This paper was presented at the 2019 Australasian Postgraduate Philosophy conference at the Victoria University of Wellington. It is a shorter version of my first honours thesis in Philosophy at The University of Queensland. I would like to thank Professor Deborah Brown for supervising me on this paper and The Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble for having been my artistic home for the last seven years. Any errors encountered in this essay this are all mine.
There are several traditional concepts of tragedy that derive from Aristotle’s Poetics. Each have been concluded to be the purpose of creating a tragic play. Catharsis is one such concept that is generally understood as tragedy’s “effect on the audience”. Catharsis has often been read as the “purgation of the emotions.” A driving out of ‘pity’ and ‘fear’ through the exposure to it in the performance of tragedy. It could also mean, “medical purgation, religious purification and intellectual clarification.” Or it could also mean menstruation, a cyclical discharge rather than a purgation. Such a variety of meanings for the concept of catharsis makes figuring out what the effect of tragedy really is according to Aristotle problematic. Another concept that is offered as the purpose of tragedy is mimesis. In a nutshell, “mimesis is the art of arranging for something to have an effect or part of an effect that by nature belongs to a different kind of thing.” It is a way of provoking the same response through alternative means. For Aristotle, mimesis is the vehicle for producing emotions that we’d have in real life in the theatre. If I were to watch a production of Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, I’d have the reaction of dread and disgust when he finds out that he has married and reproduced with his mother, as if I were in Oedipus’ shoes. A translation of mimesis could be the word “simile”. Mimesis simulates and stimulates an effect that we are familiar with already. Mimesis cannot be the end of tragedy, however, since, if it were, its goal would be a certain effect. The effect of a thing cannot be the purpose of its being, however. Although playing music could soothe, not all music is soothing. Although some tragedies horrify us, not all tragedies do so. Whatever an effect a play could have on us, that named effect could not encompass all of tragedy’s effects. This means that the effect of ‘pity and fear’ cannot be the end of tragedy because it does not correspond with tragedy’s formal cause, namely, its story-shape. Since these traditional concepts do not give us a satisfactory explanation for the purpose of tragedy, I will make an analysis of it not according to Aristotle’s Poetics, but according to his fourfold theory of causes in his Physics. Then I will argue that the purpose of tragedy is connected to his views on chance. Ultimately, I will argue that the end of tragedy is to help us discern chance from fate.
Prologue: Aristotle’s Causes
For Aristotle, anything that is created, is created into a thing that has a definitive attribute. “In some cases we do not use the expression ‘come to be’,” he says, “but ‘come to be so-and-so’.” That is, if I were to build a bookshelf, the fact that it is built with a shape that allows storage for books, defines it. Moreover, if a thing is being made, then it must have something that endures the change. “Now in all cases other than substance,” claims Aristotle, “it is plain that there must be something underlying, namely, that which becomes. For when a thing comes to be of such quantity or quality or in such a relation, time, or place, a subject is always presupposed, since substance alone is not predicated of another subject, but everything else of substance.” In other words, the amount of a thing or its size is not that which endures change. If I had a bag of fifty silver coins, it would be false to say that what is being defined is the amount of fifty or the shape of the coins. Rather, the coin shapes and the amount of fifty defines the silver. Therefore, the silver is the defined ‘subject’ and there being fifty pieces of them shaped like coins is the silver’s ‘so-an-so’, or predicate. Aristotle calls that which endures the change its matter and its predicate the form. These two make up our first two causes on how a thing comes to be.
Such change, for Aristotle, happens differently between nature and art. Nature, according to Aristotle, has an intrinsic ‘impulse to change’; whereas for art, they do not. Art does not move from an intrinsic impulse since it depends on an agent to make it otherwise. One could argue, if I built a guitar, and it decayed over time, then that would indeed be a change via ‘innate impulse’. This is not what Aristotle means, however. This would be a change in nature, the wood decaying, rather than the artefact, the guitar, changing. Therefore, what differentiates art from nature is that the source of change is extrinsic rather than intrinsic. An artist creates the piece of art, not nature. A luthier builds the guitar, not the wood. Tradition calls this artist, “the primary source of change or rest,” the efficient cause. This does not exhaust Aristotle’s narrative on the causes of change, however. For a thing to come to be, whether in nature or art, it must also have a purpose. “For if a thing undergoes a continuous change toward some end,” says Aristotle, “that last stage is actually that for the sake of which.” In other words, the built guitar reveals that very reason why luthiers put themselves through the pains to build it in the first place. But if there was no purpose for the efficient cause or agent to gather all of the wooden material, and to carve up the wood into its form, the guitar would not exist. As such, a thing’s purpose for being made is a necessary condition for a thing to become a piece of art. Aristotle calls this cause the “end or that for the sake of which a thing is done…” Whilst there is much debate as to whether nature necessarily has an end or the final cause, since our object of inquiry is tragedy, a work of art, we will limit our analysis to the causes in art. By knowing these four causes: the efficient, formal, material, and final causes; we can bypass the misconceptions of tragedy and work out what it truly is.
