Aristotle defines it as "a change by which the action veers round to its opposite, subject always to our rule of probability or necessity." According to Aristotle, peripeteia, along with discovery, is the most effective when it comes to drama, particularly in a tragedy. Aristotle wrote “The finest form of Discovery is one attended by Peripeteia, like that which goes with the Discovery in Oedipus…”.
Aristotle says that peripeteia is the most powerful part of a plot in a tragedy along with discovery. A peripety is the change of the kind described from one state of things within the play to its opposite, and that too in the way we are saying, in the probable or necessary sequence of events. There is often no element like Peripeteia; it can bring forth or result in terror, mercy, or in comedies it can bring a smile or it can bring forth tears (Rizo). This is the best way to spark and maintain attention throughout the various form and genres of drama “Tragedy imitates good actions and, thereby, measures and depicts the well-being of its protagonist. But in his formal definition, as well as throughout the Poetics, Aristotle emphasizes that” ... Tragedy is an imitation not only of a complete action, but also of events inspiring fear or pity" (1452a 1); in fact, at one point Aristotle isolates the imitation of "actions that excite pity and fear" as "the distinctive mark of tragic imitation" (1452b 30). Pity and fear are effected through reversal and recognition; and these "most powerful elements of emotional interest in Tragedy-Peripeteia or Reversal of the Situation, and recognition scenes-are parts of the plot (1450a 32). has the shift of the tragic protagonist's fortune from good to bad, which is essential to the plot of a tragedy. It is often an ironic twist. Good uses of Peripeteia are those that especially are parts of a complex plot, so that they are defined by their changes of fortune being accompanied by reversal, recognition, or both” (Smithson).
Peripeteia includes changes of character, but also more external changes. A character who becomes rich and famous from poverty and obscurity has undergone peripeteia, even if his character remains the same.
When a character learns something he had been previously ignorant of, this is normally distinguished from peripeteia as anagnorisis or discovery, a distinction derived from Aristotle's work.
Aristotle considered anagnorisis, leading to peripeteia, the mark of a superior tragedy. Two such plays are Oedipus the King, where the oracle's information that Oedipus had killed his father and married his mother brought about his mother's death and his own blindness and exile, and Iphigenia in Tauris, where Iphigenia realizes that the strangers she is to sacrifice are her brother and his friend, resulting in all three of them escaping Tauris. These plots he considered complex and superior to simple plots without anagnorisis or peripeteia, such as when Medea resolves to kill her children, knowing they are her children, and does so. Aristotle identified Oedipus the King, as the principal work demonstrating peripety. (See Aristotle's Poetics.)
In Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, the peripeteia occurs towards the end of the play when the Messenger brings Oedipus news of his parentage. In the play, Oedipus is fated to murder his father and marry his mother. His parents, Laius and Jocasta, try to forestall the oracle by sending their son away to be killed, but he is actually raised by Polybus and his wife, Merope, the rulers of another kingdom. The irony of the Messenger’s information is that it was supposed to comfort Oedipus and assure him that he was the son of Polybus. Unfortunately for Oedipus, the Messenger says, “Polybus was nothing to you, [Oedipus] that’s why, not in blood” (Sophocles 1113). The Messenger received Oedipus from one of Laius’ servants and then gave him to Polybus. The plot comes together when Oedipus realizes that he is the son and murderer of Laius as well as the son and husband of Jocasta. Martin M. Winkler says that here, peripeteia and anagnôrisis, occur at the same time “for the greatest possible impact” because Oedipus has been “struck a blow from above, as if by fate or the gods. He is changing from the mighty and somewhat arrogant king of Thebes to a figure of woe” (Winkler 57).
Conversion of Paul on the road to Damascus
The instantaneous conversion of Paul on the road to Damascus is a classic example of peripeteia, which Eusebius presented in his Life of Constantine as a pattern for the equally revelatory conversion of Constantine. Modern biographers of Constantine see his conversion less as a momentary phenomenon than as a step in a lifelong process.
The Three Apples
In "The Three Apples", a medieval Arabian Nights, after the murderer reveals himself near the middle of the story, he explains his reasons behind the murder in a flashback, which begins with him going on a journey to find three rare apples for his wife, but after returning finds out she cannot eat them due to her lingering illness. Later at work, he sees a slave passing by with one of those apples claiming that he received it from his girlfriend, a married woman with three such apples her husband gave her. He returns home and demands his wife to show him all three apples, but she only shows him two. This convinces him of her infidelity and he murders her as a result. After he disposes of her body, he returns home where his son confesses that he had stolen one of the apples and that a slave, to whom he had told about his father's journey, had fled with it. The murderer thus realizes his guilt and regrets what he has just done.
The second use of peripety occurs near the end. After finding out about the culprit behind the murder, the protagonist Ja'far ibn Yahya is ordered by Harun al-Rashid to find the tricky slave within three days, or else he will have Ja'far executed instead. After the deadline has passed, Ja'far prepares to be executed for his failure and bids his family farewell. As he hugs his youngest daughter, he feels a round object in her pocket, which is revealed to be the same apple that the culprit was holding. In the story's twist ending, the daughter reveals that she obtained it from their slave, Rayhan. Ja'far thus realizes that his own slave was the culprit all along. He then finds Rayhan and solves the case, preventing his own execution. That was a plot twist.
