2,000 Years Old and Still Going Strong: Aristotle’s Lessons in Storytelling

While I’m gearing up for my course on Shakespeare’s tragedies, I’m gathering resources to explain what tragedy is and why it’s important, and you can’t talk about tragedy without talking about Aristotle’s Poetics, the first major work of theater criticism that has influenced writers and critics for 2,000 years. It also inspired “pity and fear” from anyone who ever had to write a paper about it!

As you can see from the crash course video above, Aristotle helped define what makes something a tragedy, what elements good tragedy possesses, and props up Sophecles play Oedipus as the ideal example of tragedy. This was also the play that influenced Hamlet, Titus Andronicus, Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, and many others.

Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions. By ‘language embellished,’ I mean language into which rhythm, ‘harmony,’ and song enter. By ‘the several kinds in separate parts,’ I mean, that some parts are rendered through the medium of verse alone, others again with the aid of song.

Every Tragedy, therefore, must have six parts, which parts determine its quality—namely, Plot, Character, Diction, Thought, Spectacle, Song. Two of the parts constitute the medium of imitation, one the manner, and three the objects of imitation. And these complete the list. These elements have been employed, we may say, by the poets to a man; in fact, every play contains Spectacular elements as well as Character, Plot, Diction, Song, and Thought.

Aristotle, The Poetics, c. 3rd century BCE
Translator: S. H. Butcher Release Date: November 3, 2008 [EBook #1974] Last Updated: January 22, 2013. Gutenberg.org.

Full text of Aristotle’s Poetics, (Project Gutenberg)






If you’d like to hear me analyse the poetics and explain how it applies to Shakespeare, sign up for my class on Shakespeare’s tragedies. Get $10 off my class “Shakespeare’s Tragedies: The Fates of Men and Nations” with coupon code HTHESG5B2Q10 until Dec 31, 2022. Get started at https://outschool.com/classes/shakespeares-tragedies-the-fates-of-men-and-nations-xKCYUkC9 and enter the coupon code at checkout. If you’d like to hear me analyze the poetics and explain how it applies to Shakespeare, sign up for my class on Shakespeare’s tragedies. There’s a $10 discount for anyone who uses this coupon code:

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