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Aristotle on Writing

Today I happened upon an article written in 1927 by Martha Fletcher Bellingerº about Aristotle’s influence on Greek drama. Aristotle had a significant influence on philosophy, politics, ethics, physics, to name only some areas of his lasting impact. But his teaching on drama and literature were unknown to me. Let’s read some of what Ms. Bellinger wrote about this amazing Athenian.

She makes the point that what he taught about plays applies equally to all forms of literature. Aristotle analyzed the plays of Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus, and concluded that plot was more important than the characters. He was the first to understand that a play must have a beginning, middle, and ending. If a drama, whether tragedy or comedy, didn’t include a Situation which moves into a Conflict, which leads to a Resolution, it would not hold the interest or arouse the feelings of fear, anxiety, compassion in the audience.

He conceived the action, or plot, of a play as of far greater importance than the characters. The action was “the vital principle and very soul of drama.” Again he says, “Tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of actions.” Second in importance was characterization; and third were the sentiments aroused by the action. He insisted very clearly that the plot does not rise out of the characters, but on the contrary the plot tests the characters through their responses to each scene, each event, good or tragic. The main duty of the dramatist was to organize first the action, then display the moral character of his people under the blows of fate.

What Aristotle said about the protagonist and antagonist of a drama remains supremely important to writers of fiction today. He insisted that the hero or leading character should not be a man or woman of great virtue nor the antagonist characterized by great vice, but of “mixed nature”: partly good and partly bad. The mistakes and weaknesses of the protagonist leads him or her into into disaster. They depend on strength of character to extricate them from misfortune. Such a mixture of good and evil makes both hero and scoundrel seem like ourselves, and makes the characters realistic.

Next time you’re reading a work of fiction, look for these Aristotelean themes. I think it will increase your reading pleasure.

º A Short History of the Drama. Martha Fletcher Bellinger. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1927. pp. 61-67.D

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