According to Aristotle, a tragedy is “an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions”(Nahm 7). Aristotle categorizes the six basic parts of any tragedy as plot, characters, thought, diction, spectacle and melody. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet follow this definition of a tragedy and adhere to Aristotle’s six elements of a tragedy: plot, character, diction, thought, spectacle, and song.
The Plot, the first principle, refers to the combination of incidents in the story. Aristotle thinks this to be the most important feature of the tragedy. William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet contain a plot that complies with the first line of Aristotle’s definition of a tragedy, which states “the imitation of an action is serious and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself”(Nahm 7). This refers to the first element of a tragedy, the plot, implying that Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet deal with one issue that is very serious in magnitude such as the conflict between the two families which lead to innocent deaths. Shakespeare also follows Aristotle’s idea of the tragedy being of a certain magnitude. This is because the characters are realistic therefore the audience is capable of relating to them easily. Romeo and Juliet are upset, while grieving over their impending separation and angered about the circumstances surrounding their families. They are also unsure of themselves how they should handle the situation. The audience can relate to this uncertain feeling and they are able to empathize with Romeo and Juliet.
Aristotle believed the plot should depict the fall of a man who is basically good, but who suffers from some error or frailty. In the play, Romeo’s frailty is his apt to fall in love too quickly and deeply. In the start of the play he is in love with Lady Rosalynn, but soon falls for Juliet, a member of the Capulets, a rival family. Romeo is blinded by love, unable to think with rational, which cause a string of negative events to come to pass. The suffering of the tragic hero also extends beyond himself. Due to the actions of Romeo, Mercutio and Tybalt died. Romeo is first placed in a conflict and kills Tybalt (Juliet’s Cousin), then he is banished thus separated from Juliet. Finally he receives news that Juliet is dead. His situation continues to decline from good to bad to worse.
He does not necessarily regress from external circumstances, but from the “tragic flaw” in his own character.
The second most important element of a tragedy is Characters of the play. Characters are those whose actions and decisions move the plot. Aristotle believes that in order for a tragedy to be effective, it must convey pity and fear. According to Aristotle’s definition, in tragedies, characters will undergo “incidents arousing pity and fear from the audience” (Nahm 8). Aristotle believes that this change “should come about as the result, not of vice, but of some great error or frailty in a character”(Nahm 8). Romeo and Juliet’s characters have an essential quality or nature that is revealed in the plot. They both experience a change of fortune from good to bad, as the love between them is forced apart through a cause-and-effect chain of actions until they are forced to commit suicide. In Romeo and Juliet, the events or episodes in the play lead the audience to feel sorry for the main characters and feel afraid for them as they move toward a destructive end.
The third and fourth elements of a tragedy are thought and diction, which comply to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as well. Thought is both the manner of the character’s speech and the general tenor, or theme of the play. It refers to two things: first, to the content of the dialogue, and what is communicated by the several parts of a tragedy as a whole. Diction, the fourth part on Aristotle's list, describes the actor's delivery of his lines. Diction is the expression of the meaning of the words. Thought and diction deal with what is said and how it is said. Aristotle explained thought to be, that that is spoken in the play. The play Romeo and Juliet, in comparison to any other form of expression, is expressed almost exclusively in words rather than song or dance. Shakespeare wrote the play like a poem with rhythm and verse, saturated with metaphors. Shakespeare uses metaphors throughout the play to transfer thoughts and ideas through resemblance to the audience This way of expression conforms to the section of Aristotle’s tragedy definition that discusses “language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament”(Nahm 7). Shakespeare’s writing is well known for its eloquent Old English, and lavish embellishment of words. The unique way the play is written and the way the words are pronounced both fit into the play’s elements of thought and diction.
Spectacle encompasses all physical, visual manifestations of the play including the faces of the actors, the sets, costumes, lighting, and special effects. Finally, Melody points to the music used to underscore and heighten mood in the production. Both of these elements are part of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” thus the play encompasses all six of Aristotle’s elements of a tragedy.
Nahm, Milton C. and Butcher S. H. Aristotle On the Art of Poetry. The Liberal Arts Press, NY: New York, 1948