Aristotle on Greek Tragedy
by Dr. Larry A. Brown
Professor of Theater
The word tragedy literally means “goat song,” probably referring to the practice of giving a goat as a sacrifice or a prize at the religious festivals in honor of the god Dionysos. Whatever its origins, tragedy came to signify a dramatic presentation of high seriousness and noble character which examines the major questions of human existence: Why are we here? How can we know the will of the gods? What meaning does life have in the face of death? In tragedy people are tested by great suffering and must face decisions of ultimate consequence. Some meet the challenge with deeds of despicable cruelty, while others demonstrate their ability to confront and surpass adversity, winning our admiration and proving the greatness of human potential.
Background information on Greek Theater
Ancient writers give us tantalizing glimpses of the possible origins of Greek theater. The fifth century historian Herodotus (5.67) notes that in some cities the worship of Dionysos, god of wine and fertility, replaced earlier hero cults which had memorialized the hero’s sufferings with tragic choruses. In his Poetics (1449a) Aristotle records that tragedy developed from improvisations on dithyrambs, a type of choral poetry celebrating mythological subjects. The Latin author Horace adds that Thespis invented tragedy, apparently being the first actor to portray the legendary characters of myth instead of narrating their exploits in song (Ars Poetica 275f).
The earliest definite record we have of dramatic contests in Athens occurred in 501 BC (the typical date of 534 is based on an unreliable medieval text, see Scullion). The majority of evidence about Greek theater comes from the literature and performance records of the fifth century. This “Golden Age” witnessed major military encounters both with foreign invaders and fellow countrymen. A league of small city-states led by Athens defeated the Persian empire in two key battles at Marathon (490) and Salamis (480). Our earliest extant tragedy, Persians by Aeschylus, records the humiliation of Xerxes and his mighty army only eight years after the event. The downfall of the Persian king demonstrates the folly of pride which provokes the wrath of the gods. During the following years Athens, under the leadership of Pericles, rose to prominence, celebrating its civic pride with a newly rebuilt Parthenon on the Acropolis. The annual festival held at the Theater of Dionysos, which lies on the hill beneath the Parthenon, brought visitors from miles around to see the dramatic contests and experience the glories of the city. In the final third of the century, civil war broke out between the Athenian league and the Spartan confederacy. Most of our extant plays come from this dark period: Euripides’ Trojan Women depicts the horrors of war for the innocent victims left behind, while Aristophanes offers an unusual comic solution for ending the war: a sex-strike by the women of both sides, in Lysistrata [correctly pronounced Ly-SIS-tra-ta]. The themes of Greek tragedy and comedy reflect the political and social concerns of these exciting and troubled times.
Each spring Athens held a festival at which the contests for best tragedy (and comedy after 486) held a central part. Tragic playwrights submitted three serious dramas and a mythological spoof called a satyr play, often on a similar theme. Each playwright had a sponsor (choregos) who hired the three actors and the chorus of 12-15 performers. The playwright probably rehearsed his own cast much like a director would today. Actors wore masks which covered their entire heads like a helmet. These could be exchanged backstage to allow the same actor to play different characters; thus, only three actors were needed for all the parts in one play. The lead actor was called the protagonist, meaning first contestant. The chorus often portrayed the people of the city, responding to the protagonist as an ideal audience. During the choral odes their singing and dancing provided variety and spectacle, allowing time for the actors to change into other costumes for the next scene.
Plays were performed outdoors, often on a hillside which provided a natural seating area for the spectators. Benches of wood or stone surrounded an open circle of ground called the orchestra, or dancing space. The seating area, known as the theatron (literally “viewing space”), has given us our word for theater. Some ancient theaters could seat as many as 15,000 people. Excellent acoustics permitted such large audiences to hear the performance. At the back of the orchestra where most of the action took place stood the skené (pronounced “skay-NAY”) or scene building, which provided a place to change costumes and store props. Actors could enter and exit from doors on the front of the skené or from large aisle ways on either side of the orchestra. There was little attempt at creating the illusion of a location other than using the scene building for a palace or temple. One popular special effect was the mechane or crane which lowered a god from the roof of the skené to the stage. In several plays gods or the spirits of dead heroes appear to proclaim a prophecy or resolve a crisis. We use the Latin phrase deus ex machina (god out of the machine) to describe a last-minute rescue which brings the play to a surprising, if improbable, conclusion. Another common device was a rolling platform (ekkyklema, literally “something rolled out”) on which scenes of bloody carnage could be briefly revealed.
