Literature Study GuidesPoeticsChapters 13 16 Summary

Poetics | Study Guide


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Poetics | Chapters 13–16 | Summary



Chapter 13

In this chapter Aristotle lays out the aims of a tragic poet and what the poet should avoid. A tragedy should follow the complex plot structure instead of the simple and should prompt pity and fear in the audience. It should avoid overly simplistic movement such as the complete downfall of the antagonist, because this type of plot does not evoke emotion in the audience. Aristotle proposes that a true tragedy involves a character who is brought from good to bad fortune not through evil or immorality in themselves, but through human error. He outlines a few of the major tragic characters, such as Oedipus and Telephus, and explains that most of the best tragedies are written about them.

Chapter 14

While pity and fear can be created through the acting and production of a tragedy, Aristotle argues that a good poet can create those feelings through the construction of the plot. He then details the types of actions or situations that cause people to experience feelings of fear or pity. These feelings are created, he claims, when a tragic accident happens to people who have a close relationship—such as a family member killing another family member. When such a situation is set up with "skillful handling," it should incite strong feelings of horror and sympathy in the audience. To handle the tragic situation skillfully, the action may be done with conscious understanding of the relationship between the characters (a mother knowingly murdering her children). There is also the option that the action may be committed without knowledge of the relationship, with understanding dawning after the deed is done (Oedipus unknowingly murdering his father).

Chapter 15

The topic of Chapter 15 is the tragic character. Aristotle argues that speech or action that can be qualified as "good" is relative to class and propriety. In order to be more true to real life, "good" actions should be assigned to characters in which they would be believable. Characters must be both believable and consistent. However, Aristotle follows this argument by insisting that the poet, in writing the character, should mimic a portrait artist by elevating the character somehow. For instance, if the poet is writing a character with flaws, the poet should preserve the type of character while still painting the individual as more than a common person.

Chapter 16

This chapter details the types of recognition, which is a plot device briefly explained in previous chapters. Aristotle poses that "recognition through signs" is the least skillful of the various forms. He explains this form as a situation in which a sign or symbol, such as a particular weapon or birthmark, reveal information about a character and cause the recognition. Aristotle argues that recognition in the form of a character revealing information because the poet needs it revealed, and not as a natural progression of the plot, is also artless. A third kind of recognition occurs when an object or experience wakes a feeling in the character. The fourth type of recognition comes about through a process of reasoning. The best type of recognition, Aristotle insists, is the realization that occurs through the natural development of events within the plot.


Aristotle makes the case that a tragic plot must not be over simplified, or it will not have the desired effect on the audience. Complexity and characters who are relatable and make human errors, as opposed to characters who are without fault or who are completely evil, have the power to move an audience. Interestingly, Aristotle classifies "women and slaves" as lower forms of beings to whom certain characteristics such as "valor" should not be applied, because they would not be believable. Yet many of the plays he references do contain principal female characters.

Pity and fear are central concepts to the tragic form, and generally Aristotle seems to hold the opinion that the goal of tragedy is to awaken these emotions in the reader and that this should be done through an organic development of events. No other emotions seem as integral to the tragic form, and it seems that fear and pity must always follow an order: first the audience feels fear or horror, and then in the final tragic scene this fear turns to pity.

Aristotle references characters from popular plays to support his opinions about tragedy. Specifically, in Chapter 14 he mentions that "Clytemnestra was slain by Orestes and Eriphyle by Alcmaeon." The two plays he's referring to here are Aeschylus's "Oresteia" and a work that presumably was written by Euripides but that no longer exists. Both are examples of matricide.

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