Aristotle and Eastenders

It is often the case that people feel that it is totally fine to sneer at soaps on TV. You may not personally like them, but after a revision of Aristotle and dipping in to Poetics I thought that it might be interesting to see if we can consider Eastenders to be an example of a Tragedy.

Aristotle’s Poetics was not a very popular book and many thought that he had no place in trying to capture what the art form means. That said, this post is not a defence of Aristotle. I am just going to look briefly at the characteristics he identifies to make up a tragedy to see if they match up with Eastenders Would Aristotle have sat down on the sofa with a cup of tea? I think there is a chance you know…

Aristotle says that we can consider something to be a tragedy if it has these seven characteristics:

  1. It is mimetic
  2. It is serious
  3. It tells a full story of an appropriate length,
  4. It contains rhythm and harmony,
  5. Rhythm and harmony occur in different combinations in different parts of the tragedy,
  6. It is performed rather than narrated
  7. It arouses feelings of pity and fear and then purges these feelings through catharsis.

Mimetic: this means, that it mimics real life, and it is this quality why we like poetry in the first place. It is imitation, and is a concept, that refers the motivation to capture life in some form. Imitation, is an innate instinct, which has been ‘implanted in man from childhood.’ It is not only for entertainment, but also for learning, we learn via witnessing the successes and failures of others, we can supposedly internalize these emotions and learn from them as though we have personally gone through them themselves. Aristotle explains that tragedy is the most refined version of poetry if you want to deal with the high matters, such as morality and human actions, obviously Eastenders isn’t poetry, even if the cockney accent has its lyrical moments. Regardless I think similarities can be found. Aristotle remarks that we like poetry so much because it is a form of imitation and “tragedy, like all poetry, is an imitation” (1996, pxvii) poetry represents life, and arguably, Eastenders sets out to do this. Eastenders is not glamorous; the weather is pretty much always grim, not to be rude, but the cast aren’t even that good looking. To sum it up, Eastenders isn’t aspirational. So in this sense it does mimic real life.

Serious: this essentially means that the plot has to have a level of magnitude in terms of length and how complex it is. It needs to be lengthy and complex as Aristotle argues this is the only way that the artist can cram in all the goings on in everyday lives – deaths, births and weddings and so on, in order to successfully mimic life’s trials and triumphs.

Rhythm and harmony: In the case of Eastenders, point four and five are less relevant, as they are more applicable to actual poetry or dance. Although, perhaps we can suggest that a TV show such as Eastenders does have a certain rhythm, it is not constant bleakness.

Performed: Eastenders, even if you consider it done badly, is no doubt performed four days a week. It is not simply a narrated story, we are with the characters as if they are real people and they are acting it out for us.

Pity and fear purges these feelings through catharsis: This is the idea for why humans may enjoy horror films or roller coasters – we are confronted with something like fear or shame, and Aristotle argues that it is good to flush these feelings from our systems, bring it into the open, and clear the air. This is exactly how a soap opera operates, and traditional Eastenders story arc develops, maybe not at the conclusion of every episode (due to the cliffhangers that it is famous for) but the eventual conclusion of a story allows us to feel cleansed and purged of the negative emotions built up within the episode. An episode of Eastenders, should make us feel fearful or pitying to the characters and end in such a way that these feelings are somehow cleansed – and this is the catharsis.

A further way in which Eastenders ticks the boxes for Aristotle is plot. Plot is key to a tragedy, and is made up of actions that are imitations of everyday life: “an action is performed by agents [who] have moral and intellectual characteristics, expressed in what they do and say” (ibid). A tragedy is meant to be performed – Eastenders is shown four nights a week – we see the action, unlike in an Epic in which the action is recounted and not performed, further there needs to be some level of spectacle – note, that this does not just mean something shocking, rather it means that we have to see it on stage. This is important though; we have to see the actions so we can see their moral character and their moral reasoning.

Why is plot the most important? “Tragedy aims to excite fear and pity; these emotions are responses to success and failure” (p xxi). We can have tragedy without characters though, that may sound odd, but when you think about it, you can have one person recounting a tragic story (probably get less viewers). Eastenders is all about the plot – long lost daughters, murderous sons, chip shop fires, pub explosions, abductions, mental illness, childhood traumas, I could go on, but I am starting to weep at all the misery.

A plot must have a beginning, a middle, which follows logically from the beginning; and an end, which follows logically from the middle and from which no further action necessarily follows. The plot should be unified, meaning that every element of the plot should tie in to the rest of the plot, leaving no loose ends, we can see this kind of thing in the Eastenders Christmas specials. A level of unity allows the tragedy to demonstrate universal themes powerfully. The best kind of plot contains twists, but these twists have, fit logically into the sequence of events.

A further quality that is need for a good tragedy is that it arouses pity and fear, and a way to do this via the hero, the hero who is relatively noble going from happiness to misery as a result of error on the part of the hero, for example Kat in Eastenders, who was relatively happy and contented yet goes and ruins it by having affairs. Pity and fear arises most strongly when most family members harm their own families rather than enemies or strangers – this is a classic Eastenders plot line, the abusive father or vengeful brother. The hero has to have some good qualities and these characteristics should be portrayed realistically and consistently.

Aristotle’s concept of imitation helps him to explain what is distinctive about our experience of art. When the actor playing Dirty Den, the actor is a substitute which allows us to imagine what a real Dirty Den might be like. Art presents reality, yet it is removed, it allows for a level of detachment, when you watch Eastenders on TV you are area it is not a real event, but only actors imitating real-world possibilities. So we can say seeing a murder for real is emotionally scarring, but seeing a on Eastenders gives us an opportunity to reflect upon the nature of human violence which results in the ability to lead a more reflective and sensitive life.

Catharsis is integral to Aristotle’s definition of Tragedy and helps us identifies art. The original Greek word ‘katharsis’ means purging bad feeling, and this is the way in which Aristotle uses the term – to refer to the release of emotions specifically pity and fear which are created in the performance. This process of catharsis that allows us to experience powerful emotions and then let them go is the ultimate purpose of art, then art becomes the equivalent of therapy. So despite its undeniable relentless depressing quality Eastenders may actually make you feel happy.


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