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Aristotle`s Tragedy Essay, Research Paper

Defining a Tragedy Greek philosopher Aristotle proposes components of an ideal

tragedy in his work, Tragedy and the Emotions of Pity and Fear. According to

Aristotle, there are six components of a great tragedy: plot, character,

thought, verbal expression, song, and visual adornment. He dissects these

components in great detail and provides standards for all of them. In his play

Bacchae, Euripides resembles much of Aristotle?s components of an ideal

tragedy. Euripides has only few deviations from the Aristotelian tragedy. To

Aristotle, a tragedy is defined as an imitation of action and life, not of an

imitation of men. Therefore, he places higher emphasis the role of plot in a

tragedy, rather than the role of character. He describes the species and

components of a plot in great detail. For completeness, a plot must have a

beginning, middle, and an end. A plot should be structured so that every part is

necessary for completeness. The elements of a plot are peripety, recognition,

and pathos. Peripety is a change in fortune, recognition is a change from

ignorance to knowledge, and pathos is a destructive or painful act. Furthermore,

Aristotle states that a tragedy is not merely an imitation of actions, but of

events inspiring fear and pity. Such an effect is best produced when events are

surprising yet at the same time, they logically follow one another. A

well-constructed plot should, therefore, not have a change of fortune from bad

to good, but, on the other hand, from good to bad. A good plot should leave an

audience feeling pity and fear. To produce this effect, actions must happen

between those who are near or dear to one another. For example, a brother

killing a father leaves a more impressionable feeling than an enemy killing an

enemy does. Although Aristotle feels that a good tragedy arouses solemn emotion,

an audience should not be left in a state of depression. Both the characters and

the audience should end with a purging of emotional catastrophe, known as a

catharsis. The aspects of Aristotle?s ideal plot are well represented in

Euripides? Bacchae. The play begins with Dionysus? prologue describing his

birth to mortal Semele and immortal Zeus and his journey from Asia to Greece. He

reveals that he has come to Thebes to gain recognition and worship as the god of

nature, ecstasy, creation, and destruction because his aunts deny him and what

he stands for. To prove his immortality, he forces all Theban women to wander in

madness under trees. Dionysus attempts to spread a cult of his followers in the

city of Thebes. The king of Thebes, Pentheus, disapproves of the Bacchic rites

and tries to suppress the cult. A change of fortune occurs when Pentheus cannot

resist the spell of Dionysus and thus he succumbs to the god?s power. The play

ends with Pentheus savagely destroyed in his failure to suppress the cult. The

city of Thebes remains under the spell of Dionysus. The audience is left to feel

pity and fear because Pentheus? own mother takes part in his killing. This

play reflects Aristotle?s ideal tragedy in that the change in fortune went

from good to bad. Euripides uses the literary device of a ?deus ex machine?

