Aristotle’s Theory of Tragedy:
According to Aristotle Tragedy could be defined as:
“A tragedy, then, is the imitation of an action that is serious and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself; in language with pleasurable accessories, each kind brought in separately in the parts of the work; in a dramatic, not in a narrative form; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions.”
Following are some important terms explained by Aristotle relating tragedy in his Poetics.
Aristotle discusses hamartia in Poetics not as an aspect of character but rather as an incident in the plot. What Aristotle means by hamartia might better be translated as "tragic error". Caught in a crisis situation, the protagonist makes an error in judgment or action, "missing the mark," and disaster results.
Hamartia can be further explained as the fall of a noble man caused by some excess or mistake in behavior, not because of a willful violation of the gods' laws. Hamartia is related to hubris, which was also more an action than attitude. The "mistake" of the hero has an integral place in the plot of the tragedy. The logic of the hero's descent into misfortune is determined by the nature of his or her particular kind of hamartia.
Aristotle claimed that the hamartia must bring about the reversal of fortune for the tragic hero, and that this hero must be neither completely good nor completely bad so that the audience can identify with the character’s plight. Therefore, the audience members experience a feeling of pity for the character, as well as a sense of fear that the same downfall might afflict them someday.
Hamartia, in most ancient tragedies, causes the protagonist, or main character, to break a divine or moral law, which leads to disastrous consequences. Despite the horrible events befalling the tragic hero, tragedies celebrate the human spirit, in the confrontation of difficult situations and the accountability of a character for his or her own actions.
- In The King Oedipus, a tragic situation possible was the unwitting murder of one family member by another. Mistaken identity allows Oedipus to kill his father Laius on the road to Thebes and subsequently to marry Jocasta, his mother; only later does he recognize his tragic error. However, because he commits the crime in ignorance and pays for it with remorse, self-mutilation, and exile, the plot reaches resolution or catharsis, and we pity him as a victim of ironic fate instead of accusing him of blood guilt.
- Hamlet, for example, suffers from the tragic flaw of indecision. He hesitates to kill his cruel and villainous uncle, which leads to the ultimate tragedy of the play. By struggling with an inherent moral flaw, Hamlet brings about his own destruction. His hesitation, therefore, is the action to which the term hamartia is applied.
Anagnorisis, also known as discovery, originally meant recognition in its Greek context, not only of a person but also of what that person stood for, what he or she represented; it was the hero's suddenly becoming aware of a real situation and therefore the realization of things as they stood; and finally it was a perception that resulted in an insight the hero had into his relationship with often antagonistic characters within Aristotelian tragedy.
In Aristotelian definition of tragedy it was the discovery of one's own identity or true character or of someone else's identity or true nature by the tragic hero. In his Poetics, Aristotle defined anagnorisis as "a change from ignorance to knowledge, producing love or hate between the persons destined by the poet for good or bad fortune".
- Aristotle was the first writer to discuss the uses of anagnorisis, with peripeteia caused by it. He considered it the mark of a superior tragedy, as when Oedipus killed his father and married his mother in ignorance, and later learned the truth, or when Iphigeneia in Tauris realizes that the strangers she is to sacrifice are her brother and his friend in time to refrain from it. These plots, he considered complex and superior to simple plots without anagnorisis or peripetia, such as when Medea resolves to kill her children, knowing they are her children, and does so.
- Another prominent example of anagnorisis in tragedy is in Aeschylus's "The Choephoroi", when Electra recognizes her brother, Orestes, after he has returned to Argos from his exile, at the grave of their father, Agamemnon, who had been murdered at the hands of Clytemnestra, their mother. Electra convinces herself that Orestes is her brother with three pieces of evidence: a lock of Orestes's hair on the grave, his footprints next to the grave, and a piece of weaving which she embroidered herself. The footprints and the hair are identical to her own. Electra's awareness of her brother's presence, who is the one person who can help her by avenging the death of their father.
Peripeteia is a reversal of circumstances, or turning point. The term is primarily used with reference to works of literature. The English form of peripeteia is peripety. Peripety is a sudden reversal dependent on intellect and logic.
