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"Aristotle's Poetics ("Greek: Περὶ ποιητικῆς; "Latin: De Poetica;[1] c. 335 BC[2]) is the earliest surviving work of "dramatic theory and first "extant philosophical treatise to focus on "literary theory in the West.[3] This has been the traditional view for centuries. However, recent work is now challenging whether Aristotle focuses on literary theory per se (given that not one poem exists in the treatise) or whether he focuses instead on dramatic musical theory that only has language as one of the elements.[4]

In it, Aristotle offers an account of what he calls "poetry" (a term which in Greek literally means "making" and in this context includes verse "drama – "comedy, "tragedy, and the "satyr play – as well as "lyric poetry and "epic poetry). They are similar in the fact that they are all imitations but different in the three ways that Aristotle describes:

  1. Differences in music rhythm, harmony, meter and melody.
  2. Difference of goodness in the characters.
  3. Difference in how the narrative is presented: telling a story or acting it out.

In examining its "first principles", Aristotle finds two: 1) imitation and 2) "genres and other concepts by which that of truth is applied/revealed in the poesis. His analysis of "tragedy constitutes the core of the discussion.[5] Although Aristotle's Poetics is universally acknowledged in the "Western critical tradition, "almost every detail about his seminal work has aroused divergent opinions".[6]

The work was lost to the Western world for a long time. It was available in the "Middle Ages and early "Renaissance only through a Latin translation of an Arabic version written by "Averroes.[7]


Form and content[edit]

Aristotle's work on "aesthetics consists of the Poetics, Politics (Bk VIII) and "Rhetoric.[8][9][10] 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.[11] Only the first part – that which focuses on "tragedy and epic (as a quasi-dramatic art, given its definition in Ch 23) – survives. The lost second part addressed "comedy.[11] Some scholars speculate that the "Tractatus coislinianus summarises the contents of the lost second book.[12]


The table of contents page of the Poetics found in Modern Library's Basic Works of Aristotle (2001) identifies five basic parts within it.[13]


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

"language, "rhythm, and "melody, for Aristotle, make up the matter of poetic creation. Where the "epic poem makes use of language alone, the playing of the lyre involves rhythm and melody. Some poetic forms include a blending of all materials; for example, Greek tragic drama included a singing chorus, and so music and language were all part of the performance. These points also convey the standard view. Recent work, though, argues that translating rhuthmos here as "rhythm" is absurd: melody already has its own inherent musical rhythm, and the Greek can mean what Plato says it means in Laws II, 665a: "(the name of) ordered body movement," or dance. This correctly conveys what dramatic musical creation, the topic of the Poetics, in ancient Greece had: music, dance, and language. Also, the musical instrument cited in Ch 1 is not the lyre but the kithara, which was played in the drama while the kithara-player was dancing (in the chorus), even if that meant just walking in an appropriate way. Moreover, epic might have had only literary exponents, but as Plato's Ion and Aristotle's Ch 26 of the Poetics help prove, for Plato and Aristotle at least some epic rhapsodes used all three means of mimesis: language, dance (as pantomimic gesture), and music (if only by chanting the words).[15]
Also "agents" in some translations. Aristotle differentiates between "tragedy and "comedy throughout the work by distinguishing between the nature of the "human characters that populate either form. Aristotle finds that tragedy treats of serious, important, and virtuous people. Comedy, on the other hand, treats of less virtuous people and focuses on human "weaknesses and foibles".[16] Aristotle introduces here the influential tripartite division of characters in superior (βελτίονας) to the audience, inferior (χείρονας), or at the same level (τοιούτους).[17][18][19]
One may imitate the agents through use of a narrator throughout, or only occasionally (using direct speech in parts and a narrator in parts, as Homer does), or only through direct speech (without a narrator), using actors to speak the lines directly. This latter is the method of tragedy (and comedy): without use of any narrator.

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] and [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).[20]

He then identifies the "parts" of tragedy:

Refers to the "organization of incidents". It should imitate an action evoking pity and fear. The plot involves a change from bad towards good, or good towards bad. Complex plots have reversals and recognitions. These and suffering (or violence) are used to evoke the tragic emotions. The most tragic plot pushes a good character towards undeserved misfortune because of a mistake ("hamartia). Plots revolving around such a mistake are more tragic than plots with two sides and an opposite outcome for the good and the bad. Violent situations are most tragic if they are between friends and family. Threats can be resolved (best last) by being done in knowledge, done in ignorance and then discovered, almost be done in ignorance but be discovered in the last moment.
Actions should be follow logically from the situation created by what has happened before, and from the character of the agent. This goes for recognitions and reversals as well, as even surprises are more satisfying to the audience if they afterwards are seen as a plausible or necessary consequence.
Character is the moral or ethical character of the agents. It is revealed when the agent makes moral choices. In a perfect tragedy, the character will support the plot, which means personal motivations and traits will somehow connect parts of the cause-and-effect chain of actions producing pity and fear.
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 the 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 and 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. If character changes opinion a lot it should be clear he is a character who has this trait, not a real life person - this is also to avoid confusion
Refers to the quality of speech in tragedy. Speeches should reflect character, the moral qualities of those on the stage. The expression of the meaning of the words.
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. Should be contributed to the unity of the plot. It is a very real factor in the pleasure of the drama.
Refers to the visual apparatus of the play, including set, costumes and props (anything you can see). Aristotle calls spectacle the "least artistic" element of tragedy, and the "least connected with the work of the poet (playwright). For example: if the 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)[22]


Arabic translation of the Poetics by "Abū Bishr Mattā.

