Studying Aristotle’s “Poetics” – Part 5: Comedy and Epic Poetry

June 16th, 2013 by

As I’ve been interviewing screenwriters, I typically ask what some of their influences are. One book title comes up over and over again: Aristotle’s “Poetics”. I confess I’ve never read the entire thing, only bits and pieces. So I thought, why not do a weekly series with a post each Sunday to provide a structure to compel me to go through it. That way we’d all benefit from the process.

For background on Aristotle, you can go here to see an article on him in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

To download “Poetics,” you can go here.

Part 5: Comedy and Epic Poetry

Comedy is, as we have said, an imitation of characters of a lower
type- not, however, in the full sense of the word bad, the ludicrous
being merely a subdivision of the ugly. It consists in some defect
or ugliness which is not painful or destructive. To take an obvious
example, the comic mask is ugly and distorted, but does not imply

The successive changes through which Tragedy passed, and the authors
of these changes, are well known, whereas Comedy has had no history,
because it was not at first treated seriously. It was late before
the Archon granted a comic chorus to a poet; the performers were till
then voluntary. Comedy had already taken definite shape when comic
poets, distinctively so called, are heard of. Who furnished it with
masks, or prologues, or increased the number of actors- these and
other similar details remain unknown. As for the plot, it came originally
from Sicily; but of Athenian writers Crates was the first who abandoning
the ‘iambic’ or lampooning form, generalized his themes and plots.

Epic poetry agrees with Tragedy in so far as it is an imitation in
verse of characters of a higher type. They differ in that Epic poetry
admits but one kind of meter and is narrative in form. They differ,
again, in their length: for Tragedy endeavors, as far as possible,
to confine itself to a single revolution of the sun, or but slightly
to exceed this limit, whereas the Epic action has no limits of time.
This, then, is a second point of difference; though at first the same
freedom was admitted in Tragedy as in Epic poetry.

Of their constituent parts some are common to both, some peculiar
to Tragedy: whoever, therefore knows what is good or bad Tragedy,
knows also about Epic poetry. All the elements of an Epic poem are
found in Tragedy, but the elements of a Tragedy are not all found
in the Epic poem.

Comedy has had no history, because it was not at first treated seriously. Perhaps now we know why the Academy Awards have not given a Best Picture Oscar to a comedy since Annie Hall in 1977: Because modern folks treat comedy much the same way – apparently – that people in ancient Greece did, considering it to be a lesser narrative form.

I would hope someone steeped in Aristotle could go into more depth about why comedy was considered in this light, but for now I guess all of us who write comedy can take comfort in the observation made by actor Edmund Gwenn whose dying words reportedly were:

All the honors go to the tragedian for chewing up the scenery, while the comedian, who has to be much more subtle to be funny, is just loudly criticized when he doesn’t come through.

Which over time has come to be remembered as this: “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.”

Moving onto Aristotle’s second subject in this section, I find this intriguing:

* They differ in that Epic poetry admits but one kind of meter and is narrative in form… Tragedy endeavors, as far as possible,
to confine itself to a single revolution of the sun, or but slightly to exceed this limit.

Setting aside the contemporary idea of free verse, historically poetry has had certain narrative forms and patterns. And this is another reason why I think there is a significant point of comparison between poetry and screenwriting.

Although I resist the use of the term “blueprint” to describe a screenplay — because it somehow feels like it diminishes the creativity of what we do as screenwriters — the fact is a script is the basis upon which the people who actually make a movie make the movie. Thus by default, a script has certain conventions, seemingly similar to how Aristotle thought about Epic Poetry and Tragedy.

The trick for screenwriters is to know and understand those conventions, working with and around them so that the creative expression of our story can shine through, not reduced to formulaic writing, but instead come alive within the context of a screenplay’s structure.

I will be curious what, if anything, Aristotle has to say about that very subject in the rest of “Poetics.”

How about you? What do you take from Part 5 of Aristotle’s “Poetics”?

See you here next Sunday for another installment of this series.

For the entire series, go here.

Comment Archive

10 thoughts on “Studying Aristotle’s “Poetics” – Part 5: Comedy and Epic Poetry

  1. Maybe tragedy was easily financed by kings and rich patrons, because it dealt with characters of high status, while funny characters were considered of lower value and not of much interest to those in power?

