|Genre Dramatic theory|
|Similar 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:
- Differences in music rhythm, harmony, meter and melody.
- Difference of goodness in the characters.
- 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.
Aristotle distinguishes between the genres of "poetry" in three ways:
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:
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.
In popular culture
The Poetics—both the extant first book and the lost second book—figure prominently in Umberto Eco's novel The Name of the Rose.