Aristotle wrote numerous treatises about a variety of topics, one of which is his treatise on Poetics. In this treatise, he discusses poetry and the construction of epics, but the treatise heavily focuses on the creation and definition of a tragedy, particularly on the development of the plot. Based on Aristotle’s definitions of a tragedy and the rules for its construction, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and Shakespeare’s Hamlet will be scrutinized. By doing so, the construction of the two plays can be analyzed based on Aristotle’s enumerations, and the effectiveness and impact of their tragedy can be magnified and understood through Aristotle’s definitions.
According to Aristotle, Tragedy, however, is an imitation not only of a complete action, but also of incidents arousing pity or fear. Such incidents have the very greatest effect on the mind when they occur unexpectedly and at the same time in consequence of one another.” (686; 1452a:1-4) This definition would be the basis for the analysis of Oedipus Rex and Hamlet. Do Oedipus Rex and Hamlet generate pity or fear in their audience? How do they do so? How different is Hamlet from Oedipus Rex as a tragedy according to Aristotle’s definition?
Development of plot.
Aristotle said that a plot could be either simple, which is a continuous story without peripety or discovery,” or a complex one which involves one or both “peripety and discovery” (686; 1452a:12-17).
To be able to understand a complex plot or a simple one, a discussion of the characteristics of peripety and discovery is necessary. Peripety, as described by Aristotle, is a change in the state of things within the play to its opposite (686; 1452a:21-22). This change often occurs with a form of discovery or recognition that causes the opposite effect of what was originally intended. The sequence in which the peripety and the discovery occur adds to the unexpectedness and consequence of one action with another, which, as Aristotle says, magnifies the effect of the tragedy.
This is best exemplified in the tragedy of Oedipus Rex. In numerous instances of the play, a character who was supposed to alleviate the problems of Oedipus and grant him a sense of triumph and resolution did the opposite.
The first instance was with the appearance of the blind soothsayer, Tiresias. In Oedipus’ lines upon seeing Tiresias, he says, [But] save the city, save thyself, save me;/ Lift off the guilt that death has left behind.” (Sophocles 329-330). The peripety occurs when, in truth, what Tiresias had to say would neither save himself nor Oedipus. Tiresias recognized this to be the case the moment Oedipus spoke by saying, “Ah me! Ah me! How sad is wisdom’s gift, when no good issue waiteth on the wise!” (333-334). As the event unfolds, Tiresias informs Oedipus that he had murdered Laius, the former King, putting Oedipus, instead of in a state of hope, in a state of rage.
The change in status occurs again upon the arrival of the messenger. The messenger arrived to announce the death of Polybus, thus supposedly falsifying the prophecy that Oedipus would kill his own father – “So Polybus is gone, and with him lie, In Hades whelmed, those worthless oracles.” (1004-1005). However, as Oedipus explains himself to the messenger, the messenger relates that Oedipus is not truly the son of Polybus and that he was a child who was supposed to have been killed by a shepherd, who instead gave the child to the messenger to be adopted by Polybus. Upon this utterance, Jocasta realizes that Oedipus is her son and causes her to flee and kill herself. Oedipus, who had hoped to avoid the prophecy, is left fearful instead of hopeful. The confirmation that the shepherd finally makes seals Oedipus’ fate, ending in his tragic death.
As can be seen, the play Oedipus Rex fulfills the characteristics of what Aristotle has defined as tragedy. There are continuous occurrences of peripety and discovery, all unexpected and all a consequence of the other. For example, the calling of Tiresias for hope brings about despair, and the arrival of the messenger to alleviate Oedipus’ and Jocasta’s worries instead confirms their fears. The sequence in which Sophocles did this creates a perpetual escalation of fear and dread of the fulfillment of the prophecy, which revolves around Oedipus’ incest and patricide. This intensification of fear and dread magnifies the pity that the audience feels when they discover the suicide of Jocasta, the blinding of Oedipus, and the consequential orphaning of their children.
Shakespeare did not fashion Hamlet in the same way that Greek tragedies were written; nevertheless, Hamlet is as tragic as Oedipus Rex.
The plot of Hamlet, like Oedipus Rex, is not simple because it is characterized by peripety and discovery. However, unlike Oedipus Rex, peripety and discovery do not always happen at the same instance or one after the other in the plot of Hamlet. In Oedipus Rex, discovery and peripety are normally caused by one incident and one character – Tiresias and the messenger. In Hamlet, discovery and peripety happen at the same moment as well as in different scenes of the play and from different characters. This is especially true in the first act.
