CliffsNotes on Euripides’ Electra and Medea

By Robert J. Milch | Go to book overview

ARISTOTLE ON TRAGEDY

In the Poetics, his famous study of Greek dramatic art, Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) compares tragedy to such other metrical forms as comedy and epic. He determines that tragedy, like all poetry, is a kind of imitation (mimesis), but adds that it has a serious purpose and uses direct action rather than narrative to achieve its ends. He says that poetic mimesis is imitation of things as they could be, not as they are—i.e., of universals and ideals—thus poetry is a more philosophical and exalted medium than history, which merely records what has actually happened.

The aim of tragedy, he writes, is to bring about a “catharsis” of the spectators—to arouse in them sensations of pity and fear, and to purge them of these emotions so that they leave the theater feeling cleansed and uplifted, with a heightened understanding of the ways of gods and men. This catharsis is brought about by witnessing some disastrous and moving change in the fortunes of the drama’s protagonist. (Aristotle recognized that the change might not be disastrous, but felt this was the kind shown in the best tragedies Oedipus at Colonus, for example, was considered a tragedy by the Greeks but does not have an unhappy ending.)

According to Aristotle, tragedy has six main elements—plot, character, diction, thought, spectacle (scenic effect), and song (music), of which the first two are primary. Most of the Poetics is devoted to analysis of the scope and proper use of these elements, with illustrative examples selected from many tragic dramas, especially those of Sophocles, although Aeschylus, Euripides, and some playwrights whose works no longer survive are also cited.

Several of Aristotle’s main points are of great value for an understanding of Greek tragic drama. Particularly significant is his statement that the plot is the most important element of tragedy. He explains—

… tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of action and
life, of happiness and misery. And life consists of action,
and its end is a mode of activity, not a quality. Now
character determines men’s qualities, but it is their action
that makes them happy or wretched. The purpose of action
in the tragedy, therefore, is not the representation of
character: character comes in as contributing to the action.
Hence the incidents and the plot are the end of the tragedy;
and the end is the chief thing of all. Without action there

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CliffsNotes on Euripides’ Electra and Medea
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page 1
  • Contents 3
  • Introduction 5
  • Background of Greek Tragedy 6
  • Aristotle on Tragedy 12
  • Life of Euripides 16
  • Extant Works of Euripides 19
  • Summaries Andcommentaries 22
  • Notes on Main Characters 60
  • Suggested Reading 62
  • Examination Questions 63
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