previous next
[1453b] [1]

Fear and pity sometimes result from the spectacle and are sometimes aroused by the actual arrangement of the incidents, which is preferable and the mark of a better poet. The plot should be so constructed that even without seeing the play anyone hearing of the incidents happening thrills with fear and pity as a result of what occurs. So would anyone feel who heard the story of Oedipus. To produce this effect by means of an appeal to the eye is inartistic and needs adventitious aid, while those who by such means produce an effect which is not fearful but merely monstrous have nothing in common with tragedy.1 For one should not seek from tragedy all kinds of pleasure but that which is peculiar to tragedy, and since the poet must by "representation" produce the pleasure which comes from feeling pity and fear, obviously this quality must be embodied in the incidents.

We must now decide what incidents seem dreadful or rather pitiable. Such must necessarily be the actions of friends to each other or of enemies or of people that are neither. Now if an enemy does it to an enemy, there is nothing pitiable either in the deed or the intention, except so far as the actual calamity goes. Nor would there be if they were neither friends nor enemies. But when these calamities happen among friends, [20] when for instance brother kills brother, or son father, or mother son, or son mother—either kills or intends to kill, or does something of the kind, that is what we must look for.

Now it is not right to break up the traditional stories, I mean, for instance, Clytaemnestra being killed by Orestes and Eriphyle by Alcmaeon, but the poet must show invention and make a skilful use of the tradition.

But we must state more clearly what is meant by "skilful." The action may happen in the way in which the old dramatists made their characters act—consciously and knowing the facts, as Euripides2 also made his Medea kill her children. Or they may do the deed but without realizing the horror of it and then discover the relationship afterwards, like Oedipus in Sophocles. That indeed lies outside the play,3 but an example of this in the tragedy itself is the Alcmaeon of Astydamas4 or Telegonus in the Wounded Odysseus. A third alternative is to intend to do some irremediable action in ignorance and to discover the truth before doing it. Besides these there is no other way, for they must either do the deed or not, either knowing or unknowing. The worst of these is to intend the action with full knowledge and not to perform it. That outrages the feelings and is not tragic, for there is no calamity.

1 that here were plays which relied for their effect on the scenery and "make up" is clear from chapter 17:—"The Phorcides and Prometheus and Scenes laid in Hades." It was even possible to produce the Eumenides so badly as to bring it into this category. But Aristotle's criticism here includes the more important point that the poignancy of a Greek tragedy is due to what happens and not to our seeing it happen. That Medea murders her children is tragic: to display the murder coram populo would add either nothing or something merely "monstrous." And although Sophocles shows Oedipus with his eyes out, it is the fact and not the sight which is properly "tragic."

2 This does not necessarily imply that Aristotle reckons Euripides “a modern,” since the Greek can equally mean “Euripides as well as other old dramatists.”

3 i.e., Oedipus kills his father Laius before the play opens.

4 A prolific tragedian of the fourth century.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

load focus Greek (1966)
hide Places (automatically extracted)

View a map of the most frequently mentioned places in this document.

Download Pleiades ancient places geospacial dataset for this text.

hide References (16 total)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: