Poetry in general seems to have sprung from two causes, each of them
lying deep in our nature. First, the instinct of imitation is implanted in man from
childhood, one difference between him and other animals being that he is the most
imitative of living creatures, and through imitation learns his earliest lessons; and no
less universal is the pleasure felt in things imitated. We have evidence of this in the
facts of experience. Objects which in themselves we view with pain, we delight to
contemplate when reproduced with minute fidelity: such as the forms of the most ignoble
animals and of dead bodies. The cause of this again is, that to learn gives the liveliest
pleasure, not only to philosophers but to men in general; whose capacity, however, of
learning is more limited. Thus the reason why men enjoy seeing a likeness is, that in
contemplating it they find themselves learning or inferring, and saying perhaps, 'Ah, that
is he.' For if you happen not to have seen the original, the pleasure will be due not to
the imitation as such, but to the execution, the coloring, or some such other cause.
Imitation, then, is one instinct of our nature. Next, there is the instinct for
'harmony' and rhythm, meters being manifestly sections of rhythm. Persons, therefore,
starting with this natural gift developed by degrees their special aptitudes, till their
rude improvisations gave birth to Poetry.
Poetry now diverged in two directions, according to the individual character of the
writers. The graver spirits imitated noble actions, and the actions of good men. The more
trivial sort imitated the actions of meaner persons, at first composing satires, as the
former did hymns to the gods and the praises of famous men. A poem of the satirical kind
cannot indeed be put down to any author earlier than Homer; though many such writers
probably there were. But from Homer onward, instances can be cited- his own Margites, for
example, and other similar compositions. The appropriate meter was also here introduced;
hence the measure is still called the iambic or lampooning measure, being that in which
people lampooned one another. Thus the older poets were distinguished as writers of heroic
or of lampooning verse.
As, in the serious style, Homer is pre-eminent among poets, for he alone combined
dramatic form with excellence of imitation so he too first laid down the main lines of
comedy, by dramatizing the ludicrous instead of writing personal satire. His Margites
bears the same relation to comedy that the Iliad and Odyssey do to tragedy. But when
Tragedy and Comedy came to light, the two classes of poets still followed their natural
bent: the lampooners became writers of Comedy, and the Epic poets were succeeded by
Tragedians, since the drama was a larger and higher form of art.
Whether Tragedy has as yet perfected its proper types or not; and whether it is to be
judged in itself, or in relation also to the audience- this raises another question. Be
that as it may, Tragedy- as also Comedy- was at first mere improvisation. The one
originated with the authors of the Dithyramb, the other with those of the phallic songs,
which are still in use in many of our cities. Tragedy advanced by slow degrees; each new
element that showed itself was in turn developed. Having passed through many changes, it
found its natural form, and there it stopped.
Aeschylus first introduced a second actor; he diminished the importance of the Chorus,
and assigned the leading part to the dialogue. Sophocles raised the number of actors to
three, and added scene-painting. Moreover, it was not till late that the short plot was
discarded for one of greater compass, and the grotesque diction of the earlier satyric
form for the stately manner of Tragedy. The iambic measure then replaced the trochaic
tetrameter, which was originally employed when the poetry was of the satyric order, and
had greater with dancing. Once dialogue had come in, Nature herself discovered the
appropriate measure. For the iambic is, of all measures, the most colloquial we see it in
the fact that conversational speech runs into iambic lines more frequently than into any
other kind of verse; rarely into hexameters, and only when we drop the colloquial
intonation. The additions to the number of 'episodes' or acts, and the other accessories
of which tradition tells, must be taken as already described; for to discuss them in
detail would, doubtless, be a large undertaking.
Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete,
and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament,
the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of
narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions. By
'language embellished,' I mean language into which rhythm, 'harmony' and song enter. By
'the several kinds in separate parts,' I mean, that some parts are rendered through the
medium of verse alone, others again with the aid of song.
Now as tragic imitation implies persons acting, it necessarily follows in the first
place, that Spectacular equipment will be a part of Tragedy. Next, Song and Diction, for
these are the media of imitation. By 'Diction' I mean the mere metrical arrangement of the
words: as for 'Song,' it is a term whose sense every one understands.
