Read an Excerpt
From Eugene Garver’s Introduction to Poetics and Rhetoric
Tragedy came into existence in Athens along with democracy in the late sixth century. Performing and watching a tragedy were political acts, part of the celebration of a festival in honor of the god Dionysus. But the political context and significance of tragedies are not obvious, and are certainly less apparent than that of rhetoric. Though they came into being as Athens became a democracy, modern democracies do not create a central role for tragedy, and Shakespeare’s England and Racine and Corneille’s France were not especially democratic places. The two—tragedy and democracy—are not necessary for one another.
Tragedy, according to Aristotle, has a double origin in nature: We take pleasure in imitating and in seeing or experiencing imitations. While “imitation” is its traditional translation, mimesis needn’t mean copying as in the modern word “mimeograph.” Since chapter 2 tells us that tragedy imitates people who are “better than in real life,” tragic imitation cannot be simply copying. Mimesis can just as well be translated as representation, depiction, or portrayal. Keeping those options in mind can help make us more flexible in understanding Aristotle’s meaning.
The history of tragedy, according to Aristotle, also had an ending at the time of Sophocles (496–406): “Having passed through many changes, it found its natural form, and there it stopped” (4.1449a15). I will talk about that beginning and ending later, but in between Aristotle traces what he sees as the crucial intermediate stages after the natural beginning in imitating and recognizing imitations:
Poetry now diverged in two directions, according to the individual character of the writers. The graver spirits imitated noble actions, and the actions of good men. The more trivial sort imitated the actions of meaner persons. . . . Tragedy—as also comedy—was at first mere improvisation. The one originated with the authors of the dithyramb, the other with those of the phallic songs, which are still in use in many of our cities. . . . Aeschylus first introduced a second actor; he diminished the importance of the chorus, and assigned the leading part to the dialogue. Sophocles raised the number of actors to three, and added scene-painting (4.1448b25–1449a18).
Other sources supplement what the Poetics tells us. Tragedies were performed before audiences that could contain half the citizens of Athens, perhaps up to 30,000 people, seated in sections divided according to their membership in political groups and military units. Non-citizens were present too, wealthy foreigners and resident aliens, and maybe—the question is debated—women. They were there to be witnesses to the power and greatness of the city, while the citizens in the audience were in a sense participants: Young men about to begin their military service constituted the chorus, while the citizens in the audience were war veterans. Each year three poets were chosen and each presented three tragedies and a satyr-play—plays that recounted the more grotesque parts of myths and heroic stories—in competition for a prize, as part of a religious and civic celebration in honor of the god Dionysus. The poets were well-known citizens: Aeschylus fought at the battles of Marathon and Salamis, and Sophocles was a general. (The author as professional didn’t yet exist, and the artist as society’s victim or as rebel had yet to be invented.) The importance of these performances to the city is signaled by the fact that poor people received a public subsidy to allow them to attend, just as they were paid to attend juries and serve in the military. Paying for the actors, the choruses, costumes, etc. was a duty of the wealthy, in the same way that outfitting naval vessels was. (Instead of luxury taxes, the wealthy were expected to make heavy voluntary contributions, and there were penalties if they didn’t.)
These facts about tragedy are important reminders that in the Greek world, there were no separate categories of the ethical, the political, the military, the religious, and the aesthetic. They also help us to see what a remarkable book the Poetics is. None of the facts in the last paragraph could be found in the Poetics. Plato had discussed drama and poetry in relation to the ethical and political effects that acting and watching had, as did Aristotle in the Politics. The Poetics by contrast seems to be a modern work: It considers only the aesthetic qualities of a work of art and says nothing at all about its ethical and political effects. While dividing our experiences into distinct categories of the political, the ethical, the religious, and the aesthetic is a recent development, Aristotle himself wrote the Ethics, the Politics, and the Poetics as separate works. We might naturally expect those distinct subjects to be covered in different books, but Aristotle separates them within a culture that didn’t think of them as separate spheres of activity. Reading the Poetics, one would never think that there were gods involved in the stories of most tragedies or that tragedies took place as part of religious festivals. If it is easy for us to think of works of art in such isolation, we need to keep in mind how strange it was for a Greek of Aristotle’s time.