Act 1: Enter Chance
We have outlined the four causes of how a thing comes to be and how each piece of art is built with a purpose in mind, according to Aristotle. But some things do not always align with their end in their coming to be. Last year, on the preview night of playing Hamlet with the Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble, for instance, I choked on a line after being astonished by the words of the ghost of Old Hamlet. In response, my fellow actor playing Horatio appropriately uttered, “These are but wild and whirling words, my lord.” We did not plan this to happen. Choking on the line was not my intention, but it happened. Aristotle would call this event chance. “Of things that come to be,” as mentioned in his Physics, “some come to be for the sake of something, others not… Things of this kind, then, when they come to pass accidentally are said to be by chance.” Now one could argue that a person who forgets their lines regularly could not blame it on chance. But if a person forgot their lines regularly, there would be an identifiable cause for it. For instance, senility or a not having worked hard enough on their lines. But, for Aristotle, chance is a rare event that happens contrary to our purpose or what we aim for. If I worked hard enough on my lines through much repetition, the less likely would it be to forget them. So, for someone who worked hard enough on their lines, forgetting them would be a rarer instance than speaking them fluently. This would allow me to fulfil my aim of playing the role of Hamlet. Therefore, the significance of chance events is that they are rare happenings that are identifiable as chance precisely because we have an end.
Aristotle gives the example of a man who went to a feast, only to encounter his debtor and so who proceeded to pay him back. The man did not intend to get his money back then and there. He was indeed in possession of the goal to get his money back, but that did not define his present action of going to the feast. Had the man arranged with his debtor to meet at the feast so he could get his money back, then that would not be a chance event. The man, however, did not arrange the meeting with his debtor but still got his money back. For Aristotle, then, “It is clear… that chance is an accidental cause in the sphere of those actions for the sake of something which involve choice. Thought, then, and chance are in the same sphere, for choice implies thought.” In other words, whilst human intention and action are derailed by chance, chance only occurs to those capable of choice. No end, no chance. This is because an agent’s end is that which creates an expectation. An agent needs to consider an end’s potential and choose to act on it to make it real. Hence, the idea of action entailing thought. Chance events, by contrast, happen contrary to what we expect. More so, they astonish us because they impact on our ends despite our expectations. Fortunate outcomes, therefore, such as the man getting his money back to his surprise, reveals that such instances of chance involve an end being achieved contrary to that expected means. The man had the goal of getting his money back, but it resulted not according to how he had foreseen it to happen, whereas for unfortunate events, such as when I had forgot my lines during the performance of Hamlet, the outcome was contrary to what I had desired or intended. This does not exhaust the possibilities of chance, however.
In Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the former Duke of Milan, Prospero, summons a storm to bring his usurpers to his island so he can get revenge on them. Prospero’s end, in turn, is to get revenge. But just as the protagonist has his enemies under his spell, instead of taking his revenge, he forgives them. Prospero had his end derailed by chance. Of course, one could argue that Prospero merely had a change of heart or a shift in intention which might disqualify the play as an instance of chance. But this would arbitrarily impose a limit to what chance can affect. Aristotle’s collector could also be said to have had a shift in intention at the feast. His end in that instance shifted from collecting subscriptions, to getting his money back. But this shift resulted from a circumstantial change that he did not foresee, yet it still aligned with his interests which he happened to not pursue at that time. Charlotta Weigelt makes a minor amendment to Aristotle’s example of chance. “For whereas his going to the market-place is a deliberate action,” she claims, “his meeting with his debtor is not, but nevertheless the meeting is “for the sake of” something, namely, the opportunity to retrieve the money, which constitutes the truly “lucky event”, as well as the final end, in this case.” In other words, the shift in intention was by chance realigned. Parallel to Aristotle’s example, Shakespeare’s Prospero did not foresee that his vengeful torments against his enemies would make him pity them instead. It must be the case, then, that our ends, too, are subject to chance. What differentiates Shakespeare’s Prospero to Aristotle’s collector is that Prospero fails his end and finds another, whereas, the collector attains an end that he already had.
