In Poetics, Aristotle examines the defining features of a successful poem, specifically of tragedy and epic poetry. He breaks down the required component parts of an effective tragedy—including plot, character, diction, spectacle, reasoning, and lyric poetry—and he explores each component part individually. He discusses the parts of diction, the rhetoric behind reasoning, and the natural human inclinations that make lyric poetry and spectacle so pleasing and entertaining. Aristotle pays close attention to plot, which he contends is the most important component part of both tragedy and epic. Plots can be either complex or simple, but Aristotle maintains that the best tragedies and epic poems have complex plots with recognition and reversal occurring together at the same time, as they do in Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex. Tragedy and epic poetry share many of the same component parts, and balance within each component part is equally important. For Aristotle, a good poem needs more than just the component parts—a good poem strikes the proper balance so that the poem is both astonishing and rational. Through Poetics, Aristotle implicitly argues that balance is a defining feature of all successful poetry, especially tragedy.
Aristotle discusses the component part of character, which he defines as the moral disposition of a character or action. Characters and actions can be either admirable or inferior—meaning they are either morally good or morally bad—but these traits must have proper balance in a poem. According to Aristotle, every tragedy includes a change of fortune from either good to bad or vice versa, and certain characters are marked within a play to undergo this change. A good tragedy should not depict overly moral characters undergoing a change from good fortune to bad, Aristotle argues, because this produces “disgust” in the audience. Moral characters who are left with bad fortune at the end of a play are upsetting to audiences. To avoid this, balance is needed within characters—they shouldn’t be too good. Similarly, Aristotle argues that overly immoral characters who undergo a change in fortune from bad to good are also ineffective. A bad character changing from bad to good fortune is not tragic, Aristotle argues, and it will not lead to the feelings of fear and pity required for catharsis. Just as characters shouldn’t be overly good, Aristotle likewise argues that they shouldn’t be overly bad. A successful poem finds a way to make even bad characters look good, Aristotle says, but they shouldn’t be so good as to be implausible. People are rarely all good and so implying they are isn’t believable; however, a character mustn’t be all bad either. A successful blending of good and bad traits in character, Aristotle argues, can be found in Homer’s Achilles, who kills Hector in the Iliad but is still depicted as a good person. In Achilles, there is balance of good and bad character traits, which is what makes his death at the end of the Iliad tragic.
Aristotle also discusses the component parts of diction, which includes nouns and verbs, and he argues that a successful poem finds balance in its use of diction as well. The most important thing about diction, Aristotle says, is clarity, and the clearest words are those that are in frequent use and common circulation. Aristotle contends that clear words which are easily understood are best in poetry, provided their use does not result in a “loss of dignity.” Using only common words in a poem is unoriginal and inartistic. Thus, a poem must find balance between common words and what Aristotle calls “exotic expressions.” According to Aristotle, “exotic expressions” are those words not in common usage. Such “exotic expressions” may be in common use elsewhere, or they may be coined specifically by the poet. “Exotic expressions” can be created though lengthening and the addition of vowels or syllables, or through shortening and the removal of vowels or syllables. However, attention to balance is again required in diction, and too many “exotic expressions” can render a poem nonsense. Another form of “exotic expressions” is the use of metaphor, which is a noun applied to something else. For Aristotle, good use of metaphor is the mark of a natural poet and can disguise any number of poetic errors; however, the use of metaphor alone does not make a successful poem either. A good poem makes use of all parts of diction, including metaphor and other non-standard words. The blending of “exotic expressions” and common words is crucial in a successful poem so that it is both understandable and entertaining.
The need for balance is poetry is also seen in Aristotle’s explanation of magnitude and unity. Magnitude is a tragedy’s ability to produce astonishment and wonder, but this magnitude must be according to necessity or probability, and the tragedy must have unity. To have unity, a tragic plot must have a definite beginning, middle, and end, and it shouldn’t be so large that it can’t be readily held in one’s memory. In other words, a tragedy needs balance between magnitude and unity, and it shouldn’t be as big and astonishing as to disrupt unity or be implausible. For Aristotle, a defining feature of poetry is balance, and this balance is equally important in all of a poem’s component parts.
Component Parts and Balance ThemeTracker
Component Parts and Balance Quotes in Poetics
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
(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.)
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.
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.
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.
Homer deserves praise for many reasons, but above all because he alone among poets is not ignorant of what he should do in his own person. The poet in person should say as little as possible; that is not what makes him an imitator. Other poets perform in person throughout, and imitate little and seldom; but after a brief preamble Homer introduces a man or a woman or some other character—and none of them are characterless: they have character.
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).
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.