Summary Aristotle’s Poetics Chapters 6-9
Tragedy is an imitation of action with the subsequent characteristics: it’s serious, complete, of serious magnitude, depicted with rhythmic language and/or song, within the sort of an action (not narrative), and produces a ‘purgation’ of pity and fear within the audience (also referred to as catharsis).
Since tragedy is that the imitation of action, it’s chiefly concerned with the lives of men, and thus presents a stage for character and thought. Character – the qualities ascribed to a particular man – and thought, consistent with Aristotle, are the 2 causes from which actions spring. These elements also determine the success of a given action. The plot, then, is arrangements of incidents (successes or failures) that result from character and thought giving thanks to action.
With the above in mind, Aristotle lays out the six parts that outline a tragedy:
c. diction (rhythmic language)
Plot is that the most vital part of a tragedy for a variety of reasons. First, the results of a man’s actions determine his success or failure, and hence his happiness, so it’s an action which is paramount – not character, which does not necessarily affect every action. Second, without action, there can’t be a tragedy – but there is often a tragedy without character. Thirdly, diction, song, and thought – even elegantly combined – cannot replicate the action of life without plot.
Plot, then, is that the ‘soul of a tragedy,’ and character comes second. Rounding out his rankings: thought, meaning what a personality says during a given circumstance, followed by diction, song, and spectacle.
Aristotle goes on to explain the weather of plot, which includes the completeness, magnitude, unity, determinate structure, and universality. Completeness refers to the need for a tragedy to possess a beginning, middle, and end. A ‘beginning’ is defined as an origin, by which something naturally involves be. An ‘end,’ meanwhile, follows another incident by necessity, but has nothing necessarily following it. The ‘middle’ follows something even as something must follow it.
‘Magnitude’ refers simply to length — the tragedy must be of a ‘length which may be easily embraced by the memory.’ That said, Aristotle believes that the longer a tragedy, the more beautiful it are often, provided it maintains its beginning, middle, and end. And within the sequence of those three acts, the tragedy will present a change ‘from bad fortune to good, or from luck to bad.’
‘Unity’ refers to the centering of all the plot’s action around a standard theme or idea.
‘Determinate structure’ refers to the very fact that the plot all hinges on a sequence of causal, imitative events, so if one were to get rid of even one a part of the plot, the whole tragedy ‘will be disjointed and disturbed.’ More simply, every a part of an honest plot is important.
‘Universality’ refers to the need of a given character to talk or act consistently with how all or most humans would react during a given situation, ‘according to the law of probability or necessity.’
Aristotle ends this discussion of plot elements by pointing his out his particular disdain for ‘episodic’ plots – plots during which episodes succeed each other ‘without probable or necessary sequence’ (like a weekly sitcom, for instance). These episodic dramas stretch plot ‘beyond their capacity,’ and hence are inorganic.
Analysis Aristotle’s Poetics Chapters 6-9
Aristotle highlights the primacy of action during this section because of the key to an artist’s imitation. Indeed, because action initiates a sequence of causal events, it’s the only most vital driver of plot. Though an astute reader might ask ‘But what causes action?’, Aristotle quickly responds by arguing that ultimately the items that drive action – character, and thought – aren’t nearly as important because of the action itself. For plot is that the simple arrangement of incidents in causal chains, and during this plot alone we will find satisfaction, albeit it’s not clearly motivated with character or thought.
That said, the simplest of tragedies maintain the primacy of plot while also inlaying the drama with character, diction (rhythmic language), thought, spectacle, and song. Character here refers to the attributes either ascribed or clearly evident during a given man – virtues which ultimately define a tragic hero’s flaw and therefore the source of his redemption. Thought, meanwhile, refers to the ideas of a given character, conveyed by speech. Though thought illuminates character, it’s not necessary for it – indeed, a silent hero still would have a clearly delineated character, and maybe a good clearer one than a loquacious character. Again, Aristotle’s thesis is proved – that it’s action that’s paramount, no matter motivation or underlying cause.
‘Unity’ is another concept which can confuse the reader, since Aristotle doesn’t spend much time explicating it. Unity refers to the power of the simplest plots to revolve around an axis, a topic which ‘unites’ all the action. A unified drama will have a ‘spine’ – a central idea that motivates all the action, characters, thoughts, diction, and spectacle.
‘Determinate structure’ follows from unity — if the action revolves around a central spine, it creates a full skeleton of plot. But remove one bone, and therefore the entire body of action becomes unstable since every bone radiates from the central spine and is thus fully necessary. The test, Aristotle says, is to ascertain if there’s any a part of the plot which may be removed without missing it. If this is often true, then it must be excised. a real drama never wanders from its central spine for fear of losing its unity.
‘Universality’, meanwhile, is slightly more vague, but appeals to our sense. Aristotle simply states that a personality must act in accordance with an attribute – either through probability, i.e. what ‘most of us’ would do, or through necessity, i.e. what we are ‘forced’ to try to to. An action cannot seem arbitrary – otherwise not only will it violate the determinate structure and break unity, but it’ll also irritate an audience that sees no basis for the action in human behavior.
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