What Are Aristotle's 6 Elements of Tragedy What Are Aristotle's 6 Elements of Tragedy

What Are Aristotle’s 6 Elements of Tragedy? An In-Depth Guide

Stepping back in time, we find ourselves in ancient Greece, amidst thinkers who shaped the intellectual landscape of the world. Among these luminaries was Aristotle (384 BC), a philosopher whose contributions transcended boundaries and etched deep imprints on numerous disciplines – from biology to politics, from ethics to aesthetics.

However, it is his groundbreaking insights into drama and literature that form the crux of our discussion today. Aristotle’s seminal work, Poetics, holds a prism up to the world of Greek tragedies, cracking open its profound and enduring significance in literature. So what are Aristotle’s 6 elements of tragedy?

The heart of our exploration lies in understanding Aristotle’s six elements of tragedy, as outlined in Poetics. These elements – plot, character, thought, diction, spectacle, and song – are considered the building blocks of a tragedy.

So, join us on this fascinating journey as we delve into the world of Greek tragedies through the eyes of Aristotle, exploring his six elements of tragedy, and unveiling their enduring magic and wisdom.


Understanding Tragedy: An Aristotelian Perspective

Aristotle's Poetics
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Unraveling the complexity of tragedy, as defined by Aristotle, calls for a deep dive into his monumental work, Poetics.

At its core, Aristotle’s conception of tragedy is an intricate arrangement of six elements, each playing a significant role in the narrative’s unfolding and, ultimately, its impact on the audience.

The Definition and Characteristics of Tragedy

To begin with, Aristotle defines tragedy as “an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and possessing magnitude; in embellished language.” Furthermore, this imitation isn’t just a replication of events but a creative rendition drawn from life – focusing on universal truths rather than specific occurrences.

This imitation, according to Aristotle, is designed to evoke powerful emotions like fear or sympathy in the audience, leading to a cathartic experience.

Unpacking Aristotle’s Six Elements of Tragedy

Aristotle’s six elements of tragedy, listed in order of importance, are plot, character, thought, diction, melody, and spectacle.

Each element contributes to the overall effect of the tragedy, with the plot being the most significant. The characters, their thoughts, the way they express themselves (diction), the musical rhythm (melody), and the visual effects (spectacle) all play pivotal roles in shaping the plot and hence, the tragedy.

Interconnection Between the Six Elements

The six elements aren’t independent entities; instead, they are interconnected, working together to create a compelling tragedy.

  • The plot, which Aristotle considers the ‘soul’ of the tragedy, is closely tied to the characters and their thoughts.
  • The characters’ dialogues, expressed through diction, reveal their motivations and contribute to the plot’s development.
  • The melody and the spectacle, while less significant to Aristotle, still serve to enhance the mood and emotional intensity of the drama, thus further enriching the plot.

Aristotle’s framework for tragedy, even though it was conceived about two millennia ago, remains a profound influence on literature and drama today. It provides us with a lens to examine not only ancient Greek tragedies but also modern narratives, revealing the timelessness of Aristotle’s insights into the human condition and the art of storytelling.


What Are Aristotle’s 6 Elements of Tragedy?

As we delve into each of these elements in the coming sections, we will unravel how they collectively shape a tragedy, breathing life into its narrative and characters, steering its plot, and sparking an emotional connection with the audience.

Elements of tragedy
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We will also explore how these elements, despite being identified over two millennia ago, continue to hold relevance in contemporary drama and literature, making Aristotle’s insights truly timeless.


1. Dissecting Element One: Plot

Aristotle, a philosopher whose influence still echoes in various fields of study, holds the plot as the crux of a tragedy.

  • In his view, the plot is not just an assembly of random incidents.
  • It is a well-constructed sequence of events that commands the structure of a play.
  • It’s akin to the soul within a body, driving all actions and emotions, shaping the destiny of characters, and delivering the essence of life and its complexities.

