Summary of Shakuntala: Oedipus Rex

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Finding Poetics in History The common saying about war, depression, political events, and history is that it repeats itself. In theatre history, Aristotle’s Poetics does this too. The Poetics, only 114 pages, is a common thread that is sewn through the evolution of theatre from 335 BCE to present day. Aristotle’s Poetics is a crucial document that has been formative in the path influencing the decisions of some of the earliest thespians. Aristotle’s impact on history is large and the poetics still plays a role in art every day.

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It is important to investigate who Aristotle is not only as a writer but as a person. Exploring what The Poetics is about in a less sophisticated way will help set the foundation for how it has influence the world. Looking though time at all the era’s that have been affected can show just how big this little book is. “Purpose … is held to be most closely connected with virtue, and to be a better token of our character than are even our acts – Aristotle (ARISTOTLE QUOTES III). Aristotle was born in 384 BCE in Greece.

He lived there until after his father passed and he went to Plato’s school as a young student. He stayed at The Academy learning from Plato for about 20 years and made contributions to many of the fields that he studied in. Aristotle was not only a distinct writer but also a philosopher, scientist, logician, historian, and poet. When Plato died, Aristotle decided to leave because his long-standing mentor was no longer there. Aristotle left the academy and journeyed to Assus. Aristotle continued his and Plato’s work.

In 343 BCE, he was recruited to teach the son (the future Alexander the Great) of Phillip II. Aristotle began his own intuition sometime after Alexander became “the great”. He thrived teaching at The Lyceum until it became unsafe for him and he fled. In 322 BCE Aristotle died but what he left behind was a legacy of work that will outlast him for years to come (Amadio). The most prominent work relating to theatre is The Poetics which explores in great detail the structure of a Greek Tragedy.

To put this in context, The Poetics, was first introduced to festivals in 432 BCE. Most plays that were told at this time were mythical stories passed down from previous generations. For the Greeks, as is the case with many cultures, a large number of their dramas were based on their religion. The Odyssey is a perfect example of the type of myths that might have been transformed into a tragedy. Taking a work pertaining to the gods (a work from homer who Aristotle had much respect for) and transforming it into theatre.

Arion and Thespis were two of the first know playwrights in this era but they were not extremely well known. Aeschylus, simply put was the first playwright that we still have written work from. Aeschylus’s highly intellectual, well framed, tightly united thematic plays set up the scene for future play writes (Wilson & Goldfarb). Aeschylus’s dramas were the foundation for The Poetics. Sophocles improved upon the work that Aeschylus started. According to Wilson & Goldfarb in their book Living Theatre “Sophocles was known for his superb plot construction” and his ability to “build to a swift climax” (41). Very few of his worked still exist today.

One of his notable works which correlates to The Poetics is Oedipus the King. It appears Aristotle could have based The Poetics solely on this play and had the same book that he produced.

Oedipus the King follows all the essentials pieces that Aristotle outlines. The play is driven by the plot with continuous action, it has a sturdy shape that escalates the action and produces a cathartic reaction. Sophocles wrote a show that demonstrated the universal ideas with in it instead of the (not showing a specific historical event). He also kept in check the three unities of time, place, and action allowing one journey to take place and setting up Oedipus clearly to discover the problem. He was created with a fatal flaw that ultimately led to his death. Sophocles even tied the play pack to their religion driving home the greater point that Oedipus believed that Fate was more powerful than the gods he worshipped.

The spectacle was kept to a minimum (since it’s the least important) and all the blood and brutality happened off stage. Lastly, “the purpose of Drama is to arouse in the audience feelings of pity and fear, and to purge these emotions (catharsis)” (Adams) which is exactly what Sophocles accomplished. Oedipus the King follows Aristotle’s guidelines almost perfectly which drives home the idea that a play that keeps an audience wondering what will happen next can be kept relatively simple.

Criticized for his lack of traditional style, Euripides is the third well know playwright during the beginning of Greek Theatre and more specifically tragic dramas. Euripides strayed away from The Poetics the most out of those three. He produced plays with stronger and more independent females; he made the gods walk among them as if they were not gods which factored in to his plays taking too much of a realistic approach. Furthermore, his hodge podge of various styles created dislike of his plays.

Aristotle wrote that plot was the main factors and Euripides even allowed for that to be subpar (Wilson & Goldfarb 45). Aristotle has many details in The Poetics about the uses of different techniques he found are often used in plays and scripts to make them successful. Unfortunately, the work is most likely incomplete. His writing on the subject is broken into twenty-six chapters. The first three chapters cover Aristotle laying out his plan to study that of poetry in a very systematic way. He begins to lay out the order in which he is deciding to proceed.

