Poetics (Aristotle)  

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"Objects which in themselves we view with pain, we delight to contemplate when reproduced with minute fidelity: such as the forms of the most ignoble animals and of dead bodies" --Aristotle, Poetics [...].

"From childhood men have an instinct for representation, and in this respect, differs from the other animals that he is far more imitative and learns his first lessons by representing things." -Poetics, Aristotle, tr. W.H. Fyfe

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Aristotle's Poetics (Greek: Περὶ ποιητικῆς, c. 335 BCE) is the earliest-surviving work of dramatic theory and the first extant philosophical treatise to focus on literary theory. In it, Aristotle offers an account of what he calls "poetry" (a term which in Greek literally means "making" and in this context includes dramacomedy, tragedy, and the satyr play—as well as lyric poetry, epic poetry, and the dithyramb). He examines its "first principles" and identifies its genres and basic elements; his analysis of tragedy constitutes the core of the discussion. "Although Aristotle's Poetics is universally acknowledged in the Western critical tradition," Marvin Carlson explains, "almost every detail about his seminal work has aroused divergent opinions."

The Poetics -- especially the lost second book which addressed comedy (see Tractatus coislinianus) -- figures prominently in Umberto Eco's novel The Name of the Rose.


Core terms

  • Mimesis or "imitation", "representation"
  • Catharsis or, variously, "purgation", "purification", "clarification"
  • Peripeteia or "reversal"
  • Anagnorisis or "recognition", "identification"
  • Hamartia or "miscalculation" (understood in Romanticism as "tragic flaw")
  • Mythos or "plot"
  • Ethos or "character"
  • Dianoia or "thought", "theme"
  • Lexis or "diction", "speech"
  • Melos or "melody"
  • Opsis or "spectacle"


Aristotle's work on aesthetics consists of the Poetics and Rhetoric. The Poetics is specifically concerned with drama. At some point, Aristotle's original work was divided in two, each "book" written on a separate roll of papyrus. Only the first part–that which focuses on tragedy–survives. The lost second part addressed comedy. Scholars speculate that the Tractatus coislinianus summarises the contents of the lost second book.

Aristotle distinguishes between the genres of "poetry" in three ways:

  • their means
language, rhythm, and harmony, used separately or in combination
  • their objects
  • agents ("good" or "bad" ...) - human characters who have emotions (and bring moral to actions they do - "good" person kills child = remorse? X "bad" person kills child = just shows his power?) or things of daily life (skull in Hamlet, cake in slapstick comedies...) who have no emotions (humans put emotions on things - girl's father is killed by sword, girl hates swords) ...
  • actions ("virtuous" or "vicious" ...) - agents cause and are influenced by actions
  • their modes of representation

Having examined briefly the field of "poetry" in general, Aristotle proceeds to his definition of tragedy:

Tragedy is a representation of a serious, complete action which has magnitude, in embellished speech, with each of its elements [used] separately in the [various] parts [of the play]; [represented] by people acting and not by narration; accomplishing by means of pity and terror the catharsis of such emotions. By "embellished speech", I mean that which has rhythm and melody, i.e. song; by "with its elements separately", I mean that some [parts of it] are accomplished only by means of spoken verses, and others again by means of song (1449b25-30).

Tragedy consists of six parts, he explains:

Key elements of the plot are reversals, recognitions and suffering. The best plot should be "complex". It should imitate actions arousing fear and pity.
When a character is unfortunate by reversal(s) of fortune (peripeteia), at first he suffers (pathos) and then he can realize (anagnorisis) the cause of his misery or a way to be released from the misery.
Plot should be more convoluted ("complex"), so audience can learn about what is possible in a world (Aristotle stated, that "best" tragedy is based on real events which people know are possible; note, that people also "nitpick" little "mistakes" in such story more); when plot is not "very" convoluted (audience may be young and they might not keep track of events ...), it should have at least interesting characters or thoughts (so audience is not "bored")
It is much better if a tragical accident happens to a hero because of a mistake he makes (hamartia) instead of things which might happen anyway. That is because the audience is more likely to be "moved" by it. A hero may have made it knowingly (in Medea) or unknowingly (Oedipus). A hero may leave a deed undone (due to timely discovery, knowledge present at the point of doing deed ...).
Main character should be
  • good - Aristotle explains that audiences do not like, for example, villains "making fortune from misery" in the end; it might happen though, and might make play interesting, nevertheless the moral is at stake here and morals are important to make people happy (people can, for example, see tragedy because they want to release their anger)
  • appropriate–if a character is supposed to be wise, it is unlikely he is young (supposing wisdom is gained with age)
  • consistent–if a person is a soldier, he is unlikely to be scared of blood (if this soldier is scared of blood it must be explained and play some role in the story to avoid confusing the audience); it is also "good" if a character doesn't change opinion "that much" if the play is not "driven" by who characters are, but by what they do (audience is confused in case of unexpected shifts in behaviour [and its reasons, morals ...] of characters)
  • "consistently inconsistent"–if a character always behaves foolishly it is strange if he suddenly becomes smart; in this case it would be good to explain such change, otherwise the audience may be confused ; also if character changes opinion a lot it should be clear he is a character who has this trait, not real life person, who does - this is also to avoid confusion
  • thought (dianoia)–spoken (usually) reasoning of human characters can explain the characters or story background ...
  • diction (lexis)
  • melody (melos)
The Chorus too should be regarded as one of the actors; it should be an integral part of the whole, and share in the action
For example: if play has "beautiful" costumes and "bad" acting and "bad" story, there is "something wrong" with it. Even though that "beauty" may save the play it is "not a nice thing".

He offers the earliest-surviving explanation for the origins of tragedy and comedy:

Anyway, arising from an improvisatory beginning (both tragedy and comedy—tragedy from the leaders of the dithyramb, and comedy from the leaders of the phallic processions which even now continue as a custom in many of our cities) [...] (1449a10-13)


Poetics was not influential in its time and was generally understood to coincide with the more famous Rhetoric. This is because in Aristotle's time, rhetoric and poetry were not as separated as they later became and were in a sense different versions of the same thing. It was not until much later that The Poetics became hugely influential.

The Arabic version of Aristotle’s Poetics that influenced the Middle Ages was translated from a Greek manuscript dating from before the year 700. This manuscript was translated from Greek to Syriac and is independent of the currently-accepted 11th-century source designated Paris 1741. The Syriac language source used for the Arabic translations departed widely in vocabulary from the original Poetics and it initiated a misinterpretation of Aristotelian thought that continued through the Middle Ages.

There are two different Arabic interpretations of Aristotle’s Poetics in commentaries by Abu Nasr al-Farabi and Averroes (i.e., Abu al-Walid Ibn Rushd).

Al-Farabi’s treatise endeavors to establish poetry as a logical faculty of expression, giving it validity in the Islamic world. Averroes’ commentary attempts to harmonize his assessment of the Poetics with al-Farabi’s, but he is ultimately unable to reconcile his ascription of moral purpose to poetry with al-Farabi’s logical interpretation.

Averroes' interpretation of the Poetics was accepted by the West because of its relevance to their humanistic viewpoints; occasionally the philosophers of the Middle Ages even preferred Averroes’ commentary to Aristotle's stated sense. This resulted in the survival of Aristotle’s Poetics through the Arabic literary tradition.

Full text

The Poetics by Aristotle, translated by Ingram Bywater (full text)
The Poetics by Aristotle, translated by S.H. Butcher (full text)

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Poetics (Aristotle)" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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