Aristotle and Shakespeare on tragedy

I think this painting of Aristotle looks a little like Shakespeare
I think this painting of Aristotle looks a little like Shakespeare

As part of my graduate studies I was assigned various contemporaries of Shakespeare, and of those whose came after him, but for some unfathomable reason we were never assigned Aristotle. This is a shame because his lectures, gathered together in a book titled Poetics, is the blueprint for Shakespeare’s tragedies. In my mind it is a must read for any student of Shakespeare.

I just recently picked up the book after reading a reference to Aristotle’s criticism on Greek theater. I am very familiar with Aristotle as a philosopher, having studied philosophy as an undergrad, but had never heard of his work as it relates to drama. I suppose this work should come as no surprise as Aristotle had an opinion on everything from biology to the supernatural.

Eugene Garver, editor of Barnes & Noble’s edition of Poetics tells us:
Tragedy came into existence in Athens along with democracy in the late sixth century. Performing and watching a tragedy were political acts, part of the celebration of a festival in honor of the god Dionysus.

Aristotle, being politically minded, reflected on tragedy in drama precisely because it was every man’s civic duty to engage in this type of theater. In fact in Aristotle’s day the theaters of Athens could easily hold 3,000 people. All men were expected to attend; the young men about to enter into military duty served as the chorus, while the war veterans served as the audience. No mention if women were expected to attend.

For the Greeks, tragedies served a duel purpose; they brought the citizens together to share a common experience, and in sharing that experience, were collectively learning a valuable life lesson. A reminder that character flaws led to the downfall of society. Part of the glue that held society was the idea that all things achievable should be done for the greater good. The Greeks had a name for those who whose achievements served only themselves; Pleonexia, which translates to mean “over-reaching ambition or greedy”. It was thought that the Gods punished these people, as pleonexia was a vice that they would or could not over-look. So tragedies served as imitations (Aristotle’s word) to warn men not to succumb to this vice. Aristotle expanded on this idea and outlined what made for a good tragedy.

Aristotle’s formula for tragedy

Tragedies have to contain a unity of time, place and action. The action should take place within a single 24-hour period.

The plot is the soul of the tragedy. Characters are dimensions of the object of imitation, and are subordinate to the plot. The plot drives them, though it is their flaw that allows this to happen.

Tragedy has a beginning, a middle, and an end,and has to contains a discovery and reversal.

Tragedies are caused by a tragic flaw, which is done by a tragic hero.

The experience of a tragedy causes a catharsis, the purging of pity and fear.

This list is important to Aristotle because in his words, “Knowing what kind of thing a given work of art is enables you to know what is essential and critically important to it and its evaluation”.

In my mind, this is genius take on all most all forms of literature. How many times have you watched or read something, not as it was meant to be presented, but through your personal bias and thought, “Oh this is crap”? It goes against how we usually experience art, yet it makes perfect sense! When we evaluate something we do so through our own personal experiences and expectations. Aristotle tells us to look at a piece for what it is supposed to represent, and evaluate it to see if it has elicited the proper response.

Shakespeare may not have kept to Aristotle’s list, but he was the master at making sure his tragedies provoked the proper response. He used a lot of what Aristotle had to say about tragedies, and to some extend, comedies in order to achieve a certain respones. Aristotle divided the two thusly: Tragedies depict people who are better than we are, while comedies represent people who are worse. This may seem harsh, but when is the last time you saw a Hollywood comedy based on wealthy people? True, modern tragedies can depict the every man, but in every case, the man in question is noble but flawed.

Shakespeare’s England was not democratic. As the country leaned towards Protestantism, Catholic morality plays gave way to drama as a pure form of entertainment. It was up to the English playwrights to look beyond religious lessons and define what made for a good play. Society was suspect of actors and playwrights; they were deemed by many to be immoral and spiritual corrupt, so it made sense that writers like Johnson, Marlowe, and Shakespeare made use of tragedy as a new form of morality plays. Getting superstitious people to fill play houses night after night may have been easier if they thought they may experience some type religious lesson. The beauty of Shakespeare’s tragedies is that everyone can identify with his flawed characters, though each are “better than we are”.

