E491 ARISTOTLE QUESTIONS

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Assigned: The Poetics (90-117).

The Poetics (circa 335 BCE)

1. On 90-92, Aristotle says that the imitative arts differ in media, object, and manner. What do those terms mean? Give an example of each. Also, in what sense might do his initial remarks about the purpose of The Poetics emphasize his scientific attitude and methodology?

2. On 93, why is it, according to Aristotle, that "everyone delights in representations"? What instincts does imitation or representation satisfy? And why, in particular, do we take "delight in looking at the most detailed images of things which in themselves we see with pain"? (93)

3. On 95, how does Aristotle first define tragedy? What are the two tragic emotions by means of which catharsis is achieved, and what effect does tragedy have upon those emotions? Look up the word catharsis: what range of meanings can you find for that term?

4. On 95-96, what six parts does Aristotle say every tragedy must have? He says that plot is "the soul of tragedy." How does he define the term "plot," and why is the plot so important in his theory of drama?

5. On 96-97, Aristotle discusses plot structure. What makes a play's action "whole" (96), and what does Aristotle advise regarding the correct "magnitude" of a given plot: how flexible is he on this point? In what sense might his theory be described as favoring organically constructed plots?

6. On 97-98, 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?

7. On 98-99, what two kinds of plot does Aristotle outline, and how are they distinguished? Which is better, and why? What are "recognition" (anagnorisis) and "reversal" (peripeteia)? Why are they important to the structure of a drama and to the achievement of catharsis?

8. On 100-03, 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?

9. On 104 bottom, what does Aristotle say about the nature of playwrights or poets themselves, and about the creative process? On the whole (here and elsewhere in The Poetics, to what extent does Aristotle seem interested in the poet as an individual creator?

10. On 111-13 (following a disquisition mostly on figures of speech), Aristotle comments on epic verse. What latitude in representation allows epic, in comparison with tragedy, the more easily and appropriately to generate "amazement" (113) in an audience? What praise does Aristotle accord Homer as a storyteller, and why?

11. On 113-14, what does Aristotle say about the 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 entirely appropriate? (In responding, consider Aristotle's example on page 114 of the painter who represents a female deer with horns.)

12. On 116-17, on what grounds does Aristotle argue that tragedy is superior to epic, in spite of Homeric epic's undoubted virtues?

13. 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?

14. 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?

15. 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?

16. General question: what about movies like Silence of the Lambs? People seem quite 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.

17. 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.

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B., ed. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 1st ed. New York: Norton, 2001. ISBN 0-393-97429-4.