The Poetics of Aristotle (1999) Informative Summary


Aristotle’s Poetics is a cornerstone of literary theory, offering a comprehensive framework for understanding the art of tragedy. It begins by defining tragedy as an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude, executed through language embellished with rhythm, harmony, and song. This imitation, Aristotle argues, aims to evoke pity and fear in the audience, ultimately leading to their catharsis—a purging of these emotions.

The Poetics delves into the various elements of tragedy, prioritizing plot as the most crucial. A well-constructed plot, Aristotle asserts, must be unified, with a beginning, middle, and end, and should involve a reversal of fortune from good to bad, arising from a character’s great error or frailty. Character, diction, thought, spectacle, and song are also explored, with each contributing to the overall impact of the play.

Key Findings:

  • Importance of Plot: Aristotle emphasizes the plot as the most critical element of a successful tragedy, believing that a compelling narrative is paramount to a play’s impact.
  • Catharsis: He emphasizes the emotional purging, or catharsis, experienced by the audience as the ultimate goal of tragedy, allowing them to experience and confront strong emotions in a safe and controlled environment.
  • Characters and their Actions: Aristotle highlights the importance of realistic characters and their actions, particularly those who are neither perfectly virtuous nor utterly villainous. Their flaws and mistakes contribute to the tragedy’s emotional impact.
  • Unity and Structure: He stresses the importance of a unified and structured plot, with a clear beginning, middle, and end.


  • Aristotle defines tragedy as an imitation of an action: This means that tragedy is not merely a representation of people, but of their actions and the consequences of those actions.
  • The change of fortune in tragedy should be from good to bad: This creates the most impactful effect, generating pity and fear in the audience.
  • Characters should be believable and have their own motivations: Aristotle advises against the use of the “Deus ex Machina” (God from the machine) as a plot device, arguing that the resolution of a tragedy should arise naturally from the characters and their actions.
  • The plot must be unified and complete: This means that the events of the play should be connected and lead to a clear resolution.
  • Tragedy aims to evoke pity and fear: These emotions are considered essential elements in achieving the desired catharsis.
  • The structure of a tragedy can be broken down into Complication and Unravelling: The Complication represents the events leading up to the turning point of the play, while the Unravelling encompasses the events following the turning point.
  • There are different types of tragedy: These include Complex, Pathetic, Ethical, and Simple, each focusing on a different aspect of the tragic experience.
  • The Chorus plays an important role in tragedy: The Chorus should be an integral part of the play, commenting on the action and interacting with the characters.
  • Metaphor is a crucial element of language in tragedy: Aristotle considers metaphor a key tool for creating powerful and evocative language, particularly in iambic verse.
  • Homer is considered a master of both Epic poetry and Tragedy: His work provides a model for both genres, showcasing his mastery of plot, character development, and language.
  • Epic poetry can accommodate a broader range of events than tragedy: This is because it is a narrative form, allowing the poet to depict simultaneous events.
  • The heroic measure is considered the most fitting for Epic poetry: Its stately and majestic nature suits the grand scale of epic narratives.
  • The poet should strive to be as invisible as possible in their work: The focus should be on the characters and their actions, not the poet’s own voice.
  • The element of the wonderful is necessary for a compelling tragedy: While it must be handled with care to avoid absurdity, a degree of the wonderful (unexpected, fantastical elements) can enhance a tragedy’s impact.


  • The performance of a tragedy should ideally be confined to a single revolution of the sun: This is one of Aristotle’s guidelines for structuring the play’s duration.
  • The number of actors was expanded by Sophocles to three: This increased the complexity and dramatic potential of plays.
  • Homer wrote two major epics: The Iliad and the Odyssey.
  • The Cypria epic could be used as material for many tragedies: It provides a rich source of dramatic events.
  • The Little Iliad epic could provide material for eight tragedies: This demonstrates the breadth and complexity of the epic genre.
  • The Chorus acts as one of the actors: It is not merely a passive observer but actively participates in the play.


  • Catharsis: The purging of emotions, particularly pity and fear, through the experience of tragedy.
  • Deus ex Machina: A plot device involving the sudden and unexpected intervention of a god, often to resolve the conflict.
  • Complication: The events in a play leading up to the turning point.
  • Unravelling or Denouement: The events following the turning point, leading to the play’s conclusion.
  • Recognition: The moment when a character discovers the true identity of another or learns a crucial piece of information.
  • Reversal of the Situation: A change in the course of the plot that leads to a dramatically different outcome than expected.
  • Scene of Suffering: A moment of intense pain or destruction within the play.
  • Metaphor: A figure of speech where a word or phrase is used to describe something it does not literally mean, creating a comparison or analogy.


  • Oedipus Rex: This tragedy by Sophocles exemplifies many of Aristotle’s principles, particularly the use of recognition and reversal of situation. Oedipus, the King of Thebes, is initially unaware of his true parentage. As the play progresses, he learns he has unknowingly killed his father and married his mother.
  • Medea: Euripides’ tragedy of Medea highlights the conflict between a woman’s passion and societal expectations. Medea, a powerful sorceress, seeks revenge on her husband Jason for his betrayal. She murders her own children as an act of ultimate revenge.
  • Antigone: Sophocles’ play examines the conflict between individual conscience and the law. Antigone, the sister of two brothers who died fighting on opposing sides of a civil war, defies the law to bury her brother, resulting in a tragic confrontation with the King.
  • The Iliad: Homer’s epic poem recounts the Trojan War, focusing on the wrath of Achilles, his conflict with Agamemnon, and his eventual return to battle.
  • The Odyssey: This epic poem tells the story of Odysseus’ long journey home after the Trojan War, highlighting his encounters with various characters and mythical creatures.

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