From the Poetics
Aristotle’s Ideas About Tragedy
Aristotle wa s one of the greatest philos ophers of A ncient Gre ece. A philo sopher loo ks for ideal form s, and tries to
explain the nature of reality. The search for ideal forms led Aristotle to explore many subjects. His analysis of the
ideal form of tragic plays became a guideline for later playwrights in Western civilization. For centuries, European
playwrights like William Shakespeare tried to write plays that would match the ideals of Aristotle’s model.
Drama was not invented by Aristotle. In fact, he used examples from the works of famous Greek playwrights such as
Sophocles to illustrate his main ideas. The Greeks believed that tragedy was the highest form of drama, and
Aristotle’s ideas about tragedy we re based on this belief.
Aristotle’s Definition of Tragedy.
“A tragedy is the imita tion of a n action that is ser ious an d also, a s having
magnitude, complete in itself; in approp riate and pleasurable language;...
in a dramatic rather than narrative form; w ith incidents arousing pity and fear,
wherewith to accomplish a catharsis of these emotions.”
1. “the imitation of an action that is serious and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself;”
This means that a good tragedy deals with one issue that is very “serious.” You can’t have a tragedy about something
trivial like breaking a fingernail. “Magnitude” here means great importance. The issue has to be serious and very,
very important. That’s wh y a lot of tragedies deal with someo ne’s death. “Complete in itself” means that the play
must stick to the o ne issue; oth erwise, the audience will get lost in the p lot.
2. “in appropriate and pleasurable language:”
Ancient Greek tragedy had a chorus whose role was to comment on the action of the play. The chorus sometimes
sang their part. Aristotle said that the language should be easy to listen to. It should have rhythm and also good
harmo ny for th e lines th at were sung....