The first instance of peripety occurs during the celebration of the marriage between Claudius and Gertrude. Claudius and Gertrude beckon Hamlet to stop grieving and to rejoice with them in their marriage – “[and] we beseech you, bend you to remain here in the cheer and comfort of our eye” (Shakespeare 1.2.115-116). Their endeavor to cheer Hamlet only worsens his grief and stokes the anger that he feels for his mother and the situation wherein his mother, in less than two months, married his uncle after the death of his father. With reference to the marriage, he says, “It is not, nor it cannot come to good. But break my heart, for I must hold my tongue” (1.2.158-159).
The first instance of discovery occurs when the Ghost of King Hamlet appears before Hamlet. This discovery leads to a change in Hamlet, which can be considered as peripety. The Ghost of King Hamlet relates to Hamlet how he was murdered by his own brother, Claudius. At the initial sighting of the ghost, Hamlet felt grief and pity for the soul of his father. This is then followed by the discovery of the cause of the former King’s death with the appearance of Hamlet’s father’s ghost. The ghost relates to Hamlet that it was Claudius who killed the King for his power, wealth, and lust for the Queen. From this, the whole action of Hamlet to seek revenge ensues.
Peripety and discovery both occur when Ophelia talks to Hamlet in Act III. Ophelia was commanded by the King, Queen, and her father to encourage the romantic advances of Hamlet, which she had rejected earlier, in the hopes of making Hamlet happy and sane. “So shall I hope your virtues will bring him to his wonted way again, to both your honors” (3.1.39-42). Hamlet destroys this very virtue that Gertrude claimed Ophelia had. Hamlet also informs Ophelia that he never loved her. The peripety happens to both the characters of Ophelia and Hamlet. Ophelia, in wanting to make Hamlet happy, had her heart broken, while Hamlet, in trying to spare Ophelia from the curse he carries, hurts himself.
Finally, the last and most significant act of peripety in Hamlet is the presentation of the play The Mousetrap.” The players of this play were brought in by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as a diversion for Hamlet. It was supposed to entertain him and everyone in the castle. Instead, the play brought guilt and fear to Claudius, confusion to Gertrude, and confirmation of Claudius’ crime to Hamlet.
Unlike Oedipus Rex, there are fewer peripeteias in Hamlet. However, it is filled with discoveries – the murder of King Hamlet, the death of Ophelia, the death of Polonius, and the guilt of Claudius. All of these are discoveries that add to the sorrow and misery of Hamlet. Also, unlike Oedipus Rex, there is no escalation of fear in Hamlet. There is, however, a stable and constant arousal of pity for every discovery that Hamlet encounters and for every instance that he suffers in the hopes of saving his mother and his love, Ophelia. Therefore, in the end, when everything important to Hamlet was lost – the death of his mother, the death of Ophelia, the imminent loss of his Kingdom, and ultimately his own death – his actions and his sacrifices were rendered a Pyrrhic victory. The constancy of sorrow and pity for Hamlet magnified the tragedy of his loss and his death.
The construction of each play is different from the other. One is ancient, and the other is from the Renaissance. Oedipus Rex heavily relies on peripety and discovery in a dialogue that is truly sequential, while Hamlet relies more on discovery with instances of peripety at proper moments. Both use actions and incidents that are unexpected and are consequences of each other. Oedipus Rex uses fear and dread to magnify pity in the end, while Hamlet uses a cadence of sorrowful incidents that intensify the pity for Hamlet. However, despite these differences, both plays fulfill the requirements that Aristotle has placed on a tragedy. Therefore, as per Aristotle’s definition of tragedy, Oedipus Rex and Hamlet are true and successful examples of tragic drama.
Aristotle’s On Poetics” is included in the Great Books of the Western World, Volume 9, Aristotle II, edited by Robert Maynard Hutchins. The book was published in Chicago by William Benton in 1952 and spans pages 681-699.
Sophocles’ Oedipus the King,” translated by E. H. Plumptre, is included in The Harvard Classics Vol. 8 (1909-14) and can be found on Bartleby.com. Accessed on 09 January 2008 at www.bartleby.com/8/5/.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet.” The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, edited by George Kittredge, New York, Grolier Inc., 1145-1194.