In Aristotle’s words, “tragedy is an imitation not of men but of an action and of life, and life consists in action, and its end is a mode of action, not a quality.”

In terms of the progression of the plot, Aristotle divides the tragedy into two parts the complication and the denouement or “unraveling.” The complication extends from the beginning of the play to the moment of peripeteia and/or anagnorisis–the turning point of the plot. This structure allows the plot to gradually build tension, engage the audience, and then provide a satisfying resolution.

Examples from Popular Greek Tragedies

To better illustrate the crucial role of the plot, let’s delve into some popular Greek tragedies.

Oedipus Rex

Take Sophocles’ ‘Oedipus Rex,’ for instance. The plot is masterfully designed around the prophecy that Oedipus would kill his father and marry his mother. The tragic irony unfolds as Oedipus, in his quest to avoid this fate, inadvertently fulfills the prophecy.

The revelation of this truth marks the peripeteia, leading to the unraveling of Oedipus’ life, thus demonstrating Aristotle’s plot structure.


Another example is Euripides’ ‘Medea.’ The plot centers around Medea’s revenge against her husband, Jason, for his betrayal. The complication arises with Jason’s infidelity, culminating in the peripeteia when Medea decides to murder her children, thus exacting her revenge.

The tragedy ends with her escape, leaving Jason to grieve, which signifies the denouement.

Significance of Plot

The beauty of these tragedies lies in their plots. The plot isn’t just a chain of events but a compelling narrative that explores themes of fate, pride, revenge, and more. It presents moral dilemmas, provokes thought, and elicits emotional responses, making the plot an indispensable element of a tragedy.

In modern context too, whether it be films or theater, a well-structured plot remains at the heart of any gripping narrative. From Hollywood blockbusters to indie cinema, the impact of Aristotle’s insights on plot structure is evident. A good story inevitably has specific “plot points,” or moments when the character makes a critical choice, further emphasizing the importance of plot over character.

In essence, a plot, according to Aristotle, is not merely a storyline. It’s a meticulously crafted structure that holds the power to captivate audiences, evoke emotions, and impart profound truths about life and human nature.

So, next time you’re engrossed in a movie or a play, pay attention to the plot and appreciate the craft behind its construction.


2. Exploring Element Two: Character

Character on theatre
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Having examined the pivotal role of the plot in a tragedy, let’s delve into the second element articulated by Aristotle – the character. Characters are the driving forces of a story, the entities with whom we, as readers or viewers, form emotional bonds.

In a tragedy, Aristotle emphasized the importance of characters being both compelling and relatable, possessing qualities that make them human and susceptible to errors. This aspect of their nature makes them more than just figures in the narrative; they become embodiments of human fallibility.

According to Aristotle, the characterization must be such that the hero is a noble figure, someone capable and powerful yet guided by a sense of honor and morality. This heroism, however, is not without flaws. The tragic hero possesses a tragic flaw or hamartia, an error or frailty leading to their downfall.

This flaw isn’t just an addition to their heroic attributes but often emerges from those very qualities. It’s this interplay of strength and weakness that makes the character relatable and the tragedy potent.

The Development of Characters in a Tragedy

When it comes to the development of characters in a tragedy, the tragic flaw lies at the heart of their progression. This flaw, deeply ingrained in their psyche, serves as the catalyst for their actions and ultimately, their demise.

For instance, Othello’s tragic flaw is his jealous nature. Despite being valiant and honorable, his jealousy fuels his rage and recklessness, leading to his downfall.

It’s crucial to note that these flaws are not external forces imposed on the characters. Instead, they are inherent traits that turn fatal due to the circumstances they find themselves in.

Characters in Renowned Works

To better understand the concept of a tragic flaw and its impact on the character’s journey, let’s examine Victor Hugo’s Javert from Les Misérables.

Javert is a police detective, driven by an absolute respect for law and order. His relentless pursuit of the escaped convict Jean Valjean, who has led a moral and prosperous life post-escape, becomes his obsession.

