Peripeteia and Anagnorisis
Aristotle called the plot “the imitation of the action” as well as “the arrangement of the incidents”. He demanded that the action imitated by a whole that it must have a beginning, a middle and an end. He distinguishes between well-knit plots and episodic plots in which the acts succeed one another without probable or necessary sequence.
According to Aristotle worst plots are episodic. The best plots combine change of fortune (Metabasis) with reversal (Peripeteia) and discovery (Anagnorisis).
Aristotle also distinguishes between simple and complex plots. A simple plot is one in which a change of fortune takes place without Reversal of the Situation and without Recognition or Discovery. A complex plot, on the other hand, is one in which the change of fortune is accompanied by a Reversal (Peripeteia) or by a Recognition (Anagnorisis) or by both. The Reversal (Peripeteia) is a change by which the action veers round to its opposite, and a Discovery or Recognition (Anagnorisis) is a change from ignorance to knowledge. These should both arise, Aristotle says, from “the internal structure of the plot, so that what follows should be the necessary or probable result of the preceding action.”
Therefore, Aristotle’s test for sound plotting appears to be “whether any given event is a case of propter hoc or post hoc”. This emphasis on causality is central to the Aristotelian concept. The beginning, the middle and the end of a tragedy follow Prologue, Peripeteia and Anagnorisis (discovery). Thus the plot becomes neat and coherent.
The hamartia of the hero is closely and inseparably connected with the Peripeteia and Anagnorisis. Hamartia means an error derived from “ignorance of some material fact or circumstance”. Peripety is the reversal of intention so far as the character is concerned. And it is the reversal of the direction of the action so far as the plot is concerned. Peripeteia contains the idea of the recoil effect of one’s own actions. The hero suffers the consequences of his own deed. The action is complex because it moves on two levels, as it appears to the doer and as it really is.
The middle of a tragedy is taken up with the change or reversal of the hero’s fortune for which the technical name is Peripeteia or the change from one state of things within the play to its opposite.’
Aristotle cites two examples in the Poetics. His first example is the Messenger in the Oedipus, who comes to cheer Oedipus and remove his fears, reveals the secret of his birth. He thus produces a state of things exactly the opposite of what he intended. Aristotle gives another example from the Lynceus: “Just as he is being led off for execution, with Danaus at his side to put him to death, the incidents preceding this bring it about that he is saved and Danaus put to death.” In both these examples, the emphasis is on the reversal of expectation or intention.
According to Aristotle, the Iliad is a simple tragedy of suffering, because in this great epic, there is change of fortune, but there is nowhere any example of the reversal of intention or of expectation. Peripeteia has the greatest effect on the mind because tragic incidents occur unexpectedly and at the same time in consequence of one another. In Peripeteia, “the movement is first one way and then the other.” (Potts- Aristotle on the art of fiction).
Peripeteia is followed by Discovery or Recognition (Anagnorisis). It completes the plot structure. Peripeteia is rooted in ignorance, and Discovery is the change from ignorance to knowledge. Aristotle, however, restricts Discovery to a recognition of persons, or to a Disclosure of Mistaken Identity (Margoliouth). He says that the Discovery, by giving knowledge in place of ignorance, also brings about a change to either love or hate, in the personages marked for good or evil fortune.’ His standard example is the Oedipus. There is another kind of Discovery- discovery of truth. In Aristotle’s language, it is ‘a change from ignorance to knowledge’.
Gilbert Murray says that Teirsias brings about a kind of Discovery in the Antigone. But Teirsias does not make any discovery of persons; he only predicts the calamities soon to fall upon Creon. But this discovery of truth or enlightenment is most pronounced in King Lear. The egoist Lear is finally redeemed and this redemption is brought about by the recognition of truth. The discovery of the truth is the ghastly wakening from the state of ignorance which is the very essence of hamartia. Hamartia, Peripeteia and Anagnorisis hang together in the ideal schematisation of tragic plot.
Hamartia means missing the mark; Peripeteia is turning of the mark and the discovery is the realisation of the turning mark. The change of fortune begins in ignorance (Lear’s egoism), and the tragedy is completed when ignorance leads to knowledge, and these twin processes of Peripeteia and Discovery constitute what is called tragic irony of which the most famous examples are Sophocles and Shakespeare.