in Dionysus? final appearance. The term deus ex machina refers to a divine

intervention to resolve a dramatic dilemma. Dionysus reveals himself as a god

and explains his punishment for his disbelievers. The audience experiences a

catharsis by realizing that civilization should make room for natural human

urges toward ecstasy and joy. If they do not, those urges will sicken and

destroy us from within. In respect to character, Aristotle defines a tragic hero

as one who must have high status but must also be noble and virtuous. However,

though the tragic hero is highly distinguished, he is not perfect. His

imperfection is called the tragic flaw. The tragic hero suffers misfortune

brought about by some error or frailty, not because of wickedness or cruelty. In

the Bacchae, Pentheus fulfills Aristotle?s necessary qualities of a tragic

hero. His demise is caused by his tragic flaws of excessive pride and

overconfidence. He rejects the Bacchic rites because he is too proud to follow

the cult and overly confident that he can defeat the powers of the gods. One

aspect of Euripides? play that differs from Aristotle?s ideal tragedy is

that the tragic hero in fails to gain self-knowledge at the moment of his

downfall. Pentheus does not increase awareness of his actions before his

downfall. Although the tragic hero does not experience recognition, the element

of recognition is still present in the play. Agave, Pentheus? mother, realizes

her action of killing her own son before her consequent downfall. However,

Aristotle would not believe that this recognition was enough to fulfill the

ideal tragedy. Aristotle ranks thought as third in rank of importance to an

ideal tragedy. By ?thought,? he means the ability to state the issues and

appropriate points pertaining to a given topic. This ability comes from the arts

of politic and rhetoric. Examples of thought are passages in which a character

tries to prove some thesis, express opinion, or state a general rule. The

element of thought is evident in Euripides? Bacchae when Pentheus returns home

and sees his father and Tiresias. The two men, both under the spell of Dionysus,

attempt to convert Pentheus. However, Pentheus says that he rejects the Bacchic

rites and vows to capture the stranger who has put Thebes under a spell. On the

one hand, the two men try to prove that it is right to follow Dionysus, and on

the other hand, Pentheus tries to prove that it is wrong to do so. Another

example of thought is when Dionysus expresses a general principle to Pentheus

that those who defy the gods will suffer a calamity. Dionysus says to Pentheus,

?the vengeance for this outrage he will wreak whose being thou deniest.?

(Euripides 19) The element of verbal expression, Aristotle explains, is ?the

conveyance of thought through language: a statement which has the same meaning

whether one says verses or speeches.? (Aristotle 687) This is evident in the

way in which Pentheus rejects the god Dionysus in his speech saying, ?the

grape?s sweet poison mingles with the feast, nought holy may we augur of such

worship.? (Euripides 10) His word poison evokes evil and the word feast

connotes bestiality. In a scene with Pentheus, Dionysus’ words indicate the

occurrence of various physical manifestations of his power: earthquake and

partial collapse of the palace, lightning and a burst of flame from Semele?s

grave. Dionysus, at the end of the play, acts as a ?deus ex machina.? This

is a divine intervention at the end of a tragedy that provides a solution for

the plot. The fifth aspect of Aristotle?s ideal tragedy is song. He describes

this aspect as being the greatest of the sensuous attractions. The chorus who

performs the songs can have many roles. The chorus comments on the action,

provide background material, serve as actor and narrator, stands between

audience and actors, and provide a guide to our emotions. In Euripides?

Bacchae, the chorus is made up of followers of Dionysus. The chorus provides

commentary throughout Bacchae, but it is never directly involved in the madness.

The first song they sing is of devotion and honor to the god Dionysus. Then they

denounce Pentheus? rejection of Dionysus and his excessive pride. This song

helps to foreshadow the play. Later the chorus sings of happiness of Pentheus?

submission to the god as Dionysus dresses Pentheus. As Dionysus leads Pentheus

to Mt. Cithaeron, the chorus criticizes Pentheus for spying on the women. The

chorus then predicts the downfall of Pentheus. As Agave participates with the

other women in tearing apart Pentheus, the chorus is horrified by the action.

Agave, in her moment of madness is enthusiastic of her action. The chorus leader

doesn?t share her feelings they realize before she does that she has slain her

own son. The final element of Aristotle?s model tragedy is visual adornment.

He explains that this aspect can have strong emotional effect but is the least

artistic element. Euripides? Bacchae had many examples of visual adornment:

Dionysus disguises himself as a mortal, Cadmus and Tiresias dress as young women

wearing long Bacchic costumes and ivy crowns, Theban women dress in white robes

and fawn skins, and Pentheus disguises himself as one of these women. The ritual

dresses provide a savage and fanatical mode throughout the play. The influential

Greek philosopher Aristotle provides history and rationale for the perfect Greek

tragedy in his Tragedy and the Emotions of Pity and Fear. He discusses in great

detail the requirements of a well-constructed tragedy. Based on Aristotle?s

reasoning, Euripides? Bacchae greatly resembles a perfect Greek tragedy, with

only minor flaws. An important belief that they share is that a great tragedy

should leave an audience feeling emotions of pity and fear.


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