Again, Tragedy is the imitation of an action; and an action implies personal agents,
who necessarily possess certain distinctive qualities both of character and thought; for
it is by these that we qualify actions themselves, and these- thought and character- are
the two natural causes from which actions spring, and on actions again all success or
failure depends. Hence, the Plot is the imitation of the action- for by plot I here mean
the arrangement of the incidents. By Character I mean that in virtue of which we ascribe
certain qualities to the agents. Thought is required wherever a statement is proved, or,
it may be, a general truth enunciated. Every Tragedy, therefore, must have six parts,
which parts determine its quality- namely, Plot, Character, Diction, Thought, Spectacle,
Song. Two of the parts constitute the medium of imitation, one the manner, and three the
objects of imitation. And these complete the fist. These elements have been employed, we
may say, by the poets to a man; in fact, every play contains Spectacular elements as well
as Character, Plot, Diction, Song, and Thought.
But most important of all is the structure of the incidents. For Tragedy is an
imitation, not of men, but of an action and of life, and life consists in action, and its
end is a mode of action, not a quality. Now character determines men's qualities, but it
is by their actions that they are happy or the reverse. Dramatic action, therefore, is not
with a view to the representation of character: character comes in as subsidiary to the
actions. Hence the incidents and the plot are the end of a tragedy; and the end is the
chief thing of all. Again, without action there cannot be a tragedy; there may be without
character. The tragedies of most of our modern poets fail in the rendering of character;
and of poets in general this is often true. It is the same in painting; and here lies the
difference between Zeuxis and Polygnotus. Polygnotus delineates character well; the style
of Zeuxis is devoid of ethical quality. Again, if you string together a set of speeches
expressive of character, and well finished in point of diction and thought, you will not
produce the essential tragic effect nearly so well as with a play which, however deficient
in these respects, yet has a plot and artistically constructed incidents. Besides which,
the most powerful elements of emotional interest in Tragedy- Peripeteia or Reversal of the
Situation, and Recognition scenes- are parts of the plot. A further proof is, that novices
in the art attain to finish of diction and precision of portraiture before they can
construct the plot. It is the same with almost all the early poets.
The plot, then, is the first principle, and, as it were, the soul of a tragedy;
Character holds the second place. A similar fact is seen in painting. The most beautiful
colors, laid on confusedly, will not give as much pleasure as the chalk outline of a
portrait. Thus Tragedy is the imitation of an action, and of the agents mainly with a view
to the action.
Third in order is Thought- that is, the faculty of saying what is possible and
pertinent in given circumstances. In the case of oratory, this is the function of the
political art and of the art of rhetoric: and so indeed the older poets make their
characters speak the language of civic life; the poets of our time, the language of the
rhetoricians. Character is that which reveals moral purpose, showing what kind of things a
man chooses or avoids. Speeches, therefore, which do not make this manifest, or in which
the speaker does not choose or avoid anything whatever, are not expressive of character.
Thought, on the other hand, is found where something is proved to be or not to be, or a
general maxim is enunciated.
Fourth among the elements enumerated comes Diction; by which I mean, as has been
already said, the expression of the meaning in words; and its essence is the same both in
verse and prose.
Of the remaining elements Song holds the chief place among the embellishments
The Spectacle has, indeed, an emotional attraction of its own, but, of all the parts,
it is the least artistic, and connected least with the art of poetry. For the power of
Tragedy, we may be sure, is felt even apart from representation and actors. Besides, the
production of spectacular effects depends more on the art of the stage machinist than on
that of the poet.
These principles being established, let us now discuss the proper structure of the
Plot, since this is the first and most important thing in Tragedy.
Now, according to our definition Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is complete,
and whole, and of a certain magnitude; for there may be a whole that is wanting in
magnitude. A whole is that which has a beginning, a middle, and an end. A beginning is
that which does not itself follow anything by causal necessity, but after which something
naturally is or comes to be. An end, on the contrary, is that which itself naturally
follows some other thing, either by necessity, or as a rule, but has nothing following it.
A middle is that which follows something as some other thing follows it. A well
constructed plot, therefore, must neither begin nor end at haphazard, but conform to these
Again, a beautiful object, whether it be a living organism or any whole composed of
parts, must not only have an orderly arrangement of parts, but must also be of a certain
magnitude; for beauty depends on magnitude and order. Hence a very small animal organism
cannot be beautiful; for the view of it is confused, the object being seen in an almost
imperceptible moment of time. Nor, again, can one of vast size be beautiful; for as the
eye cannot take it all in at once, the unity and sense of the whole is lost for the
spectator; as for instance if there were one a thousand miles long. As, therefore, in the
case of animate bodies and organisms a certain magnitude is necessary, and a magnitude
which may be easily embraced in one view; so in the plot, a certain length is necessary,
and a length which can be easily embraced by the memory. The limit of length in relation
to dramatic competition and sensuous presentment is no part of artistic theory. For had it
been the rule for a hundred tragedies to compete together, the performance would have been
regulated by the water-clock- as indeed we are told was formerly done. But the limit as
fixed by the nature of the drama itself is this: the greater the length, the more
beautiful will the piece be by reason of its size, provided that the whole be perspicuous.
