previous next
[1449a] [1] so is the Margites to our comedies.

When tragedy and comedy came to light, poets were drawn by their natural bent towards one or the other. Some became writers of comedies instead of lampoons, the others produced tragedies instead of epics; the reason being that the former is in each case a higher kind of art and has greater value.

To consider whether tragedy is fully developed by now in all its various species or not, and to criticize it both in itself and in relation to the stage, that is another question. At any rate it originated in improvisation—both tragedy itself and comedy. The one came from the prelude1 to the dithyramb and the other from the prelude to the phallic songs which still survive as institutions in many cities. Tragedy then gradually evolved as men developed each element that came to light and after going through many changes, it stopped when it had found its own natural form. Thus it was Aeschylus who first raised the number of the actors from one to two. He also curtailed the chorus and gave the dialogue the leading part. Three actors and scene-painting Sophocles introduced. Then as to magnitude. [20] Being a development of the Satyr play,2 it was quite late before tragedy rose from short plots and comic diction to its full dignity, and that the iambic metre was used instead of the trochaic tetrameter. At first they used the tetrameter because its poetry suited the Satyrs and was better for dancing, but when dialogue was introduced, Nature herself discovered the proper metre. The iambic is indeed the most conversational of the metres, and the proof is that in talking to each other we most often use iambic lines but very rarely hexameters and only when we rise above the ordinary pitch of conversation. Then there is the number of acts. The further embellishments3 and the story of their introduction one by one we may take as told, for it would probably be a long task to go through them in detail.

Comedy, as we have said, is a representation of inferior people, not indeed in the full sense of the word bad, but the laughable is a species of the base or ugly.4 It consists in some blunder or ugliness that does not cause pain or disaster, an obvious example being the comic mask which is ugly and distorted but not painful.

The various stages of tragedy and the originators of each are well known, but comedy remains obscure because it was not at first treated seriously.

1 Before the chorus began (or in pauses between their songs) the leader of the performance would improvise some appropriate tale or state the theme which they were to elaborate. Thus he was called ἐξάρχων or "the starter," and became in time the first "actor."

2 A Satyr play was an interlude performed by a troupe of actors dressed as the goat-like followers of Dionysus. Hence τραγῳδία, "goat-song." Aristotle seems so clear about this that he does not trouble to give a full explanation. But we can see from this passage that the Satyr plays were short, jocose and in the trochaic metre which suited their dances, and that in Aristotle's view tragedy was evolved from these. No example of a primitive Satyr play survives, but we can make inferences from the later, more sophisticated Cyclops of Euripides and the fragments of Sophocles' Ἰχνευταί, The Trackers. We cannot be certain that Aristotle's theory is historically correct; the balance of evidence is against it.

3 Masks, costumes, etc.

4 "Ugly" was to a Greek an equivalent of "bad." The persons in Comedy are "inferior" (see chapter 2.), but have only one of the many qualities which make up Ugliness or Badness, viz. the quality of being ludicrous and therefore in some degree contemptible.

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.

Visualize the most frequently mentioned Pleiades ancient places in this text.

Download Pleiades ancient places geospacial dataset for this text.

hide References (34 total)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: