction that is distinguished and out of the ordinary when it makes use of exotic expressions—by which I mean non-standard words, metaphor, lengthening, and anything contrary to current usage. […] So what is needed is some kind of mixture of these two things: one of them will make the diction of the ordinary and avoid a loss of dignity (i.e. non-standard words, metaphor, ornament and other categories I mentioned earlier), while current usage will contribute clarity.

Related Characters: Aristotle (speaker), Aristophanes
Page Number: 36
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 10 Quotes

While it is true that astonishment is an effect which should be sought in tragedy, the irrational (which is the most important source of astonishment) is more feasible in epic, because one is not looking at the agent. The pursuit of Hector would seem preposterous on stage, with the others standing by and taking no part in the pursuit while Achilles shakes his head to restrain them; but in epic it escapes notices.

Related Characters: Aristotle (speaker), Homer, Achilles, Hector
Page Number: 41
Explanation and Analysis:

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 11 Quotes

Furthermore, if the objection is that something is not true, perhaps it is as it ought to be; e.g. Sophocles said that he portrayed people as they should be, Euripides as they are. That is the solution to use.

Related Characters: Aristotle (speaker), Oedipus, Sophocles, Euripides
Related Symbols: Oedipus Rex
Page Number: 43
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:

So tragedy surpasses epic in all these respects, and also in artistic effect (since they should not produce any arbitrary pleasure but the one specified); clearly, then, because it achieves its purpose more effectively than epic, tragedy must be superior.

Related Characters: Aristotle (speaker)
Page Number: 48
Explanation and Analysis:
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Tragedy Term Timeline in Poetics

The timeline below shows where the term Tragedy appears in Poetics. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 2. Poetry as a Species of Imitation
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Epic poetry, tragedy, comedy, dithyrambic poetry, and music by pipe or lyre are all forms of imitation, Aristotle... (full context)
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Some arts, including dithyrambic poetry, tragedy, and comedy, combine the use of rhythm, melody, and language. The only differences among these... (full context)
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Imitation  Theme Icon
...and Hegemon of Thasos imitates those who are worse. This distinction is the difference between tragedy and comedy: tragedies imitate people who are better than people in general, whereas comedies imitate... (full context)
Chapter 3. The Anthropology and History of Poetry
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...Homer’s Margites is as important to comedy as the Iliad and the Odyssey are to tragedy. When comedy and tragedy first emerged, poets became known as either poets of comedy (not... (full context)
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3.3 Tragedy. Now is not the time to debate whether tragedy is fully developed regarding its parts,... (full context)
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3.5 Epic. Like tragedy, epic poetry is the imitation of admirable people. The difference between tragedy and epic is... (full context)
Chapter 4. Tragedy: Definition and Analysis
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4.1 Definition. According to Aristotle, tragedy “is an imitation of an action that is admirable, complete and possesses magnitude.” Tragedy is... (full context)
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4.2 Component Parts. Since imitation is performed by actors in a tragedy, spectacle is a component part of tragedy. Additional components are lyric poetry (song) and diction... (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 is the... (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 importance. Reasoning is third: it allows for characters... (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 the qualities and structure of plot. (full context)
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5.1 Completeness. Tragedy “is an imitation of a complete, i.e. whole, action, possessing a certain magnitude.” To be... (full context)
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...then characters are selected. This process is different from the construction of a lampoon or tragedy, which often focus on a specific person. What has happened is possible in tragedy, Aristotle... (full context)
Chapter 6. Plot: Species and Components
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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.... (full context)
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6.6 Quantitative Parts of Tragedy. A tragedy can be divided into quantitative parts, which are different from the component parts,... (full context)
Chapter 7. The Best Kinds of Tragic Plot
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...should do and avoid when constructing plot, and he will also discuss the effect of tragedy. (full context)
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7.2 First Deduction. The best tragedy is complex, not simple, and it imitates events that provoke fear and pity in the... (full context)
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The best tragedy finds balance between good and evil character. A character shouldn’t be too moral, but the... (full context)
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The second best structure of a tragedy is the “double structure,” like Homer’s Odyssey, which ends with Odysseus’s triumph and the deaths... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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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... (full context)
Chapter 8. Other Aspects of Tragedy
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A tragedy should imitate people who are better than us, Aristotle repeats, so poets “should imitate good... (full context)
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Episodes must be appropriate and concise in tragedy, but in epic poetry, they are often used to make a story longer. Take Homer’s... (full context)
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8.5 Complication and Resolution. A tragedy must have complication and resolution. According to Aristotle, the complication is “everything from the beginning... (full context)
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8.6 Kinds of Tragedy. According to Aristotle, there are four different kinds of tragedy: complex tragedy, which relies on... (full context)
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8.7 Tragedy and Epic. A tragedy should not be constructed from material that would be better be... (full context)
Chapter 10. Epic
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10.1 Plot. Like a tragedy, an epic should be constructed “dramatically.” This means that an epic should imitate a whole... (full context)
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10.2 Kinds and Parts of Epic. Also like tragedy, an epic is either simple, complex, or based on suffering. The components of an epic... (full context)
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10.3 Differences between Tragedy and Epic. Epic is different from tragedy in that the plot of an epic is... (full context)
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10.5 Astonishment and Irrationalities. Like a tragedy, there should also be astonishment in epic. However, the irrational is more possible in an... (full context)
Chapter 12.  Comparative Evaluation of Epic and Tragedy
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12.1 The Case against Tragedy. If superior art is “less vulgar,” it is clear that art that “imitates indiscriminately is... (full context)
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12.2 Reply. Aristotle argues that criticism of tragedy as vulgar and inferior is a critique of the performance, not the poem. Furthermore, tragedy’s... (full context)
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Tragedy, Aristotle argues, “surpasses epic in all these respects, and also in artistic effect,” as a... (full context)