On Aristotle and Greek Tragedy

On Aristotle and Greek Tragedy

On Aristotle and Greek Tragedy

On Aristotle and Greek Tragedy

Excerpt

ARISTOTLE wrote the treatise On the Art of Poetry towards the end of his life, when Aeschylus had been dead for rather more than a century, and Sophocles and Euripides, who died within a few months of one another, for about seventy years. 335 B.C. is an acceptable approximation.

This work, which we always call the Poetics , has no rival among commentaries on the tragic drama of the Greeks. Its finish is rough, sometimes suggesting lecture notes rather than literary composition; and its second book has disappeared in which Aristotle dealt with Comedy and other subjects. But it is the only extended critical and theoretical record to survive from the civilisation that produced the plays. And that would be decisive, even if its intrinsic merit were less than it is.

The question of merit is an historically complicated one because the Poetics has exerted more influence through the ideas people have read into it than through those it contains. While, of course, this is not the only ancient text to be subjected to a series of misapplications, temporary, local, and mutually inconsistent, the Poetics must be distinguished by almost total failure of contact between Aristotle's argument and the successive traditions of exegesis. There is nothing very like the fate of this book in all the secular literature of the West.

The facts are well known, but we have been blind, as I think, to their application against ourselves. A kind of false security results from acknowledging the absurdities of neo-classicism. We contemplate that remote aesthetic tyranny imposed by Italian and French theorists who claimed to speak for Aristotle, and in his name expounded the Rules and mounted guard over Decorum; we try to conceive a world in which Corneille and Dryden could separately prostrate themselves before a ghost in order to urge that the rule (which is not a rule in Aristotle) requiring a play's action to be confined within twenty-four hours should be relaxed a little to admit an action of thirty hours: and then we settle into self-congratulation.

Our sense of superior enlightenment has one sound support . . .

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