Aristotle’s Definition of Tragedy

Read the information included on this link in order to define the following terms:

Elizabethan Tragedy
Aristotle’s definition of tragedy
Mise en scene


Greek Theory of Tragedy: Aristotle’s Poetics The classic discussion of Greek tragedy is Aristotle’s Poetics. He defines tragedy as “the imitation of an action that is serious and also as having magnitude, complete in itself.” He continues, “Tragedy is a form of drama exciting the emotions of pity and fear. Its action should be single and complete, presenting a reversal of fortune, involving persons renowned and of superior attainments, and it should be written in poetry embellished with every kind of artistic expression.”

The writer presents “incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to interpret its catharsis of such emotions” (by catharsis, Aristotle means a purging or sweeping away of the pity and fear aroused by the tragic action).

The basic difference Aristotle draws between tragedy and other genres, such as comedy and the epic, is the “tragic pleasure of pity and fear” the audience feel watching a tragedy. In order for the tragic hero to arouse these feelings in the audience, he cannot be either all good or all evil but must be someone the audience can identify with; however, if he is superior in some way(s), the tragic pleasure is intensified. His disastrous end results from a mistaken action, which in turn arises from a hamartia (tragic flaw) or from a tragic error in judgment. Often the tragic flaw is hubris, an excessive pride that causes the hero to ignore a divine warning or to break a moral law. It has been suggested that because the tragic hero’s suffering is greater than his offense, the audience feels pity; because the audience members perceive that they could behave similarly, they feel pity.

Elizabethan and Shakespearean Tragedy, A distinctly English form of tragedy, begins with the Elizabethans. The translation of Seneca and the reading of Aristotle’s Poetics were major influences. Many critics and playwrights, such as Ben Jonson, insisted on observing the classical unities of action, time and place (the action should be one whole and take place in one day and in one place). However, it was romantic tragedy, which Shakespeare wrote in Richard II, Macbeth, Hamlet, and King Lear, which prevailed. Romantic tragedy disregarded the unities (as in the use of subplots), mixed tragedy and comedy, and emphasized action, spectacle, and–increasingly–sensation. Shakespeare violated the unities in these ways and also in mixing poetry and prose and using the device of a play-within-a-play, as in Hamlet.  In Elizabethan tragedy, the individual leads to violence and conflict. A distinctly non-Aristotelian form of tragedy developed during this period was the tragicomedy. In a tragicomedy, the action and subject matter seem to require a tragic ending, but it is avoided by a reversal which leads to a happy ending; sometimes the tragicomedy alternates serious and comic actions throughout the play. Because it blends tragedy and comedy, the tragicomedy is sometimes referred to as a “mixed” kind.

Tragedy: An Overview Tragedy usually focuses on figures of stature whose fall implicates others–a family, an entire group, or even a whole society–and typically the tragic protagonist becomes isolated from his or her society (Phedre’s “outcast and fugitive from all” would suit Lear and Hamlet as well). In tragedy, life goes on; in comedy, life goes onward and upward. Tragedy tends to exclude comedy. In the tragic vision, something or someone dies or lapses into a winter of discontent.

The “Tragic Vision”

In tragedy, there seems to be a mix of seven interrelated elements that help to establish what we may call the “Tragic Vision”:
• The conclusion is catastrophic.
• The catastrophic conclusion will seem inevitable.
• It occurs, ultimately, because of the human limitations of the protagonist.
• The protagonist suffers terribly.
• The protagonist’s suffering often seems disproportionate to his or her culpability (deserving of blame).
• Yet the suffering is usually redemptive, bringing out the noblest of human capacities for learning.
• The suffering is also redemptive in bringing out the capacity for accepting moral responsibility.

A Summary of Aristotle’s Definition of Tragedy:

Tragic hero as defined by Aristotle A tragic hero is a literary character who makes a judgment error that inevitably leads to his/her own destruction. In reading Antigone, Medea and Hamlet, look at the role of justice and/or revenge and its influence on each character’s choices when analyzing any “judgment error.” Characteristics Aristotle once said that “A man doesn’t become a hero until he can see the root of his own downfall.” An Aristotelian tragic hero must possess specific characteristics, five of which are below:
1) Flaw or error of judgment (hamartia) Note the role of justice and/or revenge in the judgments.
2) A reversal of fortune (peripeteia) brought about because of the hero’s error in judgment. 3) The discovery or recognition that the reversal was brought about by the hero’s own actions (anagnorisis)
4) Excessive Pride (hubris)
5) The character’s fate must be greater than deserved.

Initially, the tragic hero should be neither better or worse morally than normal people, in order to allow the audience to identify with them. This also introduces pity, which is crucial in tragedy, as if the hero was perfect we would be outraged with their fate or not care especially because of their ideological superiority. If the hero was imperfect or evil, then the audience would feel that he had gotten what he deserved. It is important to strike a balance in the hero’s character. Eventually the Aristotelian tragic hero dies a tragic death, having fallen from great heights and having made an irreversible mistake. The hero must courageously accept their death with honour.

Other common traits Some other common traits characteristic of a tragic hero:
 Hero must suffer more than he deserves.
 Hero must be doomed from the start, but bears no responsibility for possessing his flaw.  Hero must be noble in nature, but imperfect so that the audience can see themselves in him.
 Hero must have discovered his fate by his own actions, not by things happening to him.  Hero must understand his doom, as well as the fact that his fate was discovered by his own actions.
 Hero’s story should arouse fear and empathy.
 Hero must be physically or spiritually wounded by his experiences, often resulting in his death.
 The hero must be intelligent so he may learn from his mistakes.
 The hero must have a weakness, usually, it is pride
 He has to be faced with a very serious decision that he has to make

Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare–An application of the tragic formula

William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, or just Julius Caesar, is believed to have been written in 1599 and is one of Shakespeare’s works based on true historical events. Though Caesar is the title character, his role is not as large as that of Marcus Brutus, the conspirator who takes Caesar’s life. 

Shakespeare’s special style of tragedy includes a character whose poor choices cause his social downfall and eventually result in his own death. Julius Caesar fits this description as Brutus’s decision to murder Caesar results in his fall from social grace and his suicide. Other important elements for a tragedy include catharsis (a release and purging of emotions), supernatural elements like ghosts, Gods and magic, and comedic relief. While all these elements are important in a tragedy, we will talk about the three most visible and identifiable tragic elements in Julius Caesar.

Character Who is High on the Social Ladder

Julius Caesar is a successful Roman general who the play is named after. Brutus and Caesar are friends and Brutus looks up to and respects Caesar. One common element of tragedy is that often focuses on the structure and ranks of nobility. Brutus has a good reputation in the Senate and is a high-ranking nobleman. He is known for being honest and loyal. We get a glimpse of his honesty and loyalty in Act I scene ii when Cassius and Brutus are watching a celebration with Caesar. Cassius flatters Brutus and tries to convince him that Caesar is not as great as he seems. Brutus defends Caesar multiple times and refuses the flattery. Cassius approaches Brutus because he knows that if he can win over the noble and popular Brutus, he can win over anyone. Because he is a ranking and well-known nobleman, Brutus’ character fulfills the first requirement of a tragedy.