  2. Illimani says:

    @Sven, in Ancient Greece Tragedy was used as a reaffirmation of the masculine power in the public domain (polis) over the other dimensions of society, particularly the domestic one (oikos). Comedy, on the other hand, was based inherently on the criticism toward a power, but this power didn’t need to be necessarily the one that emanated from the establishment. Aristophanes, for example, wrote both conservative and subversive comedies. The greatest example of the former was “The Clouds”, a satire targeting the impact on Socrates in society about a father who loses his authority over his son as he becomes an adept of Socrates. “Lysistrata” on the other hand, was a big criticism against the rulers of Greece’s city-state who were in war against each other, as women decide to start a “sex strike” to make men stop war. Ironically “The Clouds” had more impact than “Lysistrata” since apparently Aristophanes’s comedy was determinant to build a public opinion hostile toward Socrates and his idea, what resulted ultimately in his execution, while the Peloponnese war weakened Greek city-states’ military forces, opening way to the Macedonian invasion.

    1. Scott says:

      Illimani, that is truly fascinating. So broadly speaking and in terms of character archetypes, in ancient Greece, could we typify Tragedy as Mentor and Comedy as Trickster?

      I’m thinking of the functions of the sage counsel for the king, emperor, leader in contrast to the court jester whose job, in part, was to ‘prick’ the leader, their decisions and policies [again I am speaking VERY broadly].

      Does this also speak to class? Whereas the Upper / Learned Class, benefiting from political decisions and power, would lean to Tragedy especially if, as you suggest, it “reaffirms” masculine power, the Lower Class, who might suffer from those policies might be drawn to Comedy as it made fun and derided leaders, policies, etc.

      I’m thinking Dr. Strangelove here…

      1. Illimani says:

        Scott, those are very interesting questions (and tough ones), but I will give my best to answer or at least give my irresponsible opinion. :)
        I think in the very core we could think about tragedies as mentors. A cruel one since the first message that almost every Greek tragedy sells is that we can’t fight fatality, no matter how unfair it is and how accidental or compulsory is our denial to the laws of the Polis.

        I’m not so sure if the Trickster could represent the (Greek) Comedy though, but maybe it’s because I have a very personal perspective as an aspirant comedy writer. To make it short I believe that the very core of comedy is (the assumption of) truth while tragedy’s bedrock is (the assumption of) power (I’m planning to present my perspective on comedy with more details after I’m done writing this answer here: ) So maybe the Shadow would be a more accurate archetype. The truths delivered by a jester are crude and direct, while the truths in a Comedy are indirect. Maybe the trickster archetype would apply more for stand up comedy (and the fictional comedy that is directly derived from it)?

        If I remember my readings well the Greek upper-class had a preference for tragedies while the lower-class had a preference for comedies, and this structure makes historical sense when we think that Socrates was sentenced to death by the people, not the elites. This people might have their judgement influenced by “The Clouds”. But I think a tragedy speaks to every class in a democratic society like Athens (where power emanates from everybody in theory), while a comedy talks to everybody who is not targeted by it.

        And yes, Dr. Strangelove is essentially a movie that targets the truth behind power. It makes it a tragicomedy maybe. :)

      2. pgronk says:

        Assigning tragedy the role of the mentor, and comedy the role of the trickster is intriguing.

        The latter seems obvious in terms of both Jung’s analytical psychology (the role of the trickster-shadow ) and psychoanalysis ( Freud: “Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious”).

        But if tragedy served the role of mentor to the audience then (and does so now), what is it mentoring? The intellect, the emotions? Or…?

  3. pgronk says:

    What? Comedy was the Rodney Dangerfield topic in the Poetics — it didn’t get no respect? Or is it the case that the Poetics has come down to us today fragmented and incomplete? Hence, Aristotle’s full discussion of comedy is missing. We can only speculate what his theory of comedy might have been.

    The legendary date for the “birth” of tragedy is cerca 535 BC. Comedy acquired official status on the stage in Athens half a century later in the Great Dionysia of 486 B.C. The Great Dionysia was the spring festival of Dionysus, god of fertility and wine. Fertility as in sex — when the earth shakes off its winter slumber with wanton displays of sex organs — spring flowers.

