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Aristotle Definition Of Tragedy English Literature Essay

Reversal works in tandem with a story's spine or center to ensure that the hero comes full circle. Oedipus is the best example of a hero who encounters such a reversal -- he hears news that his fears have been allayed, the mystery solved, and then in the course of enjoying this relief and hearing the news, he realizes that it in fact implicates him.

Often, recognition is a tool to achieve this reversal or a byproduct of it -- in this case, Oedipus recognizes the true identity of his father and mother, the nature of his own crimes, and the accuracy of the prophecy. In one swift blow, Oedipus has come full circle and is now the victim of his own search for justice and truth.

The concept of suffering is slightly misleading in that it does not refer simply to a character's endurance of physical and emotional pain. In order to truly produce catharsis - the commingling of fear and pity in an audience - the suffering must be a consequence of reversal or recognition. And indeed, the more surprising the reversal or recognition - as in the case of Oedipus - the more the audience will themselves suffer empathetically, realizing that they too have been ambushed by the causal chain of the plot. Even as 'objective' observers, audience members too are flawed - and thus learn from the tragic hero's fate.

Catharsis, then, is pity for the hero, and fear that his fate could befall us. While pity is the result of any combination of reversal and recognition, fear can only be a product of reversal and recognition crafted into a surprising ending to the plot. And indeed, the absolute pinnacle of tragedy comes when surprise, reversal, recognition, and suffering are united around the core spine of the story in a swift blow to the audience at the end of the third act.

Aristotle next summarizes the circumstances that make for good tragedy. First, it must involve incidents between people who are 'dear to one another' - i.e. a son killing a mother, a brother killing a brother, etc. There are all kinds of permutations of such an incident:

Every tragedy contains two parts - complication and unraveling (denouement). The complication refers to everything from the beginning of the action to the turning point, or climax where bad fortune turns to good, or good fortune turns to bad. The unraveling, or denouement, extends from the climax to the end, and tracks the final transformation of a hero to good or bad fortune.

That said, Aristotle notes that a tragic plot cannot have 'irrational parts.' There must be likelihood, no matter how seemingly impossible the circumstances - as long as we trust that given the initial incident, the plot follows logically and probably, then the poet is in the realm of good drama. But if we believe neither the inciting incident, nor the chain of events that follows, the poem is simply absurd, and thus summarily dismissed.


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