Studying Aristotle’s “Poetics” – Part 6(A): The 6 Parts of Tragedy

June 23rd, 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 6(A): The 6 Parts of Tragedy

Of the poetry which imitates in hexameter verse, and of Comedy, we
will speak hereafter. Let us now discuss Tragedy, resuming its formal
definition, as resulting from what has been already said.

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. By ‘language
embellished,’ I mean language into which rhythm, ‘harmony’ and song
enter. By ‘the several kinds in separate parts,’ I mean, that some
parts are rendered through the medium of verse alone, others again
with the aid of song.

With Part 6, we slam headlong into some really weighty content, so I am going to break out this particular chapter into sections week by week. Today let’s zero in on that second paragraph.

As I read it, there seem to be six parts to Aristotle’s articulation of tragedy:

1. “An imitation of an action”.

2. “Serious, complete and of a certain magnitude”.

3. “In language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play”.

4. “In the form of action, of narrative”.

5. “Through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions”.

6. “By ‘language embellished,’ I mean language into which rhythm, ‘harmony’ and song enter. By ‘the several kinds in separate parts,’ I mean, that some parts are rendered through the medium of verse alone, others again with the aid of song”.

Coming at this from the perspective of screenwriting, I’d like to go through parts 2-4 and 6, then look at the relationship between 1 and 5 because to me the pairing of those two seems like pure gold.

#2 reads like Aristotle is saying must by definition have a certain heft to it and that heft is achieved through its degree of seriousness, thematic weight, and a sense of fullness and resolution. In other words, tragedies must be substantial.

#3 looks to be about various dramatic forms common to plays with a further suggestion that there was at the time Aristotle crafted “Poetics” certain accepted practices in that regard, i.e., what went where.

#4 appears to speak to the fact that a play is performed by actors who convey an actual story.

#6 seems to be linked to #3, but instead of actual various narrative forms,  such as verse or song, this is about the way these parts are crafted using rhythm and harmony.

I suspect our wonderful crew of Aristotelian experts — you know who you are and I thank you profusely for your insights! — will set me straight or clarify my take if I’ve got anything wrong on these four points.

Now let’s jump to #1imitation — and #5 — purgation — because this coupling seems essential to why stories work.

We’ve already considered imitation because Aristotle introduced the idea in Part 1:

For as there are persons who, by conscious art or mere habit, imitate
and represent various objects through the medium of color and form,
or again by the voice; so in the arts above mentioned, taken as a
whole, the imitation is produced by rhythm, language, or ‘harmony,’
either singly or combined.

Now if I get the meaning right, Aristotle does not mean imitation as copying or mere mimicry, but rather that other word he couples with imitation here: represent. Or perhaps better re-present.

Stories are not exact copies of reality, but rather re-presentations of them. So when we, the audience, see a movie, watch a TV show or hear a story, we know it is different than the real thing, it is a fictionalized account.

This is important because it affords us a certain distance from the reality.

Here is an example. Do you remember the 1996 movie Ransom starring Mel Gibson. Premise: When a rich man’s son is kidnapped, he cooperates with the police at first but then tries a unique tactic against the criminals.

If you don’t remember the movie, you perhaps may recall the throaty growl Gibson’s character shouted in the trailer: “Give me back my son!”

That movie was a huge hit, generating $309M in worldwide box office revenue. And I remember reading at the time in the trades that one of the prime reasons Ransom succeeded so well is because the numbers propelled by one particular group of moviegoers: Parents.

Think about that: Why would parents want anything to do with a movie which premise is about one of the single worst fears a parent can have — the kidnapping of their child?

My theory is because Ransom offered parents a safe way to live out those fears. The movie was an imitation of reality, there was a distance between the story and actual child kidnapping, therefore parents could attend a screening and have an opportunity to experience their worst fears, but in a way they could control and know the story would have a beginning, middle and most important ending allowing them an eventual escape from this horrific possibility.

That dovetails into the idea of purgation. It’s an interesting word which conjures up images of ancient Romans chowing down on food and wine, then purging themselves by vomiting, so they could go back to partying. But I dug deeper to find what the actual Greek word was: κάθαρσις or catharsis.