    And what was a central symbol for the Great Dionysia? The phallus.

    In Chapter 4 of the Poetics, Aristotle says that comedy as a dramatic form evolved as improvisation from “those of the phallic songs” — a ubiquitous ceremonial pageant in those times.

    Furthermore, in his “The Death of Comedy”, Erich Segal notes that “It is important to remember,that in Old Comedy the phallus was onstage at all times.”( p 35). That includes the plays of Aristophanes. (That Erich Segal, the author of “Love Story”? Yes, he taught Greek and Latin literature at Harvard,Yale, and Princeton.)

    IOW: Comedy owes its origins to the worship and celebration of all things sexual — and it has never disavowed its pedigree.

    Another characteristic of comedy from the git-go in ancient Greece was invective, verbal abuse, cursing. Hence, as Aristotle observes in Chapter 5, it is used to lampoon the defects of others. Thus, Socrates, because of his looks, was comic fodder for Aristophanes and others.

    Comedy has never disavowed that aspect of its pedigree either!

    1. Scott says:

      Well, if there is an historical connection between comedy and sex / phallus, then the new Seth Rogen & Jay Baruchel movie may be the Mt. Olympus of comedies because there are – literally – penises all through it, accompanied by every variety of sex / sex organ talk imaginable.

      It also happens to be extremely funny!

      Wow, I am so glad to be doing this series on Aristotle, especially with the gathering of commenters that has emerged.

      Terrific conversation!

  4. I’ve always thought it was both brilliant and profoundly humane of Aristophanes to use women as his protagonists, since they not only held the lowest status in Greek society, but also were the ones who suffered the most, along with children, from the conditions of ongoing war. And I also find it curious that we’ve never had a Hollywood version of “Lysistrata” (or, for that matter, of Sophocles’ tragedy “Antigone”), though apparently there are Greek films of both plays?

    Just within this section, it sounds as if Aristotle objects to comedy somewhat on aesthetic grounds – that he thought the characters and the cathartic emotions audiences experienced via tragedy were of a higher order than the “mere” entertainment afforded by comedy. I also thought of two quotes I love when I first read this section: Edith Hamilton’s definition of tragedy as “the beauty of intolerable truths” and also comedian Mike Myers’ wonderful definition of comedy as “tragedy plus time.” That resonated with what Aristotle said about it taking time for comedy to be taken seriously – which seems to imply it came up trailing in the shadow of tragedy.

    Even today, I think comedy often still challenges power, as Illimani said of the Greeks’ comedies, and various versions of the status quo – movies like “Idiocracy,” “Heathers,” “Being There,” and “Wag the Dog” come to mind…

    And I also think both Aristotle’s and Mike Myers’ definitions of comedy explain why some old dramatic/tragic movies may strike us as funny when we see them now, out of context – or why, in the case of a contemporary movie like “The Saddest Music in the World,” the filmmaker’s use of particular techniques, such as filming in black and white, gives us a distance that allows the movie to be startlingly funny when it should seem most tragic (the double amputation, and those replacement legs?!), and gives us permission to laugh – which we moderns also find to be quite cathartic.

    1. Scott says:

      Melanie, your comments brought to mind this scene from Crimes and Misdemeanors, where Alan Alda’s character pontificates precisely about the point of comedy = tragedy plus time.

      For some reason, my mind goes to Life Is Beautiful in which the comedy intensifies the tragic, yes, driving home the power of your quote from Hamilton, “the beauty of intolerable truths.” Guido using comedy and storytelling to create an alternate ‘reality’ for young Joshua, to protect the boy from one intolerable truth [death camps], yet making another intolerable truth [Guido’s death] that much more bittersweet.

  5. There’s a also this great quote supposedly by Charlie Chaplin: “Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.”

    Aristotle calls the comedy characters ‘ludicrous’ and their quality a harmless kind of ‘ugliness’.

    Maybe there’s less of an identification with the characters that makes us free to laugh about them. When they feel pain, we know it’s not real pain. When they get everything in life thrown against them, we know it’s not ‘serious’. Maybe that’s the reason why we are free to laugh about these characters and cleanse ourselves from similar emotions they might feel?

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