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On Tragedy Commonlit Answers

  • 9th Grade
  • Lexile: 1070

Source: On Tragedy by Aristotle

Assessment Answers

How does paragraph 1 contribute to the development of ideas in the text?It introduces the purpose of the subsequent paragraphs: to advise writers on the components of an ideal tragedy.
What does the word “spectacle” most closely mean as it is used in paragraph 2?a dramatic scene
Which quotation from the text best summarizes the characteristics that a main character in a tragedy should possess?“a man who is not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error of judgement or frailty” (Paragraph 2)

Summarize at least three elements of an ideal tragedy as described by Aristotle.

According to Aristotle, an ideal tragedy should have the following three elements:

  1. Change of fortune: The protagonist experiences a reversal of fortune, going from good to bad. This should not be due to inherent vice or wickedness, but rather a flaw, error, or misfortune. Think of Oedipus, who unknowingly commits terrible crimes based on a misunderstanding.
  2. Character: The protagonist is neither perfectly good nor completely evil, but occupies a middle ground. They are often well-respected and prosperous individuals, making their downfall all the more impactful.
  3. Emotional impact: The tragedy should evoke pity and fear in the audience. Pity arises from witnessing undeserved suffering, while fear comes from recognizing the possibility of such suffering happening to ourselves or someone like us.

These elements work together to create a powerful and thought-provoking experience for the audience. By seeing the tragic downfall of a relatable character, we are encouraged to contemplate the fragility of human life and the potential for error and suffering.

Some literacy critics have defined tragedy as “the downfall of a hero.” Would Aristotle agree? How might he revise this definition?

While Aristotle does emphasize the fall of a prominent individual in his definition of tragedy, he wouldn’t entirely agree with the simple statement “tragedy is the downfall of a hero.” Here’s how he might revise it:

Aristotle would likely refine the definition by adding several key points:

  1. Character flaw over heroism: Instead of focusing solely on “heroism,” Aristotle would highlight the importance of a flawed character. The protagonist’s downfall should stem not from external forces but from an internal flaw, error in judgment, or frailty. Simply being powerful or admired doesn’t make a tragic hero.
  2. Emotional impact: The definition should emphasize the emotional response tragedy aims to evoke: pity and fear. While the downfall is important, it serves to elicit these emotions in the audience, leading to reflection and catharsis.
  3. Not all downfalls are tragic: Not all downfalls qualify as tragedies. Aristotle distinguishes between the downfall of a perfectly virtuous person (not tragic) and a completely evil one (also not tragic). The ideal tragic hero occupies a middle ground.

So, revising the definition based on Aristotle’s principles, we could say:

Tragedy is the fall from prosperity of a flawed but not irredeemable character, due to their own error or misjudgment, evoking pity and fear in the audience through the spectacle of their misfortune.

By incorporating these nuances, the definition better reflects Aristotle’s complex understanding of tragedy and its unique impact on the audience.

Discussion Answers

Why do you think tragedy is a popular genre? Is tragedy entertaining? What benefit do people derive from watching the downfall of a tragic hero?

The popularity of tragedy as a genre can be attributed to several factors, both entertaining and thought-provoking:

Emotional Catharsis:

  • Pity and Fear: As Aristotle highlights, tragedy aims to evoke pity and fear in the audience. Witnessing the suffering of a relatable character allows us to experience these emotions vicariously in a safe, controlled environment. This catharsis, or emotional release, can be purifying and even therapeutic.
  • Identification and Reflection: By connecting with the struggles and flaws of the tragic hero, we can reflect on our own vulnerabilities and mortality. This introspection can lead to personal growth and a deeper understanding of the human condition.

Intrigue and Suspense:

  • High Stakes and Conflict: Tragedies typically involve characters facing seemingly insurmountable challenges, creating tension and suspense that keeps the audience engaged.
  • Unpredictability and Irony: The tragic hero’s downfall often stems from unforeseen circumstances or ironic twists of fate, adding a layer of surprise and keeping viewers guessing.
  • Moral Dilemmas and Consequences: Tragedies often explore complex moral dilemmas, prompting viewers to contemplate right and wrong, justice and suffering. This intellectual engagement can be stimulating and thought-provoking.

Entertainment Value:

  • Dramatic Storytelling: Tragedies often offer compelling narratives with well-developed characters and dramatic conflicts, making them inherently engaging and entertaining.
  • Aesthetic Appreciation: The language, imagery, and symbolism used in tragedies can be aesthetically pleasing and contribute to the overall enjoyment of the experience.
  • Shared Experience: Engaging with tragedy can become a shared experience, sparking discussions, interpretations, and emotional responses among audiences.

However, it’s important to note that the concept of tragedy as “purely entertaining” might be debatable. While it can be captivating and hold our attention, its core elements involve suffering and loss, which are not inherently pleasurable.

Ultimately, the appeal of tragedy lies in its ability to evoke a range of complex emotions, challenge our perspectives, and offer insights into the human experience. It can be both entertaining and thought-provoking, leaving a lasting impression on the audience.

What is the significance of pity and fear in tragedy?

In tragedy, the significance of pity and fear goes beyond simply being emotions experienced by the audience. They play a crucial role in achieving the overall purpose of tragedy as defined by Aristotle: catharsis.

Here’s a breakdown of their individual and combined significance:


  • Empathy and Connection: When we feel pity for the tragic hero, we empathize with their suffering and connect with their vulnerabilities. This creates a shared experience between the audience and the character, allowing us to understand their situation on a deeper level.
  • Reflection on Mortality and Fragility: Witnessing the downfall of a seemingly admirable character reminds us of the impermanence of fortune and the potential for suffering in our own lives. This can evoke a sense of humility and encourage introspection.
  • Moral Judgment: Sometimes, pity arises from recognizing that the hero’s misfortune seems undeserved. This can prompt us to question notions of justice, fate, and the power of external forces.


