CriticaLink | Aristotle: Poetics | Guide to Book XIII
Appropriate Plots for the Tragedy
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 drivewhat 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.