Girish Mahajan (Editor)

Poetics (Aristotle)

Updated on
Share on FacebookTweet on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on Reddit

Dramatic theory

Poetics (Aristotle) t1gstaticcomimagesqtbnANd9GcTmhyPOKSGuMXBPQN

Works by Aristotle, Other books

Aristotle's Poetics (Greek: Περὶ ποιητικῆς, Latin: De Poetica; c. 335 BCE) is the earliest surviving work of dramatic theory and first extant philosophical treatise to focus on literary theory in the West. This has been the traditional view for centuries. However, recent work is now challenging whether Aristotle focuses on literary theory per se (given that not one poem exists in the treatise) or whether he focuses instead on dramatic musical theory that only has language as one of the elements.


In it, Aristotle offers an account of what he calls "poetry" (a term which in Greek literally means "making" and in this context includes drama – comedy, tragedy, and the satyr play – as well as lyric poetry and epic poetry). They are similar in the fact that they are all imitations but different in the three ways that Aristotle describes:

  1. Differences in music rhythm, harmony, meter and melody.
  2. Difference of goodness in the characters.
  3. Difference in how the narrative is presented: telling a story or acting it out.

In examining its "first principles", Aristotle finds two: 1) imitation and 2) genres and other concepts by which that of truth is applied/revealed in the poesis. His analysis of tragedy constitutes the core of the discussion. Although Aristotle's Poetics is universally acknowledged in the Western critical tradition, "almost every detail about his seminal work has aroused divergent opinions".

The work was lost to the Western world for a long time. It was available in the Middle Ages and early Renaissance only through a Latin translation of an Arabic version written by Averroes.

Form and content

Aristotle's work on aesthetics consists of the Poetics, Politics (Bk VIII) and Rhetoric. The Poetics is specifically concerned with drama. At some point, Aristotle's original work was divided in two, each "book" written on a separate roll of papyrus. Only the first part – that which focuses on tragedy and epic (as a quasi-dramatic art, given its definition in Ch 23) – survive. The lost second part addressed comedy. Some scholars speculate that the Tractatus coislinianus summarises the contents of the lost second book.


The table of contents page of the Poetics found in Modern Library's Basic Works of Aristotle (2001) identifies five basic parts within it.

  • A. Preliminary discourse on tragedy, epic poetry, and comedy, as the chief forms of imitative poetry.
  • B. Definition of a tragedy, and the rules for its construction. Definition and analysis into qualitative parts.
  • C. Rules for the construction of a tragedy: Tragic pleasure, or catharsis experienced by fear and pity should be produced in the spectator. The characters must be four things: good, appropriate, realistic, and consistent. Discovery must occur within the plot. It is important for the poet to visualize all of the scenes when creating the plot. The poet should incorporate complication and dénouement within the story, as well as combine all of the elements of tragedy. The poet must express thought through the characters' words and actions, while paying close attention to diction and how a character's spoken words express a specific idea. Aristotle believed that all of these different elements had to be present in order for the poetry to be well-done. However, starting in 1948 with a Macedonian classicist, M.D. Petruševski, some scholars have rejected that Aristotle himself could have written the word katharsis in the definition of tragedy, because unlike all of the other words in the definition, it is not discussed either before or after the definition.
  • D. Possible criticisms of an epic or tragedy, and the answers to them.
  • E. Tragedy as artistically superior to epic poetry: Tragedy has everything that the epic has, even the epic meter being admissible. The reality of presentation is felt in the play as read, as well as in the play as acted. The tragic imitation requires less space for the attainment of its end. If it has more concentrated effect, it is more pleasurable than one with a large admixture of time to dilute it. There is less unity in the imitation of the epic poets (plurality of actions) and this is proved by the fact that an epic poem can supply enough material for several tragedies.
  • Content

    Aristotle distinguishes between the genres of "poetry" in three ways:

  • Matter
  • Subjects
  • Method
  • Having examined briefly the field of "poetry" in general, Aristotle proceeds to his definition of tragedy:

    Tragedy is a representation of a serious, complete action which has magnitude, in embellished speech, with each of its elements [used] separately in the [various] parts [of the play] and [represented] by people acting and not by narration, accomplishing by means of pity and terror the catharsis of such emotions.

