Aristotle’s Poetics is often considered the blueprint to a successful tragedy; his outline has been used for hundreds of years. Aristotle defines a tragedy as “an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude… in the form of an action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions” (House 82). Aristotle believed that the most important part of a strong tragedy was the plot, and from that, the other elements such as character, diction, etc. would emerge. Aristotle states, “the principle of tragedy – the soul, if you like – is the plot, and second to that the characters” (Whalley 27). Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Hamlet essentially mirror this definition. While it is true that both plays do not always follow every detail of Aristotle’s rules, they hold true in so many ways that the relation between the works and theory cannot be ignored.
Aristotle asserts that tragedy is “an imitation of an action that serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude” (House, 82) and continues by insisting, “the most tragic situations arise between friends or between blood-relations, that is between those in whom are found the affections and loyalties which characterize the good” (House, 84). Hamlet is the perfect example of this. The play opens, focuses, and ends almost entirely based upon the actions, or reactions, of Hamlet’s quest to avenge his father’s murder. To start, the Ghost of old Hamlet reveals the truth about his death to his son when he says, “But know, thou noble youth the serpent that did sting thy father’s life Now wears his crown” (Hamlet I.v.38-30). It quickly dawns upon Hamlet that he would be able to avenge his father’s death by killing his uncle and taking the crown back for himself. In this situation, Shakespeare effectively copies Aristotle’s theory of tragedy and applies it to Hamlet quite skillfully.
Hamlet tackles the tragedy within a family, but Macbeth is written as a tragedy that occurs between friends and associates. While extremely ambitious to be king, at the opening of the play Macbeth is a loyal servant to King Duncan of Scotland. However, upon hearing a prophecy from the three witches that predicts his rise to the throne, an insatiable sense of ambition to succeed and wield power overwhelms the good nature of Macbeth. Aristotle describes this part of tragedy as, “the action is human, the energy is human… the action is plotted and prepared by the maker” (Whalley, 23). This is evident when Macbeth utters to himself, “Let not light see my black and deep desires” making known his intentions to murder the king (Macbeth I.iii.52-53). His action is a premeditated response and is aggravated by his all too human emotions, ambitions and greed.
After the action element of the story, the character is the next central component in a successful Aristotelian tragedy. According to Aristotle, the character must be true to life and natural; a character is supposed to be a...