CriticaLink | Aristotle: Poetics | Guide to Book XIII

Appropriate Plots for the Tragedy
Given that Aristotle views all poetry in moral terms, it is not surprising that his determinations about the proper subject matter for tragedy focus on questions of justice and the "moral sense" of the audience. The tragic plot centers on a change of fortune, but Aristotle is careful to identify what kind of reversal of fortune is truly "tragic." Aristotle defends the work of Euripides against other critics on this point, because in the tragedies of Euripides, the fall from good fortune arises out of the circumstances of the plot and the nature of the characters. Fundamental to Aristotle's opinion about the right kind of tragic plot is the famous pity and fear that the audience must experience.

The downfall of a purely virtuous character is not tragic, only shocking. We might pity this person, but we do not experience the anxiety that results from our own awareness that we, too, are subject to the laws that bring about the downfall of a truly tragic hero. For example, while it is true that we are all more or less subject to car wrecks and may even feel a tremor of fear when we pass the scene of an accident, we do not generally identify with the victims in terms of our own moral behavior. The situation would be different if we knew that the accident had been caused by a drunken driver and we ourselves habitually drink and drive–what we might feel in this case approaches the "fear" appropriate to tragedy.

The triumph of a villain is likewise not tragic because it inspires neither pity nor fear. No more tragic is the downfall of a completely despicable character, satisfying though it may be, because we fail to identify with the character.

Identification seems to be key to Aristotle's theory: "for pity is aroused by unmerited misfortune, fear by the misfortune of a [person] like ourselves" (55). For Aristotle, the tragic hero must be a person of high stature who is neither faultless nor depraved, whose misfortune arises through a terrible mistake.

Aristotle's word for mistake, hamartia, deserves some attention. The popular idea about the tragic hero beset by some "fatal flaw" is not a completely accurate representation of Aristotle's concept of the error that brings about a tragic outcome. Hamartia conveys the sense of "overshooting the mark," or "overreaching," and does not indicate some predisposition to a particular crime. In order for a character's fate to fill us with pity and fear, we must recognize that we ourselves might commit a similar error in judgment were we in a similar situation.