Introduction: Simple and Complex Plots
In the Poetics, Aristotle devotes a major portion of his discussion of tragedy to ‘plot’. Plot may be defined as a series of events in a narrative or drama—the series of events, however, existing in a well-knit design or pattern. Aristotle makes a distinction between the complex and simple plots. A simple plot, he says, is one in which the change of fortune occurs without any sudden Reversals (Peripety) or Discoveries (Anagnorisis). Things move directly to the end; in other words, simple plots are uninvolved actions.
The complex plot is one in which there is Peripety (reversal) or Angnorisis (discovery or recognition), or both together. It is formed of an involved action. Aristotle clearly indicates that the complex plot is the better one. In it there are the sudden reversals of situations and the discovery of the truth. The Peripety is what gives to tragedy the the essence of surprise. It is not the novelty of the story which makes the reader or audience expectant and interested: most Greek tragedies were based on well-know stories, and even the most original story would not remain ‘new’ forever. Thus the element of surprise does not centre on the novelty of the story but on the peripety or reversal involved in the complex plot. It is for this reason that Aristotle prefers the complex plot. It is made clear that Peripety and Anagnorisis are parts of the plot. There is the law of probability or necessity governing the whole plot, so that the reversal and discovery come about in a natural and, for that reason, all the more striking manner.
Peripety or Reversal
‘Peripety’ has been generally translated as ‘reversal’. It is held to be a reversal of situation, i.e., a situation changes to another which is the complete opposite of the first. Yet, one may argue that this kind of ‘reversal’ occurs in every tragedy whether of simple plot or complex. Why does Aristotle consider it to be the essence of the complex plot ? It is with this idea in mind that some critics have advanced the theory that ‘peripety’ does mean ‘reversal’, but it is the reversal of ‘intention’ rather than the reversal of ‘situation’. In other words, the change in ‘situation’ is brought about when the reversal of ‘intention’ takes place. A reversal of the direction of the action takes place in the context of the plot:
A ‘Peripety’ is the change from the -state of things within the play to its opposite of the kind described .... in the probable or necessary sequence of events.
In the word ‘peripety’ is contained the idea of the boomerang or recoil effect of one’s actions. The action is complex because, as Humphry House says, it moves on two levels—as it appears to the doer and as it really is. Also, the cause of the disaster is mixed up with the good intentions and the right means to achieve them. By water, however, feels that the meaning is, “a complete change of situation in the course of a single scene.” It is a change which is the turning point in the plot, and which leads to the crisis of the play.
Even if we study the plays of ancient
, ‘reversal’ implies a sequence of events bringing about an end, which is totally unexpected by the agent. The agent is enmeshed in a set of circumstances with which he had so far been able to contend successfully. But the moment occurs when the situation changes, all of a sudden, for the opposite of what is expected. It is quite easy to read implication of ‘tragic irony’ into the concept of ‘peripety’. The peripeties cited by Aristotle involve tragic irony. When the messenger arrives from Greece , his intention in giving his news is to cheer Oedipus and dispel his fear of marrying his mother. But by revealing who Oedipus really is, he produces exactly the opposite result. Peripety is connected with another aspect of tragedy mentioned by Aristotle. Aristotle says that the best tragic situations arise when destruction is wrought by one who is a friend or relative. ‘Peripety’ is all the more striking and awe-inspiring if it is brought about by the good intentions of the hero or by those who love him. A person is destroyed by the very people who wish him well, or is crushed by himself. Corinth
Anagnorisis or Discovery
Discovery, says Aristotle, is a transition from ignorance to knowledge. A part of the complex plot, it can occur either by itself, or in combination with peripety. Discovery may be of the identity of certain persons. Or it may concern things, or situations. When it concerns persons, it brings about a complete change in attitude between them; it produces love or hate between them. Both peripety and anagnorisis are capable of producing tragic emotions of pity and fear.
Recognition, as some people have translated ‘anagnorisis’, can involve people, like the recognition of Orestes by Iphigenia and of Iphigenia by Orestes. But even inanimate things can be the objects of’discovery’. We remember the handkerchief in Othello. The discovery may involve the realisation of the true situation; e.g., in Othello we have the true understanding of the facts, when Othello sees himself as one who has flung away, like an ignorant savage, the priceless jewel of his own happiness.
The best form of Discovery is that which comes simultaneously with the Teripety, says Aristotle. Indeed, this heightens the tragic effect. He cites Sophocles’ Oedipus as a perfect example of the combined Peripety and Anagnorisis.
Forms of Discovery
Aristotle discusses several forms of Discovery involved in the complex plot. But there is one obvious limitation in this discussion Aristotle mentions Discovery involving inanimate things, even things of a very casual kind. But he restricts his discussion of the various from of Discovery to the Discovery of the identity of persons.
There are six forms of Discovery listed by Aristotle. The least artistic, but the easiest to manipulate, is the Discovery through tokens or signs. The example of the recognition of Ulysses because of his scar, is cited. But these are mechanical devices, and do not necessarily arise from the plot. The second form is that which is introduced by the poet. This is an arbitrary practice and not artistic for that reason. The third form depends on memory; i.e., the sight of someone or something, arouses the memory and leads to the recognition. The fourth form of Discovery is made through the process of reasoning. The fifth form of Discovery cited by Aristotle is slightly ambiguous. It is not clear what exactly he means by “Discovery arising from bad reasoning on the side of the other party”. The example he gives is obscure. Critics have interpreted it to be “discovery by bluff”, like that one comes across in detective stories. Probably it means that the person arrives at the right conclusion, and hence the Discovery, through a wrong process of reasoning.
The sixth form of Discovery is considered to be the best by Aristotle. It is the Discovery arising from the incidents themselves, when the great surprise comes about through a probable incident. Such a Discovery happens in Sophocles’ Oedipus.
Aristotle’s Preference for the Complex Plot
‘Peripety’ and ‘Anagnorisis’ are basic ingredients of the complex plot. They may occur singly, or in combination. The combination brings about greater tragic effect. The complex plot thus has elements which heighten tragic effect. The ideal tragic story is one that shows the working of both Peripety and Anagnorisis. “A deed done in blindness by a friend or kinsman, should invite a sequel which is the reverse of what was expected, and the persons involved should realize the truth late—as does Othello after the murder of Desdemona; or Macbeth getting rid of Banquo in the sure expectation of final rest, find that he has unwittingly roused the forces that ensure his own destruction; or Claudius in Hamlet, poisoning the drink for Hamlet, but, in effect for himself and the Queen. Peripety and Discovery are the things by which Tragedy most absorbs and grips the mind”.
Tragedy, then, can have simple plot or a complex one. The complex is to be preferred because it has the ingredients which heighten the tragic effect. ‘Peripety’ and ‘Anagnorisis’ are two basic parts of the complex plot. These elements arouse awe and a sense of fatality about the action of tragedy. It goes without saying that they should arise naturally from the sequence of events. We notice the Aristotle’s contention regarding ‘Peripety’ and Discovery hold good even for a modern work like Ibsen’s Doll’s House. In that play, Nora, trying to save her husband, thereby loses him; and the ensuing cry of recognition rings clear in her own words: “It burst upon me that I had been living here these eight years with a strange man.” In consequence, she herself abandons the husband she had been struggling so desperately to keep. The Peripety is complete.
It is also to be noted that just as Peripety is often closely linked with Discovery, so is Discovery closely connected with ‘Hamartia’ or the error of judgement made by the character in tragedy. As Humphry House has pointed out, Hamartia, Peripety and Discovery all hang together in the ideal schematisation of tragic plot.