According to Aristotle, tragedies had certain recognizable sections which most of our surviving plays follow (Poetics, ch. 12). A prologue, spoken by one or two characters, introduces the play’s setting and major action. The parodos brings the chorus into the orchestra to become an audience and respondent to the characters. The body of the play alternates between episodes involving the principle actors and choral odes sung and danced by the chorus, to allow for the actors to change costumes and indicate the passage of time. The exodos concludes the play with all performers leaving the stage. Plays were written entirely in verse, although lyric passages and dramatic dialogue differed considerably in style. Choral odes exhibit a wide variety of meters, nearly impossible to convey in translation, which indicate changes in mood and subject, whether religious, solemn, excited, etc. Actors spoke verse sounding more like common speech but using heightened rhetoric for specific purposes: rhesis (persuasive speech), monody (musical solo), agon (formal debate), stychomythia (rapid exchange of dialogue) are the major forms. These make up the formal elements of tragedy.
Although hundreds of playwrights competed in the dramatic festivals in Athens and other cities, the works of only four have survived. Aeschylus (524-456) was the early master of the trilogy, three plays written to be performed together which continue the same story. Most of the seven plays we have of his were once part of trilogies, but The Oresteia, containing the plays Agamemnon, Libation Bearers, and Eumenides, is the only complete example still in existence. According to Aristotle, Aeschylus introduced the practice of using two actors, thus receiving credit for the invention of dramatic dialogue. His other plays include Persians, Suppliants, and Seven Against Thebes (the authorship of Prometheus Bound is disputed). Ironically, Aeschylus wanted to be remembered on his epitaph not for his tragedies but for fighting at the battle of Marathon.
Sophocles (497-405) is best known for his masterpieces Oedipus the King and Antigone. Both plays demonstrate excellent plot construction and skillful use of dramatic irony. Aristotle claims Sophocles was first to use a third actor. Other tragedies by Sophocles include Aias, Women of Trachis, Philoctetes, and Oedipus at Colonus.
Euripides (485-406) was known as an innovator, experimenting with both the form and content of the traditional myths. Several of his plays depict women driven to violence because of their intense suffering, such as Electra, Medea, and Hecabe. Euripides seems to reflect current skeptical trends in philosophy in plays such as Heracles in which the title character questions the existence of the gods, at least in their popular manifestations. Because of his daring approach, Euripides was not as successful in the contests as the other two tragedians during his lifetime, but during the fourth century his fame grew; hence we have more of his plays (18) than the combined total of Aeschylus and Sophocles.
The only comic writer whose works survive from this period, Aristophanes (448-380) addressed current events in his plays, blending political satire with bawdy farce, in some of the most elegant Greek poetry ever written. Many of his plays are named after his fanciful choruses: Knights, Clouds, Wasps, Birds, Frogs. One other comic writer from the next century deserves mention. Menander (342-291) is credited with perfecting what ancient critics called New Comedy, which influenced most of the subsequent comedies written in Western Civilization including Shakespeare and Moliere. Two of his plays, The Grouch and The Girl from Samos, have survived almost intact. The apostle Paul quotes from a play by Menander in 1 Cor. 15:33: “Evil companions corrupt good morals.”
Aristotle’s Definition of Tragedy
Aristotle first defined tragedy in his Poetics around 330 BC, and all subsequent discussions of tragic form have been influenced by his concepts. According to Aristotle, “Tragedy, then, is an imitation of a noble and complete action, having the proper magnitude; it employs language that has been artistically enhanced . . . ; it is presented in dramatic, not narrative form, and achieves, through the representation of pitiable and fearful incidents, the catharsis of such incidents” (ch. 6; Golden 11).
Several of these terms require clarification. “Imitation” (mimesis) does not refer exclusively to acting out something on stage. Aristotle recognizes many forms of imitation including epic poetry (Homer), painting, song, and dance. “Noble” does not mean that the characters are necessarily of high moral standing or that they must always be kings, heroes, or gods: the title character of Euripides’ Medea is a wicked sorceress who kills her own children. According to Hardison, the term could be translated as larger than life, majestic, or serious (Golden 84).
