Aristotle's Poetics
Complexity and Pleasure: Aristotle's 'Complex Plot' and the pleasure element in tragedy

by Souvik Mukherjee

First, the instinct of imitation is implanted in man from childhood, one difference between him and other animals being that he is the most imitative of living creatures, and through imitation learns his earliest lessons; and no less universal is the pleasure felt in things imitated. We have evidence of this in the facts of experience. Objects which in themselves we view with pain, we delight to contemplate when reproduced with minute fidelity   [Poetics Chapter lV]


In his Poetics [1] Aristotle (384-322 BC) classifies plot into two types: simple [haplos], and complex [peplegmenos]. The simple plot is defined as a unified construct of necessary and probable actions accompanied by a change of fortune. The complex plot, says Aristotle, is accompanied by two other features, namely; peripeteia or reversal, and anagnorisis, or recognition. It is this which Aristotle feels is the best kind of tragic plot, in that it provides the best possibility of delivering tragic pleasure.

Before we look at the distinctive features of the complex plot, it would perhaps be instructive to examine those features which it shares with the simple plot. The unity of structure recommended by Aristotle includes the tripartite division of the plot into the beginning, the middle and the end, as well as the unities of time and action. He stresses unified action, where all action in the plot carries a definite link to other actions, and subsequent actions are the necessary and probable outcomes of the former.

Necessary and probable are terms which recur throughout the Poetics. They stand for the universality of poetry in that they point to how or what actions should logically be in a given situation. Unity of action, therefore, does not mean all that happens to the protagonist, but precisely what comprises a particular whole action according to the norms of necessity and probability. Unity of time, in contrast to its neo-classical applications, here simply means the time span in which the tragic action can be best comprehended by the audience, given the constraints of human memory, and the wholeness of the action.

Finally, we come to the change of fortune. It is either from good to bad or the reverse. The former is more characteristic of tragedy but in a later section Aristotle complicates the idea by saying that those plots where the catastrophe is averted by recognition are best. The change of fortune is also accompanied by a complication of events [desis] and their resolution [lusis].

Having briefly examined the common aspects of both kinds of plot, we can now look at the special attributes of the complex plot.

Let us take another look at Aristotle's celebrated definition of complex action: 'A complex action is one where the change is accompanied by such reversal or recognition or both.' Peripeteia has been defined as a reversal of the action. If, however, it is just that, then how is it different from the change of fortune? Clearly this is too limited a definition of peripeteia and it would perhaps be pertinent to consider two other definitions. Humphrey House [2] defines it as a 'reversal of intention'. This definition takes into account the 'thought' or the dianoia exercised by the character. House describes it as 'holding the wrong end of the stick'. Peripeteia is therefore the turning of the stick thinking that it is the right end. The ignorance behind any peripeteia is not mere ignorance. It is the ignorance arising out of error. The other definition is more recent. Frank Kermode [3] defines it as a 'disconfirmation followed by a consonance; the interest of having our expectations falsified is obviously related to our wish to reach discovery by an unexpected route. It has nothing to do with our reluctance to get there at all. So that in assimilating the peripeteia we are enacting that readjustment of our expectations in regard to an end'. This points out the pleasure we receive from peripeteia which is quite different from the straightforward following of a narrative to its end, or in other words, mere change of fortune.

Having defined peripeteia and identified its characteristic pleasure, we must also consider what this pleasure actually consists of. This is the element of surprise or wonder [Gk. Thaumaston]. The source of wonder is often the tragic recognition or anagnorisis. Recognition has been variously defined. In Aristotle it is the recognition of persons through tokens, artistic contrivances, memory, reasoning (including false inferences) and lastly, arising out of the events themselves (as in Oedipus Rex). Aristotle defines this anagnorisis as a change from ignorance to knowledge. In terms of Humphrey House's analogy, it would mean the realization that you have got hold of the wrong end of the stick. House himself defines recognition thus, 'The discovery of the truth of the matter is the ghastly wakening from the state of the ignorance which is the very essence of hamartia.' Other scholars define it variously as 'a way in which the emotional potential . . . can be brought to its highest voltage, so to speak at the moment of discharge', or, 'recognition brings its illumination, which can shed retrospective light'.

Aristotle likes best the recognition which arises out of the events themselves, as in Sophocles's Oedipus Rex. The whole play is a step by step unravelling of Oedipus's true identity and Oedipus's holding the wrong end of the stick, as it were, in trying to discover his identity without knowing that the results will be catastrophic. At second best, he places those tragedies where reasoning effects the recognition. Together with these definitions, we could compare the slightly different angle from which Terence Cave [4] views recognition. For him it is a stumbling block to belief which disturbs the decorum. From this comparison we realize the complicated nature of recognition. In the unravelling of the complex plot the point of the recognition is very different from that possible in a simple plot. The combination of peripeteia and recognition does not merely affect the characters in the tragedy. They can also extend to the audience or the reader. The unexpectedness of the tragic catastrophe which the complex plot brings [the element of wonder or thaumaston] heightens our feelings of pity and fear as well as other related emotions.