Aristotle notes imitation as a part of tragedy. As imitators, he thinks there are two choice available to imitate someone better or worse than yourself. In chapters four through seven, Aristotle writes that tragedy and comedy take two different types of people, actors who think highly of themselves which allow them to perform in tragedy and actors who think lowly of themselves which allows them to perform in comedy. He writes about the lack of difference in Epics and in Tragedies based in what he has covered thus far. He continues in these chapters to explain the six most important factors of drama. He describes them by level of importance. They are plot, character, thought, dictions, song or music, and spectacle; these are the elements a play must have.

Every play needs to have a plot that contain a beginning, middle and end. Chapter eight and nine explain the importance of a plot that is unified and exclusive. A playwright should use a selective nature to decide what is written about the main character. The playwright should also have a character flaw that moves the action forward. Aristotle additionally describes the difference between the universal and the particular. The is representative of the past events that have occurred, an event that a historian would right about. The universal is what is necessity in a good script. It is the idea that the plot created is something that could happen but never did. It requires much though. Chapters ten and eleven explain how the plots must be simple or complex. Simple Plots have constant action without plot reveal or recognition.

Complex Plots contain a reversal or recognition and a stable internal structure. Furthermore, action should rotate 180 degrees to the opposing character, which is called a situation reversal. When situational reverses or recognition occurs one must have a Scene of suffering to allow the painful wound, agony, or death on stage. Twelve and thirteen describe the specific parts of a scrip, this includes but is not limited to the parode, stasimon, prologue, episode, exode, choric song, and possibly a commos. To recapture a few of the concepts we have covered, the perfect tragic scrip needs to have a complex plan, unity of actions, and it should be able to bring fear and pity to the audience. Only a very small amount of spectacle can be present.

The plot should have a unbreakable structure that allows for the hero to be pure and good with a singular flaw. Fourteen and fifteen goes in even more depth about the way that incidents should occur and how the plot should be structured to maximize the pity and fear that excited the audience. Additionally, in regards to character, It has to be good, it should be aimed at propriety, and should be as realistic and consistent to life as possible.

Sixteen and seventeen explains there are multiple types of recognition; they are poverty of wit, recognition fabricated by the writer, recall form memory, and logical deduction. The poet should work out the story in his mind using his creativity and imagination before imitation on stage begins. Eighteen and nineteen describes how the incident that occurs be a denouncement or a complication and disentanglement. The chorus is a part of the action and should be regarded as an actor. Incidents should excite emotions based on the context of the play. Speech’s need special attention paid to the rhetoric used to excite fear and pity. Twenty and twenty-one Aristotle writes about the parts of language that can be used. Letters, connecting words, syllables, inflection.

Sentences, phrases, nouns, and verbs can be used. Each word is either a single word or a compound word. Words can also be strange, current, ornamental, newly coined, lengthened, or metaphorical.

Twenty-two and twenty-three Aristotle clarifies that the only words that should be used are those that will make it clear to understand. Generally using current words and proper words will produces the best script. Another tip to create the perfect tragedy is having the plot focused in on one subject that has specificity to it. With a beginning middle and end.

Twenty-four, twenty-five, and twenty-six Aristotle describes that the epic and the tragedy are different. Mainly in lengths. Tragedy’s need to start and finish in one sitting. Aristotle further dives in to many questions related to epics. He wrestles with all the problems with epics and the scenes that are impossible. He also questions the language barrier that would exist between the actors and audience and how much of a challenge that must be. His final question is which art form is better.

Due to several reason Aristotle decides that Tragedy’s superior to epics (Aristotle). The ideas in the chapter descriptions of The Poetics above are summaries of each of the chapters within Aristotle’s writing. Aristotle explained in his work that the action should progress continually, without The Poetics theatre could not have been thrust forward. It is fundamental to understand what the key points of his writing are before considering how his work influenced throughout history. When the Punic Wars were over and Rome came out victorious, the Greeks became a part of roman empire (THE PUNIC WARS).

While they were a part of the Roman Empire, it seems as if the Romans were becoming a part of Greek theatre instead. The lack of innovation that the Romans had regarding theatre specifically tragedy allowed for the former Greeks and the Romans to make great strides in progress. Unfortunately, the strides they made toward popular entertainment instead of theatre with an elevated concept. Overall there is only a few number of works that we have from Rome loosely influenced by The Poetics. “The Trojan Women, Medea, Oedipus, Phaedra, Thyestes, Heccules on Oeta, The Mad Hercules, The Phoenician Women, and Agamemnon—are the only surviving examples of Roman tragedy” (pg 66 Wilson & Goldfarb). These nine plays were written by a Seneca.

