In Poetics, Aristotle argues that the true aim of tragedy is to bring about a “purification” of emotion. Aristotle claims that “one should not seek every pleasure from tragedy, but the one that is characteristic of it.” In other words, since fear and pity are characteristic of tragedy, these are the emotions a tragedy should produce in those who read or view it. This “purification,” or production of fear and pity in the audience, is also known by the Greek word catharsis, and catharsis is evidence of the successful construction of a tragedy. According to Aristotle, writers of tragic poetry “should produce the pleasure which comes from pity and fear, and should do so by means of imitation.” Such imitation is achieved one of two ways: through the representation of human suffering, which involves both destruction and pain, or the representation of events that occur “contrary to expectation but because of one another,” as they do in a tragic plot that involves reversal and recognition. In Poetics, Aristotle underscores the importance of catharsis through fear and pity in the construction and consumption of tragedies, and he ultimately argues that tragic plots involving reversal and recognition are best for producing feelings of fear and pity.
Aristotle maintains that catharsis is a crucial part of tragedy and that tragic plots should evoke fear and pity specifically, as these are the emotions most often associated with tragic plots. Most tragedies involve human suffering, which, according to Aristotle, “is an action that involves destruction or pain (e.g. deaths in full view, extreme agony, woundings and so on).” Such “terrible and pitiable” actions, as Aristotle calls them, should produce the emotions of fear and pity in the audience. A tragedy that does not elicit these emotions fails to meet the purpose of tragedy: to imitate a specific action as closely and accurately as possible, which in this case is human suffering. Aristotle ultimately argues that people find pleasure in viewing distressing imitations, like those found in tragedy, as long as such imitations are viewed from a safe distance. Catharsis through tragedy not only allows the audience to view a distressing image, it allows them to vicariously experience the same emotions.
According to Aristotle, the strongest catharsis comes from tragic plots that involve reversal. Aristotle defines reversal as “a change to the opposite in the actions being performed as stated—and this, as we have been saying, in accordance with probability or necessity.” In other words, catharsis is best achieved during tragedies in which events occur contrary to what is stated, as long as those events are necessary and feasible. Aristotle gives Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex as an example of tragic reversal: in Sophocles’s tragic play, a messenger comes to Oedipus to free him of the fear that he has committed incest with his mother, and in doing so, the messenger produces the “opposite result.” That is, instead of calming Oedipus’s fears, the messenger confirms Oedipus’s true identity and reveals that Oedipus really has committed incest and patricide. For Aristotle, catharsis is strongest in tragedies like Oedipus Rex, in which feelings of fear and pity are brought about because of an unexpected reversal of the plot. Unforeseen reversals add to astonishment, which, Aristotle maintains, is more powerful and complete when it is achieved spontaneously and happens for a reason.
In addition to reversals, Aristotle also argues that catharsis is best achieved through tragic plots that involve recognition. Aristotle defines recognition as “a change from ignorance to knowledge, disclosing either a close relationship or enmity, on the part of people marked out for good or bad fortune.” In other words, recognition is a sudden understanding or revelation, which for most of the plot remains unknown. Aristotle argues that there is more than one kind of recognition in tragedies. Recognition can occur “with respect to inanimate and chance objects; and it is also possible to recognize whether someone has or has not performed some action.” Recognition can also occur on both sides of a tragedy, as it does in Euripides’s Iphigeneia in Tauris, in which both Orestes and Iphigeneia recognize they are siblings, albeit at different times. However, Aristotle maintains, the type of recognition that involves good or bad fortune is particularly effective in the case of tragedy. Aristotle argues that recognition is most effective when it occurs at the same time as reversal, as it does in Oedipus Rex. In the play, Oedipus’s recognition of his true identity unfolds simultaneously with the plot’s reversal: when the messenger arrives with the intention of allaying Oedipus’s incestuous fears, they reveal that Oedipus has murdered his real father and married his mother. The dual surprise of an unexpected reversal and recognition produces the strongest feelings fear and pity, which, Aristotle argues, is the true objective of tragedy.
Tragedies like Oedipus Rex that involve a change of fortune through reversal, recognition, or both are what Aristotle refers to as complex plots, as compared to simple plots, which do not involve either reversal or recognition. Aristotle contends that such reversals and recognitions “must arise from the actual structure of the plot, so that they come about as a result of what has happened before, out of necessity or in accordance with probability.” Complex plots, Aristotle ultimately argues, are most effective at bringing about catharsis through feelings of pity and fear, which is the hallmark of a tragedy.
Fear, Pity, and Catharsis ThemeTracker
Fear, Pity, and Catharsis 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 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.
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.
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.