Aristotle's Definition of Tragedy

Ramón Paredes
(Introduction to Philosophy)


“A tragedy, then, is the imitation of an action that is serious and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself; in language with pleasurable acces­sories, each kind brought in separately in the parts of the work; in a dramatic, not in a narrative form; with in­cidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions.” (Imgram Bywater: 35).

   “Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action of high importance, complete and of some ampli­tude; in language enhanced by distinct and varying beauties; acted not narrated; by means of pity and fear effectuating its purgation of these emotions.” (L. J. Potts: 24).

            Excepting the famous concepts of “unit of time” (or length of tragedy) and “character’s flaw” (or hamartia), probably there's not other concept or part in Aristotle’s Poetics as puzzling and celebrated as the famous definition of tragedy. In fact, from the thirty-five words used by Aristotle in his definition, ten (especially mimesis, spoudaios, catharsis and phobos) are as confusing today as they were almost a hundred years ago when the “most popular and generally influential” translation of Aristotle’s Poetics appeared in English: S. H. Butcher's Aristotle's Theory of Poetry and Fine Arts (1895) (Gilbert: 66).[1]
            It’s true, as writes Gilbert Murray in his introduction to Bywater’s translation of the Poetics, that the English language does not “operate with a common stock of ideas” and does not “belong to the same period of civilization” as the Greek (Imgram Bywater: 5). However, the problem with Aristotle’s famous definition is not in agreeing in how to translate it, but rather how to interpret it. Thus, most England and American Aris­totelians agree in the translation—in fact, many of them even use the same translation: W. Hamilton Fyfe (1940) uses Bywater's (1909)—but it ap­pears to most readers that they disagree in interpreting it—in other words, in explaining what Aristotle meant by it. Consequently, Gerald F. Else, for example, translates mimesis as imitation and spoudaios as “an action which is serious [and] complete” (Argument: 221), as does L. J. Potts (“imitation,” “an action of high importance.” Potts: 24), and as does Lane Cooper (“an artistic imitation,” “an action that is serious, complete in itself.” Cooper: 17). When they try to explicate or interpret it, however, there seems to be a difference.
            Imitation in Aristotle’s Poetics becomes “creation” (Plato and Aris­totle: 75; Argument: 13) according to Prof. Else; “creative imagination” and “source of power” (Potts: 10) according to Prof. Potts; and “the copying by the poet or artist of the thing he has imagined” (Aristotle on the Art: xxiv) according to Prof. Cooper.
            With those examples, then, we could superficially come to the con­clusion that we’ve hardly learned what Aristotle meant by mimesis and spoudaios. Or at least, that even the greatest Aristotelians of the nine­teenth and twentieth centuries haven’t agreed yet in interpreting Aris­totle’s definition.
            However, studying those interpretations very close, we can con­clude that excepting probably Prof. Cooper’s interpreta­tions, somehow those Aristotelians agree with each other. Thus, reinterpreting their in­terpretations, we could conclude that Aristotle meant imitation as “creative imagination” and action—to use a screenwriter’s language—a story purpose.
            Let’s separate, then, imitation and action, and try to explicate them sepa­rately.


