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Greek Tragedy

Aristotle argues that the function of Greek tragedy is to evoke pity and fear in the audience, and to achieve a “catharsis” or purgation of emotion.  In simpler words, its purpose is to illuminate moral truths for the public. “Tragedy”, strangely enough, is Greek for “goat-song”. Greek TragedyHow exactly the word came to have its more commonly understood meaning no one seems to be able to agree upon.  But whatever the origin of the word, we do know that tragedy, along with comedy, is one of the two main components into which Aristotle divided drama in his work entitled, “Poetics”, which he wrote in the 4th century BC.  Aristotle’s account of the form and purpose of Greek tragedy, and his comments on the system of beliefs which lie beneath it, have had a tremendous influence on Western drama.

Aristotle believed that tragedy was the imitation of reality, intended to purify by arousing “pity and terror” in its spectators.  He based his analysis on a few plays by Sophocles, most notably “King Oedipus”, when he said that the central character of a tragedy should be a noble person who is brought down because of some flaw in his or her own nature. In Oedipus’ case, the flaw is his insistence on seeking out a truth that he knows will ultimately destroy him.  The hero's fall, known as “peripeteia”, is the nucleus of tragedy, and is the chief means of achieving catharsis, or purification. At some point in the action, there should be recognition by the hero of his or her flaw, and of the inevitability of suffering.  This is known as, “anagnorisis”, and is the turning point of the play. Ideally, the action of the play is structured with the purpose of articulating these themes.

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