A good idea from ... Aristotle

WE ARE entertained by the strangest things. Some people like a good night out watching a man unwittingly kill his father and marry his mother, a jealous lover murdering his beloved and a group of Danish nobility dying in a sword fight. But the question is always whether it's a good production of Hamlet or Oedipus. No one asks why witnessing incest and murder, punctuated by a gin and tonic, should constitute an evening well- spent.

Aristotle (384-322BC) did wonder, and arrived at the following definition: "A tragedy is the imitation of an action that is serious ... with incidents arousing pity and fear, in order to accomplish the catharsis of such emotions." He was out to disprove the view of the most famous philosopher of antiquity, who believed that going to the theatre was a most pernicious way to pass the time. Plato had argued in The Republic that poets should be exiled from the ideal state because they aroused emotions which flouted the dictates of reason. Aristotle rejoined that, although watching tragedies raised emotions, it also purged them. An audience would come away from Oedipus humbled, keen to be better and wiser.

We are moved by tragedies principally because we think, "What if I had been in that situation?", and they terrify us because we realise we would not necessarily have come out of it better than the heroes and heroines on stage. We are affected by tragedies because we identify with these figures, despite the fact that we live in very different times. Their stories, however far-fetched, are a possibility for us too. That's why Aristotle argued that a good tragedy should not have an entirely good or bad hero, but rather someone "whose misfortune is brought upon him not by vice and depravity but by some error of judgment".

We might make that kind of error, if life were to test us as harshly as it has tests the characters. We, too, could stab the wrong people, or realise too late that we ruined what we cared about most, or overlooked the people who loved us. We are all in danger of doing a Hamlet or an Othello. Perhaps we already have made some pretty serious errors, in which case tragedy invites us to feel a kind of sympathy for our flawed selves (and a generosity towards the flaws of others).

Most of the time, we don't bring this empathy to bear on our own or others' stories. We look at them as Shakespeare led us to look at Rosencrantz and Guildenstern rather than Hamlet. It took some four centuries for Tom Stoppard to demonstrate that these two men were also worthy of the complex consideration that tragic heroes and heroines are subjected to. Tragedy trains us to be more understanding of human frailty - and that's why Aristotle seemed to believe that attending regular performances where people killed their fathers and married their mothers was not a bad way of spending time.

Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams in True Detective season 2

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Off the wall: the cast of ‘Life in Squares’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Books And it is whizzpopping!

Arts and Entertainment
Bono throws water at the crowd while the Edge watches as they perform in the band's first concert of their new world tour in Vancouver

MusicThey're running their own restaurants

Voices
The main entrance to the BBC headquarters in London
TV & Radio
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Solved after 200 years: the mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army

    Solved after 200 years

    The mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army
    Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise

    Robert Fisk on the Turkey conflict

    Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise
    Investigation into wreck of unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden

    Sunken sub

    Investigation underway into wreck of an unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden
    Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes

    Age of the selfie

    Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes
    Not so square: How BBC's Bloomsbury saga is sexing up the period drama

    Not so square

    How Virginia Woolf saga is sexing up the BBC period drama
    Rio Olympics 2016: The seven teenagers still carrying a torch for our Games hopes

    Still carrying the torch

    The seven teenagers given our Olympic hopes
    The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis, but history suggests otherwise

    The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis...

    ...but history suggests otherwise
    The bald truth: How one author's thinning hair made him a Wayne Rooney sympathiser

    The bald truth

    How thinning hair made me a Wayne Rooney sympathiser
    Froome wins second Tour de France after triumphant ride into Paris with Team Sky

    Tour de France 2015

    Froome rides into Paris to win historic second Tour
    Fifteen years ago, Concorde crashed, and a dream died. Today, the desire to travel faster than the speed of sound is growing once again

    A new beginning for supersonic flight?

    Concorde's successors are in the works 15 years on from the Paris crash
    I would never quit Labour, says Liz Kendall

    I would never quit party, says Liz Kendall

    Latest on the Labour leadership contest
    Froome seals second Tour de France victory

    Never mind Pinot, it’s bubbly for Froome

    Second Tour de France victory all but sealed
    Oh really? How the 'lowest form of wit' makes people brighter and more creative

    The uses of sarcasm

    'Lowest form of wit' actually makes people brighter and more creative
    A magazine editor with no vanity, and lots of flair

    No vanity, but lots of flair

    A tribute to the magazine editor Ingrid Sischy
    Foraging: How the British rediscovered their taste for chasing after wild food

    In praise of foraging

    How the British rediscovered their taste for wild food