“Magnitude” refers not to the greatness of the subject matter, as some have suggested, but to the appropriate length of a production. Earlier in the Poetics (ch. 5), Aristotle contrasts the shorter action of a play with that of an epic poem such as the Iliad. A story with the proper magnitude for drama can be presented within two or three hours’ performance time. “Enhanced language” refers to the fact that all plays at that time were written in poetic verse rather than the language of everyday speech. As Steiner explains, “There is nothing democratic in the vision of tragedy. The royal and heroic characters whom the gods honor with their vengeance are set higher than we are in the chain of being, and their style of utterance must reflect this elevation” (241).
Endless debates have centered on the term “catharsis” which Aristotle unfortunately does not define. Some critics interpret catharsis as the purging or cleansing of pity and fear from the spectators as they observe the action on stage; in this way tragedy relieves them of harmful emotions, leaving them better people for their experience. According to this interpretation, Aristotle may have been offering an alternative to Plato’s charge that the dramatic poets were dangerous to society because they incited the passions.
However, it is uncharacteristic of Aristotle to define tragedy in terms of audience psychology; throughout the Poetics he focuses on dramatic form, not its effects on viewers. Therefore, commentators such as Else and Hardison prefer to think of catharsis not as the effect of tragedy on the spectator but as the resolution of dramatic tension within the plot. The dramatist depicts incidents which arouse pity and fear for the protagonist, then during the course of the action, he resolves the major conflicts, bringing the plot to a logical and foreseeable conclusion.
This explanation of catharsis helps to explain how an audience experiences satisfaction even from an unhappy ending. Human nature may cause us to hope that things work out for Antigone, but, because of the insurmountable obstacles in the situation and the ironies of fate, we come to expect the worst and would feel cheated if Haemon arrived at the last minute to rescue her, providing a happy but contrived conclusion. In tragedy things may not turn out as we wish, but we recognize the probable or necessary relation between the hero’s actions and the results of those actions, and appreciate the playwright’s honest depiction of life’s harsher realities.
Notice that Aristotle’s definition does not include an unfortunate or fatal conclusion as a necessary component of tragedy. Usually we think of tragedy resulting in the death of the protagonist along with several others. While this is true of most tragedies (especially Shakespeare), Aristotle acknowledges that several Greek tragedies end happily. In Aeschylus’ trilogy the Oresteia, Orestes must avenge the death of his father by killing his murderer, who happens to be Orestes’ mother. The conflict is successfully resolved when Athena appoints a court of law to uphold justice in such cases, and Orestes is acquitted of any guilt. In Oedipus the King the hero inflicts his own punishment by blinding himself, but he goes into exile instead of dying. Sophocles wrote a sequel to this play called Oedipus at Colonus
in which the hero finds a peaceful death after years of suffering to atone for his misdeeds, but his demise is seen as a happy ending to an unhappy life. In tragedy people must make difficult choices and face serious consequences, but they do not always meet with death.
The Tragic Hero
Aristotle distinguishes between tragedy which depicts people of high or noble character, and comedy which imitates those of low or base character (ch. 2). Renaissance scholars understood this passage to mean that tragic characters must always be kings or princes, while comedy is peopled with the working or servant classes, but Aristotle was not talking about social or political distinctions. For him character is determined not by birth but by moral choice. A noble person is one who chooses to act nobly. Tragic characters are those who take life seriously and seek worthwhile goals, while comic characters are “good-for-nothings” who waste their lives in trivial pursuits (Else 77). While it may be true that, as Arthur Miller argued, the common man is a potential subject for tragedy (in the sense that one need not be a king or a demigod to act nobly), the one thing a tragic protagonist cannot be is common. Ordinary humanity belongs on the sidelines in tragedy, represented by the Greek chorus. The tragic protagonist is always larger than life, a person of action whose decisions determine the fate of others and seem to shake the world itself.
The hero of tragedy is not perfect, however. To witness a completely virtuous person fall from fortune to disaster would provoke moral outrage at such an injustice. Likewise, the downfall of a villainous person is seen as appropriate punishment and does not arouse pity or fear. The best type of tragic hero, according to Aristotle, exists “between these extremes . . . a person who is neither perfect in virtue and justice, nor one who falls into misfortune through vice and depravity, but rather, one who succumbs through some miscalculation” (ch. 13). The term hamartia, which Golden translates as “miscalculation,” literally means “missing the mark,” taken from the practice of archery.
