Aristotle’s Definition of Tragedy

In the course of Greek drama, tragedy acquired a high seriousness both in its purpose and treatment of materials and reckoned with the concerns of the whole community and strove to raise fundamental questions about human existence and also to provide deep psychological insight into the metaphysical and epistemological processes of the world and human life. Aristotle, the Greek philosopher in the fourth century B.C. after examining Greek drama of his time very minutely, offers a definition of tragedy and its constituent elements in his treatise on drama called Poetics. For him, “tragedy is a representation of an action which is important, complete and limited in length. It uses language made beautiful in different ways and in different parts of the play. It is enacted not recited and by arousing pity and fear, it gives an outlet to emotions of this type.”

Aristotle uses the medical metaphor, namely, catharsis to describe the function of tragedy which is to purge the emotions of pity and fear in the audience. On seeing a tragedy the audience unburdens the constricting emotions that inhibit the understanding of their own life.

The elements of tragedy, according to Aristotle, are plot, character, diction, ideas music and spectacle. The plot must have a beginning, middle and end. The moving devices of the plot are peripeteia and anagnorisis. Peripeteia entails an ironic frustration of purpose on the part of the protagonist who is not only a man of noble birth but obviously blessed with outstanding qualities, producing an opposite result from the one intended. The increasing failure of the protagonist is on account of the tragic error or hamartia. Essentially, the protagonist moves or is driven towards anagnorisis, the discovery of the true situation. The progression of the plot displays both verbal and dramatic irony. Verbal irony occurs when the actual intent of the speaker or the writer is expressed in words that carry the opposite meaning. Dramatic irony enables the spectator or reader of a play to know more than its character. The irony is tragic since the audience or the reader understand the predicament of the protagonist who indulges in self-delusory assertions.

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