English 366B, Section S02: Shakespeare's Histories and Tragedies   >   King John: Aristotle To the previous page To the next page

Aristotle on Plot and Character

In his usual methodical way, Aristotle decided that there were six ingredients in a tragedy: "the Fable or Plot, Characters, Diction, Thought, Spectacle, and Melody." He goes on to discuss the relative importance, as he saw it, of Plot and Character:

The most important of the six is the combination of the incidents of the story. Tragedy is essentially an imitation not of persons but of action and life, of happiness and misery. All human happiness or misery takes the form of action; the end for which we live is a certain kind of activity, not a quality. Character gives us qualities, but it is in our actions—what we do—that we are happy or the reverse. In a play accordingly they do not act in order to portray the Characters; they include the Characters for the sake of the action. So that it is the action in it, i.e., its Fable or Plot, that is the end and purpose of the tragedy.

And he establishes what has become known as the unity of action, beginning with a remark that fits into the category of famous statements of the obvious:

Having thus distinguished the parts, let us now consider the proper construction of the Fable or Plot, as that is at once the first and the most important thing in Tragedy. We have laid it down that a tragedy is an imitation of an action that is complete in itself, as a whole of some magnitude; for a whole may be of no magnitude to speak of. Now a whole is that which has beginning, middle, and end. . . .

The Unity of a Plot does not consist, as some suppose, in its having one man as its subject. An infinity of things befall that one man, some of which it is impossible to reduce to unity; and in like manner there are many actions of one man which cannot be made to form one action. . . . The truth is that, just as in the other imitative arts one imitation is always of one thing, so in poetry the story, as an imitation of action, must represent one action, a complete whole, with its several incidents so closely connected that the transposal or withdrawal of any one of them will disjoin and dislocate the whole. For that which makes no perceptible difference by its presence or absence is no real part of the whole.

Aristotle is arguing that a plot is not unified simply because it concerns a single person, since many unrelated or trivial actions will obscure the development of the drama. The picaresque tradition (more to be found in novels than drama) is one that he would disapprove of.

In his treatment of character, Aristotle suggests that in tragedy the protagonist should fit certain conditions:

It follows, therefore, that there are three forms of Plot to be avoided. (1) A good man must not be seen passing from happiness to misery, or (2) a bad man from misery to happiness. The first situation is not fear-inspiring or piteous, but simply odious to us. The second is the most untragic that can be; it has no one of the requisites of Tragedy; it does not appeal either to the human feeling in us, or to our pity, or to our fears. Nor, on the other hand, should (3) an extremely bad man be seen falling from happiness into misery. Such a story may arouse the human feeling in us, but it will not move us to either pity or fear; pity is occasioned by undeserved misfortune, and fear by that of one like ourselves; so that there will be nothing either piteous or fear-inspiring in the situation. There remains, then, the intermediate kind of personage, a man not pre-eminently virtuous and just, whose misfortune, however, is brought upon him not by vice and depravity but by some error of judgment, of the number of those in the enjoyment of great reputation and prosperity

It is important to realize that earlier writers may not have had the same attitude as we do to the individual or to what we think of as character--and Aristotle is no exception. At one point in his discussion of character, he writes:

There will be an element of character in the play, if . . . what a personage says or does reveals a certain moral purpose; and a good element of character, if the purpose so revealed is good. Such goodness is possible in every type of personage, even in woman or a slave, though the one is perhaps an inferior, and the other a wholly worthless being. The second point is to make them appropriate. The Character before us may be, say, manly; but it is not appropriate in a female Character to be manly, or clever. The third is to make them like the reality, which is not the same as their being good and appropriate, in our sense of the term. The fourth is to make them consistent and the same throughout.

Although Aristotle speaks of characters being "like the reality," it is clear that his sense of character has more to do with dramatic types accurately portrayed than with what we think of as densely imagined individuals. The comments about women and slaves are also a reminder of the warning I started with--that Aristotle should be read for his insights, not as some kind of authority.

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This page last updated on 28 December 2006. © Michael Best, 2006.