The Six Secrets to Good Tragedy (on “The Poetics of Aristotle”, section VI)

Mel Brooks by Sharon Graphics

Comedian Mel Brooks was once asked to distinguish between Tragedy and Comedy.  He replied –

Comedy is when you fall into a man hole. 

Tragedy is when I get a paper cut.

Aristotle expands this distinction.  In Section VI (excerpted here) of The Poetics, he examines 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; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions… 

When you go to a Tragedy, you go to witness something happen, not to hear someone describe what happened.  While Tragedies may certainly be enhanced by poetic language, music and rhythm, the primary focus of the drama is on the action.  The actions portrayed evoke emotions that move the audience.

Aristotle goes on to address the personal agents (the characters) and their thoughts, which qualify their actions.  Actions require motivation to make sense, yet it is the actions themselves on which “all success and failure depends”.  He then moves to a discussion of plot –

        …the Plot is the imitation of the action: for by plot I here mean the arrangement of the incidents. By Character I mean that in virtue of which we ascribe certain qualities to the agents.  Thought is required wherever a statement is proved, or, it may be, a general truth enunciated. Every Tragedy, therefore, must have six parts,  which parts determine its quality—namely, Plot, Character, Diction,  Thought, Spectacle, Song.

Before defining these six parts, Aristotle highlights “the structure of the incidents”, which he considers most important.  He writes –

…Now character determines men’s qualities, but it is by their actions that they are happy or the reverse. Dramatic action, therefore, is not with a view      to the representation of character: character comes in as subsidiary to the actions. Hence the incidents and the plot are the end of a tragedy; and the end is the chief thing of all. Again, without action there cannot be a tragedy; there may be without character…

No matter how amusing, engaging, entertaining, or inspiring your characters are, if they do nothing, and nothing happens to them, you won’t have a Tragedy.   Aristotle puts it this way –

… Again, if you string together a set of speeches expressive of character, and well      finished in point of diction and thought, you will not produce the essential tragic effect nearly so well as with a play which, however deficient in these respects, yet has a plot and artistically constructed  incidents… 

Finally, Aristotle prioritizes the six parts of Tragedy:

1)  Plot – “the soul of a tragedy”.

2)  Character – “that which reveals moral purpose”. 

3)  Thought – “the faculty of saying what is possible and pertinent in given circumstances”.

4) Diction –  “the expression of meaning in words”.

5) Song –   which “holds the chief place among the embellishments”.

6) Spectacle – which “depends more on the art of the stage machinist than on that of the poet”

Attending to these six elements, in their proper order, allows the poet (or playwright) to produce a Tragedy worth experiencing.

(photo of Mel Brooks from Sharon Graphics, some rights reserved)


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