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ENG 6018
Criticism and Theory I

Class 4: Aristotle

Reading Assignment:

    Aristotle (NATC 87-121);
    Oedipus the King
    See also diagram on Oedipus Rex in course documents.

    Due: Post #3

Class Objectives:

  • Analyze Aristotle's Poetics entire;
  • Analyze excerpts from Aristotle's Rhetoric
  • Discuss Rob Brown's report on Oedipus and the Poetics and Taylor Mitchell's response

With Aristotle's Poetics we read the earliest analytical account of literature, and this text has tremendous influence over later texts throughout the period we are studying. Aristotle is perhaps the greatest classical source for Enlightenment literary theories. Aristotle, Plato's student, implicitly responds to Plato's theories of literature in very different ways. As you read, consider what theory of literature Aristotle develops and how this borrows and departs from his teacher.

Notes and Discussion Questions:


Describe Aristotle's method in Poetics. What assumptions about literature are implied by this method?

What is mimesis? What role does it play in Aristotle's analysis of poetry?

Discuss: "Representation is natural to human beings from childhood. They differ from other animals in this: man tends most towards representation and learns his first lessons through representation.

    Also everyone delights in representations" (93).

Aristotle suggests in passing a principle we ought to consider more fundamentally: "The cause of this is that learning is most pleasant" (93). What role does poetry play in learning?

Throughout his outline of principles and parts, Aristotle has recourse to Sophocles' Oedipus Rex. Refer to the diagram I supplied in the course documents, and examine how this play illustrates Aristotle's theory.

What are the primary distinctions between tragedy and epic, and between these and comedy and lampoon? (93-4)

"Tragedy is a representation of a serious, complete action which has magnitude, in embellished speech, with each of its elements [used] separately in the [various] parts [of the play]; [represented] by people acting and not by narration; accomplishing by means of pity and terror the catharsis of such emotions" (95).

This definition of tragedy has become a cornerstone of the theories of tragedy. Aristotle is precise and comprehensive. What does each phrase refer to? How does the combination of parts define a genre? How does this definition characterize the work of Sophocles? How might it be useful for understanding the genre today?

What are the six parts of tragedy? What is the most important and why? (95-6)

Explain: "fineness lies in magnitude and order" for all things (96-7).

What is the difference between historians and poets as Aristotle see it? (97-8)

What is probability and why it is important for plot?

What is the difference between a simple and a complex plot, and how does this apply to Oedipus Rex?

To what extent is it important to know something of the context for Greek theatre in order to appreciate Aristotle's arguments? Do some basic research on Greek theatre. What did you learn?

Is "recognition" always based on identity? What does this suggest about Greek tragedy? How might this translate through drama history?

Aristotle describes what tragedy should not do - for example, it should not represent a good man undergoing change from fortune to misfortune. How does Aristotle circumscribe tragedy? Why? what assumptions does this make about his audience's response to rejected plots?

What are the particular pleasures of tragedy arising from pity and terror? (101)

What rules does Aristotle establish for character? What does he aim to achieve by this delineation?

"The virtue of diction is to be clear but not commonplace" (109). Evaluate.

In the discussion of diction, Aristotle offers many points on how poetic language functions. How might a student use these arguments in formal analysis of literature? What case might this make for the distinctive qualities of literary language? (These are issues taken up by the formalist schools of theory and echoed by Fish and Perloff.) 110-111.

How does epic differ from tragedy? Who is the exemplar discussed here and why? (112-113) What is better? (116-7)

He ends with a discussion of criticism. What are the five types of criticism? How would you describe his discussion of error and solutions?


What are the three types of argument in speech? What is the most powerful and why? (117-8)

What are the three species of rhetoric and how are they classified? (118)

Analyze the contrast between poetic language and persuasive language (121). What does "ordinary language" mean in this context?

Aristotle - general

If you had to describe Aristotle and Plato as either inductive or deductive, who would be which and why?

The editors suggest that Aristotle's "systematic categorization of genres and species and his comparison of tragedy and epic underlie all genre theory" (88). What aspects of Aristotle's theory form this grounding of narrative theory or narratology?

How does Aristotle answer Plato's critique of poetry?

What is "katharsis"?

How does Aristotle's division between Poetics and Rhetoric imply or set up categories that operate in our contemporary tensions between rhetorical analyses of literature (a cultural studies approach that looks at audiences and discourse communities) and a formalist approach (advocated by Perloff)? (ref 89).

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