Now that is a word I’ve run into a lot in my studies, particularly in the realm of psychology. In a meta view, catharsis can be about a major moment when various psychological dynamics come to a head, leading to a sort of purification of an individuals’ psyche, or at least a more pure self-understanding.

That is valuable for a writer when thinking about Protagonist characters at key points in stories where what they have experienced in their journey in the External World of actions and events combined with what they have experienced in their accompanying journey in the Internal World of reactions and emotions leads to significant shifts in their being, commonly known as metamorphosis or transformation.

I doubt that’s what Aristotle is referring to here, but the distinction is only by degrees, for while it’s possible in theory for an audience member to have such a revelatory experience while witnessing a play, movie or what-not, more often their catharsis is smaller, although no less meaningful or real in a psychological sense.

And the key to any sort of catharsis in an audience member to any type of story is their identification with the situation, events, and especially the characters. To the degree, we resonate with the experience of the characters in a story, we connect with them, we understand and empathize with their emotions, passions, wants and needs, and in effect we participate in their experiences. That can lead to catharsis, a roiling of feelings and a release of those feelings when the story resolves.

So we have this fascinating dynamic articulated by Aristotle that is absolutely true in a psychological way: Stories are imitations or re-presentations of reality, and therefore offer some distance from the real world, which in turns creates a safe spot for audience members to experience vicariously what happens within the story’s framework. But in order for that experience to be meaningful and lead to any sort of catharsis for an audience member, we as writers have to craft a sense of identification with the characters, events and scenarios.

Imitation creates distance.

Purgation requires identification.

That dual dynamic right there, my friends, is one of the most fundamental reasons why stories work, an understanding that Aristotle had hit upon over 2,300 years ago.


Again, all of you fine Aristotelians, please let me know if I’ve got any of this wrong, it is just my interpretation of imitation and purgation from the perspective of what it can mean in terms of screenwriting (specifically) and storytelling (generally).

How about you? What do you take from Part 6(A) of Aristotle’s “Poetics”?

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

For the entire series, go here.

7 thoughts on “Studying Aristotle’s “Poetics” – Part 6(A): The 6 Parts of Tragedy

  1. Appearantly, Aristotle’s definition of catharsis has been the subject of a millenium long debate.

    In the book “Grenzen der Katharsis in den Modernen Künsten” (English: Limits of Catharsis in the modern arts) by Martin Vöhler und Dirck Linck I found the four most accepted theories:

    1. Catharsis as a refining of emotions: An emotional “purificatio” in quantity or quality. It claims theatre as a moral institution. (agents of this theory: Vettori, Piccolimini, Daniel Heinsius, Lessing)

    2. Catharsis as a removal of emotions: An emotional “purgatio”, a relief of the emotions that have built up during the experience of the tragedy. It claims theatre as a therapeutic institution (agents of this theory: Minturno, Milton, Bernays, Schadewaldt).

    3. Catharsis as a “clarification”: An intellectual clarification of the tragic events that the reviewer recognizes as significant and universal for the human existence (agents of this theory (Butcher, Golden).

    4. Catharsis as an intellectual “purification: As a purification of tragic events by the demonstration that the hero is innocent and his actions are not detestable (agent of this theory: Gerald Else).

    Which theory do you prefer?

    #6 seems to be the distinction between dialogue, action sequence, montage and “I want song”. 😀

    1. Scott says:

      Sven, thanks for those definitions. Speaking strictly from a writing perspective, I’d like to have ALL of those available to me as I generally want my stories to have multiple layers of possible meaning and interpretation. Plus each character may have a different type of catharsis, as well as each story may focus on one type or another.

      I don’t like rules. I like ideas. Concepts. Possibilities. Metaphors. Things that open up the creative process rather than restrict it or, heaven forbid, lead to formulaic writing.

      So when Aristotle or anybody for that matter starts talking about definitions, great, but as long as we use them to increase our understanding and not shrink creative possibilities.

