What is tragedy? While the literal definition may have changed over the centuries, one man believed he knew the true meaning of a tragic performance. Aristotle belonged to the culture that first invented tragic drama – the ancient Greeks. Through this, he gave himself credibility enough to illustrate the universally necessary elements of tragic drama. In The Poetics, Aristotle gives a clear definition of a tragedy, writing that it is “an imitation, through action rather than narration, of a serious, complete, and ample action, by means of language rendered pleasant at different places in the constituent parts by each of the aids [used to make language more delightful], in which imitation there is also effected through pity and fear its catharsis of these and similar emotions.” Basically, Aristotle thinks a tragedy should be witnessed rather than related, use poetic imagery instead of dry language, and have a logical flow with an inevitable conclusion at the end that evokes a heightened emotional response from the audience.
Ever since Aristotle applied logic to art in The Poetics, playwrights from all time periods and cultures have attempted to prove him wrong. Utilizing intuition and writing from the soul, many have succeeded and many have failed. However, the most commercially successful theatrical performances have tended to follow Aristotle’s rules of drama.
Aristotle maintained that all tragedies be driven by plot and that the characters simply be plugged into the story line. Leading the charge is the Tragic Hero, the man (not woman) who ultimately suffers the tragic fate. As defined in The Poetics, the Tragic Hero is, “the man of much glory and good fortune...
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...oman’s world and demonstrated the tragic possibilities that exist within a common man’s universe. In so doing, he expanded the definition of Tragic Hero and helped to revolutionize tragic drama beyond the twentieth century.
Epps, Preston H. (trans.). 1970. The Poetics of Aristotle. Chapel Hill, N.C.: The University of North Carolina Press.
Guth, Hans P. and Gabriel L. Rico. 1993. Discovering Literature. “Tragedy and the Common Man” by Arthur Miller. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Murphy, Brenda and Susan C. W. Abbotson. Understanding Death of a Salesman: A Student Handbook to Cases, Issues and Historical Documents. The Greenwood Press “Literature in Context” series, Claudia Durst Johnson, series editor. Westwood, CT, London: 1999.
Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. 50th Anniversary ed. New York: Penguin Books, 1999.
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