And to define the matter roughly, we may say that the proper magnitude is comprised within
such limits, that the sequence of events, according to the law of probability or
necessity, will admit of a change from bad fortune to good, or from good fortune to bad.
Aristotle praises Homer for the unity of his plots
Unity of plot does not, as some persons think, consist in the unity of the hero. For
infinitely various are the incidents in one man's life which cannot be reduced to unity;
and so, too, there are many actions of one man out of which we cannot make one action.
Hence the error, as it appears, of all poets who have composed a Heracleid, a Theseid, or
other poems of the kind. They imagine that as Heracles was one man, the story of Heracles
must also be a unity. But Homer, as in all else he is of surpassing merit, here too-
whether from art or natural genius- seems to have happily discerned the truth. In
composing the Odyssey he did not include all the adventures of Odysseus- such as his wound
on Parnassus, or his feigned madness at the mustering of the host- incidents between which
there was no necessary or probable connection: but he made the Odyssey, and likewise the
Iliad, to center round an action that in our sense of the word is one. As therefore, in
the other imitative arts, the imitation is one when the object imitated is one, so the
plot, being an imitation of an action, must imitate one action and that a whole, the
structural union of the parts being such that, if any one of them is displaced or removed,
the whole will be disjointed and disturbed. For a thing whose presence or absence makes no
visible difference, is not an organic part of the whole.
It is, moreover, evident from what has been said, that it is not the function of the
poet to relate what has happened, but what may happen- what is possible according to the
law of probability or necessity. The poet and the historian differ not by writing in verse
or in prose. The work of Herodotus might be put into verse, and it would still be a
species of history, with meter no less than without it. The true difference is that one
relates what has happened, the other what may happen. Poetry, therefore, is a more
philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal,
history the particular. By the universal I mean how a person of a certain type on occasion
speak or act, according to the law of probability or necessity; and it is this
universality at which poetry aims in the names she attaches to the personages. The
particular is- for example- what Alcibiades did or suffered. In Comedy this is already
apparent: for here the poet first constructs the plot on the lines of probability, and
then inserts characteristic names- unlike the lampooners who write about particular
individuals. But tragedians still keep to real names, the reason being that what is
possible is credible: what has not happened we do not at once feel sure to be possible;
but what has happened is manifestly possible: otherwise it would not have happened. Still
there are even some tragedies in which there are only one or two well-known names, the
rest being fictitious. In others, none are well known- as in Agathon's Antheus, where
incidents and names alike are fictitious, and yet they give none the less pleasure. We
must not, therefore, at all costs keep to the received legends, which are the usual
subjects of Tragedy. Indeed, it would be absurd to attempt it; for even subjects that are
known are known only to a few, and yet give pleasure to all. It clearly follows that the
poet or 'maker' should be the maker of plots rather than of verses; since he is a poet
because he imitates, and what he imitates are actions. And even if he chances to take a
historical subject, he is none the less a poet; for there is no reason why some events
that have actually happened should not conform to the law of the probable and possible,
and in virtue of that quality in them he is their poet or maker.
Of all plots and actions the episodic are the worst. I call a plot 'episodic' in which
the episodes or acts succeed one another without probable or necessary sequence. Bad poets
compose such pieces by their own fault, good poets, to please the players; for, as they
write show pieces for competition, they stretch the plot beyond its capacity, and are
often forced to break the natural continuity.
But again, Tragedy is an imitation not only of a complete action, but of events
inspiring fear or pity. Such an effect is best produced when the events come on us by
surprise; and the effect is heightened when, at the same time, they follows as cause and
effect. The tragic wonder will then be greater than if they happened of themselves or by
accident; for even coincidences are most striking when they have an air of design. We may
instance the statue of Mitys at Argos, which fell upon his murderer while he was a
spectator at a festival, and killed him. Such events seem not to be due to mere chance.
Plots, therefore, constructed on these principles are necessarily the best.
