Greek philosopher Aristotle proposes components of an ideal tragedy in his work, Tragedy and the Emotions of Pity and Fear. According to Aristotle, there are six components of a great tragedy: plot, character, thought, verbal expression, song, and visual adornment. He dissects these components in great detail and provides standards for all of them. In his play Bacchae, Euripides resembles much of Aristotles components of an ideal tragedy. Euripides has only few deviations from the Aristotelian tragedy.
To Aristotle, a tragedy is defined as an imitation of action and life, not of an imitation of men. Therefore, he places higher emphasis the role of plot in a tragedy, rather than the role of character. He describes the species and components of a plot in great detail.
For completeness, a plot must have a beginning, middle, and an end. A plot should be structured so that every part is necessary for completeness. The elements of a plot are peripety, recognition, and pathos. Peripety is a change in fortune, recognition is a change from ignorance to knowledge, and pathos is a destructive or painful act.
Furthermore, Aristotle states that a tragedy is not merely an imitation of actions, but of events inspiring fear and pity. Such an effect is best produced when events are surprising yet at the same time, they logically follow one another. A well-constructed plot should, therefore, not have a change of fortune from bad to good, but, on the other hand, from good to bad. A good plot should leave an audience feeling pity and fear. To produce this effect, actions must happen between those who are near or dear to one another. For example, a brother killing a father leaves a more impressionable feeling than an enemy killing an enemy does. Although Aristotle feels that a good tragedy arouses solemn emotion, an audience should not be left in a state of depression. Both the characters and the audience should end with a purging of emotional catastrophe, known as a catharsis.
The aspects of Aristotles ideal plot are well represented in Euripides Bacchae. The play begins with Dionysus prologue describing his birth to mortal Semele and immortal Zeus and his journey from Asia to Greece. He reveals that he has come to Thebes to gain recognition and worship as the god of nature, ecstasy, creation, and destruction because his aunts deny him and what he stands for. To prove his immortality, he forces all Theban women to wander in madness under trees. Dionysus attempts to spread a cult of his followers in the city of Thebes. The king of Thebes, Pentheus, disapproves of the Bacchic rites and tries to suppress the cult. A change of fortune occurs when Pentheus cannot resist the spell of Dionysus and thus he succumbs to the gods power.
The play ends with Pentheus savagely destroyed in his failure to suppress the cult. The city of Thebes remains under the spell of Dionysus. The audience is left to feel pity and fear because Pentheus own mother takes part in his killing.
This play reflects Aristotles ideal tragedy in that the change in fortune went from good to bad. Euripides uses the literary device of a deus ex machine in Dionysus final appearance. The term deus ex machina refers to a divine intervention to resolve a dramatic dilemma. Dionysus reveals himself as a god and explains his punishment for his disbelievers. The audience experiences a catharsis by realizing that civilization should make room for natural human urges toward ecstasy and joy. If they do not, those urges will sicken and destroy us from within. In respect to character, Aristotle defines a tragic hero as one who must have high status but must also be noble and virtuous. However, though the tragic hero is highly distinguished, he is not perfect.
His imperfection is called the tragic flaw. The tragic hero suffers misfortune brought about by some error or frailty, not because of wickedness or cruelty. In the Bacchae, Pentheus fulfills Aristotles necessary qualities of a tragic hero.
His demise is caused by his tragic flaws of excessive pride and overconfidence. He rejects the Bacchic rites because he is too proud to follow the cult and