      1. Sure thing, Scott! It was just interesting to me, what Aristotle meant by his definition. In light of everything we found in this ancient text so far, what do you think Aristotle’s own concept of catharsis was?

        It’s true that as writers we have every single one of those concepts (and more) at our disposal. While storytelling has evolved a lot since the times of ancient Greek philosophers, audiences probably haven’t. Therefore, I’m leaning towards the therapeutic explanation.

        People want to be entertained. This was true thousands of years ago and it’s true now. People want to experience strong characters, feel empathy and horror and be cleansed of those feelings in the end, when the story is resolved. Of course they might want to grasp a story intellectually or experience a moral vision, but for me that comes on top of this basic principle. The most important thing is to make the audience feel with your characters.

  2. Wow. I think that need for the dual dynamic, as you’ve elegantly summarized it, to balance distance with identification, also goes a long way to explain why the writing of such stories is so hard! And might the type and intensity of the audience’s catharsis be related to/dependent upon the scale of magnitude of each story’s tragedy?

    In #6, it sseemed to me that the language he defines is what we might call stage speech – even when the actors are ostensibly using “everyday” language, they actually are practicing an elevated style that helps them convey the characters’ meanings and reveal their character. And the use of song, as pertains to filmmaking, made me think of the way good scores heighten emotional intensity (the “Jaws” theme still makes my stomach clench every time I hear it!).

    Reading this section earlier this week, it struck me that Death gave us Story in the same way that Wallace Stevens said it is the mother of Beauty – because once our species became sentient, we craved a way to understand Death and explain it to ourselves. Our human knowledge and fear of death runs like a deep, unspoken current through every story we tell, and the best stories lift it up into the light so we can examine it despite our fear. “Ransom” is a great example of this deepest fear; beneath the parents’ fear of kidnapping lies that deeper, darker primal one: the unimaginable agony of fear that the child might die before the parent…

    Scott, thank you so much for setting up this discussion – not sure I’d have been bold enough to undertake this study on my own!

    1. Scott says:

      Melanie, I know, right? I mean as I was working through this idea of the relationship between “imitation” and “purgation,” I achieved a clarity about a dynamic I had known for years and taught in a variety of ways as well, but not in such a clean fashion.

      In some ways, it is akin to the writing experience of inside-out writing and outside-in writing, those two perspectives we take as we develop and write a story, sometimes WITHIN the story universe, rubbing shoulders with our characters, striving to get inside them and see what comes out, then other times OUTSIDE the story universe, assaying things as the writer, using that perspective to nudge the plot, characters, etc.

      The latter — outside-in — would be parallel to “imitation,” as we are crafting a story from a distance to the ‘reality’ of the story universe.

      The former — inside-out — would be parallel to “purgation,” as we are immersing ourselves in the emotional and psychological aspects of our characters’ lives.

      At moments like this, when revelations emerges, I must say I almost enjoy being a STUDENT of writing as much as the actual act and process of writing.

  3. pgronk says:

    So stipulated that Aristotle’s notion of catharsis is the most intensely debated idea in the Poetics. It’s a concept that has created and sustained a thriving cottage industry of academic study.

    In regards to the example of “Ransom”, I would point out that the movie is not a tragedy. So does the notion of catharsis still apply?

    Well, maybe not in the sense Aristotle may have had in mind, but I think that audiences can and do experience a strong, meaningful cathartic effect in non-tragic movies. And I suspect the cathartic affect arises from the audience being able to vicariously experience through the action a satisfactory consummation and resolution of the tension created by the dramatic problem. A consummation and resolution they rarely get to experience in real life.

    How many parents of kidnapped children have their children returned unharmed AND also get to take control of the situation so that they are able to PERSONALLY mete out some kind of justice?

    Ditto with any other problem or crisis. How many of us ever get to experience directly the kind of consummation and resolution to life’s problems the way we can vicariously experience them through film?

    It’s more complicated than that. But that, I submit, is one aspect.

  4. Bryan Colley says:

    I just watched Captain Phillips and thought the ending was the perfect example of catharsis.

    And thinking about it, First Blood might be a great example too.

Leave a Reply