  • Self-Identification and Vulnerability: When we experience fear in a tragedy, it’s often the fear of seeing ourselves or someone like us in the protagonist’s situation. This recognition highlights our own flaws and vulnerabilities, making us consider the possibility of encountering similar suffering.
  • Awareness of Moral Dilemmas: Tragic heroes often face situations with no easy choices, putting them in morally ambiguous positions. Witnessing their struggles and the consequences of their decisions can heighten our awareness of similar dilemmas we might face in our own lives.
  • Appreciation for Life’s Value: The contrast between the hero’s initial prosperity and their ultimate downfall can make us appreciate the preciousness of life and the opportunities we possess.

Combined Impact: Catharsis:

  • Emotional Release and Insight: By experiencing both pity and fear, the audience undergoes a process of emotional cleansing or catharsis. This release of intense emotions can be psychologically beneficial, fostering self-reflection and deeper understanding of human nature.
  • Strengthened Values and Empathy: Through the emotional journey facilitated by pity and fear, viewers may develop a stronger sense of empathy and compassion for others, appreciating the value of moral goodness and avoiding similar tragic errors in their own lives.

How does what Aristotle calls our “moral sense” play into the concept of tragedy?

In the context of tragedy, Aristotle’s “moral sense” refers to our inherent capacity to judge actions as right or wrong, good or bad. This plays a key role in tragedy in several ways:

1. Shaping the Tragic Hero:

  • Aristotle emphasizes that the ideal tragic hero should not be perfectly virtuous or completely evil. They should occupy a middle ground, possessing some admirable qualities but also harboring a flaw or error in judgment that ultimately leads to their downfall. This allows the audience to connect with the hero on a human level while simultaneously recognizing the moral implications of their choices.
  • The hero’s downfall should not be purely due to external forces or bad luck, but rather stem from their own actions and misjudgments. This activates our moral sense, prompting us to consider the choices made and the consequences they bring.

2. Eliciting Emotional Response:

  • As the tragic hero suffers due to their own flaws, our moral sense can lead us to feel conflicting emotions. We might pity their misfortune while simultaneously disapproving of their actions. This complexity of emotions further fuels the cathartic effect of tragedy.
  • We may experience outrage if the hero’s downfall seems undeserved, prompting us to question ideas of justice and fairness. Conversely, if the downfall feels like a consequence of their actions, it might reinforce our understanding of moral cause and effect.

3. Offering Moral Insights:

  • By presenting characters and situations that challenge our moral compass, tragedy provides a platform for reflection and learning. We are encouraged to examine our own values and consider how different choices might lead to different outcomes.
  • The suffering of the hero serves as a cautionary tale, reminding us of the potential consequences of moral transgressions and the importance of making wise choices.
  • Ultimately, tragedy can contribute to the development of our moral compass by urging us to empathize, question, and learn from the experiences of others.

However, it’s important to remember that tragedy doesn’t always offer clear-cut moral lessons. Sometimes, the hero’s downfall may be due to fate or seemingly unpredictable circumstances, leaving us grappling with unanswered questions and complex emotions. The “moral sense” therefore serves as a tool for engagement and contemplation, not necessarily for reaching definitive moral conclusions.

By understanding how Aristotle’s “moral sense” intersects with tragedy, we gain a deeper appreciation for its ability to challenge, provoke, and ultimately, offer valuable insights into the human condition.

Aristotle says that the tragic hero must be similar to the audience in order to evoke fear. How do we see ourselves in literary characters?

Aristotle’s point about the tragic hero needing to be “like ourselves” to evoke fear is crucial for understanding the power of tragedy. But how exactly do we see ourselves in fictional characters, even those facing vastly different circumstances? There are several ways this connection is established:

1. Shared Human Emotions:

  • At the core, even kings and heroes in tragedies experience and display basic human emotions like love, fear, grief, and anger. When we recognize these emotions in characters, even under extraordinary circumstances, we can understand them and empathize with their struggles. This emotional connection transcends differences in background, status, or era.

2. Universal Traits and Flaws:

  • Tragic heroes often possess flaws and vulnerabilities that resonate with our own human condition. They might exhibit pride, ambition, envy, or jealousy – traits we might recognize in ourselves or others, even if not to the same extreme. Seeing these flaws lead to downfall can evoke fear for ourselves, reminding us of our own potential for mistakes and their consequences.

3. Moral Dilemmas and Choices:

  • Tragedies frequently present the hero with difficult choices, forcing them to navigate moral dilemmas. Even if we personally wouldn’t face the same exact situations, we can relate to the struggle of making tough decisions and the fear of making the wrong choice, potentially leading to regret or suffering.

4. Symbolism and Archetypes:

  • Literature often uses archetypes and symbolic elements to represent universal human experiences. A tragic hero’s journey can embody struggles with mortality, societal pressures, or the fight against fate. By recognizing these symbols and archetypes, we can connect them to our own lives and the fears we face as individuals and as part of humanity.

5. Imagination and Projection:

  • Reading or watching a tragedy is an active process. We use our imagination to step into the character’s shoes and experience their world.
  • This allows us to project our own fears and anxieties onto the characters, making their struggle feel more personal and relatable, thus amplifying the fear evoked by their downfall.

While we may not share a tragic hero’s exact circumstances or social status, the human emotions, flaws, choices, and symbolic representations they embody can create a bridge of understanding and connection.

This allows us to see ourselves reflected in their experiences, making their fear and downfall resonate with our vulnerabilities and potential tragedies.

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