The Tempest, then, is an instance of chance because the play’s result happens contrary to the protagonist’s end. Prospero is an example of an agent who did not achieve his end; he fails. But what is significant about his failure is that it is still a fortunate event since he is released from his prison of revenge. This allows for the repair of the rupture between himself and his brother, his reinstatement to his old title as the Duke of Milan, renewed relations with the king of Naples, and his daughter happily marrying the son of the king.
As such we have 3 structures of chance, which will require renaming since calling chance events ‘unfortunate’ and ‘fortunate’ has set up a false dichotomy which conceals a third possibility.
I call fortunate instances of chance a fluke whereby the Means is detoured but their End is attained.
We call this scenario a fluke because it is an example of someone achieving their intention that occurred differently from how the agent foresaw it. For example, in school when we used to play handball, every now and then someone new would join the game who had never or seldom played before. But sometimes, that new player would win the game despite their poor skill. When this happened, we would call this a fluke.
I call unfortunate instances of chance a fall whereby one’s Means is attained but their End is ruptured.
This is an instance of someone who is at the peak of their potential, only to fail at achieving their end. A fall seems to fit our current understanding of tragedy. In his book Tragedy is not Enough, Karl Jaspers gives us this very trajectory of this view of tragedy, “only in that destruction which does not prematurely cut short development and success, but which, instead, grows out of success itself… by seeing that precisely when we are most highly successful we most truly fail.” Sophocles Oedipus is an example of this, since he promises to find the murderer of his father, only to find that he was the very monster he condemned.
I call the final instance of chance a flight whereby the Means is attained, the End is abandoned, but yet the result is not unfortunate.
Shakespeare’s The Tempest has already given us an example of this. I call it a flight because there is a sense of fleeing from the goal without having intended to do so. The final cause of the agent is a failure, and yet the agent succeeds. Prospero fails to get revenge, yet he prospers.
These three structures, I argue, form the universal plot-shapes of tragedy.
Act II: Tragedy’s Efficient Cause
So, who makes tragedy? Or to use Aristotle’s terms, what is the efficient cause of tragic theatre? In modern theatre, there are many efficient causes or agents. We have playwrights, actors, directors, lighting designers, set and costume makers – all of these are the ‘source[s] of the change or rest’ from what is, into a world of play. But not all are the primary sources of this shift, and not all efficient causes that now work in theatre have always existed. The ancient Greeks did not have lighting designers for their plays, for instance. We may deduce, however, two minimal efficient causal conditions of theatre: the poet or playwright, and the actor. The poet is essential for the text and speech of the actor, just as the actor is essential to perform such stories. In his essay, The Idea of the Actor, Niall W. Slater argues that the actor evolved in 3 phases: first, from the poet as a performer; secondly, the actor as theatre maker that is dependent on the poet’s work, namely, the dramatic text; and finally, the actor being recognised in their own right as deduced historically from the performances of ‘classics’ and competitions held for the best performance. What can be inferred from this is that while the poet/playwright and the actor are both efficient causes of drama, and the role of actor is typically temporally posterior to that of the poet, the actor is logically prior since the poet’s text is by definition part of an oral tradition that entails that it be performed. Therefore, we may conclude that it is the actor and not the poet who is the primary efficient cause of theatre. In this finding, we bypass the problem of prioritising text in tragedy which has led us to forget tragedy’s formal cause, namely, performance.
Act III: Tragic Material
Now that we have pinpointed tragedy’s primary efficient cause, we move onto its material. The material is, according to Aristotle, the source of a thing that is created. He gives the example that the wood of a crafted bed is the material from which the bed is made and not the bed itself. This is because the material is not only the source but that which endures the change. One could craft a spinning-top out of the wood of the bed, but its material would still be the wood since its shape has merely changed, not its source. So, what is the material for tragedy? For the Greeks, the source of tragic plays come from mythology. All the characters and plots staged are not by invention of the playwright. One could argue that it is the plays’ texts and not the myths that are tragedy’s material since that is what readers and actors would be engaging with. This, however, would be equating that which is shaped with that from which it is made. To use Aristotle’s example, if we endowed the play and not myth as the material of tragedy, it would be like saying that the shape of the bed and not the wood is its material. The tragic text is the myth reshaped. In Aristotle’s Poetics, he is almost correct when he prioritises mythos over every other element of tragedy. But, according to Stephen Halliwell, by mythos he clearly does not refer to the traditional stories, but rather he defines it as the structure of the events in the play. Again, this refers to the shape but not the source material that endures the change. I could adapt the story of Iphigenia from Homer’s Iliad, but it would be false to say that Euripides’ plays were the source of my adaptation since he himself, like me, inherited that story from the Greek heroic tradition.
