Defining a Tragedy Essay

This essay has a total of 1499 words and 6 pages.

Defining a Tragedy

Defining a Tragedy
Greek philosopher Aristotle proposes components of an ideal tragedy in his work, Tragedy
and the Emotions of Pity and Fear. According to Aristotle, there are six components of a
great tragedy: plot, character, thought, verbal expression, song, and visual adornment.
He dissects these components in great detail and provides standards for all of them. In
his play Bacchae, Euripides resembles much of Aristotle’s components of an ideal tragedy.
Euripides has only few deviations from the Aristotelian tragedy.

To Aristotle, a tragedy is defined as an imitation of action and life, not of an imitation
of men. Therefore, he places higher emphasis the role of plot in a tragedy, rather than
the role of character. He describes the species and components of a plot in great detail.
For completeness, a plot must have a beginning, middle, and an end. A plot should be
structured so that every part is necessary for completeness. The elements of a plot are
peripety, recognition, and pathos. Peripety is a change in fortune, recognition is a
change from ignorance to knowledge, and pathos is a destructive or painful act.
Furthermore, Aristotle states that a tragedy is not merely an imitation of actions, but of
events inspiring fear and pity. Such an effect is best produced when events are
surprising yet at the same time, they logically follow one another. A well-constructed
plot should, therefore, not have a change of fortune from bad to good, but, on the other
hand, from good to bad. A good plot should leave an audience feeling pity and fear. To
produce this effect, actions must happen between those who are near or dear to one
another. For example, a brother killing a father leaves a more impressionable feeling
than an enemy killing an enemy does. Although Aristotle feels that a good tragedy arouses
solemn emotion, an audience should not be left in a state of depression. Both the
characters and the audience should end with a purging of emotional catastrophe, known as a

The aspects of Aristotle’s ideal plot are well represented in Euripides’ Bacchae. The
play begins with Dionysus’ prologue describing his birth to mortal Semele and immortal
Zeus and his journey from Asia to Greece. He reveals that he has come to Thebes to gain
recognition and worship as the god of nature, ecstasy, creation, and destruction because
his aunts deny him and what he stands for. To prove his immortality, he forces all Theban
women to wander in madness under trees. Dionysus attempts to spread a cult of his
followers in the city of Thebes. The king of Thebes, Pentheus, disapproves of the Bacchic
rites and tries to suppress the cult. A change of fortune occurs when Pentheus cannot
resist the spell of Dionysus and thus he succumbs to the god’s power. The play ends with
Pentheus savagely destroyed in his failure to suppress the cult. The city of Thebes
remains under the spell of Dionysus. The audience is left to feel pity and fear because
Pentheus’ own mother takes part in his killing. This play reflects Aristotle’s ideal
tragedy in that the change in fortune went from good to bad. Euripides uses the literary
device of a “deus ex machine” in Dionysus’ final appearance. The term deus ex machina
refers to a divine intervention to resolve a dramatic dilemma. Dionysus reveals himself
as a god and explains his punishment for his disbelievers. The audience experiences a
catharsis by realizing that civilization should make room for natural human urges toward
ecstasy and joy. If they do not, those urges will sicken and destroy us from within.

In respect to character, Aristotle defines a tragic hero as one who must have high status
but must also be noble and virtuous. However, though the tragic hero is highly
distinguished, he is not perfect. His imperfection is called the tragic flaw. The tragic
hero suffers misfortune brought about by some error or frailty, not because of wickedness
or cruelty. In the Bacchae, Pentheus fulfills Aristotle’s necessary qualities of a tragic
hero. His demise is caused by his tragic flaws of excessive pride and overconfidence. He
rejects the Bacchic rites because he is too proud to follow the cult and overly confident
that he can defeat the powers of the gods. One aspect of Euripides’ play that differs
from Aristotle’s ideal tragedy is that the tragic hero in fails to gain self-knowledge at
the moment of his downfall. Pentheus does not increase awareness of his actions before
his downfall. Although the tragic hero does not experience recognition, the element of
recognition is still present in the play. Agave, Pentheus’ mother, realizes her action of
killing her own son before her consequent downfall. However, Aristotle would not believe
that this recognition was enough to fulfill the ideal tragedy.

Aristotle ranks thought as third in rank of importance to an ideal tragedy. By “thought,”
he means the ability to state the issues and appropriate points pertaining to a given
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