            Even though many critics and scholars assume that mimesis was first used by Plato (i. e. in chapters 3 and 10 of the Republic), in real­ity, as notes Prof. Else, the word was in use in Athens before Plato used it (“Imitation in the Fifth Century”: 79). However, the word mimesis does not mean the same, let’s say, for the people of Athens before Plato, in Plato’s Republic and in Aristotle’s Poetics. Prof. Else divides mimesis before Plato into three categories: (a) “enacting a mime-like plot or act­ing a mime-like character”; (b) “copying another person’s action or way of doing something”; and (c) “making a replica of something in an inani­mate material (wood, etc.),” or copying (Plato and Aristotle: 26). Even though one many argue, as G. M. A. Grube and Kathy Eden do, that Plato, in the Republic, means a type of imitation in chapter 3 (3.392d: “impersonation”) and another in chapter 10 (10.595a-608d [Grube: xviii, and Eden: 64]), Plato’s general idea of imitation was “copying” (Plato and Aristotle: 27; O. B. Hardison Jr: 93).
            Aristotle, however, didn’t use imitation as “copying”—or imperson­ation. Rather, he used it as (a) the “presence of the universal in the partic­ular” (Hardison: 93); (b) “creative imagination” (Potts: 10); (c) “recreation of life” (Fyfe: 2), and (d) “the artist’s tool, equivalent to the hammer with which a carpenter constructs his objects” (Eden: 69). As differentiates Hardison, when we say, “That photograph is a fine like­ness of John; it catches his character beautifully; and he should use it for the application form,” “we are echoing the Poetics” (Hardison: 93). “Imitative works,” adds Hardison, “if they are well done, reveal generic qualities—the presence of the universal in the particular.” “Imitation,” writes Potts, “means producing as accurately as possible the effect that a situation, or an experience, or a person, would produce in its true natural form, without the instrusion of extraneous or irrelevant acci­dents” (Potts: 67).
            In effect, those four views, at a first reading, may seem far away from each other. However, they are not. Let’s say that, in the early century and in a small town, for example, a woman (A) is washing by hands her hus­band’s shirts, and a friend of her (B), who lives in the city, pays a visit to her. B is carrying her dresses in a clothes-horses. Suddenly, it occurs to A that if she exposes her husband’s shirts to the sun in clothes-horses, when they dry, she won’t have to iron or press them.
            What did happen to A? She has integrated those four qualities: the particular (A) uses the universal (ways of ironing); the process that makes A to deduces that if B is carrying her dresses in clothes-horses and they look “perfect” (because she took them to a cleaner), her hus­band’s shirts will also look perfect, could be called “creative imagina­tion”—it was A's “tool”—; what she did (or what she thought she was doing), was a recreation of something—in this case, the way of ironing or pressing. In other words, A is imitating.
            This is not, however, the view of the noted Aristotelian Lane Cooper. “A painter wishes to represent a man,” Cooper writes. “The re­sult is not a man of flesh and blood, but an ‘imitation’ of a man in line and color on a flat surface” (The Poetics: 18). Thus, Prof. Cooper’s view of Aristotle’s mimesis is very close to Plato’s: mimesis (its “inner meaning”) "signifies the copying by the poet or artist of the thing he has ima­gined.” “He does not copy the work of another; he imi­tates or embodies the inner form or soul of his own making in an outer medium for the senses of his audience.” And he concludes saying that “outwardly, mime­sis means the result of the poet’s effort... the finished work of art—Oedipus the King of Sophocles...” (Aristotle: xxv). According to this view, in the example used above, mimesis wouldn’t be the process of imaging a way to avoid ironing, but the “finished work”—the shirts which, after they dry, look like they have been ironed.

What is Action?

            Other word in the famous definition that has puzzled scholars and critics is action.[2] According to the commentaries of most Aris­totelians, action is (a) “a unit of life,” “a unit of happening” (Potts: 71); (b) a “piece of life of serious interest” (Fyfe: 14); “the process that takes place between the beginning and the end of the play” (Hardison: 114); and “purposeful action, striving toward a goal or a destination” (Plato and Aristotle: 104). “ ‘action’ in Aristo­tle’s sense is not ‘activity’,” Hardison notes, “or what the performers do on the stage, but something closer to ‘process’” (114).
            Like with the word mimesis, the interpretations of those Aris­totelians are not as far away from each other as they may seem. It’s true, however, that at one first reading, one may deduce that Prof. Potts, for example, was confusing plot with action; in Prof. Fyfe’s case, one could think that he re­places a puzzling word (action) with an equal confusing word (piece of life); and in Prof. Hardison’s case, one may ask what the hell is the process between the beginning and the end of a play? The true is, however, that those interpretations are very similar to each other, and that Prof. Else’s interpre­tation, somehow, unites Pro­fessors Potts, Fyfe and Hardison’s interpretations.
            However, to make their interpretations even clearer, let’s use the words used nowadays by Hollywood screenwriters: story purpose. What do we mean by story purpose? Well, in Oedipus the King, the story pur­pose is Oedipus’s search for the killer of the king Laius. What is, then, the action of Oedipus the King? We'll see later. But now, how­ever, let’s say that some plays and films could have one or more story purposes or ac­tions: Citizen Kane’s main action, for example, is the search for the meaning of the word Rosebud, but later on, the story purpose changes to “what will happen to Kane?”; in Chinatown, the action or story pur­pose changes four times: (a) to find if Mr. Mulwray was having an af­fair; (b) to find the truth or who set up Mr. Gittes; (c) to find out who killed Mr. Mulwray; and (d) to save Evelyn.
            But let’s take Professors Potts, Fyfe, Hardison and Else’s defini­tions. How could “a unit of happenings” be the story purpose? Well, let's take Oedipus the King as an example. Above, we say Oedipus's search for the killer of the king is the story purpose of the play. That search, how­ever, doesn’t come to its end by itself: around that quest, there are events, “happenings” (Creon returns from Delphi, Oedipus sends for Tiresias, Oedipus’s charges against Creon, Oedipus sends for the she­pherd, etc.) which give unity to the play. The unity of those happen­ings is, then, the action—the story purpose.
            In Fyfe’s interpretation, the case is almost the same. Unlike Prof. Potts, however, Prof. Fyfe stresses Aristotle’s emphasis in the unity of plot in chapter VIII of the Poetics. “In writing his Odyssey,” Aristotle writes in the Poetics, “he [Homer] did not include everything that hap­pened to Odysseus (for instance, his wound on Parnassus...)” (Potts: 28). Though Aristotle was thinking about the plot, Fyfe integrates that view to ac­tion. Oedipus the King, for example, is not the whole life of Oedi­pus, but only a piece of his life—probably the most important piece of his life. But that piece of Oedipus's life is his quest for the killing of the king—which, as we concluded above, is the story purpose of the play.
            What process is there between the beginning and the end of a play? Or, in other words, what process takes place between Oedipus’s conver­sation with the priests, in the beginning of Oedipus the King, and Oedi­pus and Creon’s dialogue at the end of it? Well, to begin with, when Oedipus talks with the priests, he’s the king of Thebes, trying to find a cure for the plague that has struck the city; at the end, however, he’s blind: he is a miserable, disposed king. Again, then, what process takes place between those two scenes?
            What take place are the events that lead and end Oedipus’s quest for the killer of the king. Above we concluded that the story purpose of Oedipus the King was Oedipus's quest for the killer of the king. If we are not mistaken, then, the process mentioned by Hardison, which takes place between the beginning and the end of the play is, in other words, the story purpose.
            We are now at Prof. Else's interpretation. What is, then, the “purposeful action, striving toward a goal” in Oedipus the King? As we wrote above, the play begins with Oedipus talking to the priest—he sent his wife’s brother Creon to Delphi to learn what Oedipus could do or say to save Thebes from the plague that has struck it. Soon, Creon enters stage and says to Oedipus that the Prophet’s oracle commands the city to pay the killers of Laius back. That action, we could say, is a purposeful ac­tion: it leads to Oedipus’ summoning the citizens of Thebes, which leads to Oedipus asking the citizens for the name of the king Laius’s killer, which leads to the citizens’s leader asking Oedipus to ask the prophet Tiresias for the king’s killer, and thus every other action leads to the next.
            But what does purposeful action have to do with story purpose? Well, story purpose is, we could take the risk of saying, the protago­nist’s goal. What is, then, Oedipus’ goal? In the first case (his dialogue with the priests) to find a cure for the city, but when he is told by Creon that they need to pay the king Laius’ killer back, Oedipus needs to find the killer to “cure the city”; when the citizens’ leader asks Oedi­pus to ask the prophet Tiresias, Oedipus has to send for him. As we can see, what we established as the purposeful action in Oedipus the King is also its story purpose.