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In William Shakespeare's tragedy Othello, the peripety occurs in the mere middle of the play, act III, scene 3. Othello is slowly deceived by Iago's rhetoric, persuasiveness and imagery, yet in this scene the transition occurs. Iago says 'Indeed' with emphasis, whereafter Othello replies: "Indeed? Ay, indeed. Discerns't thou aught in that? Is he not honest?". Iago keeps using rhetorical emphasis to corrupt Othello: "Honest, my lord? [...] Think, my lord?". Othello who is of weak character and easily persuaded replies: "Think, my lord! By heaven, he echoes me, / As if there was some monster in his thought / Too hideous to be shown". The corruption continues until the peripety. There are two stanzas indicating this change. Othello has just married the beautiful Desdemona, whom he seemed unlikely to marry because he is a Moor (of North African descent), nevertheless he has been very lucky. Yet the peripety arrives and Othello exclaims: "Why did I marry? This honest creature [Iago] doubtless / Sees and knows more, much more, than he unfolds". [III, 3, 243-4]. Othello concludes that: "This fellow's of exceeding honesty / And knows all qualities with a learned spirit / Of human dealings" [III, 3, 260]. The peripety has happened and Othello degrades mentally and the transition can be observed in his usage of language. Othello is very eloquent and uses subtle imagery ("Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them" [I, 2, 59]). After the peripety, his language degrades to the usage of diabolical and physical imagery. Following the confirmation of his absolute belief in what Iago has told him, he remarks: "I had rather be a toad / And live upon the vapour of a dungeon" [III, 3, 272].
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In Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet: Prince of Denmark, the peripeteia occurs in Act 3 scene 3 when Hamlet sees King Claudius praying alone. It is the perfect opportunity to avenge his father and kill Claudius. Hamlet draws his sword, but then hesitates. He realizes that, since Claudius is praying, he would go to heaven if killed, thus Hamlet's father would not be avenged. Hamlet decides not to “take him [Claudius] in the purging of his soul,/ When he is fit and seasoned for passage” (Shakespeare 90-91). He resolves to “know thou a more horrid hent”, or wait for a more horrible occasion (93). The irony of the situation is that, unbeknownst to Hamlet, Claudius cannot ask for forgiveness for murdering his brother because he is “still possessed/ Of those effects for which I [Claudius] did the murder./ My crown, mine own ambition, and my queen” (57-59). This scene marks Hamlet’s point of no return in avenging his father and his hesitation allows Claudius to constantly be one step ahead. In the end, it is Hamlet’s hesitation that causes the death of himself, his mother, Laertes, and Ophelia. On the other hand, according to Hegel’s theory of the tragic, tragedy is “set in train by a peripatetic act that rebounds upon the agent as a conflict between ethical powers” (Finlayson 500). The downfall of the hero is because of an act done in error rather than from a character flaw, so therefore, the character is responsible, at least in part, for his or her downfall (501). In Hamlet’s case, it is the lack of action that causes his downfall and eventual death.
- Aristotle, Poetics, trans. Ingram Bywater; Modern Library College Editions, New York, 1984.
- Finlayson, James G., "Conflict and Reconciliation in Hegel's Theory of the Tragic", Journal of the History of Philosophy 37 (1999); pp. 493–520.
- Lucas, F. L., "The Reverse of Aristotle" (an essay on peripeteia), Classical Review, Vol. XXXVII Nos 5,6; Aug.–Sept. 1923; pp. 98–104.
- Rizo, Juan Pablo Mártir, Poetica de Aristoteles traducida de Latin; M. Newels Elias L. Rivers MLN, Vol. 82, No. 5, General Issue. (Dec., 1967), pp. 642–643
- Shakespeare, William, The Tragedy of Hamlet: Prince of Denmark, ed. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine; New York, Washington Square P, 1992.
- Silk, M. S., Tragedy and the Tragic: Greek Theatre and Beyond; Oxford, 1998; pp. 377–380.
- Smithson, Isaiah, Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 44, No. 1. (Jan. - Mar., 1983), pp. 3–17.
- Sophocles, Oedipus the King, in The Three Theban Plays, trans. Robert Fagles; Comp. Bernard Knox; New York: Penguin, 1982.
- Winkler, Martin M., Oedipus in the Cinema, Arethusa, 2008; pp. 67–94.
- Aristotle, Poetics, 1452a
- e.g. Paul Stephenson, Constantine, Roman Emperor, Christian Victor 2010: the trope of peripaty is discussed in "Constantine's Conversion", pp168f.
- Pinault, David (1992), Story-Telling Techniques in the Arabian Nights, Brill Publishers, pp. 86–95, ISBN 90-04-09530-6
- Marzolph, Ulrich (2006), The Arabian Nights Reader, Wayne State University Press, pp. 240–1, ISBN 0-8143-3259-5
- Pinault, David (1992), Story-Telling Techniques in the Arabian Nights, Brill Publishers, pp. 95–6, ISBN 90-04-09530-6
- Marzolph, Ulrich (2006), The Arabian Nights Reader, Wayne State University Press, pp. 241–2, ISBN 0-8143-3259-5