Yet, when Valjean saves Javert’s life, Javert finds himself in a moral quandary. Unable to reconcile Valjean’s act of mercy with his duty to uphold the law, Javert tragically ends his own life.

Here, Javert’s rigid adherence to justice, a seemingly virtuous quality, becomes his tragic flaw, leading to his destruction.


In essence, the characters in a tragedy are complex, layered beings whose strengths often harbor their weaknesses. Their nobility and power are tinged with flaws that make them human, relatable, and inevitably tragic.

These characters, in their struggle and downfall, hold up a mirror to the human condition, reminding us of our own vulnerabilities.


3. Diving into Element Three: Thought

Element of thought
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As we journey further into Aristotle’s six elements of tragedy, we discover the third element: ‘Thought‘. This component, often overlooked, is a cornerstone in crafting a compelling narrative. It’s through thought that we gain insight into the motivations driving characters and the decisions that propel the plot forward.

According to Aristotle, ‘Thought’ is the mechanism by which the underlying themes and philosophies of the narrative are conveyed. It is the intellectual fabric that shapes the dialogue, actions, and reactions within the story.

The ‘Thought’ element thus acts as an illuminating torch revealing the inner workings of the characters and the world they inhabit.

Unveiling Character Motivations

The ‘Thought’ element plays a pivotal role in showcasing character motivations.

  • It’s through their thoughts, revealed via dialogues, soliloquies, or actions, that we gain intimate access to what drives them.
  • Characters become more than just names on a page; they come alive with desires, fears, and dreams just like us.
  • This connection, fostered by the revelation of their inner thoughts, makes us invest in their journey and empathize with their plight.

Fueling Plot Developments

Thought also fuels plot developments. Characters’ decisions, spurred by their motivations and beliefs, trigger events that shape the narrative’s course. In essence, it’s their thought processes that act as the engine propelling the plot forward.

When characters confront dilemmas or make choices, it’s their reasoning that dictates the outcome, leading to consequences that can be both unforeseen and dramatic.

The Power of Psychological Insight

Another fascinating aspect of the ‘Thought’ element lies in its ability to offer psychological insight. By delving into the minds of characters, we are privy to an intricate web of emotions, conflicts, and contemplations. This deep psychological exploration adds layers of complexity to characters, making them multidimensional and relatable.

From Forrest Gump’s philosophical musings about life to Rick Blaine’s altruistic motives in Casablanca, it’s these thought-driven insights that etch characters into our memory.


To conclude, the ‘Thought‘ element in Aristotle’s theory of tragedy unravels the intellectual and emotional landscape of the narrative. It serves as a beacon, guiding us through the maze of character motivations and plot developments while offering profound psychological insights.

By harnessing this element, storytellers can craft narratives that resonate with audiences, striking a chord that echoes long after the curtain falls.


4. Analyzing Element Four: Diction

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As we delve deeper into Aristotle’s elements of tragedy, we now turn to the fourth element: diction. A powerful tool in the hands of a skilled dramatist, diction refers to the specific choice of words or vocabulary used to convey emotions and advance the plot.

Diction is the “portrayal of emotions through the instrument of words.” Its significance lies not only in its ability to stir feelings in the audience but also in its crucial role in the process of meaning-making within the narrative.

While Aristotle ranks diction as less significant than the plot, this does not diminish its importance. Despite a series of well-written speeches not having the same force as a well-structured tragedy, diction still plays a paramount role in portraying the characters’ thoughts and advancing the story.

In fact, some of the most compelling parts of a tragedy, such as peripeteia (reversal) and anagnorisis (recognition), are intricately woven into the plot via diction.

Significance of Diction

In his Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle highlights the need for balance in expression, advocating for a mix of poetic and commonplace language. He asserts that while poetic language adds appeal, common words provide clarity.

This principle is relevant not only to ancient Greek tragedies but also to modern cinematic dialogues, highlighting the enduring relevance of Aristotle’s insights.

