Aristotle’s Views on Plot of a Tragedy in Poetics

Aristotle's Views on Plot of a Tragedy in Poetics

tragic plot

The Tragic Plot and Its Constituent Parts

Aristotle’s Poetics talks about many topics like fine arts, poetry, tragedy, comedy, epic poetry, etc., but tragedy is the most discussed topic among all. Aristotle really goes into detail about tragedy and discusses constituents of tragedy in a detail. However, when it comes to talking about tragedy, there is a small problem. Some parts of tragedy are explained very well, while others are not clear. Out of all the parts of tragedy that Aristotle discusses, he pays the most attention to the plot. According to him, the plot is the most important thing in creating a perfect tragedy. Aristotle even compares tragedy to a living thing and says that the plot is like the soul of the tragedy.

Definition of a Plot

Aristotle asserts that tragedy is a reflection of human actions, specifically those that are applicable to real-life situations. The term “action” encompasses various facets of human existence. According to Aristotle, actions do not solely consist of deeds, incidents, and situations; they also include the underlying mental processes that drive character behavior. In a tragedy, the character and plot are intertwined. What a character does or thinks is considered an action. An action denotes the progression of a character from position A to position B, either remaining in similar circumstances or transitioning to an entirely new set of circumstances. Consequently, action encompasses not only physical advancement but also the alteration of one’s state of mind.

The creation of the plot is a form of artistic endeavor that constitutes the core of a tragic representation. It involves the skillful creation and arrangement of a series of actions performed by different characters. The plot entails organizing incidents and events into a cohesive structure, where each episode logically connects to the next.

The Construction of Plot: Beginning, Middle and End

Aristotle’s definition of tragedy says that it is like an imitation of a complete action. The word ‘complete’ means that the tragedy should have certain qualities. The story should be a series of connected actions that make sense. If all the actions are important and give enough information to understand the story, then the tragedy is complete.

Aristotle divides the plot of a tragedy into three parts: the beginning, the middle, and the end. According to Aristotle, the beginning should be clear so that we don’t need to ask how or why something happened. However, in reality, actions don’t have a definite beginning or end because they are influenced by events from the past and continue over time. But events do tend to happen together.

In Greek plays, they solved the problem of events that happened before the main action by explaining them in the Prologue. This can be seen in Sophocles’ play Oedipus, where each step taken by Oedipus reveals something from the past. But none of this information is necessary to understand the beginning of the play, which is when the Thebans are in despair and their king is determined to deal with it. Generally, the Prologue is used to explain any events or matters that happened before the main action of the play.

It has been noticed by critics and readers that Greek tragedies start at a later point in the hero’s life compared to Shakespearean tragedies. This leads to a more focused and unified story. The beginning is followed by the middle, which is followed by the end or the catastrophe. The end is a result of the middle, either because it’s necessary or it follows a rule. There is nothing that comes after the end. The beginning, middle, and end should have a logical connection and cause and effect relationship.

What Aristotle is saying is that a play should have a good reason for starting where it does and ending where it does. The events should follow each other in a logical order, not randomly. There should be a clear cause and effect chain in the events of the play. Coincidences and irrelevant events should be avoided.

Plot Should Be an Artistic Whole

To create a complete artwork, it is important to have a logical connection between different events and situations in the plot. According to Aristotle, a plot usually begins with an incident that sets off a process of change, leading to the end. This observation aligns with the idea that tragedy portrays a shift from happiness to misery, or the other way around.

It is worth noting that Aristotle identifies four types of plots, including the change from happiness to misery and from misery to happiness. The latter might appear strange to modern audiences who believe that a tragic story must have an unhappy ending. However, in the Greek context, tragedy simply referred to a serious drama and did not necessarily require an unhappy outcome. Nevertheless, Aristotle seems to prefer tragic endings. He admires the unhappy conclusions in Euripides’ plays and considers them more tragic because of their nature.

The Magnitude of a Tragic Plot

The term “magnitude” has been understood as “dignity” or “importance.” However, when Aristotle mentions “magnitude,” it appears that he is simply referring to the length or size of the plot. Therefore, a plot should possess a specific magnitude. The appropriate magnitude necessitates that the plot should neither be excessively brief nor excessively long. The concept of beauty relies on size. If an object is too small, it cannot be fully appreciated, as its components would be too minuscule and would appear unclear. Conversely, an animal of a length of a thousand miles cannot be appreciated because one cannot grasp a comprehensive view of the whole in a single glance.

Beauty is contingent upon the proper relationship between the parts and the whole, as well as among the parts themselves. A proportional relationship must exist. The length of the plot should be such that its individual elements can be easily recollected in relation to the entirety. The plot should be long enough to accommodate a change in fortune through a sequence of events that occur in a plausible and inevitable manner. Consequently, a clear connection is established among magnitude, order, symmetry, and design.

Organic Unity of Action

Aristotle’s comparison of tragedy to a living organism carries great significance. He emphasizes the need for unity in the plot, mirroring the cohesion found in a living organism. The action depicted in a tragedy must be singular and complete, with structural unity being of utmost importance. Just as the removal or displacement of any part of a living organism would result in its destruction, each component in a tragedy holds an essential relationship to other parts and the whole. This concept parallels the creation of a good piece of art.

