Aristotle & Tragedy

There are many ways to read a text. Schools of critical theory provide distinct (and often overlapping) ways of framing literature and art. In academics, critical theory is often applied to help contextualize a work of art and so shape the conversation around that text in meaningful, albeit rather highly determined ways.

For instance, Jungian Psychoanalytic critical theory looks at literature in light of symbols and archetypes, using Carl Jung’s views on psychology as the basis for literary interpretation. Other schools of critical theory approach literature from a social-political standpoint, looking for ways that power, gender, class and race function within a text. These schools of theory include Marxist critical theory, Feminist critical theory, and Post-Colonial critical theory.

Some of the oldest critical theories take an approach that beginning college students are already somewhat familiar with, assessing the traditional literary qualities of the text: story, structure, character, climax, language, etc. These last critical theories fall into the general category of Aesthetic Theory or Formalist critical theory.

Aristotle and Tragedy

Perhaps the first formalist theory was articulated by Aristotle roughly two thousand years ago in his writing on Greek literature. In Poetics, Aristotle outlines a definition of tragedy as a form of writing distinct from other modes popular in his day. His definition hinges on a few essential components.

Aristotle by Francesco Hayez. Oil on canvas, 1811


The story must focus on a single, clearly defined protagonist. This protagonist must be a relatable figure – someone the audience can connect with. (This means that the protagonist will not be extremely smart or extremely unintelligent. He or she will not be an emotionless robot or otherwise completely foreign to the average person’s sensibilities.) A tragic figure will always provide the possibility of empathy and not just sympathy. A tragic figure will also not be completely unlikeable.

Hamartia & Anagnorisis

For a character to be formally considered a “tragic figure,” he or she will demonstrate two particular traits over the course of the narrative. These traits are intimately connected to the generally understood story-arc of tragedy: hamartia and anagnorisis.

First, the character will suffer a set-back, an accident, or otherwise be faced with a substantial problem that is not entirely of his or her own making. This is sometimes called “the fall” and the protagonist’s response to the fall will determine the action and the resolution of the story.

When faced with a great difficulty, the protagonist will display what is often called a “tragic flaw.” This is also known as hamartia in Greek and the term refers to an essential character element that motivates the action of a tragedy and, often, takes the form of a mistake or error. This error or flaw will come to define the tragic figure’s character (as well as the larger story). In many cases, the concept of the “tragic flaw” is simplified down to a character’s hubris or excessive pride, but this simplification is not always accurate.

The particular hamartia, for many tragic heroes, has more to do with adhering to a specific set of values than it does with making a mistake based on weakness or with actions driven by excessive pride. Many times, the tragic flaw of the hero is actually a strength that is simply applied with too much force.

One example of a character’s hamartia can be found in the story and character of Antigone. This figure (from Greek tragedy) suffers the loss of a brother at the beginning of the play. For political reasons, the brother is not allowed to be buried. Antigone believes that she must find a way to give her brother a burial in order to do her duty as a sister, but she is warned that she will be killed as a traitor if any burial takes place. Weighing her duty to her brother (and to the gods) against her duty to the state, Antigone aligns herself with the former and buries her brother. Her hamartia is clearly not pride. And it is not a weakness of character.

Antigone’s “tragic flaw” is a stubborn insistence on her filial duty, which would be a strength in many instances. Yet this sense of obligation to the dead leads to the loss of many more lives. Within the scenario presented in the play, Antigone’s relentless loyalty creates a chain of events culminating in the deaths of her fiancé and her mother-in-law-to-be. And, of course, Antigone dies in the end too – all because of one dominant character trait.

The counter-part to hamartia in a tragic figure is anagnorisis. Anagnorisis refers to the idea of recognition wherein the truth of a character is suddenly revealed. This recognition sometimes takes place within the protagonist as a self-recognition – an epiphany of sorts.

The recognition of the tragic figure’s true, inner character can also come from others in the play as well. To use the example of Sophocles’ Antigone again, we can note that in this play the protagonist, Antigone, is not the person who finally recognizes her own truth. Instead it is the head of state, Creon, who comes to understand Antigone’s profound strength of character and his own comparative weakness at the close of the play. (Critically, the recognition is centered on the protagonist, the tragic figure, even if someone else achieves the insight.)


Part of Aristotle’s project was distinguishing tragedy from epic poetry and that may explain why he chose to define tragedy also in terms of its scope. For Aristotle, a tragic play is always limited to a few days (or a few hours) in the life of the protagonist. He suggests that the “whole […] must be of such dimensions that the memory or the mind’s eye can embrace and retain it.” The issue is partially one of brevity and partially one of emotional concentration.

Focus and intensity are key to Aristotle’s conception of tragedy. For a play to have the power of a tragedy, in Aristotle’s view, it must be compact enough to achieve its “distinctive emotional effect” (347), which is characterized by a significant degree of emotional intensity. The compacted plot has the can remain focused on a concentrated emotional or psychological response to a particular event in ways that plots of larger scope cannot. Action is necessary for tragedy. Things have to happen, but not too many things.

The compact story structure of tragedy stands in contrast to the broad scope of an epic or a historical narrative. Those stories are interested in depicting a series of events that take place over time, emphasizing the importance of external action as opposed to the importance of an internal or emotional response to events.

Tragedy is quite the reverse and tends to look inward. As a genre, tragedy is interested in “the inward discord of [the protagonist’s] own will; and further, the struggle with other human wills which obstruct his own” (350). The plot of tragedy, for Aristotle, must reflect an internal drama so that the “fate that overtakes the hero is no alien thing, but his own self recoiling upon him for good or evil” (355). Tragedy is not historical then, but momentary. The scope of a tragedy’s plot is definitively narrow and the action resonates with internal states of being.

In Antigone, the action of the story takes place over a few days and, importantly, the circumstances that provide the basic materials for the conflict are already in place when the story begins. Much of the tragedy is comprised of the characters’ responses to the situation at hand and of their disagreement in terms of what values should take precedence over others.

What we have here is a formal definition of tragedy as a literary genre. Aristotle’s definition of tragedy identifies a few essential, formal factors: The story must be focused on a single main character and focused in scope. The main character must suffer a fall, demonstrate a “tragic flaw” that moves the story and come to a recognition of inner-truth. If a text does not present these formal elements, that text is not technically a tragedy (according to this particular aesthetic theory).

We should not two things here for purposes of clarity. (1) A text can be “tragic” without fitting into the tragic genre. (2) Aristotle’s critical theory goes well beyond the idea of whether or not a text has a sad ending. In literary terms, we are discussing a whole text when we discuss tragedy, not only the ending of a story or a facet of a narrative that may be particularly sad.

By taking an Aristotelian approach to literature, we are applying formal criteria to assess a text’s style and structure. While this method does not immediately enrich our understanding of the political or social content of a text, it does help to illuminate the inner workings of a text, bringing us to an understanding of genre (i.e., is the text a tragedy or not a tragedy?). From there, we can go on to ask some pointed and interesting questions.

  • If the text is a tragedy, then what fundamental values contribute to the protagonist’s hamartia? How are those values complicated, challenged or subverted by the text?
  • What truth about the protagonist is revealed in the anagnorisis and how does that truth function as a theme in the text? 

Formalist theory then poses questions first about what a text does, stylistically and structurally, and subsequently moves into the deeper waters of what a text means, using the formal elements of the text as the basis for interpretation.

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