Difference between the Tragedy of Aristotle and Shakespeare

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Difference between the Tragedy of Aristotle and Shakespeare

The origins of thinking and theorizing about drama, and the foundation of dramatic storytelling, can be attributed to the Greek philosopher, Aristotle, writing in the fourth century BCE, in his classic book, The Poetics. Known as the “three act structure”, Aristotle defined for us the most basic form of all dramatic works.

Dramatic works, he said, need to have :

  1. a beginning, where the plot is established (Act 1)
  2. a middle, where the plot develops to reach its climax (Act 2)
  3. an end, where the plot comes to its conclusion and elements of the story are resolved (Act 3)

Drama, he said, is the re-enactment of events that are serious and also having magnitude such that it stands on its own, complete. The drama should be conducted in language that suits it and which is pleasurable to hear. It should be told in a dramatic rather than narrative form. That is to say, narration of a story is not enough. In a dramatic work, the story must be dramatized and acted.

A tragedy needs to have incidents arousing pity and fear; the audience must feel pity for the main character, the tragic hero. The audience should also feel afraid for the hero as the plot moves toward its unfortunate end. As the play moves along, the events in the plot must build the emotions of pity and fear. When the drama is resolved, the audience should experience a releasing of emotions and thereby, a cleansing, catharsis. The release of tension in a tragedy is often a moment of revelation where the tragic hero fails completely.

The highest form of drama, according to Aristotle, is the tragedy.

Classical tragedy depicts the downfall of a hero who struggles against obstacles in his fate but whose defeat is noble. He may be bereft of anything else but the hero wins a moral victory over the forces he struggled against. The effect of tragedy is catharsis, or a cleansing of the soul. The spectator is left trembling, but purified.

Aristotle said that there are three forms of plot that should be avoided in tragedy:

  • A totally good man must not pass from happiness to misery. This will make the audience angry that bad things happened to him. They won’t pity him so much as be angry on his behalf.
  • A bad man must not pass from misery to happiness. This will not appeal to the audience because they won’t want to see evil rewarded.
  • A bad man must not pass from happiness to misery. The audience won’t feel sorry for him because they will believe he got what he deserved.

The true tragic hero cannot be too good or too bad, but he must end up in misery.

Aristotle concluded that the best tragedy centers on

  • A basically good man who changes from happiness to misery because of something in his fate.

Aristotle’s components of tragedy

The components of tragedy were defined by Aristotle to be six elements:

  1. Plot
  2. Character
  3. Thought
  4. Diction
  5. Melody
  6. Spectacle

Plot (mythos) -the arrangement of events and incidents in the story- was thought by Aristotle to be the most important element of drama. It consists of the actions that propel the story forward. To Aristotle, plot was most important because he felt one can have a dramatic work that has a plot but no characters. But you can’t have drama with characters and no plot. Aristotle also noted that forming a good plot is a lot more difficult than creating good characters or diction.

Aristotle believed that a plot must demonstrate causality; that one thing leads to another, and in a logical sequence that makes sense. Plot should involve a change of fortunes. Plot must be such that it arouses emotion in the psyche of the audience. It should imitate actions arousing fear and pity. It should move from good fortune to bad which means that the hero suffers.

Character (ethos) is about the individual motivations of the characters in the play, what they want or don’t want, and how they react to certain situations. Of course, the hero and/or heroine are the two most important figures among the characters. The main protagonist (the hero, usually) may be opposed by an antagonist.

Character in dramatic exposition reveals the individual motivations of the characters in the play, what they want or don’t want, and how they react to certain situations. It is much better if a tragic accident happens to a hero because of a mistake he makes (harmatia) instead of things that might happen anyway.

The characters serve to advance the action of the story. What we want in life, our happiness and our misery, are all expressed in action. So, according to Aristotle, happiness consists in certain kinds of activity rather than in a certain demeanor or quality of character.

  • The characters should act appropriately for their gender and station in life.
  • The characters have to have believable personalities.
  • Each character must act consistently throughout the play.
  • A character’s actions should be probable, or likely, in terms of what we know about that character.

It is much better if a tragic accident happens to a hero because of a mistake he makes instead of things that might happen anyway. That is because the audience is more likely to be “moved” by it.

In a perfect tragedy, character supports the plot. Personal motivations will be part of the cause-and-effect of the plot.

Thought (dianoia) is what the characters think or feel during the development of the plot. We gain insight into the thought of our hero and other characters through their dialogue. The thoughts of our characters are inferred from their utterances and actions.

Diction (lexis) is the medium of language or expression through which the characters reveal their thoughts and feelings. The diction should be ‘embellished with each kind of artistic element’, Aristotle said. This is where Shakespeare is particularly revered –for the power of his prose.

Melody (melos) can mean “music-dance” according to some musicologists. This is arguably more sensible because then Aristotle is conveying what the chorus actually did. The Chorus is one the actors. It should be an integral part of the whole, and share in the action and should contribute to the entirety of the plot.

Spectacle (opsis) is the theatrical effect presented on the stage and includes anything one can see. Aristotle believed that dramatic settings, the scenery in dramatic productions, should not be commonplace but should present a spectacle to the audience. Aristotle put it as the least important part of a production and the most removed from the playwright’s work.

From Aristotle to Shakespeare

As opposed to the basic three-act structure that Aristotle listed, Shakespearean tragedy usually works on a five-part structure, corresponding to five acts:

  • Act One, the exposition where main characters are introduced and the action begins
  • Act Two, the development where the action continues with complications
  • Act Three, the crisis (or climax) where everything comes together
  • Act Four includes further developments that lead inevitably to
  • Act Five were the final crisis of action occurs and the resolution happens

Aristotle proposed a unity of Place, Time, and Action in tragedy such that the whole tragedy seems to take place in a single location, happening during the course of one day. Even if the action does not actually occur in one day, one would be given the impression that it does.

Compared with these strict rules, Shakespeare’s tragedy is a more relaxed genre where action can occur over an extended period of time. Othello is about as near as Shakespeare gets to classical tragedy.

The Tragic Flaw

In classical tragedy, ‘fate’ is most often the antagonist to the hero. The hero is a victim to fate. In Shakespearean tragedy the hero is more likely to have a “tragic flaw” that brings him down. His downfall becomes his own doing, and he is no longer, as in classical tragedy, the hapless victim of fate. The tragic hero’s flaw may consist of a moral flaw, or it may simply be a technical error/error of judgement or ignorance. It may also at times be arrogance. It is owing to this flaw that the protagonist comes into conflict with fate and ultimately meets his/her doom.

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References :


[0]Richard McKeon (Ed.) The Basic Works of Aristotle. Modern Library (2001).
[1]Aristotle: Poetics, translated with an introduction and notes by M. Heath, Penguin (1996)
[2]Habib, M.A.R. A History of Literary Criticism and Theory: From Plato to the Present. Wiley (2005).
[3]McEachern, C. (Ed.) Cambridge Companion to Shakespearean Tragedy. Cambridge University Press (2013).