Aristotle’s Principles of Tragedy


The word "tragedy" refers primarily to a tragic drama in which a central character called a tragic protagonist or hero suffers some serious misfortune which is not accidental and therefore meaningless, but is significant in that the misfortune is logically connected with the hero's actions.


Tragedy stresses the vulnerability of human beings whose suffering is brought on by a combination of human and divine actions, but is generally undeserved with regard to its harshness. This genre, however, is not totally pessimistic in its outlook. Although many tragedies end in misery for the characters, there are also tragedies in which a satisfactory solution of the tragic situation is attained


In his work On the Art of Poetry Aristotle, a Greek Philosopher of the 4th Century BC, attempted to define tragedy as: ‘a representation of an action that is worth serious attention, complete in itself, and of some magnitude; in language enriched by a variety of artistic devices appropriate to the several parts of the play; presented in the form of action, not narration; by means of pity and fear bringing about the catharsis of such emotions.’


Aristotle distinguishes between tragedy which depicts people of high or noble character, and comedy which imitates those of low or base character. However, nobility in this case does not refer to wealth or status but, instead, moral rectitude. As such, even a poor man can be a tragic hero as long as he is morally good.



The First Principle: Plot

According to Aristotle, the plot of a tragedy should be determined by a logical chain of cause-and-effect events where one action leads logically to an outcome and thence to a further action and so on without the arbitrary interruptions of chance, gods or the whims of a character: personal motivations should thus form an intricately connected part of the cause and effect chain of actions. This unstoppable ‘unravelling’ or ‘lusis’ of events creates a sense of inevitability about the final tragic outcome.


‘Unity of Action’ is therefore created as all of the events witnessed by the audience are integral to the central storyline and, undistracted by sub-plots and irrelevancies, we are forced to focus on the tragedy unfolding around the protagonist on stage. The more universal the nature of this tragedy, i.e. the more easily it can be applied to ourselves or others, the more effective it is.


Rather than simply consisting of a ‘change of fortune’ or ‘catastrophe’ where the protagonist falls from greatness to ignominy an ideal plot will be complex in that the protagonist should attempt to avert disaster but have these attempts thwarted as his actions actually bring him closer to doom (an effect called ‘peripeteia’ – the reversal of intention). An additional moment of ‘anagnorsis’ or ‘realisation’ can increase the tragic impact of the drama as the protagonist realises it is indeed his very attempts to avert disaster that have actually been instrumental in bringing about catastrophe. As such, if Oedipus’ fatal flaw is his ignorance, then the peripeteia are really the accidentally self-destructive actions he takes in blindness and the anagnorsis is his realisation of the truth and the gaining of the knowledge that he previously lacked.


The Second Principle: Character

Tragic characters should be true to life yet more idealized, more noble. The protagonist should be renowned and prosperous, so his change of fortune can be from good to bad. This change “should come about as the result, not of vice, but of some great error or frailty in a character.” Such a plot is most likely to generate pity and fear in the audience, for “pity is aroused by unmerited misfortune, fear by the misfortune of a man like ourselves.”



Endless debates have centered on the term "catharsis" which Aristotle unfortunately does not define. Some critics interpret catharsis as the purging or cleansing of pity and fear from the spectators as they observe the action on stage; in this way tragedy relieves them of harmful emotions, leaving them better people for their experience. However others prefer to think of catharsis not as the effect of tragedy on the spectator but as the resolution of dramatic tension within the plot. The dramatist depicts incidents which arouse pity and fear for the protagonist, then during the course of the action, he resolves the major conflicts, bringing the plot to a logical and foreseeable conclusion.


This second explanation of catharsis helps to explain how an audience experiences satisfaction even from an unhappy ending. Human nature may cause us to hope that things work out for Antigone, but, because of the insurmountable obstacles in the situation and the ironies of fate, we come to expect the worst and would feel cheated if Haemon arrived at the last minute to rescue her, providing a happy but contrived conclusion. In tragedy things may not turn out as we wish, but we recognize the probable or necessary relation between the hero's actions and the results of those actions, and appreciate the playwright's honest depiction of life's harsher realities.