Diction’s power can be further understood by examining examples from famous plays. Consider the dialogue in Shakespeare’s tragedies, which skillfully balances the poetic and the common, thereby satisfying Aristotle’s criteria for high art.

The words chosen by Shakespeare not only advance the plot but also reveal the inner thoughts and motivations of the characters, thereby enhancing the overall emotional impact of the narrative.

So, whether you’re a playwright crafting a poignant tragedy or a content creator curating a compelling blog post, remember the power of diction. It’s more than just a collection of words.

It’s a tool that, when wielded with skill and intention, can evoke deep emotions, reveal character depths, and drive a narrative toward its tragic climax.


5. Unfolding Element Five: Spectacle

In Aristotle’s careful dissection of tragedy, the ‘Spectacle‘ holds a place of unique importance. Derived from the Greek term ‘opsis,’ spectacle refers to the visual aspects of a performance that contribute to the overall sensory experience of the audience. This includes costumes, props, set design, and special effects.

Burning candle in memory
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While Aristotle considered it the least important of his six elements, there’s no denying that spectacle adds a significant layer of depth and richness to a tragedy.

Spectacle, in essence, serves as the external dressing of the play, enhancing the audience’s immersion into the world of the story. Though Aristotle was more invested in the internal structure of a tragedy—its plot, character, thought, diction, and song—he recognized that spectacle could intensify the emotional impact of a play.

It’s through spectacle that audiences can visually connect with the narrative, making the tragedy more tangible and relatable.

How Does Spectacle Contribute to the Overall Mood and Tone of a Tragedy?

Much like the setting in a novel, the spectacle in a tragedy helps establish the backdrop against which all the action unfolds. The visual elements provide cues that inform the audience about the time, place, and cultural context of the story.

For example, a dark and dreary set might suggest a somber and foreboding atmosphere, while bright, lavish costumes could indicate a setting of wealth and opulence.

Thus, through spectacle, even before a single line of dialogue is spoken, the audience already has a sense of what sort of world they’ve been invited into.

Yet, as Aristotle reminds us, spectacle should never overshadow the core elements of a tragedy. In contemporary cinema, for instance, it’s not uncommon to see films that prioritize spectacle over plot or character development, often to their own detriment. As captivating as grandiose visuals and special effects may be, they cannot compensate for a weak storyline or poorly developed characters.

A well-balanced tragedy, in Aristotle’s view, prioritizes its plot and characters, using spectacle not as a crutch, but as an enhancement tool, subtly amplifying the emotional resonance of the narrative.

In the end, spectacle, when used judiciously, can indeed enrich a tragedy, adding a layer of visual storytelling that complements and enhances the other elements of the play. It’s through this fine balance of elements that a tragedy can truly captivate its audience, creating a profound and lasting impact.


6. Delving into Element Six: Song

As we continue our exploration of Aristotle’s six elements of tragedy, we arrive at the sixth and final element – ‘Song‘, also referred to as ‘Melody’. As per Aristotle’s theory in Poetics, Song is a key medium through which parts of the play are conveyed, often through the singing of the chorus or other characters.

Element of Song
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But what does this mean, and how does it contribute to the rhythm and emotional intensity of a tragedy?

In essence, Aristotle’s ‘Song‘ element underscores the importance of music in a tragic play. It’s not just about melodies that are pleasing to the ear. iI’s about how these melodies amplify the emotional depth of the narrative, enhance the atmosphere, and guide the audience’s emotional journey.

Music can underscore pivotal moments, highlight the emotional state of characters, and even hint at upcoming events. Its strategic use can effectively elevate the overall impact of a tragedy.

Implications of Song Element

Given the nature of Greek theatre, the ‘Song’ element was often manifested through the chorus – a group of performers who commented on the action, often through song and dance.

