*Note: What follows is a cut-and-pasted, cribbed distillation of the Poetics based on my own interpretation of them, several different online sources, and the notes of a couple of smart friends.
Aristotle was a painstaking observer, believing nature never created anything without a reason. He dissected animals and studied them in their natural habitat, then did the same thing with Politics, logic, art. This approach to anatomy led him to look for correlations between structure and function and to a belief that each biological part has its own special uses.
Besides his work in the field of biology, Aristotle also was the first to define and classify the various branches of knowledge. He sorted them into physics, metaphysics, rhetoric, poetics, and logic. In doing so, he laid the foundation of most of the sciences, and is sometimes called the “father of logic.”
What matters for OUR purposes is that he tried to define and classify performance and drama.
What was “POETICS?”
It was Aristotle’s attempt to break down, classify, and define one of the predominant art forms of his time, POETRY. Not just Robert Frost back then.
But for him, in his time, poetry included Epic Poetry (think of Homer, the recited stories), tragedy, comedy, music…all forms of IMITATION. They differ in what they’re imitating (something serious or not serious), and what they use (musical instrument versus language).
Aristotle says that our interest in Poetry and performance comes from two deep-seated instincts: our love of IMITATION and our desire for HARMONY…that man learns by imitating, and that there’s a universal pleasure in seeing things imitated (think about how a baby learns language, and to walk…etc). So we put things on stage that mirror what we see in the world. With Harmony, he means both literal harmony (think about hearing a chord with one note off), and the desire for things to “fit.” We like things to make SENSE. We put stories onstage to make SENSE of what we see off stage.
Aristotle says that we imitate two things: noble things, and base things. You imitate base things, you’re in the land of comedy (think slipping on a banana peel, somebody opening a closet and there’s people inside kissing). You imitate noble things (a king faced with a difficult decision, star-crossed lovers), you’re in the world of tragedy.
Of all kinds of Poetry, says Aristotle, the highest form is Tragedy.
Definition of Tragedy: “Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its katharsis of such emotions. . . . Every Tragedy, therefore, must have six parts, which parts determine its quality—namely, Plot, Characters, Diction, Thought, Spectacle, Melody.”
OF THESE, says Aristotle, the most important is plot, which is inseparable, for him, from action.
“Tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of ACTION and of LIFE, and LIFE CONSISTS IN ACTION, and ITS END IS A MODE OF ACTION, NOT A QUALITY.”
Aristotle says that “character determines men’s qualities, but it is by their actions that they are happy or unhappy.” So Character is less important than action.
He says “Hence the incidents and the plot are the end of a tragedy; and the end is the chief of all things.” So there CAN be a tragedy without character, but not without action.
He rank-orders everything for us (1) Plot and ACTION, (2) Character, (3)Thought (WHAT is said) (4) Diction (HOW it is said) (5) Song and (6) Spectacle.
Then Aristotle spends a LOT of time talking about Plot…what is a story, what should a drama have going for it. A lot of these things should sound really familiar – Again, his definition: Complete, and whole, and of a certain Magnitude.
So it should have a beginning, a middle, and an end.
What’s a beginning? Something that doesn’t HAVE to come after something else, but once it happens, there are other things that naturally follow. (get examples from class)
What’s an end? Something that naturally HAS to follow something else, but that nothing else HAS to happen after to feel complete. (get examples from class)
A middle has to have stuff before it and after it.
MAGNITUDE…he meant a couple of things. First that it should be long enough, but not too long. How long is that “long enough for bad fortune to change to good, or good fortune to bad.” IE walking onstage with a suitcase, handing it to a character, and saying “congratulations! You won the lottery!” doesn’t make a good play, in and of itself.
“It is not the function of the poet to relate what has happened, but what may happen – what is possible according to the law of probability or necessity.”
Other things you’ll hear about when people talk about Poetics:
Unity of Plot/Action – people will say this means the whole thing needs to happen in the same place, but my reading of it is more that everything in your play should be necessary…if you can take something out of your play, without missing it, then it should go. A play is like a Jenga game, where you remove anything, and it falls apart.
Complex/Simple/Episodic plots – think of a TV show where you can skip a couple of weeks and the whole thing still makes sense – that’s “Episodic” and Aristotle’s not a fan. Simple plots roll out where something happens, then something else happens, then a third, and the end. COMPLEX is Aristotle’s favorite kind of plot, and it’s basically one where there are REVERSALS and RECOGNITION
Reversals – is what it sounds like. Things are going one way, something happens, and suddenly they’re going the other way. Example?
Recognition – change from ignorance to knowledge. A lot of times these go hand in hand with a reversal.
Here’s the most important thing: Aristotle’s been dead for more than 2,000 years. Think of a million examples that break these rules, and remember, they’re not RULES: they’re hypothesis based on observation. You may want to break all of them. I’ll say this: actually constructing the kind of plot he’s talking about, and doing it well, is a lot harder than it sounds. There’s something to be said for mastering some of these rules before you break them.