For Aristotle in the Poetics, the most important element of drama is plot, “the arrangement of incidents”: plot more than character, plot more than theme, plot more than diction. What makes a good tragic plot? After impatiently dismissing what he calls “episodic” plots (“the worst…the episodes or acts succeed one another without probable or necessary sequence”), Aristotle goes on to speak about the kinds of plots he likes. These, he says, evolve organically—subject to the “law of probability or necessity”—and can be either “simple” or “complex.” A simple plot straightforwardly traces a character’s “change of fortune,” metabasis. Such changes could be from happiness to misery or vice versa: of the extant corpus of thirty-three tragedies that survive from Athenian antiquity, a number have “happy” endings—metabases that turn out well, that look “up,” as it were. Another, more familiar technical term from antiquity for the climactic change of fortune in a play is katastrophe: literally, a “downward turn.”
In Aristotle’s complex plot, the change of fortune is accompanied by either (or, preferably, both) of two elements: anagnorisis, an unexpected “recognition” by one character of another, and peripeteia, a “reversal.” “Recognition” is straightforward. As an example, he cites the heart-stopping passage in Euripides’ Iphigenia Among the Taurians in which Iphigenia, trapped far from her Greek home, dictates a homesick letter to a young man who’s returning to Greece, unaware that he is her long-lost brother, Orestes; as she tells him what to write he is made aware of her identity, and a beautiful reunion takes place.
By “reversal,” our first drama critic meant something quite specific: not “reversal of fortune” (as peripeteia is sometimes rendered) but “reversal of intention,” in which an action planned by a character turns out to have a result that—either horribly or triumphantly, depending on which way the metabasis goes—is the exact opposite of what he had intended. (So, for instance, a messenger in Sophocles’ Oedipus, seeking to alleviate the king’s fear that he might marry his mother—who, Oedipus thinks at this point, is the queen of Corinth—informs him that he was, in fact, adopted; a piece of information that eventually leads to the revelation that Oedipus’s biological mother was Jocasta—his wife.) For Aristotle, even the most surprising tragic recognitions and reversals had to seem “probable or necessary,” too. It goes without saying that he didn’t think much of the deus ex machina.
Of the three canonical Athenian tragedians, no one fooled around with plot more than Euripides did: suggestively twisting the story lines of received myth (it is he who had Medea kill her children), opening up new spaces in canonical legends, blithely deploying the deus ex machina as one might fling a bedspread over an unmade bed. And no Euripidean play has a plot that looks more improbable,…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.