This plays are not one hundred percent truthful to Aristotle’s work. It seems to attract a crowd; plays have to emphasis spectacle higher than The Poetics suggests. Seneca also writes his plays with gruesome scenes being viewed by the audience which is partially why he has more spectacle. Scholars have considered his work to be “highly melodramatic” (pg 66 Wilson & Goldfarb). Aristotle’s Poetics are not clearly defined as the strict rules like the neoclassicism artist in later history but can be interpreted as a suggestion.

Seneca’s work differed greatly from Greek Tragedy but still sprinkles of The Poetics with in them. Sometimes called the Roman Aristotle, Horace wrote a book similar to The Poetics with less structure, and with lesser detail he explained his thirty or so rules in Ars Poetica. His writings are based more in fiction and general poetry than the art of storytelling. Horace much like Seneca was influenced by Aristotle’s Poetics on some level. His writing would be largely popular in future decades to come and would always be a credible source.

Asian theatre was largely popular at this time too. Some scholars have speculated that the foundation if Natyasatra could have been formulated from the ideas of Aristotle. Furthermore, works such as Shakuntala have elements of recognition revealing it as a product of Greek influence. (pg 81 Wilson & Goldfarb) As theatre transitioned in to the middle ages most theatre was based, formed, and performed with religious ties. Aristotle’s Poetics was not popular during these times partially because theatre was not extremely popular in the church.

Different powers have different thoughts about this across the globe. Some of the basic ideas of Aristotle’s work could be seen in these dramas but more of them had vanished. Churches began to perform with God as the number one element of the production instead of plot. At the end of the 14th century a rise in interest in classic Greek tragedy was peaked with Achillies. This play was known as the earliest tragedy in the Italian renaissance. The playwrights of the renaissance were largely supporters of work of early Greeks. Due to printing press technologies theatre works could be copied and distributed. Works of some of the earliest tragedy playwrights became available in he early 1500’s. Within the next hundred years, Italian playwrights began writing works of their own.

Many of their plays were influences by Aristotle. Neoclassissim became a well know style in Italy around the 1600’s (pg 151 Wilson & Goldfarb). Neo meaning new and classics referring to ancient Greek and Roman theatre were plays that had an evolutionary set of rules that progressed theatre in the 18th century. This group of people developed a set of script rules based on Horace and Aristotle’s works. They believed characters should have decorum, exactly five acts, plays needed to take place within 24 hours, have one plot take place in one location and in these works good should always triumph over evil. In France, neoclassicism had begun to triumph over the unstructured theatrical shows they had been preforming previously to the introduction on the Italian ideas. (pg 211 Wilson & Goldfarb) Italian thespians were dedicated to maintaining the classic ways of theatre.

Restoration drama occurred during the end of the 17th century, Restoration dramas are exactly what they sound like. They are edited versions of popular shows that were changed to fit the shape of Neoclassic or Aristotelian dramas. Many of Shakespeare’s works were restored to neoclassic ideals. During the 1700s many other countries in Europe began to follow suit and perform neoclassic dramas. It wasn’t until the start of the 1800’s that neoclassic was phased out along with any major influence of The Poetics. Since the 1800’s, very few modern Greek Tragedy have been written and get enough attention to be well know.

There is something to be said about that. Our culture has lost site of The Poetics as a structure of producing dramas. Aristotle’s influence while not as apparent as it once was, still lingers in smaller bits.. Theatre has evolved to an era of creation. Today, theatre artist constantly try to write, innovate,or produce new works. We will never see Aristotle’s influence form be copied exactly but what we do see is alterations of his ideas.

From shakespeares writing to films scripts today The Poetics will last for thousands of years to come. Ideas regarding, the plot, the shape of a dramatic story, reversals, recognition, thought, song, and diction have out live a number of generations and will continue to outlive more. 2,352 that’s how many years its been since The Poetics was written and it is still studied around the world today.

Work Cited

  1. Adams, John P. “Aristotle, The Poetics.” California State University, Northridge, 26 Jan. 2010,
  2. Aristotle. “Poetics.”, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2009,
  3. “ARISTOTLE QUOTES III.” Notable-Quotes, 2018,
  4. Amadio, Anselm H., and Anthony J.P. Kenny. “Aristotle.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 9 Oct. 2018,
  5. “Living Theatre: a History of Theatre.” Living Theatre: a History of Theatre, by Edwin Wilson and Alvin Goldfarb, W.W. Norton & Company, 2015.
  6. ‘Oedipus the King and Aristotle’s Poetics.’
  7. 02 Dec 2018 .
  8. “THE PUNIC WARS (264-241, 218-202, 149-146 B.C.).” Augustus: The Expansion of the Roman Empire (A.D. 14), 
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Summary of Shakuntala: Oedipus Rex. (2022, Feb 10). Retrieved from