What is Tragedy? Aristotelian definition of tragedy

What is Tragedy? Aristotelian definition of tragedy

What is Tragedy? Aristotelian definition of tragedy

Aristotle (384 B.C.- 322 B.C.) can be considered the
father of western principles of literary criticism. For centuries he was, as
if, the lawgiver to the poet and critics. The principles laid down by this
clear sighted Greek scholar are characterised by cool, passionless good sense. Aristotle
based his theory of tragedy on the examples of the Greek masters like
Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. It is measure of his critical insight that
the theory remains substantially valid today.

Tragedy Definition:
Aristotle
defines tragedy in his monumental book Poetics
as
Tragedy
is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete and of a certain
magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic
embellishment, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the
play; in the form of the action, not of narration; through pity
and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions”
(Prof. Butcher’s translation).
So the essentials features of tragedy are:
1)   
Imitation or Mimesis
2)   
One complete action
3)   
Poetry aptly used
4)   
Seriousness
5)   
Magnitude
6)   
Resulting  pity and fear among the audience (Catharsis)
7)   
Purgation of mind
Imitation is the objective
representation of life as seen through the eyes of imagination. Aristotle in Poetics (Chapter IV) says, Imitation is natural to man from childhood,
one of his advantages over lower animals being this, that he is the most
imitative creature in the world and learns at first by imitation.”
He also
asserts that literature is a function of human nature’s instinct to imitate.
This implies that as humans, we are constantly driven to imitate, to create. By
labeling this creative impulse an “instinct,” one is to believe that
this desire for imitation is a matter of survival, of necessity.


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Aristotle does not define the word
‘action’. But we get the implication through the qualities which Aristotle
ascribes to it. Action is the plot, consisting of the logical and inevitable
sequence of incidents. The action must be complete, which means that it must
have a beginning, middle and end. As F.L.
Lucas
comments, events do tend to occur in clusters. A volcano, even
when continuously active has eruptions, which form episodes complete in
themselves; and the events of a tragedy are like such an eruption. 
Aristotle
means verse and song by the term, ‘embellishment’. Tragedy uses different kinds
of ‘embellishment’. Verse is used for the dialogues. Chorus speaks in song.
These add beauty and decor to tragedy, and their end is to please the spectator
or reader. Melody and Verse, however, are not indispensable or absolutely
essential parts of tragedy, according to Aristotle.

Then
comes the question of the treatment of plot or action. It must be serious-
spoudaius. If the treatment is serious, the characters are idealized and we get
a tragedy. If the treatment is light, the defects or idiosyncrasies of the
characters are exaggerated and we got a comedy. The hero has to be
correspondingly elevated above the average.

Besides being serious, the action
must have a certain magnitude. The term has been wrongly interpreted as
“important” or dignified. It actually refers to the size. A tragedy must of a
correct length. It must not be so long that it cannot be grasped in its
entirety without confusion. Neither must it be so short that its parts cannot
be comprehended properly. Aristotle compares the tragic plot to a living
organism in order to bring out the importance of the correct size. It should,
at the same time, be long enough to permit the orderly and natural development
in the change of fortune, leading to the catastrophe.
About Aristotle’s Theory of
catharsis the critics are loud. He says that tragedy must deal with pity and fear effecting the proper
purgation of these emotions”
Tragedy exhibits the misfortunes of the tragic
hero
. A tragic character is not just a person who passes from prosperity to
adversity. He must be person who is neither thoroughly good nor thoroughly evil­-
a man like us. The fault which brings a man to disaster must be his own. Thus
the possibilities of tragedy lie within human nature itself. Therefore the
simultaneous arousing of pity and fear leads him to excuse the prejudices of
his own philosophical system. Thus the death of Mahatma Gandhi and Jesus Christ
cannot create a tragedy because they are persons without any tragic flaw (hamartia) in their characters.
Since
pity and fear are the predominant emotions aroused by tragedy, it purges away
the dross by providing an outlet for these emotions.  The sight and experience of these purge the
human mind of such emotions, or rather, reduce such emotions to a proper
balance in the human psyche. There is the “homeopathic” explanation of the
‘like curing the like’. It says that the excitement of tragedy provides a safe
outlet for our pent up feelings, which we cannot express in actual life. Plato
for instance says: “When babies are
restless, you do not prescribe quiet for them; you sing to them and rock them
to and fro”
. The external agitation overcomes the internal agitation, and
leads to calm and peace.

Thus, the Aristotelian definition of
tragedy
has surely left a finer perfection and better observation of the
principles of tragedy. Hence we may regard it the standard of all definitions
of tragedy
.



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