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Poetics | Context

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Tragedy in Ancient and Classical Greece

Aristotle lived in the period of Greek history known as Classical Greece. The period covered most of the 5th and 4th centuries BCE and is usually recognized as ending with Macedonian king Alexander the Great's death in 323 BCE. From this period, only the works of three major tragedians—Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides—survive. Aristotle frequently references the works of these three writers as examples for his arguments about poetry and tragedy.

The earliest of the great Greek dramatists was Aeschylus, who lived between 525 and 455 BCE. He was a major participant in the dramatic competition held every year as a part of the Festival of Dionysus, where three tragedies would be presented followed by a lighthearted satire play. Although it is estimated that he wrote around 90 plays, only seven of his tragedies survive completely. Aeschylus significantly changed Greek tragedy by adding a second actor to the play—previously, only one actor played all of the parts, with a chorus narrating in the background. This allowed dialogue to develop between characters and consequently opened up more possibilities for the writing.

Sophocles was born around 496 BCE in the village of Colonus, located just outside Athens, and died in 406 BCE in Athens around the age of 90. Not much is known about Sophocles's life, and most of what remains are his works of tragedy. As with Aeschylus, only seven of Sophocles's tragedies have survived in their entirety: Ajax, Antigone, Trachinian Women, Oedipus the King, Electra, Philoctetes, and Oedipus at Colonus. None of the exact dates are known for any of these plays, although Ajax is generally regarded as the earliest of the seven, and it is known that Philoctetes was first performed around 409 BCE.

Sophocles's tragedies usually focus on a few central characters with the protagonist exhibiting a major fault that leads tragically to his or her demise. His main character will usually make a crucial error of judgement, which affects each of the surrounding characters, moving the play and all its characters toward a tragic end. In contrast to Aeschylus, the action and tragedy of Sophocles's plays usually take place within one generation of characters, instead of being spread over longer time periods.

Euripides was a dramatist who lived and worked parallel to Sophocles. He was born around 484 BCE and lived until 406 BCE. Little is known of his personal life, but 19 of his plays survive today. Like Sophocles and Aeschylus, Euripides competed in the Festival of Dionysus, which he won four times over the course of his life. Euripides is notable for his rational attitude toward religion and for his realistic characters with normal human flaws. He commonly incorporates in his plays dialogue about contemporary philosophical or social issues. The tragedy of Euripides's plays, unlike those of Sophocles and Aeschylus, often comes about from a combination of chance, chaos, and character flaws. The gods do not interfere or affect the tragedy in any way, but instead watch the unfolding with disinterest. This realistic and true-to-life style is a signature of Euripides's work.

Each of these dramatists was influenced by a poet who lived hundreds of years before any of them. Homer, famous for the epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey (c. 8th century BCE), lived in either the 8th or 9th century BCE. Little is known about Homer, including whether or not he is responsible for the two epics. It has generally been agreed, however, that he likely did write, or at least contribute to, both poems.

The Iliad is a tragic poem detailing the Trojan War. It is composed of various episodes, although Achilles is thought to be the main protagonist. The Odyssey tells the story of Odysseus, the king of Ithaca, who spends 10 years trying to reach home after the Trojan War. Meanwhile, his wife, Penelope, and son, Telemachus, fend off suitors who insist that Odysseus is dead in their attempt to marry Penelope. These two poems are foundational works to all subsequent Greek poetry and drama and are frequently referenced by later writers, including Aristotle.

Writing of Poetics

Much is unknown about Aristotle's work Poetics, including precisely when it was written. As a result, it is difficult to say exactly what influences surrounded him when he wrote it. However, it has been argued that Aristotle wrote Poetics as a response to some of Plato's criticisms of and challenges to the importance of poetry in Greek society. As a pupil, Aristotle frequently disagreed with his teacher, and this debate informed much of his later writing and theory.

Plato saw poetry as of doubtful importance. In fact, he proposed that literature was a distraction or misdirection from the truth. Aristotle, however, suggests in Poetics that poetry and art arise from a human desire to imitate and that this desire is connected with the human experience of empathy.

Aristotle categorized rhetoric and the arts as productive sciences as opposed to theoretical sciences. Art, he argued, was a product of the human imagination, giving insight into the human condition. The theoretical sciences, on the other hand, represented the study of knowledge for its own sake.

Poetics often lacks organization. Aristotle jumps between ideas and frequently repeats himself. He adds extra information and interjections between longer sections of text. The lack of order indicates that the original text was likely taken from his teaching notes or from notes taken by his students on the subject.

Contemporary Relevance

Not only does Poetics give modern readers a sense of the important elements of poetry and drama in ancient Greece, but it also provides some of the earliest available writing on the art of drama in Western culture. Both Plato's writings on poetry and Aristotle's response have been used in Western art criticism since they were written.

In contemporary thought, a common criticism of Poetics is that it tries simply to provide a formula or recipe for art. Part of this criticism results from the way Aristotle elevates the technical and theoretical construction of drama and poetry above its expressive aspects. However, his opinion of certain aspects of poetry is at times inconsistent in the text and is still a matter of much debate.

Another aspect of Poetics that is central to the ongoing conversation about poetry and criticism is the concept that both Aristotle and Plato seemed to agree on—that poetry (and art generally) is a form of mimesis, or imitation. This claim is quite contentious. It has been at the forefront of many conversations about the relevance of art and creative works.

Aristotle's doctrine on poetry and drama has had a huge influence on Western thought about art, literature, and theater. Aristotle's work has shaped both the development of art and the development of criticism. Italian poet Dante Alighieri, famous during the Middle Ages for The Divine Comedy (c. 1308–21), considered Aristotle a master of knowledge. British writer T.S. Eliot, a 20th-century poet and critic, considered Aristotle a master writer and referenced lines from Poetics in his own essays.

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