Aristotle Questions for E492 Modern Critical Theory, Cal State Fullerton



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Assigned: Aristotle. Poetics (88-115). Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 2nd edition.


1. On pages 88-90, Aristotle offers his initial thoughts about poetry. In what ways does it become immediately clear that his approach is going to differ from Plato's treatment of the arts in The Republic? What features in the text's first few pages signal that it will proceed in compliance with scientific attitude and methodology

2. On page 88, Aristotle says that the imitative arts differ in media, object, and manner. How does he amplify and illustrate those terms in the next few pages (88-90)?

3. On pages 90-92, how does Aristotle explain the origin of "the art of poetry as a whole" (90)? and the development of particular forms of poetry? Why is it that "everyone delights in representations" (90)? What instincts does imitation or representation satisfy? And why, in particular, do we "delight in looking at the most detailed images of things which in themselves we see with pain"? (90) If you are presenting on this question, what's your own response to at least the last-mentioned issue?

4. On page 92, how does Aristotle first define tragedy? What are the two emotions by means of which catharsis is achieved, and what effect does the term catharsis suggest tragedy should have upon those emotions? To respond, look up the word catharsis -- what range of meanings can you find for that term?

5. On page 93, what six parts does Aristotle say every tragedy must have? He says on the same page that plot is "the soul of tragedy." So on pages 93-95, how does he define "plot," further discuss its qualities and requirements, and explain why the plot is so important in his theory of drama?

6. Again with regard to Aristotle's discussion of plot as central to tragic drama (93-95), set down your own view: when you watch a film, see a play, or read a work of fiction and the plot is badly constructed, what effect does that have on your experience? Does the effect validate what Aristotle says about the centrality of plot in tragic plays? Explain.

7. On page 94, Aristotle discusses plot structure. What makes a play's action "whole" (96), and what advice does Aristotle offer dramatists regarding the correct "magnitude" of a given plot? How flexible is he on this point, and in what sense might his theory be described as favoring organically constructed plots – i.e. ones that seem to flow from a sense of the natural coherence of a series of actions? (If you are presenting on this question, explore also the extent to which Aristotle's remarks on this page and perhaps adjacent ones show concern for the expectations and sensibilities of the audience.)

8. On page 95, what key distinction does Aristotle make between the representation of history and poetic representation? Why is poetry, in his view, a "more philosophical and serious" kind of imitation than anything to be found in the work of historians? Do you agree or disagree? Why? Furthermore, Aristotle seems to be assuming that the writing of an historical account doesn't involve anything like the arts of the fiction-writer. Would that assumption hold for a modern understanding of history? Explain.

9. On pages 96-97, Aristotle discusses what he calls simple plots and complex plots. How does he distinguish these kinds of plot? What advice does he offer regarding what's best for each kind? In addition, with regard to complex plots, what are "recognition" (anagnorisis) and "reversal" (peripeteia)? What is the best way to handle recognition and reversal, and how might excellent handling of them enhance a drama's structure and contribute to the audience's achievement of catharsis?

10. On pages 97-98, how, according to Aristotle, should the imperative of generating "pity and terror" in the audience influence the poet's selection of the tragic protagonist? What should the playwright bear in mind when it comes to the representation of character?

11. On pages 98-102, beyond his discussion of the protagonist's desired qualities, what advice does Aristotle give regarding various elements of a play's structure, character representation, and content to improve its impact? What seems to be the underlying basis or set of assumptions that leads to such comments?

12. On page 102 (see paragraph 17ff, "In constructing his plots…), aside from the rather technical comments he has already made, what does Aristotle suggest to dramatists about the best way to produce excellent plots and clear, strong, memorable diction? What do such remarks – including the odd statement about "the genius or the madman" -- imply about his views on the nature of playwrights themselves, and about the creative process generally? (If you are presenting on this question, to what extent here and elsewhere in The Poetics does Aristotle seem interested in the poet as an individual creator?)

13. On 109-11 (following a disquisition mostly on figures of speech under the rubric of "diction"), Aristotle comments on epic verse. What latitude in representation allows epic, in comparison with tragedy, the more easily and appropriately to generate "amazement" in an audience (110, next-to-last paragraph)? What specific praises does Aristotle accord Homer as a storyteller who has much to teach other poets and dramatists, and why?

14. On 110 bottom, discussion of Homer's skillful way with "untruths" leads Aristotle on pages 111-13 to muse about the best handling of improbable and/or impossible events in a tragedy. When should we look kindly on an error in representative art? That is, when something is portrayed inaccurately or an impossible event takes place on stage, what might excuse this kind of representation and even make it appropriate? Consider, among other remarks, Aristotle's example on page 112 top of the painter who represents a female deer with horns. (If you are presenting on this question, offer some reflection on what Aristotle might be revealing about his attitude towards art that diverges from realistic representations – art that is less "imitative" and somewhat more, as we would say, imaginative?)

15. On page 114, on what grounds does Aristotle argue that tragedy is superior to epic, in spite of Homeric epic's undoubted virtues? Do you agree or disagree? Why? What's your own favorite ancient Greek work of art?

16. General question: Aristotle's theory about drama has been called a direct response to Plato's theory of imitation. How does Aristotle's conception of mimesis (imitation, representation) provide the possibility of replying to some of Socrates' objections as they are spelled out in The Republic?

17. General question: Aristotle's remarks in The Poetics need not be read as a grandiose defense of art, but they go farther than refuting Plato in the name of scientific observation -- drama, in the Aristotelian view, plays a role in Greek life that cannot be dismissed as corruptive, and representation is seen as natural and human, not a tool of deception. To what extent might a person validate art or popular culture today on similar grounds -- including film, television, or other entertainment forms?

18. General question adapted from UC Irvine's Prof. Albert Wlecke: does the movie Jaws arouse pity and fear in the manner described by Aristotle? Would it be a genuinely tragic production even if the answer is "yes"? Why or why not?

19. General question: what about movies like Silence of the Lambs? People seem capable of viewing with pleasure violent, even psychopathic behavior that (one may hope, at least) would horrify them if it were engaged in "for real." Does such pleasure stem from a different source than the one Aristotle identifies? Is it a healthy kind of pleasure, or an unhealthy one? Explain.

20. General question: pick out those places in The Poetics where Aristotle compares poetry to painting. How does his use of this comparison differ from Plato's? Relate these differences to their different notions of mimesis or imitation.

21. General question: leaving Aristotle aside for a moment, we might ask, "how do journalists, the general public, politicians, etc. use the word 'tragedy' in everyday speech?" Does that kind of usage have anything in common with the more precise Aristotelian meaning of the term, or is it so different that we would be comparing apples with oranges? Explain.

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