The Conventions of Tragedy
Adapted from Aristotle’s Poetics
The following contains eleven essential aspects of tragedy according to Aristotle [an ancient Greek
philosopher and writer]. In his Poetics, among other things, he examined what makes dramatic tragedy as a
genre tragic. Here is a (simplified) distillation of his points. One key factor is that these tragic elements
are necessarily interrelated and they should work together to elicit a particular response on the part of the
audience. As you read and discuss Shakespeare’s Macbeth, look out for these conventions and assess the
play as a tragedy. Does Shakespeare incorporate some or all of these elements of tragedy into this great
play? Would Aristotle think that Macbeth is a good example of a tragedy according to his conventions?
1. At the beginning of the play, the tragic protagonist must be more noble than evil.
2. The tragic protagonist must be some sort of focal point of or within his/her society.
3. He or she must, unfortunately, possess some tragic flaw (or hamartia). According to Aristotle
and the classical Greek models with which he was working, this flaw was specifically one of
hubris or pride. [is this Macbeth’s flaw? If not, what might his flaw be?]
4. Fate or fortune plays some part in the play or exerts its influence upon the plot and the central
character. Therefore, some external force is involved at some level in the life and action within
5. However, the tragic protagonist must be left with some choices or must possess freedom to act
(freewill). She or he cannot merely by an automaton—mindlessly fulfilling some predestined
destiny (fate), for that would not be tragic. Therefore, he or she makes up her or his own mind to
act (praxis). [As one can see, there’s a tension maintained between fate and freewill.]
6. Within the plot of tragedy, these actions move from possibilities to probabilities to, eventually,
inevitabilities. There are, then, strong causal links between the events within the plot of the play.
7. One particular characteristic of these actions is that there is a lot of irony (peripety) associated
with them. More often than not, the tragic protagonist’s actions do not fulfill his or her
8. Consequently, this causes, usually near the end of the play, a sudden recognition (anagnorisis) of
truths associated with the identity or character of the protagonist or the revelation of the identity of
other characters in the play.
9. As a result, the tragic protagonist experiences what’s called the tragic fall. As one can see, this
fall is caused by the protagonist’s flaw working together with the forces of fate.
10. Often, then, the central character becomes a scapegoat who is either driven from his or her
respective community or he/she dies, thereby, purging or cleansing the community from its evil or
problems and making it once again whole.
11. Ultimately, the most important aspect of tragedy for Aristotle is what happens to the audience
while watching it being performed. In order for it to be tragic, the audience must experience an
emotional/therapeutic cleansing (have you ever cried at the end of a movie? Why?) This is
what Aristotle called a catharsis (katharsis). One’s emotions are vicariously purged by watching
and interacting with good tragedy.