Shakespeare drew on the human condition that we all suffer from, and gave his characters flaws that mirror our own. Othello’s passionate nature surprises even him, and he is unable to fully understand and control this new emotion. Macbeth is ambitious and cannot find where to draw the line. Lear is too rash and is in serious need of some self-awareness. Hamlet is too melancholic and wrapped up in his own head; so much so that he reacts impulsively to each new situation. And though Juliet admits her love and marriage to Romeo is “is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden”, she is swept up in her emotions and allows them to rule her mind. We’d be dishonest if we didn’t admit to feeling a few of these emotions ourselves.

If we view Shakespeare’s tragedies for what they are, we can begin to appreciate the emotional impact he was aiming for. We may even experience catharsis, in that we are able to experience the suffering of flaws without a personal loss. We experience the purging of pity once the play is over, and if open to a lesson, may purge a fear that we too could suffer the same fate.

After reading Poetics is seems evident that this was a book also read by Shakespeare. You can almost hear Aristotle point towards Shakespeare when he talks about the proper use of language, “By language embellished, I mean language into which rhythm, harmony and song (meaning verse) center”. Because Shakespeare used Greek mythos in many of his works, one could take Aristotle’s examples and substitute them with characters found in Shakespeare’s plays.

I am not sure Aristotle would have approved of everything Shakespeare did with his formula but in the end I have to think that even he would approve of the plays outcome, provided he could take his own advice and evaluate them on for what they are supposed to be. It would be tragic if he could not.

Works Cited

Aristotle ,Poetics. Barns & Noble Press
Garver, Eugene, Intro to Poetics. Barns & Noble Press
Shakespeare, William, Romeo & Juliet. Folgers Press

Author: sarij

I'm a writer, lifelong bibliophile ,and researcher. I hold a Bachelors in Humanities & History and a Master's in Humanities. When I'm not reading or talking about Shakespeare or history, you can usually find me in the garden discussing science or politics with my cat.

5 thoughts on “Aristotle and Shakespeare on tragedy”

  1. Shakespeare certainly rejected the classical unities, which raises the issue of how closely a play has to follow reality to be acceptable. Or maybe he didn’t entirely: that may be one reason why, for example, in Othello, there seem to be two different time schemes, one in which Othello and Desdemona are the newest of newlyweds, and another in which they’ve been married for months.

    Given Aristotle’s ideas of tragedy and comedy, is it no wonder that so much drama on the screen today is melodrama, which might be characterized as being inhabited by people who are about the same as we are?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Shakespeare’s quirky use of time frames is a topic of frustration for scholars. In Midsummer Night’s Dream for instance Theseus bemoans that it will four long moons before his wedding to Hippolyta, yet the comedy takes place in a 24hr period. He dispenses with our idea of time and location. Don’t we call that magical realism now?
      As for melodrama, I agree it is inhabited by people who are the same as us, but Aristotle might argue that melodrama works only because there is something unique about the character who is affected by the plot. He points out that tragedy cannot happen to evil or bad people as we just wouldn’t care about them. But then again I can think of a couple of movies in which the protagonist is deeply flawed and is no way noble, yet we feel for them. Nicholas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas is not someone we would normally care about, nor his self-inflicted wounds, but yet in the end we recognize the tragedy for what it is. Perhaps melodrama shows that we have become better people than those in Athens as we no longer view tragedy as something that only happens to those who have more than we do.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I was just thinking that tragedy is subversive: it says good people can go wrong. This isn’t possible in a strict morality play. On the other hand, when we get to contemporary melodrama, it’s hard to tell whether good people are going wrong, or if they were good people to begin with!

        I think Shakespeare must have followed a similar line of thinking. Is Lear really a good king with a character flaw, or a bad king who overcomes his flaws? How much is Prospero a righteous figure, and how much a trickster god?

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Lovely exposition, Sari, and even though I was aware of most of Aristotle’s prescriptions that you outline here, I certainly wasn’t aware of all. In particular, pleonexia is a failing that seems to run like a faultline through most of today’s society, to all our detriment.

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