AD's English Literature : Theory and criticism: Aristotle :Characteristics of an Aristotelian Plot

Theory and criticism: Aristotle :Characteristics of an Aristotelian Plot

Tragedy: Aristotle’s definition of Tragedy- is an imitation of an action, serious complete and of a certain magnitude, in a language beautified in different parts with different kinds of embellishment, through action and not narration  and through scenes of pity and fear bringing about  the ‘catharsis’ of these emotions.Read More Criticism

Characteristics of an Aristotelian Plot:

1) Tragedy is a representation of action and action consists of incidents and events. Aristotle differentiates between plot and story, and says that it is better for the poet to choose a traditional story taken from history, mythology and legends for such stories are familiar and easy to understand. After selecting the story, the artist must then go on to the process of selection and ordering, when only relevant incidents and situations are to be selected and arranged such that they seem to follow each other logically. This is the plot of the story.

2) Next, the tragic plot must be a complete whole that is it must have a beginning, middle and an end. By beginning, Aristotle meant that the incident must not flow from a previous situation, and if it does, that situation must be made known to the audience through the chorus, soliloquy etc. Read More CriticismMiddle is everything that follows from the beginning and it is followed by the catastrophe. The End is consequent upon a given situation and is not followed by any further incident. Thus, wholeness implies the linking of the various incidents and situations that form the plot.

3) By magnitude, Aristotle meant the size of the plot, which should be neither too long (beginning will be forgotten by the audience), nor too short (the different parts will not be clearly distinguishable from each other). It should be long enough to allow the process of change from happiness to misery initiated by the beginning to be developed.Read More Criticism It means that the plot should have order, logic and symmetry.

4) It follows that the plot should be an organic whole, such that there must be only one tragic action, and every incident must be connected to the rest of the action, so that there is no incident that is irrelevant. There may be episodes, but they must be properly integrated to the plot such that it is not possible to remove them without causing injury to the plot.

5) Next, Aristotle couples organic unity of a plot with probability and necessity, that is, the action of the tragedy must be possible acc to laws of probability and necessity. Read More Criticism The plot is not tied to what has actually happened but what is possible under the given circumstances. Next, the words and actions must be the necessary outcome of the character of a dramatic personage. And, also, the tragic action must be convincing and credible.

6) The Three Unities: Unity of action-the plot should be an organic whole, such that there must be only one tragic action, and every incident must be connected to the rest of the action, so that there is no incident that is irrelevant. There may be episodes, but they must be properly integrated to the plot such that it is not possible to remove them without causing injury to the plot. Aristotle was against the introduction of a sub plot, similarly he is against a double ending, e.g. a tragic comedy and the introduction of comic relief. Acc to him such plurality of action and double ends distract attention and weaken the tragic effect.Read More Criticism Unity of Time- Although Aristotle mentions nothing about the Unity of time, it does seem to be derived from him. Aristotle said that the action of the tragedy, as far as possible should remain within one revolution of the sun. Neo classic critics explained this as that the spectators would not believe in the reality of an action that compressed several days into a three hour drama. Neo classicists also believed that for verisimilitude there should be an exact correspondence between the time of the dramatic action and the time of the events being imitated, so that a play lasting three hours would depict events that took only three hours to work themselves out. Unity of Place too does not find any explicit mention in Aristotle, although when comparing Epic to Tragedy, he says that the epic may narrate several actions taking place simultaneously at several places, but this is not possible in tragedy which does not narrate but represents through action. Unity of Place and Unity of Time are of no importance and with Dr Johnson’s criticism, they have died out.

7) Kinds of plots: Simple plots are those in which the action moves forward but without peripeteia (reversal of fortune) and Anagnorisis (recognition of truth). Complex plots are those where the change of fortune is accompanied by peripeteia or anagnorisis or both. Read More Criticism The peripeteia and anagnorisis must arise from the arrangement of the plot so that it appears necessary or probable.

8) Elements of a plot:

Peripeteia: or reversal of fortune takes place when the course of events take an opposite turn than intended, the change being also probable or necessary.  (eg: when a man tells Oedipus about his mother)

Recognition: a change from ignorance to knowledge tending either to affection or to enmity. Read More Criticism The best sort of recognition is accompanied by peripeteia, as seen in Oedipus. Recognition may be caused by a) visible signs, eg, birthmarks, b) those manufactured by the poet, by not what the plot demands, c)is by the means of memory, that is when awareness is roused by seeing something, d) is recognition on the basis of reasoning, e) that arises from actions alone with the surprise developing through a series of likelihood.

Pathos: an act involving destruction or pain, eg death on the stage, or physical agonies and wounding etc.

Characterization: With respect to character, there are four things that a poet must aim at:
a) The character must be morally good, that is the he makes a moral choice,
b) The characters represented should be suitable, i.e., if the character represented is brave it is not suitable for a woman to be brave in this way,
c) The characters should be life like that is they must be true to life and have the same likes and dislikes, weakness and virtues, joys and sorrows like average humanity. Only such likeness will arouse pity,
d) The characters should be consistent.Read More Criticism

Since tragedy is an imitation of people better than are found in the world, the poet ought to make the characters life like but at the same time represent them as better than they are. Even if the characters are irascible, lazy and morally deficient in some ways, they must nevertheless be good.

The Ideal Tragic Hero: The function of tragedy is to evoke emotions of pity and fear, and from this Aristotle deduces the qualities of his tragic hero. He says that the tragic hero should not be too good or perfect, for the fall of a perfectly good man from happiness to misery would only shock and disgust. Read More Criticism Similarly, the fall of a wicked person would not evoke tragic feelings. Therefore, a tragic hero must be a man not pre-eminently virtuous and just, whose misfortune is brought upon him not by vice or depravity but by some error in judgment.

The misfortune of the tragic hero is brought about by some fault of his own, which is called hamartia or some error in judgment that he commits. Hamartia may arise from any of the following ways: it may arise from ignorance of the facts, or it may arise out of error from hasty and careless decisions, or third, it may be voluntary, though not deliberate, as acts committed in anger or passion. Read More Criticism
Another trait of the tragic hero is that he must be a person who occupies a position of eminence in society.

 Function of tragedy:

Aristotle writes that the function of tragedy is to arouse emotions of pity and fear in the audience and through this affect the catharsis of these emotions. In Greek, catharsis has three meanings: purgation, purification and clarification.

A Few Questions on Aristotle’s Critical concept:

1. What is the difference between Aristotle and Plato’s conceptions of literature and art?
2. Why did Plato feel literature and art to be a dangerous social and political force?
3. How did Aristotle help to create the field of literary theory?
4. How did Aristotle conceptualize the proper form of tragedy?


  1. sir please guide me how to do the study of literary theory and criticism for the net exam is it necessary to read each and every thing of hist.of English lit.

  2. Dear Spramadini,

    Literary Criticism or literary theory covers discussion of literature, including description, analysis, interpretation, and evaluation of literary works. Like literature, criticism is hard to summarize as it is a continued process.Now One of the student’s tasks is to cover criticism that seem too general, too vast, or unique for any other reason. Remember literary criticism deals with different dimensions of literature as a collection of texts through which authors evoke more or less fictitious worlds for the imagination of start reading age by age with a developing time line.


  3. Thanks sir actually thanks words are too small infront of your precious guidance thanks sir.


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