Not all Greek tragedies derive their source material from myths, however. Two Greek tragedies, namely, The Fall of Miletus and The Persians, were based on near contemporary historical events. Moreover, it would be too bold a claim to make if we said that all tragic material comes from mythology. Shakespeare’s tragedies, such as Richard II, Richard III, and Macbeth, have their sources based on histories and not myth. But the myths of Greek tragedy were not believed to be “fictions,” but as events that included deities and people who either really existed or were thought to truly exist in a distant past. Does that mean that the material of tragedy is not myth but history, whether their sources were historically factual or not? If Greek myths were fused with history, then the material of Greek tragedies could be seen as histories mythologised.
Act IV: Tragic Form
If mythologised history is the material of tragedy, tragedy is the ‘so and so’, the formal cause, of what ‘comes to be’. It is the past reshaped and staged into a theatrical performance. In his Poetics, Aristotle claims that “the potential of tragedy does not depend upon public performance and actors…” By ‘potential’ he means that the effect of “the arousal of pity and fear” is not dependent on the performance but on the “choice of words” made by the poet. In other words, performance is inessential to the goal of tragedy. This idea has split off centuries of a tradition that divorces the poet from the actor. We have already defended the claim that although the poet and the actor can be two separate entities, they are ontologically both the efficient cause. In this regard, claims about the essence of tragedy, its formal cause, have been reduced to the analysis of tragic plots. What makes essential claims based exclusively on plot problematic is that there are many plots to tragedy. If I claimed that a chair’s formal cause is that it has four legs, I’d immediately be presented with counter examples. Some chairs have three legs. Or some are just well shaped tree trunks. What defines its essence rests not exclusively on its shape, but our functional relationship to the object. That is, a chair’s essence is defined by whether we can sit on it or not. The consequence of leaving out the performative element to the shape of tragedy, is a tradition that, according to Peter Burian, “emphasises hamartia, generally understood as the ‘tragic flaw’ of overweening pride, and its punishment. The tragic hero although caught in circumstances beyond his ken and control, is finally to be understood as destroyed by the gods (or fate) because of his own failings.” This idea that the ‘tragic flaw’ is essential to Greek tragedy is already subject to many counterexamples, including examples within the Greek canon of tragic plays. Not all Greek tragedies had a hero who fell. Euripides’ Medea kills her own sons to get revenge on her husband, only to get away with it. Euripides’ Iphigenia in Tauris has Iphigenia captured by barbarians who kept her as a priestess, only to encounter her brother, Orestes, who helps set her free. These were tragedies without obviously ‘tragic’ endings in the form of a fall for the protagonist. Our unveiling of the structures of chance have thus bypassed the reduction of tragedy as understood as a fall. Concluding that hamartia is essential to tragedy is evidently a symptom of this mistake.
The essence of tragedy is thus chance performed. So why do we stage these dramas, the phenomenon of our actions being derailed by chance?
Act V: The End of Tragedy
I have argued that the form of tragedy is the performance of the structures of chance. Whilst the objective of making something is not to be equated with the form, I have also argued that the form is the criteria for the successful attainment of the final cause. Having made a chair whose form fulfils the final shape and function means that the final cause was achieved. So, if the form of tragedy is the performance of chance, what is the end that tragedy’s shape satisfies? Why would an agent gather mytho-historical material and script it to the structures of chance to form a performance in theatre for an audience? Aristotle gives us the very reason why we pursue the causes of something. “Knowledge is the object of our inquiry,” he says, “and men do not think they know a thing till they have grasped the ‘why’ of it…” In other words, the purpose for finding the causes of something is to make something we don’t know known. So why would we want to make something unknown known? Because we are beings that always have an end. If we always have an end, then something that is unknown to us is within our interest, if it is related to our goals. Therefore, if an unknown thing is related to our goals, it must be made known. This is the precondition to the desire for knowledge. Chance is a phenomenon that is by definition related to our goals. Therefore, it must always be an object of our enquiry. But chance is something that is not only related to our goals, it overrules our means and ends. If chance overrules action, then what is the point of action? Is chance fate? Are we destined to fail, fluke, or fly? If so, what’s the point of having our heart set on something only to see it unravel contrary to our ends?
