CHENNAI: Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher, is one of the founding figures in Western thought. It so happens that none of what he wrote for the public in his time — none of the ‘published’ works — has survived the close to 2,400 years separating him from us. What we have of Aristotle is notes and half-written works, never meant for widespread sharing, perhaps written only to be of use to students as references to larger works.
One of these texts is Poetics, about 60-odd pages if one measures in today’s page sizes, and available in half. In it, Aristotle touches upon the components of the two modes of drama — tragedy and comedy. The extant Poetics only covers tragedy and in that too there are a few fuzzy spots where it is difficult to wean any meaning. Yet it contains, without doubt, a robust framework with which to look at tragedy. In fact, it is a particularly thrilling exercise to apply Aristotle’s ideas to famous plays — say those of William Shakespeare.
For Aristotle, plot is the most important element. He defines it as a chain of events in which, apart from the beginning, each individual event is necessary or probable. A tragic plot is specifically endowed with the responsibility of creating ‘pity and fear’ in the audience. Tragedies thus ought to have eminent men (in stature, achievements or morals) as their central characters, for witnessing the fall of someone inept or wicked can evoke neither emotion. Taking examples from the Shakespeare universe: Hamlet, as Prince of Denmark, and Othello, as the moor of Venice, broadly fit the eminence criteria. We could extend this to popular Hindi film adaptations by Vishal Bhardwaj too, and if readers recall, we see that Omkara fits the profile but Haider, without any eminence in his character, does not.
For designing a good plot, Aristotle recommends that the main character in a tragedy act in error. This is not so much a moral error as it is an error of judgment, and its revelation is supposed to unleash the emotive potential of the hero, also evoking in the audience a cocktail of pity and fear. Aristotle also recommends that the action of the tragedy should concern itself with characters that are closely related to each other, as in a family or in a love relationship — so that an error, when revealed, hurts deeper. Here is the logic behind all those patricides, fratricides and matricides in the classics.
These two concepts are seen clearly in Shakespeare’s Othello, where the moor, erroneously suspecting Desdemona of infidelity, murders her (in the film, Omkara kills his wife Dolly). When subsequently the error becomes clear to Othello, he kills himself. Hamlet’s case is more complicated (as is Haider’s). He doesn’t as much act in error as he is scared of acting in error. His anguish is borne of inaction, not repentance. With this added complication, Shakespeare isn’t in concordance with Aristotle.
(The writer is publishing his first novel ‘Neon Noon’ in July 2016)