Plots are either Simple or Complex, for the actions in real life, of which the plots
are an imitation, obviously show a similar distinction. An action which is one and
continuous in the sense above defined, I call Simple, when the change of fortune takes
place without Reversal of the Situation and without Recognition.
A Complex action is one in which the change is accompanied by such Reversal, or by
Recognition, or by both. These last should arise from the internal structure of the plot,
so that what follows should be the necessary or probable result of the preceding action.
It makes all the difference whether any given event is a case of propter hoc or post hoc.
Reversal of the Situation is a change by which the action veers round to its opposite,
subject always to our rule of probability or necessity. Thus in the Oedipus, the messenger
comes to cheer Oedipus and free him from his alarms about his mother, but by revealing who
he is, he produces the opposite effect. Again in the Lynceus, Lynceus is being led away to
his death, and Danaus goes with him, meaning to slay him; but the outcome of the preceding
incidents is that Danaus is killed and Lynceus saved.
Recognition, as the name indicates, is a change from ignorance to knowledge, producing
love or hate between the persons destined by the poet for good or bad fortune. The best
form of recognition is coincident with a Reversal of the Situation, as in the Oedipus.
There are indeed other forms. Even inanimate things of the most trivial kind may in a
sense be objects of recognition. Again, we may recognize or discover whether a person has
done a thing or not. But the recognition which is most intimately connected with the plot
and action is, as we have said, the recognition of persons. This recognition, combined
with Reversal, will produce either pity or fear; and actions producing these effects are
those which, by our definition, Tragedy represents. Moreover, it is upon such situations
that the issues of good or bad fortune will depend. Recognition, then, being between
persons, it may happen that one person only is recognized by the other- when the latter is
already known- or it may be necessary that the recognition should be on both sides. Thus
Iphigenia is revealed to Orestes by the sending of the letter; but another act of
recognition is required to make Orestes known to Iphigenia.
Two parts, then, of the Plot- Reversal of the Situation and Recognition- turn upon
surprises. A third part is the Scene of Suffering. The Scene of Suffering is a destructive
or painful action, such as death on the stage, bodily agony, wounds, and the like.
The parts of Tragedy which must be treated as elements of the whole have been already
mentioned. We now come to the quantitative parts- the separate parts into which Tragedy is
divided- namely, Prologue, Episode, Exode, Choric song; this last being divided into
Parode and Stasimon. These are common to all plays: peculiar to some are the songs of
actors from the stage and the Commoi.
The Prologue is that entire part of a tragedy which precedes the Parode of the Chorus.
The Episode is that entire part of a tragedy which is between complete choric songs. The
Exode is that entire part of a tragedy which has no choric song after it. Of the Choric
part the Parode is the first undivided utterance of the Chorus: the Stasimon is a Choric
ode without anapaests or trochaic tetrameters: the Commos is a joint lamentation of Chorus
and actors. The parts of Tragedy which must be treated as elements of the whole have been
already mentioned. The quantitative parts- the separate parts into which it is divided-
are here enumerated.
As the sequel to what has already been said, we must proceed to consider what the poet
should aim at, and what he should avoid, in constructing his plots; and by what means the
specific effect of Tragedy will be produced.
A perfect tragedy should, as we have seen, be arranged not on the simple but on the
complex plan. It should, moreover, imitate actions which excite pity and fear, this being
the distinctive mark of tragic imitation. It follows plainly, in the first place, that the
change of fortune presented must not be the spectacle of a virtuous man brought from
prosperity to adversity: for this moves neither pity nor fear; it merely shocks us. Nor,
again, that of a bad man passing from adversity to prosperity: for nothing can be more
alien to the spirit of Tragedy; it possesses no single tragic quality; it neither
satisfies the moral sense nor calls forth pity or fear. Nor, again, should the downfall of
the utter villain be exhibited. A plot of this kind would, doubtless, satisfy the moral
sense, but it would inspire neither pity nor fear; for pity is aroused by unmerited
misfortune, fear by the misfortune of a man like ourselves. Such an event, therefore, will
be neither pitiful nor terrible. There remains, then, the character between these two
extremes- that of a man who is not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is
brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty. He must be one who
is highly renowned and prosperous- a personage like Oedipus, Thyestes, or other
illustrious men of such families.
A well-constructed plot should, therefore, be single in its issue, rather than double
as some maintain. The change of fortune should be not from bad to good, but, reversely,
from good to bad. It should come about as the result not of vice, but of some great error
or frailty, in a character either such as we have described, or better rather than worse.