But if there was no end, we would not be capable of acting. We would be bound to necessity, stuck in material stage, and call all things that happen to us fate. For Aristotle, we are a free agents and not mere patients to all that happens to us because “we praise and blame people and reward and punish them.” In other words, we a capable of making things otherwise from what seems bound to happen in nature. Necessity, being bound to nature, means that a thing would remain in its material form. A bed would remain a tree unless we had the freedom to make it. History would indeed always repeat itself if we were not able to see an alternative to material necessity. Tragedy makes that history malleable to see if that necessity can turn into art; to see if we are free or not. Since finding the causes of something is the pursuit of knowledge, it may be seen that the purpose of staging chance was to know it. But how could we find the causes of something as arbitrary as chance? Chance is causeless. Is chance fate then? It is, according to Pascal Massie, “nothing that changes everything.” Whilst we cannot find the causes of chance, our attempt to do so through tragedy gives chance its meaning: that the end of tragedy is to discern chance from fate. By discerning chance from fate, do we also discern comedy from tragedy. It is true that comedies also perform chance. The quadruplets in Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors, reunite contrary to what they expected. Aristophanes’ Lysistrata recruits women to go on sex strike to prevent battle, only to create conflict between men and women. But comedies do not so much help us discern chance from fate as they do relieve us from the powerful forces that exceed our agency. Comedies perform agents as mere patients of chance, inadvertently equating chance with fate. But it relieves us from such a power since we cannot help but laugh at ourselves for it. The end of comedy may well be to bring new light to that which derails our ends and means; whether that which derails is fate or chance is not of comedy’s concern. Perhaps the end of comedy is to celebrate that which baffles us. The end of tragedy, however, is to discern chance from fate. In doing so, we are reminded that we are the descendants of tragic material. We are that which endured change through action, or drama.
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Woodruff, Paul. “Aristotle’s Poetics: The Aim of Tragedy,” in A Companion to Aristotle (West Sussex: Blackwell Publishing, 2009)
 Richard Janko, “From Catharsis to the Aristotelian Mean,” in Essay’s on Aristotle’s Poetics, 346
 Johnathan Lear, “Katharsis,” in Essays on Aristotle’s Poetics, (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992),” 315
 Jenko, “From Catharsis to the Aristotelian Mean,” 346
 Lear, “Katharsis,” 315
 Critchley, Tragedy, 194
 Ibid, 616
 Halliwell, The Poetics, 37
 Aristotle, “Physics,” in The Complete Works of Aristotle: Volume 1, ed. Jonathan Barnes. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984), 325
 Ibid, 325
 Christopher Shields, “Explaining Nature and the Nature of Explaining,” in Aristotle (New York: Routledge, 2007), 55
 Aristotle, Physics II, 330
 Aristotle, Physics II, 332
 Shields, Aristotle, 44
 Aristotle, Physics II, 331
 Ibid, 332
 For debate on whether nature has a final end and Aristotle’s stance, see: Shields, Aristotle, 74-78
 Aristotle, Physics II, 337
 John Dudley, “Aristotle’s Views on Chance and Their Contemporary Relevance.” SCHOLE 12, no. 1 (2018): 7-27, 8
 Aristotle, Physics II, 336
 Ibid, 336. Italics my own.
 I use The Tempest as an example as, although it categorised as a comedy in the First Folio, it is structurally a tragedy. This point will be elaborated further in the section under the form of tragedy.
 Weigelt, Charlotta. “The Hermeneutic Significance of Aristotle’s Concept of Chance.” Epoché: A Journal For the History of Philosophy 18, no. 1 (2013): 29-48, 6
 Karl Jaspers, Tragedy is Not Enough, (Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1969), 96
 Niall W. Slater, “The Idea of the Actor,” in Nothing to do with Dionysos?, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990), 387-388
 Ibid, 389
 Ibid, 394
 Aristotle, Physics, 332
 Ibid, 330
 Ibid, 332
 Jean-Pierre Vernant, “The Tragic Subject: Historicity and Transhistoricity,” in Myth and Tragedy in Ancient Greece, (New York: Zone Books, 1990), 242
 Halliwell, The Poetics, 11
 Vernant, “The Tragic Subject,” 244-245
 Ibid, 243
 Halliwell, The Poetics, 39
 Ibid, 37
 Ibid, 38
Peter Burian, “Myth in muthos: the shaping of tragic plot,” in The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 181
 Aristotle, Physics II, 332
 Dudley, “Aristotle’s views on chance,” 20
 Aristotle, Physics II, 342
 Pascal Massie, “The Irony of Chance: On Aristotle’s Physics B, 4-6” in International Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 43, No. 1, Issue 169 (2003): 15-28, 28