Literature Study GuidesPoeticsChapters 17 19 Summary

Poetics | Study Guide


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Poetics | Chapters 17–19 | Summary



Chapter 17

Aristotle discusses the importance of working out the technical details of the acting and setting of any play very carefully. It is the job of the poet, he explains, to make sure that the whole setting is clear and can be seen in its entirety by the audience. The poet must also pay attention to the gestures of the characters and make sure that the emotions the actors portray are natural and realistic.

The second part of the chapter describes how the poet should approach the creation of the plot. A general outline should be made first, and then the details filled in afterward. After the outline, what is filled in is called the "episodes," or the actual detailed scenes of the play.

Chapter 18

According to Aristotle, the overall structure of a tragedy can be classified as the complication and the unravelling. The complication is everything leading up to the climax, whereas the unravelling, or denouement, is the rest.

He then goes on to delineate the four types of tragedy: the complex, the pathetic, the ethical, and the simple. The complex, as discussed in previous chapters, uses both the reversal and recognition plot devices. In the pathetic the motive is passion, and in the ethical the motive is correspondingly ethical. The simple type uses only one of the two plot devices.

Aristotle tells the reader that the poet should not try to make an epic poem into a tragedy. An epic poem has multiple parts, whereas a tragedy focuses on one plot thread. Aristotle gives the example of how an unsuccessful tragedy might try to tell the entire story of the entire Iliad, as opposed to just the Fall of Troy.

Aristotle briefly touches on the subject of the chorus, mentioning that it should be thought of as an actor in the play, integral to the plot, and not as unrelated interludes.

Chapter 19

Chapter 19 expounds on two of the six parts of tragedy: diction and thought. Thought encompasses the areas of proof and refutation, the inspiring of different emotions, and the suggestion of importance. Thought pertains mostly to speech and not the parts of the plot conveyed through action or other means.

Diction is the breakdown of how speech is delivered. Aristotle gives examples such as command, prayer, statement, threat, and question to illustrate how diction is employed.


One of Aristotle's chief concerns seems to be the natural and organic development of the plot. This notion comes back in these chapters multiple times and is connected to the audience's response to the tragic play. Aristotle argues that the plot must develop organically and that the characters' motives and emotions must be conveyed believably through diction and acting.

He also stresses repeatedly the importance of including certain elements in the creation of the tragic plot and also insists that a specific order of development be followed when the poet writes the tragedy. Many of these ideas are expansions on ideas that have been discussed repeatedly in earlier chapters.

Again he uses The Odyssey to illustrate his discussion about how plot can be reduced to its essence. He describes the main points of The Odyssey's plot, claiming "This is the essence of the plot; the rest is episode."

When Aristotle breaks up plot into two categories—complication and denouement—he is including many things in these parts. The more common approach to plot in contemporary times is to divide it into three parts: rising action, climax, and falling action. Aristotle seems to be combining the rising action and the climax under the umbrella term of "complication," whereas the denouement includes possibly part of the climax and the falling action to the end of the story.

When Aristotle discusses the role of the chorus in Greek tragedy, he asserts that the chorus should be "an integral part of the whole" and should actually be treated as an actor. He insists that this should be done "in the manner not of Euripides but of Sophocles." This could be taken to mean that Euripides, who reduced the role of the chorus, still had not reached the ideal form of tragedy in his treatment of the chorus role. Sophocles, in Aristotle's opinion, was more successful in this regard.

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