For several thousands of years, drama has existed among mankind. The ancient Greeks are accredited with the creation of drama, which began as simple religious rituals and eventually evolved into the more complex forms of tragedies and comedies. The first rules of drama, not surprisingly, were also written by a Greek–the famous philosopher and intellectual, Aristotle. Aristotle took note of the what qualities created a successful dramatic piece by observing a plethora of plays written by different Greek dramatists. As a result of what he observed, Aristotle compiled a set of guidelines to define the perfect tragedy. So influential, thorough, and well crafted were his writings that many poets and playwrights since have patterned their own works after them.
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Aristotle noted six basic requirements for a good tragedy–plot, character, diction, thought, spectacle, and song. The most important of all of these is obviously the plot. The plot needs to have a beginning, which doesn’t necessarily follow any event; a middle, which follows the beginning and causes the ending; and of course the finale, which is caused by the middle and does not itself cause any other event. Common sense, therefore, dictates that all of the acts need to be skillfully woven into one another instead of each act abruptly starting and abruptly ending. The last need of a good plot is the incorporation of situation reversals and scenes of recognition. These are almost always the most powerful parts of any good plot, as they invoke emotional interest in the viewer.
Character is the next most important aspect of the perfect tragedy after the plot. Every tragedy needs to contain a tragic hero. A complete villain or a perfect person should never be used as the tragic hero/heroine. Rather, the tragic hero should be basically good and fair person that is brought to downfall by a flaw of character. All of the characters of the play need to act true to life and to act in a general manner. The actions of the characters determine the outcome of the play, so each character should act in a particular way to ensure smoothness in the unraveling of the plot.
Skillful word handling is also very important to the quality of the play. The arrangement of words into a given meter and the choice of words used greatly effects the interest of the play. Through the diction of the play, the playwright shows his true ability to actually create poetry or write in prose. Song is another medium that can be used in the place of regular verse or prose, but the use of diction in song is equally important as it is in regular dialogue.
Physical presentation of the play, while appealing to the eye, is the least of all the factors of a play. The scenery and costumes of the actors do add interest to the play but are not actually required, as the given tragedy can be performed just as successfully without it. As stated before, spectacle merely adds a superficial touch to the play, as the poet himself may or may not have any bearing over its handling.
A good example of the use of the guidelines of Aristotle in more recent times is manifested in the writings of William Shakespeare. The tragedies of Shakespeare are always well thought out, and contain skillfully crafted plots. Each tragedy contains a tragic hero. Some of his more famous tragic heroes include Othello, Hamlet, and Lear. Shakespeare was also a master of the English language and skillfully worded his poetry in iambic form, the form suggested by Aristotle himself. To further illustrate his conformity to the writings of Aristotle, Shakespeare’s own Hamlet, Prince of Denmark will be used.
First of all, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark contains a well thought out plot, which is an absolute necessity for a tragedy in the style of Aristotle. The play begins at a castle in Denmark, with no preceding event directly causing its beginning. The actions of Hamlet and the other characters of the play directly cause the events which happen in the play. For example, Hamlet’s hesitance to avenge his father’s death by killing Claudius makes it possible for him to continue with his pretended madness. This, in turn, causes him to kill Polonius (who Hamlet thought was actually Claudius), which drives the fair Ophelia, Polonius’s daughter and love interest of Hamlet, mad. This, of course, enrages Laertes, who is brother to Ophelia and son of Polonius. As a result, Hamlet and Laertes poison each other in a duel, and Hamlet is forced to kill Claudius then and there or never. This shows a clear cause-effect related plot, which Aristotle clearly stressed. The actions of the characters in Hamlet also lead up to an end that has a definite end. All of the main characters except Horatio and Fortinbras meet tragic deaths.
The plot of Hamlet also makes use of situation reversal and recognition scenes. Aristotle considered these moments within a tragedy to be the play’s shining moments. An example of a recognition scene in Hamlet would be Hamlet’s discovery of Claudius’s treachery from the ghost of old Hamlet. This recognition scene actually sparks off the major plot of the play–Hamlet’s revenge for his father–while creating enmity between Claudius and him. There are several situation reversals in Hamlet. One is the reversal of Hamlet’s execution at the hands of the British with that of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Another is Hamlet’s reversal of situation with Claudius. After Hamlet kills Polonius, he is not only trying to avenge his father’s death by killing Claudius, but Laertes is trying to kill Hamlet to avenge Polonius.
Hamlet, himself, also conforms perfectly to Aristotle’s view of the tragic hero. Aristotle stated that “…[the tragic hero must be] a man good and just, who yet brings misfortune on himself not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty.” Indeed, the character of Hamlet is a good man who falls not because he is in anyway evil, but falls simply because he makes the mistake of being overly hesitant. This is certainly the truest form of the tragic hero.
Lastly, the word play in Hamlet is nothing less than a work of masterpiece. The poetic form of all of Shakespeare’s plays is always well crafted and problems with wording are nonexistent. Hamlet also contains some of the most famous soliloquies that Shakespeare ever wrote. Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” speech is probably one of Shakespeare’s best known speeches outside of Mark Antony’s “friends, Romans, county men, lend me your ears” speech from Julius Caesar. Elements of song are also found in this play through the character Ophelia when she is in her maddened state.
Hamlet is most definitely a shining example of an ideal tragedy. Its plot, characters, and wording are all masterfully crafted. It is well thought out and flows smoothly. William Shakespeare has truly embraced Aristotle’s idea of the perfect tragedy through his own Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.