Aristotle’s Definition of Tragedy and Tragic Hero in Poetics

In chapter 6 of Poetics Aristotle embarks upon the most important subject of Poetics- the tragic drama. And in the following chapters he discusses the nature of tragedy and its constituent parts such as plot, character, diction, thought, spectacle and song. He also draws distinctions between various kind of plots and introduces us to some technical terms namely reversal, discovery and calamity. Chapters 13 and 14 contain Aristotle’s well known discussion of what he means by his association of pity and fear with tragedy. Now let us proceed to Aristotle's definition of tragedy and its various aspects as given in Poetics.

According to Aristotle tragedy is a representation of an action that is worth serious attention, complete in itself, and of some amplitude. By the expression “representation of an action” Aristotle means the representation of a plot for in his language action and plot are synonymous. By ‘serious’ he means something that matters. Serious is concerned with important values as opposed to what is slight, trivial, transitory or of the surface. The action of tragedy must be complete. By ‘complete’ he means the action which has a beginning, a middle and an end which are causally connected. The action of tragedy must be long enough for the catastrophe to occur and on the other hand short enough to be grasped as a single artistic whole and not like a creature a thousand miles long.

According to Aristotle the language of tragedy should be enriched by a variety of artistic devices appropriate to the several parts of the play. By ‘enriched language possessing rhythm and music or song and by artistic devices appropriate to the several parts’ he means that some are produced by the medium of verse alone and others again with the help of song.

According to Aristotle tragedy should be presented in the form of action, not narration. He distinguishes tragedy from the epic, because an epic narrates the events and does not represent them through action.

Now in order to describe the function of tragedy, Aristotle says that the function or end of  a tragedy is purgation which comes through arousing the feelings of pity and fear in the audience.

According to Aristotle every tragedy has six constituents, which determine its quality. They are character, plot, diction, thought, spectacle and song. Plot, character and thought are the objects of imitation, diction, and song are the media of imitation and spectacle and song are the manners of imitation in tragedy.

Of the six elements, plot stands as the most important element of a tragedy. To Aristotle the ordered arrangement of the incidents is plot. Plot is the life blood or the soul of a tragedy. The plot must be of a reasonable length, so that it may be easily held in the memory. But Aristotle emphasizes on the unity of plot. The plot must be a whole, complete in itself, and of certain length. It should have a beginning, a middle and an end. The various incidents of a plot must be so arranged that if any of them is taken away the effect of wholeness will be seriously disrupted. Plot of a tragedy may be simple or complex. The simple plot is without peripeteia or discovery and the complex is with peripeteia or discovery. Aristotle prefers complex plot like the plot of Oedipus Rex, by Sophocles to simple plot. Of all plots, the episodic are worst.

The second constituent of tragedy is character. According to Aristotle, there are four things to be aimed at in a character.

1, The character should be good or fine.
2, It should be true to type. (e.g unlike Metanippe)
3, He/she should be true to human nature or true to life.
4, He/she should be consistent in his/her behavior. (Unlike Ighigeneia)

Character also, like the plot, should be governed by the law of probability or necessity.

The third constituents is diction which includes several parts such as letter, syllable, connecting words, noun, verb etc. The perfection of style demands clearness without manners. The greatest thing in style is to show a command of metaphor. The use of metaphors is the mark of genius, because to make good metaphors demands an eye for resemblances.

Another important element of tragedy is thought- the ability to say what is appropriate in any given circumstances. It has to be communicated to the audience through the speeches of the characters. Of the remaining parts, song holds the chief place among the embellishments. Then comes spectacle, which surely has an emotional attraction of its own but least artistic. The power of tragedy can be felt even apart from spectacle.

Aristotle separates historical truth from poetic truth and prefers poetic truth as the object of tragedy. He insists that the poet’s function is to depict not what has happened but what might happen.

Aristotle's Definition 'The tragic hero'

Aristotle’s conception of tragic hero finds expression in chapter 13 of Poetics. The heroes of tragedies must belong to renowned families. The materials for tragedies have been supplied by the distinguished families. The men of common birth are unfit for tragedies. That is why; the heroes of tragedies must belong to the distinguished families such as the families of Oedipus, Orestes, Melenger, Thystes etc. A man of eminence always claims our special attention, for when a king or any great man falls a nation is affected.

Now the vital question is that- what sort of ethical outlook should belong to a tragic hero? Should he be totally virtuous or depraved or middle of them?   

According to Aristotle tragedy should represent such actions; tragic poets should represent actions capable of awakening pity and fear. So in order to represent such actions, tragic poets should avoid some sorts of plots such as- good men should not be shown passing from prosperity to misery, for this does not inspire our pity and fear, it merely disgusts us. Nor should evil man be shown passing from misery to prosperity. This is neither moving nor moral. Nor again should an utterly worthless man be shown falling from prosperity into misery. This is moral but not moving.

So, Aristotle’s remarks disqualify two types of characters for tragedy: purely virtuous and thoroughly bad. There remains, then, the character between the two extremes – that of a man who is not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty- hamartia . The hamartia of Oedipus in his over confidence and the hamartia of Agamemnon is his pride.

Concluding our speech we can say that the tragic hero will be a man of mixed personality- neither blameless nor absolutely depraved. His misfortune will follow from some error flaw of his character and he must fall from prosperity. Such a man will help the tragedy in arousing the emotions of pity and fear.