Their musical interjections provided a rhythmic and emotional backdrop to the unfolding drama. For instance, in Sophocles’ ‘Oedipus Rex‘, the chorus’ songs heighten the sense of impending doom and amplify the tragic tension.

Although Aristotle did not rank ‘Song’ as highly as ‘Plot’ and ‘Character’, he recognized its potential to enhance the emotional resonance of a play. It plays a significant role in creating the ‘mood’ of the tragedy, underlining the emotional journeys of the characters, and enhancing the theatrical experience for the viewers.

It’s also important to note that while ancient Greek tragedies often employed literal songs, contemporary interpretations of this element can take various forms.

In modern cinema, for example, carefully curated soundtracks contribute to the narrative’s rhythm and emotional intensity, much like the choral songs in ancient Greek theatre. John Williams’ iconic score for ‘Star Wars showcases this perfectly, with each melody contributing to the plot’s progression and character development.


In sum, the ‘Song’ element, while not as overt or seemingly crucial as the Plot or Character, holds its unique importance in the construction of a tragedy. Aristotle’s recognition of the power of music in drama serves as a timeless reminder of the multifaceted nature of storytelling.

It’s an art form that employs not only words and actions but also sounds, rhythm, and melody to create a truly immersive and emotionally charged experience.



What are Aristotle’s Six Elements of Tragedy?

Aristotle’s Six Elements of Tragedy are plot, character, thought, diction, melody, and spectacle.

How does Aristotle define the element of the plot?

Aristotle defines a plot as the arrangement of incidents or events, including the beginning, middle, and end, that constitutes the story of a tragedy.

What does Aristotle mean by character in tragedy?

According to Aristotle, character refers to the moral qualities and traits of the individuals involved in the tragedy.

What is the element of Thought in Aristotle’s Six Elements of Tragedy?

Thought, also known as theme or idea, represents the intellectual content conveyed by the tragedy, including its philosophical or moral messages.

How does Aristotle describe diction in tragedy?

Aristotle describes diction as the style of language used in a tragedy, including the choice of words, the rhythm, and the overall linguistic expression.

What does Aristotle mean by melody in tragedy?

Melody in tragedy refers to the musical elements, including rhythm and harmony, that can enhance the emotional impact of the performance.

What is the element of Spectacle in Aristotle’s Six Elements of Tragedy?

Spectacle represents the visual aspects of the tragedy, such as the costumes, stage design, and overall theatrical presentation.

Why are Aristotle’s Six Elements of Tragedy important?

Aristotle’s Six Elements of Tragedy help provide a comprehensive framework for analyzing and understanding the key components that make a tragedy effective and impactful.


Conclusion: The Timeless Wisdom of Aristotle

As we have journeyed through the depths of Aristotle’s understanding of tragedy, we have encountered a multitude of elements, each playing its part in crafting a memorable and impactful work of drama. Born in 384 BC, Aristotle’s exploration into the nature of drama has shaped our understanding and appreciation of literature for over two millennia.

His definition of the six elements of tragedy – plot, character, thought, diction, music, and spectacle – forms the foundation of our modern interpretations.

These intricately connected elements contribute to the creation of a compelling tragedy.

The plot provides the framework, the characters breathe life into this structure, their thoughts and motivations adding layers of complexity. Diction, the choice of words, paints vivid imagery in the minds of the audience while the spectacle appeals to visual aesthetics. Music, or song, adds an emotional resonance that amplifies the impact of the tragedy.

Each element, while significant in its own right, complements the others, working in harmony to produce a narrative that can stir emotions, provoke thoughts, and leave a lasting impression.

Despite the vast temporal divide between us and the era of Greek tragedies, Aristotle’s insights remain as relevant today as they were when first penned. Whether in the realm of theatre, cinema, or the written word, the six elements of tragedy can be observed in countless contemporary works of drama and literature.

This timeless wisdom, this enduring relevance, is a testament to the depth and nuance of Aristotle’s understanding of human nature and the art of storytelling.

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