Much confusion exists over this crucial term. Critics of previous centuries once understood hamartia to mean that the hero must have a “tragic flaw,” a moral weakness in character which inevitably leads to disaster. This interpretation comes from a long tradition of dramatic criticism which seeks to place blame for disaster on someone or something: “Bad things don’t just happen to good people, so it must be someone’s fault.” This was the “comforting” response Job’s friends in the Old Testament story gave him to explain his suffering: “God is punishing you for your wrongdoing.” For centuries tragedies were held up as moral illustrations of the consequences of sin.
Given the nature of most tragedies, however, we should not define hamartia as tragic flaw. While the concept of a moral character flaw may apply to certain tragic figures, it seems inappropriate for many others. There is a definite causal connection between Creon’s pride which precipitates his destruction, but can Antigone’s desire to see her brother decently buried be called a flaw in her character which leads to her death? Her stubborn insistence on following a moral law higher than that of the state is the very quality for which we admire her.
Searching for the tragic flaw in a character often oversimplifies the complex issues of tragedy. For example, the critic predisposed to looking for the flaw in Oedipus’ character usually points to his stubborn pride, and concludes that this trait leads directly to his downfall. However, several crucial events in the plot are not motivated by pride at all: (1) Oedipus leaves Corinth to protect the two people he believes to be his parents; (2) his choice of Thebes as a destination is merely coincidental and/or fated, but certainly not his fault; (3) his defeat of the Sphinx demonstrates wisdom rather than blind stubbornness. True, he kills Laius on the road, refusing to give way on a narrow pass, but the fact that this happens to be his father cannot be attributed to a flaw in his character. (A modern reader might criticize him for killing anyone, but the play never indicts Oedipus simply for murder.) Furthermore, these actions occur prior to the action of the play itself. The central plot concerns Oedipus’ desire as a responsible ruler to rid his city of the gods’ curse and his unyielding search for the truth, actions which deserve our admiration rather than contempt as a moral flaw. Oedipus falls because of a complex set of factors, not from any single character trait.
This misunderstanding can be corrected if we realize that Aristotle discusses hamartia in the Poetics not as an aspect of character (ch. 15) but rather as an incident in the plot (ch. 13). What Aristotle means by hamartia might better be translated as “tragic error” (Golden’s miscalculation). Caught in a crisis situation, the protagonist makes an error in judgment or action, “missing the mark,” and disaster results.
Most of Aristotle’s examples show that he thought of hamartia primarily as a failure to recognize someone, often a blood relative. In his commentary Gerald Else sees a close connection between the concepts of hamartia, recognition, and catharsis. For Aristotle the most tragic situation possible was the unwitting murder of one family member by another. Mistaken identity allows Oedipus to kill his father Laius on the road to Thebes and subsequently to marry Jocasta, his mother; only later does he recognize his tragic error. However, because he commits the crime in ignorance and pays for it with remorse, self-mutilation, and exile, the plot reaches resolution or catharsis, and we pity him as a victim of ironic fate instead of accusing him of blood guilt.
While Aristotle’s concept of tragic error fits the model example of Oedipus quite well, there are several tragedies in which the protagonists suffer due to circumstances totally beyond their control. In the Oresteia trilogy, Orestes must avenge his father’s death by killing his mother. Aeschylus does not present Orestes as a man whose nature destines him to commit matricide, but as an unfortunate, innocent son thrown into a terrible dilemma not of his making. In The Trojan Women by Euripides, the title characters are helpless victims of the conquering Greeks; ironically, Helen, the only one who deserves blame for the war, escapes punishment by seducing her former husband Menelaus. Heracles, in Euripides’ version of the story, goes insane and slaughters his wife and children, not for anything he has done but because Hera, queen of the gods, wishes to punish him for being the illegitimate son of Zeus and a mortal woman. Hamartia plays no part in these tragedies.
Given these examples, we should remember that Aristotle’s theory of tragedy, while an important place to begin, should not be used to prescribe one definitive form which applies to all tragedies past and present.
Else, Gerald. Aristotle’s Poetics: The Argument. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1957.
Golden, Leon, trans. Aristotle’s Poetics. With Commentary by O. B. Hardison, Jr. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1967. Rpt. Florida UP, 1981.
Scullion, Scott. Classical Quarterly (52.1) 2002.
Steiner, George. The Death of Tragedy. 1961. New York: Oxford UP, 1980.