The practice of the stage bears out our view. At first the poets recounted any legend that
came in their way. Now, the best tragedies are founded on the story of a few houses- on
the fortunes of Alcmaeon, Oedipus, Orestes, Meleager, Thyestes, Telephus, and those others
who have done or suffered something terrible. A tragedy, then, to be perfect according to
the rules of art should be of this construction. Hence they are in error who censure
Euripides just because he follows this principle in his plays, many of which end
unhappily. It is, as we have said, the right ending. The best proof is that on the stage
and in dramatic competition, such plays, if well worked out, are the most tragic in
effect; and Euripides, faulty though he may be in the general management of his subject,
yet is felt to be the most tragic of the poets.
In the second rank comes the kind of tragedy which some place first. Like the Odyssey,
it has a double thread of plot, and also an opposite catastrophe for the good and for the
bad. It is accounted the best because of the weakness of the spectators; for the poet is
guided in what he writes by the wishes of his audience. The pleasure, however, thence
derived is not the true tragic pleasure. It is proper rather to Comedy, where those who,
in the piece, are the deadliest enemies- like Orestes and Aegisthus- quit the stage as
friends at the close, and no one slays or is slain.
Fear and pity may be aroused by spectacular means; but they may also result from the
inner structure of the piece, which is the better way, and indicates a superior poet. For
the plot ought to be so constructed that, even without the aid of the eye, he who hears
the tale told will thrill with horror and melt to pity at what takes Place. This is the
impression we should receive from hearing the story of the Oedipus. But to produce this
effect by the mere spectacle is a less artistic method, and dependent on extraneous aids.
Those who employ spectacular means to create a sense not of the terrible but only of the
monstrous, are strangers to the purpose of Tragedy; for we must not demand of Tragedy any
and every kind of pleasure, but only that which is proper to it. And since the pleasure
which the poet should afford is that which comes from pity and fear through imitation, it
is evident that this quality must be impressed upon the incidents.
Let us then determine what are the circumstances which strike us as terrible or
Actions capable of this effect must happen between persons who are either friends or
enemies or indifferent to one another. If an enemy kills an enemy, there is nothing to
excite pity either in the act or the intention- except so far as the suffering in itself
is pitiful. So again with indifferent persons. But when the tragic incident occurs between
those who are near or dear to one another- if, for example, a brother kills, or intends to
kill, a brother, a son his father, a mother her son, a son his mother, or any other deed
of the kind is done- these are the situations to be looked for by the poet. He may not
indeed destroy the framework of the received legends- the fact, for instance, that
Clytemnestra was slain by Orestes and Eriphyle by Alcmaeon- but he ought to show of his
own, and skilfully handle the traditional. material. Let us explain more clearly what is
meant by skilful handling.
The action may be done consciously and with knowledge of the persons, in the manner of
the older poets. It is thus too that Euripides makes Medea slay her children. Or, again,
the deed of horror may be done, but done in ignorance, and the tie of kinship or
friendship be discovered afterwards. The Oedipus of Sophocles is an example. Here, indeed,
the incident is outside the drama proper; but cases occur where it falls within the action
of the play: one may cite the Alcmaeon of Astydamas, or Telegonus in the Wounded Odysseus.
Again, there is a third case- [to be about to act with knowledge of the persons and then
not to act. The fourth case] is when some one is about to do an irreparable deed through
ignorance, and makes the discovery before it is done. These are the only possible ways.
For the deed must either be done or not done- and that wittingly or unwittingly. But of
all these ways, to be about to act knowing the persons, and then not to act, is the worst.
It is shocking without being tragic, for no disaster follows It is, therefore, never, or
very rarely, found in poetry. One instance, however, is in the Antigone, where Haemon
threatens to kill Creon. The next and better way is that the deed should be perpetrated.
Still better, that it should be perpetrated in ignorance, and the discovery made
afterwards. There is then nothing to shock us, while the discovery produces a startling
effect. The last case is the best, as when in the Cresphontes Merope is about to slay her
son, but, recognizing who he is, spares his life. So in the Iphigenia, the sister
recognizes the brother just in time. Again in the Helle, the son recognizes the mother
when on the point of giving her up. This, then, is why a few families only, as has been
already observed, furnish the subjects of tragedy. It was not art, but happy chance, that
led the poets in search of subjects to impress the tragic quality upon their plots. They
are compelled, therefore, to have recourse to those houses whose history contains moving
incidents like these.
Enough has now been said concerning the structure of the incidents, and the right kind