Thursday, 09 Mar 2017


Aristotle on Tragedy (Summary)

Here is a very concise summary of Aristotle’s views of tragedy.

Aristotle (who lived about 350 years before Christ) was a student of  the famous philosopher Plato.

Aristotle started his own school that rivaled Plato’s school. While Plato’s school focused on theoretical math — considered the purest form of knowledge — Aristotle’s school was focused on observing the universe, the basis of the modern scientific method. Aristotle’s school also explored literature and politics, and is in many ways the precursor to what we know as the liberal arts school.

I’ll have more to say about theater in the ancient Greek world, but for now I’ll just say that theatre in the ancient Greek world was divided into two camps — comedy and tragedy. Comedy was bawdy, rude, irreverent; think Saturday Night Live at its most offensive. To Aristotle, comedy was a depiction of humans as worse than they really are. We don’t know very much about what Aristotle thought about comedy, because that section of his great work The Poetics is missing. History has preserved what Aristotle thought about tragedy. We know that Aristotle thought that tragedy represented humans as better than they really are; that well-constructed tragedy requires the protagonist to have a fatal flaw, a weakness; that the tragic hero begins in a position of power and falls as a result of actions the hero takes (actions that are prompted by the fatal flaw). At the beginning of an Arisotelian tragedy (the kind of tragedy Aristotle thought was best), a community has already been damaged by the actions of the hero; and that by watching the hero suffer, we feel emotions usually translated to English as “pity” and “fear” — we pity the other person’s suffering, and we fear that something like that could happen to us. The result of feeling pity and fear generated by an actor is that we purge those negative feelings (a process Aristotle called “catharsis”).

Aristotle’s Poetics does not explain exactly what “catharsis” means, and because we don’t have the section on comedy we don’t know whether perhaps he thought comedy also involved some kind of catharsis. I see it like this… during a time in my life I had a recurring dream that I was in a car accident and damaged my vehicle. I had that dream so frequently that at some point I began, while still dreaming, to recognize that I was having “that” dream again — and then I would make myself wake up, and when I realized that I didn’t actually wreck my car, it was a great feeling. I began to look forward to having that dream, because it felt so good when it was over. So, watching someone else suffer through tragedy helps us rehearse, emotionally, how to process the tragedy that we are likey to encounter; but knowing that a tragic play is all pretend keeps us from being overwhelmed by the tragedy. (This paragraph isn’t summarizing Aristotle, it’s just my own attempt to make sense of his attitude towards tragedy.)

Aristotle would say that a tragic resolution requires the hero to suffer due to the tragic flaw; the hero’s death is usually what is necessary to restore balance and heal the damage done to the community.

In class I have mentioned that a comedy begins with an ordered community that is threatened — perhaps by a newcomer who upsets the order of things, or perhaps by an insider who suddenly changes. Resolution in a comedy requires either expelling the threat to the comic order, or absorbing that threat, so that order can continue. A traditional ending to a comedy is a wedding, since so much of society revolves around the institution of marriage.

Revisit the page that summarizes Aristotle’s views on tragedy.

For your reading response, consider

  1. what I have written on this page,
  2. the summary of Aristotle’s views on tragedy,
  3. and (optionally) any section of Foster

and use these ideas to explore the comic and tragic elements of The Cherry Orchard.