In Poetics, Aristotle writes that Tragedy must excite in its audience a sense of pity and fear. These emotions come not from watching the punishment of a villain, from a virtuous man falling on adversity, or from an evil man moving to prosperity, but watching the downfall of an ordinary man. The essential element in Greek tragedies is the tragic hero. He may be a king or man of renown, but he’s not too virtuous or too noble, just middle of the road when it comes to morality and judgment. His downfall comes not because he performs a particularly evil act, but because he is human and makes mistakes.
One prime example is the story of Oedipus. When a prophecy declares that he will be murdered by his son, King Laius leaves the infant Oedipus for dead on a mountainside, where he is rescued and raised by a shepherd. When another prophet tells Oedipus he is fated to kill his father, he does what a good son would do. He leaves home. Through a series of unfortunate events, Oedipus kills the king, his true father, and, ignorant of his heritage, marries the queen. Oedipus and his wife/mother have two children and live happily for a while until all is revealed. Oedipus blinds himself as his wife hangs herself. Oedipus loses his family and kingdom because, out of ignorance, he makes bad decisions.
Aristotle’s theories continued to influence playwrights for hundreds of years. Elizabethan tragedians use his ideas to craft heroes of their own. William Shakespeare’s Macbeth starts to advance in the world and gets greedy, leading to his death. Othello trusts the wrong people and murders his
innocent wife. Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus is too confident in his abilities and is damned for it.
The ideas still play in popular cultural. Ned Stark from Game of Thrones loses his head because of stubbornly held ideas of honor. Walter White from Breaking Bad turns his skills to criminal activities.
Today, as in ancient Greece, we see the lives of these heroes displayed for our entertainment. We pity them because they don’t deserve the fates they receive, and we’re afraid; afraid because sometimes, we are like them-prideful, ignorant, and selfish. The most important lesson that Tragedy teaches is that no matter what choices we make, we cannot escape the consequences.
“Poetics by Aristotle.” The Internet Classics Archive | Poetics by Aristotle. Trans. S. H. Butcher. MIT, 2009. Web. 18 June 2015.