Tragedy Lessons from Aristotle: Crash Course Theater #3

Hey there. I’m Mike Rugnetta, this is Crash Course
Theater, and today is going to be a tragedy. A Greek tragedy. Which is a lot like a regular tragedy, only
older and with more stuffed grape leaves. We’ll be exploring Aristotle’s theories
on this artform, written more than a century after the golden age of Athenian drama. Then we’ll apply them retrospectively to
the only surviving tragic trilogy we have, the “Oresteia” of Aeschylus. Get ready for some husband-killing, some mother-killing
and, maybe unsurprisingly, the invention of the jury trial! INTRO
Meet Aristotle. Just Aristotle. No last name. Like Cher! But older. Also believes in life after love, though! He was born in 384 BCE and lived in Greece
and Macedonia. He spent many years studying with Plato, a
philosopher who wasn’t a big fan of drama or poetry. Plato wrote that poets encourage a false vision
of reality and should all be excluded from the ideal state. Wow. Harsh, dude. Luckily for us his pupil Aristotle was more
open-minded. In 335 BCE, a little while after he’d finished
tutoring Alexander the Great, Aristotle sat down to write The Poetics, the first substantial
work of literary criticism. Originally The Poetics was in two parts, a
section on tragedy and a section on comedy, but only the tragedy part survives. Aristotle was writing 200 years after the
City Dionysia really got going and 150 years after the beginning of the golden age of Greek
drama. So the Poetics isn’t really about analyzing
contemporary work, it’s about looking at the work that came before Aristotle, deciding
what’s great about it, and providing a handbook for future playwrights and audiences. Aristotle was trying to stick it to Plato
by proving poetry (and theatre) could be useful to society. He was a big fan of Sophocles and the rules
Aristotle set out apply most closely to Sophocles’s own “Oedipus Rex”, which you might remember
from Crash Course Literature. Club foot, murder, incest, stabbing out the
eyes—it’s memorable stuff. But Aristotle’s theories apply, in many
ways, to all of the works of Greek tragedy. And often, we can gain a lot of insight through
how ancient plays do or do not tick the boxes that Aristotle set up. And in fact, Aristotle’s theories continue
to influence how we write and think about modern plays. First off, the tragedy portion of Aristotle’s
Poetics considers several forms of poetry, including the tragedy, and the epic, which
is different in that it’s mostly descriptive, rather than imitative. It tells rather than shows, like the dithyrambs
we discussed last episode. But! We’re here to talk tragedy which, Aristotle
defines as: “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.” So, Okay, a lot of this language is ambiguous,
but there are some conclusions we can draw. We’re gonna go bit by bit: What does serious
mean? Well, there probably aren’t a lot of satyrs
and phalluses. Complete? Each play in a tragedy has to stand independent
from other works in its trilogy. That’s lucky for us because as we discussed
last time, invading .hordes have a bad habit of burning libraries and we’ve lost a lot
of plays. Of a certain magnitude? That’s trickier, but if you read Greek tragedies
you’ll notice they deal with legendary heroes or royal families, characters whose lives
will have a sizable impact. Also their difficulties are not minor—these
are stories about murder, vengeance, betrayal… again: memorable stuff! By language embellished, Aristotle means not
only poetry, but also song. In the form of action, not of narrative, means
showing rather than telling. And through pity and fear effecting the proper
purgation of those emotions – that’s catharsis, and as we suggested last episode, it’s kept
scholars fearful and pitious for centuries. We offered one explanation last time, that
plays help make people better citizens by purging them of emotions unhelpful to the
city-state—you have a good cry at the theater so that you’re not crying when it comes
to making political decisions. But scholars have argued that this catharsis
is actually supposed to happen for the characters onstage; there’s been a lot of debate about
whether the goal of catharsis is an emotional purgation or an intellectual clarification. Is catharsis supposed to awaken your emotions,
or trigger some deeply rational thoughts? Shockingly: EXPERTS DISAGREE. Aristotle also said tragedy is composed of
six parts: Plot, Character, Diction, Thought, Spectacle, and Song. They’re important pretty much in that order,
although he says that song matters more than spectacle. Take that, projection designers. Wait… I’ve designed projections! You don’t want too much spectacle he says,
because that’s cheap and tragedy should be enjoyable, but not, like, too enjoyable. And Aristotle argues that even though it’s
characters we care about, it’s actually the plot—the tragic action—that’s most
important. You could have a character just like Oedipus,
for instance, who doesn’t kill his father or marry his mother, but … well, that’s
not really much of a tragedy. Aristotle believes that in order for a tragedy
to really work, it needs to focus on a mostly good character who–through the tragic action–is
then brought low. If you have a mostly bad character brought
low: Big whoop, they had it coming, no tragedy. Same goes for a mostly good character who
stays good: No pity, no fear, no catharsis. An unimpeachably good character brought low
doesn’t work either, because the tragic action has to be their fault, at least a little. Aristotle writes that the ideal is to have
a mostly noble and illustrious character “whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or
