Peripeteia

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A peripeteia or peripetia - pronounced with the stress on the penultimate syllable pe-ri-pe-TEYE-er, IPA: /,pɛrɪpɪ'taɪə/ or pe-ri-pe-TEE-er, IPA: /pɛrɪpɪ'tiːə/ - is a sudden change of circumstances or reversal of fortune, almost always from good fortune to bad. The word 'peripeteia' is a transliteration of the ancient Greek word περιπέτεια (peripeteia), which means 'turning right about', 'reversal of the normal order', or 'sudden change of condition or fortune'. There is also an Anglicised form of the word - peripety, or peripetie which is pronounced with the stress on the second syllable pe-RI-pe-ti, IPA: /pə'rɪpətɪ/. This form is also used for a technical concept in Jungian psychology: "the third stage of a dream, in which the dream plot culminates in a decisive turning point or moment of crisis" (OED).

The word 'peripeteia' is generally used in the discussion of drama and refers to the sudden reversal of fortune which may befall the protagonist in a tragedy. The word was introduced into literary theory by the Greek philosopher Aristotle, who in ch. 10 of his Poetics distinguishes between 'simple' (ἁπλοι, haploi) and 'complex' (πεπλεγμένοι, peplegmenoi) plots by saying that in simple plots the action proceeds without a peripeteia or an anagnorisis (recognition), whereas in complex plots the action involves either a peripeteia or an anagnorisis or both (1452a14-18). He later expresses a preference for complex rather than simple tragic plots (ch. 13, 1452b30-32).

At the beginning of ch. 11 (1452a12-14) Aristotle says that a sudden reversal of fortune constitutes a peripeteia only if it is central to the tragic plot and part of the metabasis or metabole, the crucial point of transition in the protagonist's fortunes. Further, he has already stipulated that a tragic plot should form a unity (ch. 7, 1450b23-34), that the events which make up the plot should follow one another naturally, i.e., 'in a way that is either necessary or probable' (1450b29-30) - see further Classical unities - a requirement which sets constraints on the types of event which can constitute a peripeteia. Clearly, however, one way in which a peripeteia may come about compatibly with this requirement is through anagnorisis or recognition, i.e., through the protagonist coming to know someone's true identity (so that, e.g., a person he thought was an enemy or a stranger turns out to be a friend or a member of his family). In Sophocles's Oedipus Tyrannus (Oedipus the King), for example, a tragedy for which Aristotle has great admiration and to which he refers several times in the Poetics, the peripeteia involves an anagnorisis when Oedipus realises that the man he killed in a skirmish was his father Laius and the woman to whom he is married is his mother Iocasta. (Laius and Iocasta, warned by an oracle that any child born to Iocasta would kill his father, had exposed Oedipus shortly after his birth on Mount Cithaeron. However, he was found by a shepherd and taken to Polybus, the king of Corinth, who brought him up in ignorance of his true parentage.)

Although the initial reference to peripeteia and anagnorisis in Poetics ch. 10, 1452a14-18 - see second paragraph above - would suggest that either is possible without the other, it has sometimes been argued that, in Aristotle's view, every peripeteia involves an anagnorisis. If anagnorisis is understood, broadly, as the realisation of the truth about any matter whatsoever, this may perhaps be the case. If, however, anagnorisis is understood, more narrowly, as recognition of the true identity of a person or persons - the way in which Aristotle generally uses the term - a peripeteia clearly need not involve an anagnorisis, since the knowledge involved in the sudden reversal of the protagonist's fortunes need not be knowledge about the identity of persons, but knowledge about some other matter. In Sophocles' Trachiniae (Women of Trachis), for example, the peripeteia involves Deianeira's realisation that the ointment which she thought was a love-charm and smeared on the tunic she sent to her husband Heracles, was in fact a deadly poison.

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