The Arabic version of Aristotle's Poetics that influenced the "Middle Ages was translated from a Greek manuscript dated to some time prior to the year 700. This manuscript, translated from Greek to Syriac, 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.[23] Paris 1741 appears online at the Bibliothèque nationale de France (National Library of France).[24]

Arabic scholars who published significant commentaries on Aristotle's Poetics included "Avicenna, "Al-Farabi and "Averroes.[25] Many of these interpretations sought to use Aristotelian theory to impose morality on the Arabic poetic tradition.[26] In particular, Averroes added a moral dimension to the Poetics by interpreting tragedy as the art of praise and comedy as the art of blame.[27] Averroes' interpretation of the Poetics was accepted by the "West, where it reflected the "prevailing notions of poetry" into the 16th century.[28]

Core terms[edit]

In popular culture[edit]

The Poetics—both the "extant first book and the lost second book—figure prominently in "Umberto Eco's novel "The Name of the Rose.

English translations[edit]


  1. ^ Aristotelis Opera by "August Immanuel Bekker (1837)
  2. ^ Dukore (1974, 31).
  3. ^ Janko (1987, ix).
  4. ^ "Aristotle on the Power of Music in Tragedy," Pierre Destrée, Greek & Roman Musical Studies, Vol. 4, Issue 2, 2016; Gregory L. Scott, Aristotle on Dramatic Musical Composition The Real Role of Literature, Catharsis, Music and Dance in the Poetics (2016b), "ISBN "978-1530500772
  5. ^ Aristotle Poetics 1447a13 (1987, 1).
  6. ^ Carlson (1993, 16).
  7. ^ Habib, M.A.R. (2005). A History of Literary Criticism and Theory: From Plato to the Present. "Wiley-Blackwell. p. 60. "ISBN "0-631-23200-1. 
  8. ^ Garver, Eugene (1994). Aristotle's Rhetoric: An Art of Character. p. 3. "ISBN "0226284247. 
  9. ^ Haskins, Ekaterina V. (2004). Logos and Power in Isocrates and Aristotle. pp. 31ff. "ISBN "1570035261. 
  10. ^ For a discussion of Aristotle's "musical" theory in Politics VIII see Ch 4 of Gregory Scott, 2016b.
  11. ^ a b Janko (1987, xx).
  12. ^ Janko (1987, xxi).
  13. ^ The Basic Works of Aristotle. Ed. Richard McKeon Modern Library (2001) – Poetics. Trans. Ingrid Bywater, pp. 1453–87
  14. ^ M.D. Petruševski "Pathēmatōn Katharsin ou bien Pragmatōn Systasin?," Ziva antika/Antiquite vivante (Skopje: Societe d'etudes classiques Ziva Antika) 1954. Gregory L. Scott, "Purging the Poetics," Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy, Vol. 25, 2003, ed. David Sedley (Oxford: Oxford University Press) pp. 233-63. Claudio William Veloso, "Aristotle's Poetics without Katharsis, Fear, or Pity," Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy Vol. 33 (2007), ed. David Sedley (Oxford: Oxford University Press) 2007, pp. 262-265. Marwan Rashed, "Katharsis versus mimèsis: simulation des émotions et définition aristotélicienne de la tragédie," Littérature, No. 182 (publ. Larousse), June, 2016. 60-77. Gregory L. Scott (2016b) "ISBN "978-1530500772
  15. ^ a b Scott (2016b)
  16. ^ Halliwell, Stephen (1986). Aristotle's Poetics. p. 270. "ISBN "0226313948. 
  17. ^ Gregory Michael Sifakis (2001) Aristotle on the function of tragic poetry p. 50
  18. ^ Aristotle, Poetics 1448a, English, original Greek
  19. ^ "Northrop Frye (1957). "Anatomy of Criticism.
  20. ^ Janko (1987, 7). In Butcher's translation, this passage reads: "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 "catharsis of these emotions."
  21. ^ Scott 2016a and 2016b
  22. ^ Janko (1987, 6). This text is available online in an older translation, in which the same passage reads: "At any rate it originated in improvisation—both tragedy itself and "comedy. The one tragedy came from the prelude to the dithyramb and the other comedy from the prelude to the "phallic songs which still survive as institutions in many cities."
  23. ^ Hardison, 81.
  24. ^ To obtain it on images or on a pdf format, follow this route: > http://www.bnf.fr/; > COLLECTIONS ET SERVICES; > Catalogues; > Accès à BnF archives et manuscrits; > Collections; > Département des Manuscrits; > Grec; > Manuscrits grecs - Présentation du fonds. > Grec 1741 > Download Images or pdf. The Poetics begins at 184r, page 380 of the pdf.
  25. ^ Ezzaher, Lahcen E. (2013). "Arabic Rhetoric". In Enos, Theresa. 1135816069 Encyclopedia of Rhetoric and Composition Check |url= value ("help). pp. 15–16. "ISBN "1135816069. 
  26. ^ Ezzaher 2013, p. 15.
  27. ^ Kennedy, George Alexander; Norton, Glyn P. (1999). The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism: Volume 3. p. 54. "ISBN "0521300088. 
  28. ^ Kennedy 1999, p. 54.


Editions – commentaries – translations
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