depravity, but by some error or frailty.” The word for frailty in Greek is hamartia. It’s a term that comes from archery and
it means missing the mark. Our tragic character doesn’t have some horrible
inborn flaw, but more like … tries to do a good job, and whiffs it. Aristotle thought that a tragic plot needed
to have three main elements: reversal, recognition and a scene of suffering. The Greek word for reversal is peripeteia;
you might recognize it from the English word peripatetic, which means walking back and
forth. Reversal means just when you think something’s
going okay, there’s a change, usually signaled by the arrival of a messenger, and then everything
gets terrible again. Someone’s gotta start shooting these messengers! Recognition, known as anagnorisis, is what
happens when a character finally recognizes something. That was my mother! That was my son! I shouldn’t have eaten that second piece
of cake! Oops. Recognition combined with a reversal is best,
Aristotle says: it automatically produces pity or fear. Maybe both! Shortly after recognition comes the scene
of suffering—exile, suicide, huge psychological trauma. It’s fun stuff? And just the kind of thing a healthy city-state
would want to sponsor for the good of its people! To get a feel for some of these elements,
let’s take a quick look at “The Oresteia,” the only surviving Greek tragic trilogy, which
won first prize in 458 BCE. It retells a mythical story, one covered,
at least in part in “The Odyssey.” Its three plays are: Agamemnon, The Libation
Bearers and The Eumenides. We’ll look at the first two in the Thoughtbubble:
Thoughtbubble In the first play, the general Agamemnon returns
to Argos from the Trojan War. His wife, Clytemnestra, only pretends to greet
him happily. Why is she mad? Because he sacrificed their daughter to make
some winds blow, that’s why. (Does that sound like a similar plot point
from an episode of Game of Thrones? That show steals from the best!). To make matters worse, Agamemnon has brought
home his concubine, Cassandra. Clytemnestra’s lover, Aegisthus, is also
ticked because–get ready–his father, once king, raped his daughter because an oracle
said an incest son would get revenge on his uncle who tricked his father into eating his
now deceased half siblings. His sister-mom, ashamed, disowns him so he’s
gotta work his way from GOAT FARMER back up to royalty, which he DOES, but then is ousted
by Meneleaus who installs … AGAMEMNON as king. So, long story medium-short, Clytemnestra
convinces Agamemnon to walk all on some TAPESTRIES, which is a sacrilegious act, a sign that he’s
prideful–which he sorta is–thus by ancient tradition justifying his murder. In some versions Aegisthus kills Agamemnon,
in others it’s Clytemnestra, but either way he gets it … in the bath no less! In the second play, things go bad in Argos. Electra, Agamemnon and Clytemnestra’s daughter,
is miserable. Orestes, her brother, arrives in disguise
and together they plot to murder their mother. Which is usually frowned upon, but the chorus
is all: Right. On. So, giving into their worst impulses, they
kill Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. Just when it seems like things might get back
to normal, the furies, aka the Erinyes arrive. The furies are scary snake-haired women who
terrorize you when you’ve spilled family blood. They chase Orestes out of the palace. Thanks Thoughtbubble, but the tragedy doesn’t
stop there. In the third play, Orestes seeks shelter with
the god Apollo, then heads to Athens. He appeals to the goddess Athena and she arranges
a trial for him, drafting twelve citizens for the jury. Orestes and the furies present their cases,
the jury deadlocks, and Athena acts as tiebreaker. The case comes down to whether it’s worse
to kill a mother or a husband. Apollo argues that mothers aren’t really
parents, they’re just hosts for the father’s seed. I’M SORRY WHAT? And then Athena is all like, “I was born
from my father’s forehead so I can totally get behind that. Orestes, you’re free. Furies, I’m changing your name to the Eumenides,
the Kindly Ones, and making you the patron goddesses of marriage and children. Libations all around!” So that’s how we get the jury trial and
some messed up ideas about parentage. As you probably noticed, each of these three
plays don’t tick every Aristotle Box. The third play has a non-tragic ending. But we can see how the engines of Aristotelian
tragedy drive these works: in each play, the action is more important than the characters,
who can seem somewhat flat and unconvincing. Clytemnestra offers about six different motivations
for her dastardly deeds, including that she finds murder sexually arousing … which is
troubling. But in every play, there’s plenty of action. In the first two plays, we can see mostly
noble characters missing the mark. Agamemnon agrees to walk on tapestries, Orestes
decides to resort to violence. There’s suffering aplenty. Taking the three plays as a whole, they show
that the only thing to break the tragic cycle of bloodguilt and vengeance is literal divine
intervention. Divine intervention, and jury duty–which
was a pretty convincing way to remind the audience of the importance of the city’s
democratic institutions! Do these plays offer catharsis? Well, that’s gonna depend on how we interpret
catharsis. And of course it’s also going to depend
on how the plays are performed. But in a strong production I’d say chances
are good that you feel pity. Or fear. Or both. Enjoy your purgation. And then go vote with a clear head! We’ll see you next time for Greek comedy. Yup. All the phalluses. And…curtain!

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