Aristotle defines it as "a change by which the action veers round to its opposite, subject always to our rule of probability or necessity." According to Aristotle, peripeteia, along with discovery, is the most effective when it comes to drama, particularly in a tragedy.
Peripeteia is the reversal from one state of affairs to its opposite. Some element in the plot effects a reversal, so that the hero who thought he was in good shape suddenly finds that all is lost, or vice versa.
According to Aristotle, the change of fortune for the hero should be an event that occurs contrary to the audience's expectations and that is therefore surprising, but that nonetheless appears as a necessary outcome of the preceding actions.
- In Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, the peripeteia occurs towards the end of the play when the Messenger brings Oedipus news of his parentage. In the play, Oedipus is fated to murder his father and marry his mother. His parents, Laius and Jocasta, try to forestall the oracle by sending their son away to be killed, but he is actually raised by Polybus, a shepherd, and his wife Merope.
- The instantaneous conversion of Paul on the road from Damascus to Tarsus is a classic example of peripateia, which Eusebius presented in his Life of Constantine as a pattern for the equally revelatory conversion of Constantine.
- In Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, the peripeteia occurs when Hamlet sees King Claudius praying alone. It is the perfect opportunity to avenge his father and kill Claudius. Hamlet draws his sword, but then hesitates. He realizes that, since Claudius is praying, he would go to heaven if killed, thus Hamlet's father would not be avenged.
Aristotle describes catharsis as the purging of the emotions of pity and fear that are aroused in the viewer of a tragedy. Debate continues about what Aristotle actually means by catharsis, but the concept is linked to the positive social function of tragedy. Aristotle writes that the function of tragedy is to arouse the emotions of pity and fear, and to affect the catharsis of these emotions.
Aristotle has used the term catharsis only once, but no phrase has been handled so frequently by critics, and poets. Catharsis has three meaning. It means ‘purgation’, ‘purification’, and ‘clarification’, and each critic has used the word in one or the other senses. All agree that Tragedy arouses fear and pity, but there are sharp differences as to the process, the way by which the rousing of these emotions gives pleasure.
Catharsis has been taken as a medical metaphor, ‘purgation’, denoting a pathological effect on the soul similar to the effect of medicine on the body. This view is borne out by a passage in the Politics where Aristotle refers to religious frenzy being cured by certain tunes which excite religious frenzy. In Tragedy:
“…pity and fear, artificially stirred the latent pity and fear which we bring with us from real life.”
In the Neo-Classical era, Catharsis was taken to be an allopathic treatment with the unlike curing unlike. The arousing of pity and fear was supposed to bring about the purgation or ‘evacuation’ of other emotions, like anger, pride etc. As Thomas Taylor holds:
“We learn from the terrible fates of evil men to avoid the vices they manifest.”
According to ‘the purification’ theory, Catharsis implies that our emotions are purified of excess and defect, are reduced to intermediate state, trained and directed towards the right objects at the right time. The spectator learns the proper use of pity, fear and similar emotions by witnessing tragedy. Butcher writes:
“The tragic Catharsis involves not only the idea of emotional relief, but the further idea of purifying the emotions so relieved.”
According to Aristotle the basic tragic emotions are pity and fear and are painful. If tragedy is to give pleasure, the pity and fear must somehow be eliminated. Fear is aroused when we see someone suffering and think that similar fate might befall us. Pity is a feeling of pain caused by the sight of underserved suffering of others. The spectator sees that it is the tragic error or Hamartia of the hero which results in suffering and so he learns something about the universal relation between character and destiny.
Aristotle's conception of Catharsis is mainly intellectual. It is neither didactic nor theoretical, though it may have a residual theological element. Aristotle's Catharsis is not a moral doctrine requiring the tragic poet to show that bad men come to bad ends, nor a kind of theological relief arising from discovery that God’s laws operate invisibly to make all things work out for the best.
Aristotle has explained Tragedy in his Poetics and he has given his point of view about Hamartia, Anagnorisis, Peripeteia and Catharsis. According to Aristotle in a tragedy a hero suffers due to hamartia and then knowledge comes of ignorance followed by a reversal in fortune with a feeling of purification in the character.