           After “interpreting” imitation and action, we are left with the clause which refers to the function of tragedy or to what tragedy sup­posedly does, the catharsis clause:[3] “...carrying to completion, through a course of events involving pity and fear, the purification of those painful or fatal acts...” (Argument: 221); “...with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions” (Bywater: 35); “...and archives, through the representation of pitiable and fearful incidents, the catharsis of such pitiable and fearful incidents” (Hardison [Leon Golden's translation]: 11); “...through pity and fear it archives the purgation (catharsis) of such emotions” (Grube: 12).
            In translating Aristotle’s definition, those four Aristotelian took two different directions in the translation of the famous word. On one hand, Professors Bywater and Else translated it as purification, and on the other hand, Professors Golden[4] and Grube as purgation or clarifica­tion.[5]
            In other words, to use Prof. Hardison’s interpretation, Professors Bywater and Else “relate catharsis to the psychology of the spectator” rather than to Professors Golden and Grube’s, who relate it to “what happens in tragedy itself”—that is, they relate “catharsis to incidents rather than to emotions” (Hardison: 116).
            Let's take, then, an example which could help us the “clarify” those two interpretations. In the Middle Age, in a country of three cities, the president takes the major city to share it with his wife, and he gives the second city to his daughter (A), and the third one to his son (B). However, B thinks A’s city is better than his city, and that his father gave him the worst city because he preferred his sister. Thus, B hates A, and he begins building the largest army in the coun­try—to defend himself against A, because he thinks she hates him. Deep inside B, however, he loves his sister. While the president is out of the coun­try, a group of soldiers of B’s city crosses the border of the presi­dent's city, and kills a group of citizens. A B’s spy in A’s city informs B that A received a letter from her mother telling her about the inci­dent and that A wrote a letter to their father. Thus it occurs to B to send his army and seize the person who is carrying his sister’s le­tter. However, when he reads the letter, he finds out that his sister, in the letter, is defending him, and telling her father not to worry about the incident in his city. Suddenly, B realizes how much A loves him, and how much he loves her.
            According to Professors Bywater and Else’s theories, the audience feel pity for B and A because (a) they are brother and sister, and (b) because deep inside them, they love each other, and they feel fear for what could happen to them (i. e., a war among the three cities). When B reads his sister's letter and realizes how much they love each other, the public is “purged” of its fear and pity.
            On the other hand, according to Prof. Hardison, pity and fear is felt by A and B, and the realization in B that his sister loves him, cla­rified him (the character).
           What is, then, catharsis? Which translation and interpretation best fit Aristotle’s definition? According to our interpretation, if imitation is creative imagination and action is story purpose or protagonist’s goal, than catharsis refers to the psychology of the spectator: in the cited example, we, as an audience, feel pity for A and B because they are sister and brother and they love each other; and we feel fear for what could happen to them. Thus, during the play, we wonder what is going to happen, and we even wish to “push” B so he can realize how much his sister loves him. At the end, when he does realize it, we are purged: we are happy.
            In conclusion, then, by imitation Aristotle meant what we call to­day “creative imagination”; by action, he meant story purpose or pro­tagonist’s goal; and by catharsis, the purgation of the pity and fear which tragedy raises in us as an audience.