Here it would be useful to look at another famous assertion of Aristotle's. In Ch XIV of the Poetics he says, 'the pleasure which the poet should afford is that which comes from pity and fear through imitation' [5]. Perhaps an examination of pity and fear together with imitation can give us a better idea of the pleasures incidental to tragedy. Let us start with an appraisal of pity and fear. Pity and fear are man's sympathy for the good part of mankind in the bad part of their experiences. Pity is evoked when there is a discrepancy between the agent and Fate, and fear when there is a likeness between the agent and us. Stephen Dedalus defines Pity and Fear in James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. He calls pity the feeling which arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human-sufferings and unites it with the human sufferer. Terror, or fear, is that which unites it with the secret cause. [6].

Aristotle himself gives similar definitions of these terms in his Rhetoric [books V and II]. There he defines them as a species of pain. It is here that we can begin to consider the idea that tragic pleasure derives from the purgation of these emotions. The idea of purgation as a medical metaphor has been in vogue for a long time and can be substantiated by examples from Aristotle's Problems [problem XXX] where coldness of black bile accompanies 'despair and fear' and heat is the suggested cure which restores the temperature to a temperate mean. Aristotle, unlike his teacher Plato, says that the emotions are good in themselves. Therefore there should be no need to purge the feelings of pity and fear. Instead, a more sensible definition of tragic pleasure would be that concomitant with the proper feeling of these emotions. By proper I mean a temperate attitude to these emotions as Aristotle teaches in his Nichomachean Ethics. In Book II of his Ethics, he says:

fear and confidence and appetite and anger and pity and in general pleasure and pain may be felt both too much and too little, and in both cases not well; but to feel them at the right times, with reference to the right objects, towards the right people, with the right motive, and in the right way, is what is both intermediate and best, and this is characteristic of virtue. [7]

Aristotle's idea of the mean is derived from the Pythagoreans who applied it to music. Here we may note that another place where Aristotle uses the term catharsis is in his Politics and in the context of giving 'relief to overcharged feeling' through music. Interestingly, here too, he mentions pity and fear among the emotions dealt with and the restoration is once again to a temperate mean. [8]

Is catharsis the only possible source of pleasure in tragedy? Humphry House does not think so. Those who are temperate in themselves and do not require an adjustment of their emotional reactions to tragic situations, still derive pleasure from tragedy. Even Plato in The Republic testifies to this fact: 'even the best of us enjoy it and let ourselves be carried away by our feelings; and are full of praises for the merits of the poet who can most powerfully affect us in this way.' [9]. The pleasure arising out of poetry is therefore not entirely dependent on catharsis. Instead, it works in two ways. In Book VII [section 11 - 14] Aristotle discusses 'pure' pleasure and 'incidental' pleasure. The former is universal and is accompanied by no pain and is likened to the pleasure arising out of contemplation. Those who experience this do so solely by contemplating and appraising the imitation of human emotions in tragedy.

It is through this view that we bring our focus back on the last part of Aristotle's statement quoted above. Pleasure is effected through imitation [or mimesis]. As Aristotle said [10] imitation is itself a pleasurable act. All of this applies to epic as well as tragedy and can probably be extended to other types of poetry. The specifically 'tragic' pleasure is that pertaining to the medium and the dramatic mode of tragedy. These constitute the specific imitative aspects of tragedy.

The idea of tragic pleasure therefore necessarily consists as Aristotle aptly puts it 'in that which comes with pity and fear through imitation'. A heightened sense of pity and fear is effected when the necessary and probable events take an unexpected turn. This is possible in the complex plot with the accompanying peripeteia and anagnorisis. Thus our examination of the elements of the complex plot has led us to a consideration of pity and fear. These together with imitation [or mimesis] help us understand the pleasure peculiar to tragedy.

1 Aristotle. Poetics. Ch X (English trans. S. J. Butcher) All references are to Butcher's translation.
2 House, Humphrey. Aristotle's Poetics. 1955.
3 Kermode, Frank. The Sense of an Ending, OUP 1979
4 Cave, Terence. Recognitions, OUP 1988
5 Aristotle. Poetics. Ch XIV
6 Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
7 Aristotle. Nichomachean Ethics. (Eng. Trans. Sir David Ross) Bk II vi, OUP World's Classics
8 Aristotle. Politics, VIII.7
9 Plato. Republic, Book X (trans. H.D.P Lee), Penguin Classics
10 Aristotle. Poetics. Ch 1V. 'First, the instinct of imitation is implanted in man from childhood, one difference between him and other animals being that he is the most imitative of living creatures, and through imitation learns his earliest lessons; and no less universal is the pleasure felt in things imitated. We have evidence of this in the facts of experience. Objects which in themselves we view with pain, we delight to contemplate when reproduced with minute fidelity: such as the forms of the most ignoble animals and of dead bodies. The cause of this again is, that to learn gives the liveliest pleasure, not only to philosophers but to men in general; whose capacity, however, of learning is more limited. Thus the reason why men enjoy seeing a likeness is, that in contemplating it they find themselves learning or inferring, and saying perhaps, 'Ah, that is he.' For if you happen not to have seen the original, the pleasure will be due not to the imitation as such, but to the execution, the coloring, or some such other cause.'

© Souvik Mukherjee, September 2002
Souvik Mukherjee, formerly of Jadavpur University, Calcutta, obtained his Ph.D. from Nottingham Trent University in 2009
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