Role of Plot in Tragedy

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In The Poetics, Aristotle defines plot as “the combination of the incidents or things done in the story”, but a closer reading of the development of ‘plot’ as a crucial element of tragedy reveals that it is much more complicated idea. In this assignment, the attempt has been to understand two things; firstly, how Aristotle’s conception of the plot works towards privileging imitation as an exercise of rational choice on part of the poet; and secondly, how the idea of telos informs the construction of the plot.

The Greek word that Aristotle uses for ‘plot’ is mythos which was used both as ‘myth’ and ‘story’ in his time, while ‘plot’ as Aristotle uses it has different implications. Traditional stories and myths were most often the source material for tragedies, but the word mythos is not merely a reference to that. House in his lectures on The Poetics, observes how Aristotle crafts a technical term like ‘plot’ out of the same. While mythos would have referred to an existing body of myths and stories, Aristotle’s construction of a new meaning elevates the poet to the position of a creator, or rather a ‘maker’ (of plots). Every requirement specified in the text implies a deliberate choice on part of the poet. The process of imitation via poetry is no longer merely an act of madness (though Aristotle makes a passing reference to madness), but a very calculated act where the poet employs his skill and is guided by reason.

Aristotle’s conception of the construction of the plot and thereby tragedy is informed by his own teleological view of the world. It is the plot that lies at the centre of a tragedy, and more often than it seems that tragedy and plot as conceived in The Poetics are terms that can be used interchangeably. Yet, a closer reading of the text would reveal that plot is identified working both as the form and determining the content of tragedy. Sampson elaborates on this by looking at the telos of the tragedy at two levels; plot as content is a teleological narrative of a particular action to its denouement, while plot as form would realize the telos of the tragedy by arousing pity and fear. This distinction helps validate Aristotle’s assertion that tragedy speaks of universals, in the sense that the form is the universal framework, of which the content is a particular example.

In Aristotle’s attempt to justify the return to the same stories and families as source material, Belfiore observes how in all the examples cited by Aristotle, pity and fear are aroused because the tragedy involves some kind of a violation of blood ties or philia. She further explains how it is not the individual characters of the play but the violation of these relationships, and subsequent excommunication from the community that produces the tragic effect, hence, “a tragedy is impossible without action, but there may be one without Character.”.

Reading The Poetics in light of the teleological worldview that Aristotle brings into his criticism of classical Greek tragedies, validates his assessment of tragedies as stating universal ideas. At the same time the assertion of the logical design incorporated by the author in order to imitate of reality, is his challenge to Plato’s rejection of poets in The Republic.


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Role of Plot in Tragedy. (2021, Jul 27). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/role-of-plot-in-tragedy/

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