[1] Short after Prof. Butcher's translation, two “eminent translations” appeared in English: Imgram Bywater’s Aristotle's on the Art of Poetry (1909) and D. D. Margoliouth’s The Poetics of Aristotle (1911).

[2] The Greek word is spoudaios, which means “action of great magni­tude or importance,” “an action which is good,” “an action that is seri­ous and having magnitude.” However, for many Aristotelians it applies to the whole play, not to a particular accident (Grube: xxi), while others argue that when Aristotle wrote it, he was talking about character. For example, see Prof. Else’s argument in The Argument, and Plato and Aristotle. Moreover, if we take spoudaios, and its moral or non-moral value, we’ll need a book to discuss it. Thus, we’ll ignore the moral or importance issue, and deal with action, not with “action which is good.”

[3] Actually we’re jumping “pity and fear”. We do jump those two words, however, because even the most celebrated Aristotelians haven’t agreed in what importance do those two words have in Aristotle’s Poetics. For example, Prof. Humphry House, in his lectures on the Poetics (published in his book Aristotle's Poetics), sees a contradiction between the mean­ing of pity and fear in Aristotle’s Rethoric (II, 8) and the meaning of pity and fear in the Poetics. For a discussion on the subject, see pp. 100-111. Prof. Else also makes almost the same point in The Argument (pp. 221-232.)

[4] In his commentaries to Leon Golden’s translation, Prof. Hardison tries to argue that Golden’s translation does not refer to catharsis as “purgation” (Hardison: 118), and in subsequent articles, he expanded Golden’s “views.” However, what Prof. Hardison was trying to do was to express his view (that catharsis “is simply an intellectual clarification of the meaning of the tragic happenings”), “interpreting” Prof. Golden’s translation.

[5] Other possible interpretations of other translations is offered by Prof. Else in his book Argument. After studying a lot of translations and interpretations, he interprets Prof. Bernays’s interpretations which refer to purgation and purification in the medical (relief) and the religious (lustration) terms. He also offers the two main lines of interpretations after Prof. Bernays: one holding the medical sense (purgation or relief of the spirit from the emotions), and other using an ethical concept (purification of the emotions) (The Argument: 225-227). Also, see his clarification of interpretations in page 226 of his Argument and his analysis, “The Tragic Side: Peculiar Pleasure and Catharsis,” in his book Plato and Aristotle, pp. 152-162.


Bywater, Imgram. With a preface by Gilbert Murray. Aristotle on the Art of Poetry. New York: Oxford University Press, 1920.

Cooper, Lane. Aristotle on the Art of Poetry. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1947.

———. The Poetics of Aristotle: its Meaning and Influence. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1956.

Eden, Kathy. Poetic and Legal Fiction in the Aristotelian Tradition. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1986.

Else, Gerald E. “‘Imitation’ in the Fifth Century.” Classical Philosophy 53 (1958): 73-90 and 245.

———. Aristotle's Poetics: The Argument. Cambridge, Mas­sachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1957.

———. Plato and Aristotle on Poetry. Chapel Hill: The Univer­sity of North Carolina Press, 1986.

Fyfe, Hamilton W. Aristotle's Art of Poetry. London: Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1940.

Gilbert, Allan H. Literary Criticism: Plato to Dryden. New York: American Book Company, 1940.

Grube, G. M. A. Aristotle on Poetry and Style. Indianapolis: The Library of Liberal Arts —published by Bobbs-Merril Educational Publishing—, 1958.

Hardison Jr., O. B. Aristotle's Poetics. Translation by Leon Golden. Tallahassee, Florida: University Presses of Florida, 1981.

Potts, L. J. Aristotle on the Art of Fiction. London: Cambridge Univer­sity Press, 1953.

Telford, Kenneth A. Aristotle's Poetics. New York: University Press of America, 1961.

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