    By "embellished speech", I mean that which has rhythm and melody, i.e. song. By "with its elements separately", I mean that some [parts of it] are accomplished only by means of spoken verses, and others again by means of song (1449b25-30).

    He then identifies the "parts" of tragedy:

  • plot (mythos)
  • character (ethos)
  • thought (dianoia)—spoken (usually) reasoning of human characters can explain the characters or story background
  • diction (lexis) Lexis is better translated according to some as "speech" or "language." Otherwise, the relevant necessary condition stemming from logos in the definition (language) has no followup: muthos (plot) could be done by dancers or pantomime artists, given Chs 1, 2 and 4, if the actions are structured (on stage, as drama was usually done), just like plot for us can be given in film or in a story-ballet with no words.
  • melody (melos) "Melos" can also mean "music-dance" as some musicologists recognize, especially given that its primary meaning in ancient Greek is "limb" (an arm or a leg). This is arguably more sensible because then Aristotle is conveying what the chorus actually did.
  • spectacle (opsis)
  • He offers the earliest-surviving explanation for the origins of tragedy and comedy:

    Anyway, arising from an improvisatory beginning (both tragedy and comedy—tragedy from the leaders of the dithyramb, and comedy from the leaders of the phallic processions which even now continue as a custom in many of our cities) [...] (1449a10-13)


    The Arabic version of Aristotle's Poetics that influenced the Middle Ages was translated from a Greek manuscript dated to sometime prior to the year 700. This manuscript was translated from Greek to Syriac and is independent of the currently-accepted 11th-century source designated Paris 1741. The Syriac language source used for the Arabic translations departed widely in vocabulary from the original Poetics and it initiated a misinterpretation of Aristotelian thought that continued through the Middle Ages. Paris 1741 today can be found online at the Bibliothèque nationale de France (National Library of France).

    Arabic scholars who published significant commentaries on Aristotle's Poetics included Avicenna, Al-Farabi and Averroes. Many of these interpretations sought to use Aristotelian theory to impose morality on the Arabic poetic tradition. In particular, Averroes added a moral dimension to the Poetics by interpreting tragedy as the art of praise and comedy as the art of blame. Averroes' interpretation of the Poetics was accepted by the West, where it reflected the "prevailing notions of poetry" into the 16th century.

    Core terms

  • Mimesis or "imitation", "representation," or "expression," given that, e.g., music is a form of mimesis, and often there is no music in the real world to be "imitated" or "represented."
  • Catharsis or, variously, "purgation", "purification", "clarification"
  • Peripeteia or "reversal"
  • Anagnorisis or "recognition", "identification"
  • Hamartia or "miscalculation" (understood in Romanticism as "tragic flaw")
  • Mythos or "plot," defined in Ch 6 explicitly as the "structure of actions."
  • Ethos or "character"
  • Dianoia or "thought", "theme"
  • Lexis or "diction", "speech"
  • Melos, or "melody"
  • Opsis or "spectacle"
  • The Poetics—both the extant first book and the lost second book—figure prominently in Umberto Eco's novel The Name of the Rose.

    English translations

  • Thomas Twining, 1789
  • Samuel Henry Butcher, 1902: full text
  • Ingram Bywater, 1909: full text
  • William Hamilton Fyfe, 1926: full text
  • L. J. Potts, 1953
  • G. M. A. Grube, 1958
  • Leon Golden and O.B. Hardison, 1968 (Florida State UP)
  • Richard Janko, 1987
  • Stephen Halliwell, 1987
  • Stephen Halliwell, 1995 (Loeb Classical Library)
  • Malcolm Heath, 1996 (Penguin Classics)
  • Seth Benardete and Michael Davis, 2002 (St. Augustine's Press)
  • Joe Sachs, 2006 (Focus Publishing)
  • Anthony Kenny, 2013 (Oxford World's Classics)
  • References

    Poetics (Aristotle) Wikipedia