Likewise, in a tragedy, the plot structure should be constructed in such a way that the removal or displacement of any part would disrupt the coherence of the whole. Aristotle argues against an “episodic” plot, where events or incidents lack causal connection. In an episodic plot, the removal of any event would have little impact on the play, as the events lack relevance and inevitability.

Furthermore, Aristotle emphasizes that unity goes beyond a mechanical or formal aspect. It involves an internal principle that can embrace the complexity of living things while maintaining vital relationships among its parts. Therefore, the presence of variety in the plot should not compromise unity. It is for this reason that Aristotle strongly criticizes episodic plots, where episodes are presented without a sense of probability or necessity in their sequence.

Throughout the Poetics, Aristotle emphasizes the importance of adhering to the principles of probability and necessity. It is crucial to establish a coherent framework for the sequence of events. The concept of organic unity is closely connected to the principles of probability and necessity. The plot of a play does not have to be based on actual historical events. The succession of events and situations should unfold with a sense of inevitability. Coincidences or fantastical elements should not play a significant role in the essential action of a play. The speech and behavior of the characters should also conform to the laws of probability and necessity. Their words and actions should align with their respective personalities.

Poetic truth requires that events be arranged and ordered in a manner that appears convincing and believable, as if they could occur in real life given the circumstances and characters involved. It is true that we expect a higher degree of logic and credibility from art compared to real life. Hence, we recall Aristotle’s famous and valid statement that a plausible impossibility is more preferable than an implausible possibility. In real life, we accept even the extraordinary because we acknowledge its reality. However, in art, even the plausible may seem unbelievable if it is not portrayed or presented convincingly.

Fatal Plots and Fortunate Plots

The objective of tragedy is to evoke feelings of pity and fear, which are unique to this genre. While Aristotle acknowledges the possibility of a shift in fortune from misery to happiness (since tragedy originally referred to serious drama), he appears to have a preference for narratives where the shift is from happiness to misery. This transition from happiness to misery appears to be more conducive to eliciting pity and fear. In agreement with other critics, Aristotle considers Euripides to be the most “tragic” of the poets due to his incorporation of unhappy endings in his plays. Aristotle’s inclination seems to lean towards a plot that ends in tragedy rather than a plot with a fortunate outcome.

Complication and Denouement: The Need for a Single ‘End’

The tragic plot can be divided into two distinct parts: the Complication and the Denouement. The Complication encompasses the initial phase of the tragedy until the pivotal turning point. It may occasionally include additional information that is relevant but not directly tied to the main course of events. On the other hand, the Denouement spans from the turning point to the conclusion of the tragedy. It can be seen as the process of ‘unraveling’ the story. The Denouement requires a logical and natural progression of events, without the introduction of chance occurrences or supernatural elements. The intervention of gods should only be employed when necessary to explain past events or predict future developments that are external to the main action.

Furthermore, the Denouement should be focused on a single objective rather than a ‘double-end’ scenario where some characters are rewarded while others are punished. Such a dual ending would dilute the tragic impact and would be more suitable for a comedic genre. The action should be directed towards a singular outcome, with the primary aim being the evocation of pity and fear in the audience. Therefore, Aristotle firmly rejected the concept of “poetic justice” in tragedy and expressed his disapproval of tragicomedy.

Three Dramatic Unities in a Tragic Plot

Aristotle strongly emphasizes the necessity of a single action in tragedy, opposing the inclusion of multiple actions. He firmly rejects the idea of poetic justice, which involves distributing happiness to some characters and misery to others within a tragic narrative. According to Aristotle, the essence of tragedy lies in experiencing suffering that surpasses what one deserves, as it is this extreme suffering that evokes feelings of pity and fear. Consequently, Aristotle places great importance on the Unity of Action. However, he does not emphasize the other unities, such as Time and Place, as strictly. Aristotle offers general observations on the Unity of Time, drawing from the practices of dramatists in his time. In contrast, Castleverto and other Renaissance critics transformed these observations into rigid rules. Aristotle’s flexible stance is evident in his use of the phrase “as far as possible.” Regarding the Unity of Place, Aristotle does not even mention it. Subsequent critics, particularly those from the Renaissance and France, misunderstood him in many respects, attributing these Unities to his teachings.


Aristotle’s understanding of the Plot aligns with what we now refer to as ‘classical’. It emphasizes the importance of order, pattern, and design. The chaotic nature of life should be organized under systematic discipline so that events unfold in a logical sequence, free from irrelevancies. The plot should revolve around a single action composed of episodes that are logically connected and causally linked. Aristotle considers the ‘fatal’ plot to be more tragic, preferring a storyline that depicts a shift from good to bad fortune. Furthermore, he favors complex plots involving Peripety or Discovery, or both, over simple plots. The tragic effect is heightened when actions that elicit pity and fear occur between characters who are related or have a friendly connection. Above all, there must be an air of ‘probability’ and ‘necessity’ throughout the plot. It is true that the modern understanding of tragedy has undergone significant changes—living literature naturally evolves and undergoes modifications. However, we still find that certain aspects of Aristotle’s theory of Plot remain highly relevant, as they encompass universal principles.