Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) is one of the most wide-ranging authors of the ancient world. He was essentially a philosopher, but he wrote on many subjects: logic, metaphysics, natural science, ethics, politics, rhetoric and poetry. Born at Stagira in Northern Greece, he came to Athens in 367. Here he was taught by Plato. Later, he was tutor to the young Alexander the Great, and in 335 he founded the Lyceum in Athens, a philosophical school intended to rival Plato's Academy there. Iy may be that the "Poetics", from which the excerpt translated below comes, has come down to us in the form of notes of lectures given at the Lyceum. This would account for some of its oddities of expression. It remains, however, perhaps the most influential work of criticism in European literature.
Tragic Action and the tragic hero.
In this famous passage Aristotle comments on some aspects of the nature of Greek tragedy. He has already argued that the function of tragedy is to arouse feelings of pity and fear in the spectators and thus purge them of these emotions (the theory of catharsis).
And so, since it is necessary that the structure of the best tragedy is not simple but complex, and (moreover) that this (structure) is imitative of fearful and pitiful (happenings) (for this is peculiar to this kind of imitation) (it is) obvious, firstly, that it is necessary that good men should not be shown passing from good fortune to bad fortune, for that is not fearful or pitiful but repulsive. Nor wicked people (passing) from bad fortune to good fortune, for this is the most untragic of all things, for it has nothing (of the things) which it is necessary (to have), for it is neither appealing to human feeling nor pitiful nor fearful. Nor again (is it necessary) that a thoroughly bad man should suddenly change from good fortune to bad fortune; for such a structure might cause an appeal to human nature, but neither pity nor fear, the one is (directed) towards undeserved misfortune, the other towards a man like (ourselves), pity (directed) towards the undeserved (misfortune) and fear (directed) towards the man like (ourselves), so that what happens will be neither pitiful nor fearful. So what (is) between these things (is) left. This is the kind of man, neither outstanding in virtue or in justice, nor passing into misfortune through evil and wickedness, but through some flaw, being one of those with a great reputation and good fortune, such as Oedipus and Thyestes and the famous men from such families.
So it is a necessity that the plot to be successful is single rather than, as some say, double, and that the change (is) not to good fortune from bad fortune but the opposite, from good fortune to bad fortune, not through villainy but through a great flaw, either of such a man (as) has been said, or of one who (is) better rather than worse. And in practice this also happens; for at first the poets recounted any old plots, but now the best tragedies are constructed around a few households, such as (those) around Alcmaeon and Oedipus and Orestes and Meleager and Thyestes and Telephus and as many others as it has happened either to suffer or to inflict terrible things.
And so, in accordance with the art (of poetry), the best tragedy is of this construction. For this reason those criticising Euripides are, at the same time, mistaken, (in saying) that he does this in his tragedies and that many of his (tragedies) end in misfortune. For this is, as it has been said, correct; and (there is) very strong evidence (of this). For on the stage and in the dramatic competitions such (plays) appear the most tragic, if they are properly produced, and Euripides, even if he does not manage well in other respects, yet he certainly seems the most tragic of the poets.
The second best plot-structure, said (to be) the best by some, is that which has a double plot-structure, like the Odyssey, and ending in opposite (ways) for the better men and the worse ones. It seems that it is the first according to the weakness of the audience. For the poets go along with the spectators, doing according to their wish. But this is not the same pleasure properly derived from tragedy, but rather (it is) suited to comedy; for, there, those who may be bitter enemies in the legend, such as Orestes and Aegisthus, having become friend, go off (the stage) at the end, and no one is killed.
And so, it is possible that fear and pity arise from the spectacle and it is possible also (that they arise) from the actual construction of the events, something which is preferable and the mark of a superior poet. For it is necessary that the plot should be so constructed that, even without seeing (it), anyone, hearing the incidents happening, both shudders with fear and feels pity from what is occurring. Anyone hearing the story of Oedipus would suffer these things. To produce this effect through the spectacle (is) rather inartistic and is needful of extraneous aids. And those producing through the spectacle not something fearful, but only something sensational, have nothing in common with tragedy. For it is not necessary to seek from tragedy every pleasure but (rather) what belongs (to it).