Plot is the Soul of Tragedy: One of the Aristotelian Constituent Parts of Tragedy from "Poetics"

  Aristotle has enumerated six constituent parts of tragedy-Plot, Character, Thought, Diction, Song and Spectacle. The most important of these, is the Plot. The structure of the incidents, the arrangements of things done-that exactly, is what he means by Plot. Aristotle has subordinated character to plot, because he conceives of tragedy as an imitation, not of men, but of an action and of life, as life, consists in action. According to Aristotle, the plot is the underlying principle of a tragedy, as it were; the very soul of it, Plot gives meaning, vigour and vitality to the play.

While defining tragedy, Aristotle says ‘Tragedy is an imitation of some action that is serious complete and of a certain magnitude. By serious action Aristotle means a tale of suffering exciting pity and fear. So in a Tragedy the plot should depict a hero passing from happiness to misery and not the other way round. A tragedy with happy ending or flippant action will not arouse the emotions of pity and fear which is according to Aristotle, the specific function of Tragedy. In the words of Aristotle our pity is excited by the misfortunes undeservedly suffered and our fear by some resemblance between the sufferer and ourselves.

Next, as Aristotle points out, the tragic plot must be complete or self-contained with a beginning, middle and an end. The plot assumes a beginning that promises further action, a middle that presumes both previous and succeeding action, and an end that requires preceding events but no further action. The, end should be an inevitable and logical conclusion of what has gone before. This kind of artistic arrangement and logical link-up of the tragic incidents ensures consistence, harmony and coherence in the plot of a tragedy.

What Aristotle says about the order and wholeness of a tragedy is connected closely with what he says about its magnitude, ‘size’ or length. It should be neither too small nor too long, but just in proportion. If it is too short the mind of the reader or spectator will miss many things in to comprehend it fully; and if too long, it will not be easily taken in as a whole by then-roughly speaking, the magnitude of the plot should be sufficient to allow the hero to pass by a series of probable and necessary stages from happiness to misfortune. Magnitude also implies order and proportion, and as in a case of living organism, beauty and symmetry depend upon a reasonable size with all the parts in just proportion. A reasonable length or size is an essential condition of beauty.

Humphrey House has rightly said that this ‘principle of the right size’ is ‘both aesthetic and utilitarian’; aesthetic for extremer are monstrous and horrible; utilitarian, because what is too large or too small is unmanageable and cannot be seen or comprehended as a whole.

Allied to the preceding discussion is the unity of action while Aristotle so strongly emphasizes as a cardinal characteristic of an organic plot. It should be one and only one action compressing only those actions, and not all ‘in the life of the hero, which are essentially and intimately connected with one another and appear together as one whole. There may be more actions in the life of the hero there are in every man’s life-but, unless they have something to do with tragedy that befalls him they are not relevant to the plot and will have to be kept out. For a thing whose presence or absence, makes no visible difference, is not an organic part of the whole.’ But it does not mean that .there is no variety in the incidents and episodes which constitute the fabric of the, plot. Indeed the plot is composed of various episodes, but their structural unison is such that if any of them is displaced or removed, the whole will be disjointed arid disturbed. But episodic plots which lack the essential logical connection of events are the worst of all. In such a plot construction the episodes do not follow one upon another in accordance with the law of probability and necessity.

Regarding his opinion about the three unities, Aristotle has been misinterpreted by same critics. No doubt, he over rules out the plurality of action, but he does not lay any emphasis on the observation of the unties of time and place. The question of time is touched by, Aristotle only once. Tragedy endeavours to keep as tar as possible within a single circuit of the sun, or something near that ..,.“ About the unity of place, Aristotle nowhere says anything to the effect that the stage should ‘represent’ only one place throughout the course of the action. He is simply stating a normal practice dramatic prevalent in the times. But as has already been mentioned, he is very particular about the unity, of action. Aristotle nowhere insists on these two unities as conditions of a good plot.

Aristotle has pointed out that the incidents of the plot should be keeping with the law of probability and necessity. In the words of Butcher, “The rule of probability” as also that of ‘necessity’ refers rather to the internal structure of the poem; it is the inner law that secures the cohesion of the parts.” The concept of necessity implies, If such and such a person exists, in such and such circumstance and related to such and such other characters, he must act in such and such manner.” Thus whatever is said or acted by the characters should be credible and convincing irrespective of its impossibility. According to Aristotle a convincing impossibility is to be preferred to an unconvincing possibility.

The plot may be simple or complex. By simple plot Aristotle means one in which the change in the hero’s fortune takes place without ‘peripeteia’ a ‘anagnorisis’, by complex action, one that involves either of the two or both. But Aristotle stresses that both these should arise from the structure of the plot itself, so as to be a necessary and probable consequence of what has, gone before. ‘peripeteia’ is ‘recognition’ or ‘discovery:’ By a reversal of situation is meant very nearly ‘a reverse of intention, a deed done in blindness defeating its own purpose.’ it is indeed a change into the reverse of what is expected from the course of the action. Thus, in the play ‘Oedipus’ the opposite state of things’ is effected by the messenger, who coming to congratulate Oedipus and remove his fears with respect to his mother, reveals the’ secret of birth. But by ‘recognition’ or- discovery is implied a change from ignorance to knowledge ‘happening between those characters who are to lead the action to its catastrophe. The finest form of ‘anaguorisis’ is one that accompanies ‘peripeteia’, such as occurs in ‘Oedipus’. Both peripeteid ‘anagnorisis’ please because there is an element of surprise in them and combined together, they give rise either to pity or fear which tragedy assumes to represent. A plot that makes use of them is complex and, “A perfect tragedy’, “says Aristotle”, should be arranged not on the simple but complex plot.

Since Tragedy affords tragic pleasure by arousing the emotion pity and fear, it is evident that the causes of pity and fear must be worked into the structure of the plot. Fear and pity may be aroused by spectacular means such as torture, piteous lamentation, and beggarly appearance and so on but a good plot should be so constructed that even without the aid of the eye, he who hears tale told, will be filled with horror and pity at what takes place. When a disastrous deed is perpetuated by an enemy upon enemy, there is nothing to arouse our pity or fear. But whenever the deed is done within a family, when the murder or the like is committed or meditated by the a brother on brother , by son on  father, by mother on her son, or son on his mother these are the situations of which a tragedian  should take advantage in order to arouse emotions of pity and fear.

The plot, finally is divisible into two parts-complication and its unraveling or denouement. The former ties the events into a tangled knot, the later unties the knot. The ‘complication includes all the action from the turning point where it takes a turn for good or ill the ‘denouement’ extends from the turning point to the end. The first is commonly called rising action and the second falling action.

Aristotle enters into such a comprehensive and penetrative discussion of the point because he regards it as, ‘the ground work, the design, through the medium of which ‘ethos’ (character) derives its meaning and dramatic.” (Butcher).

In classical dramas we find well-knit and coherent plot: character is of secondary importance. But in Romantic tragedies the dictum of Aristotle is turned upside down. Marlowe and Kyd wrote many arresting tragedies in which plot-construction is very poor. But they are, interesting because of their scrupulous and lifelike characterization. Shakespeare our greatest dramatist also lays more emphasis on characterization than on plot-construction. 

1.Literary Theory and criticism>
2. Glossary of Literary Terms (seventh edition) by M. H. Abrams 

Ardhendu De