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Understanding the Literary Term 'Peripeteia' With Popular Examples

Understanding the Literary Term 'Peripeteia' with Examples
The Greeks are rightly called the creators of tragedy, with their epic plays centered around the tragic heroes who eventually face doom. These sudden disastrous sequential turn of events is known as 'peripeteia' in the literary circles. This Penlighten post defines peripeteia with examples.
Mary Anthony
Last Updated: Feb 10, 2018
Classic Peripeteia!
In M. Night Shyamalan's movie The Sixth Sense, when Dr. Malcolm Crowe realizes he has been dead the entire time he has been treating Haley (the boy who can see ghosts), the plot gets a horrifying twist which transforms him from a breathing, living person to a ghost.
What makes a story, a play, or a narrative more interesting is an unexpected twist? Of course the audience are caught off guard when they find out that the plot has conjured up an evil ending for their idolized hero. The late 16th century term that adds spice as well as the tragic flaw to the tale is known as Peripeteia which aptly means 'reversal', 'sudden change', 'turning of fortune' in classic Greek terminology. In English literary terms, it is known as Peripety or a 'violent reversal of circumstances.'

Tragedy need not always represent the death of a character in the end, but it definitely portrays the suffering and the reversal in his fortune. As the Greek philosopher Aristotle states: "A man cannot become a hero until he can see the root of his own downfall."
Freed before the execution
Peripeteia is a literary term that is used while referring to a tragic twist included in a drama, play, or a narrative in literature to connote a sudden transposition of circumstances. This term is popular in Greek tragedies where the protagonist undergoes a reversal of fortunes from constancy and happiness towards a catastrophic ending.
Illustration of Aristotle
Greek philosopher Aristotle
★ Tragedy has been highly defined in the influential work of Greek philosopher Aristotle which is known as Poetics. This thesis on drama was written around 335 B.C. According to him, peripeteia is the pivotal factor of Greek drama, it is the moment of self-discovery for the protagonist of the story which is so essential to the turning point after which the plot moves rapidly towards denouement.
Aristotle defines it as "A change by which the action veers round to its opposite, subject always to our rule of probability or necessity."
★ This violent twist of fortune from good to bad is deeply crucial to the plot of a tragedy. He further explains that a complex tragic plot is mainly accompanied by two salient features peripeteia (reversal), and anagnorisis (recognition) which provide the elements of surprise, fear, and catastrophe to the drama. According to his thesis, tragedy should evoke the feelings of fear and pity among the audiences. Hence peripeteia genre brings forth terror and mercy and sparks attention from the audience.

★ The main protagonist in the story also changes with the sudden twist, a character that has been good in the beginning would turn bad when he discovers some sinister secret about himself which leads to an interesting twist in his fate and ending. Aristotle always stated that the tragic characters must be real so that the audience could relate to them and their emotions.

★ Hence peripeteia is necessary in order to maintain the complexity of the story by throwing in the surprise element for the audience, and turning the hero of the story into an immortal tragic character.
Greek mythology
★ Aristotle considers the 430 B.C. legendary tragic drama of King Oedipus as a classic tale of a tragic hero laced with the perfect elements of peripeteia. Known as Oedipus Rex in the literary circles, it was written by the ancient Greek tragedian Sophocles. The story begins with the kingdom of Thebes being stuck by a plague, and King Oedipus sends out Creon - the brother of his wife, Jocasta to the oracles of Apollo to find out the cause of the deadly sickness. The oracle sends message that the people are enduring the curse of King Laius being murdered, and the murderer needs to be caught in order to cease the pestilence.
Ancient bust of Sophocles
With these turn of events, King Oedipus consults a blind seer, Teiresias who proclaims that according to an ancient prediction Oedipus will kill his father and marry his mother thus revealing that he is the actual murderer and also the husband of his mother. King Laius and Queen Jocasta knew about the prediction and Laius abandons Oedipus in order to escape the fate of being killed by his son, but Oedipus is rescued by a shepherd and survives to become the King of Thebes. Enraged, King Oedipus blames the seer to be involved with Creon in a conspiracy to overthrow him. Later during his investigation he finds out through a shepherd that he is the adopted son of the King Polybus of Thebes and his wife (this revelation is the turning point of the play). Jocasta after hearing this news is horrified that her husband was murdered by her real son and commits suicide by hanging herself. King Oedipus plucks out his own eyes to make himself blind as a punishment, and goes into exile thus ending the plague.
Portrait of William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare
★ Shakespeare's plays always carry the great paradoxes of life and end up in tragedies. In Othello's Act 3, Iago poisons Othello's mind against Desdemona's dishonesty. Othello is filled with the thoughts of revenge, and doubts Desdemona's virtuous character. Ultimately his mistrust, pride, jealously, and insecurities all lead to his catastrophic downfall.
William Shakespeare - Othello's life story
William Shakespeare - Othello's life story
The Macbeth
Macbeth is another tale filled with cataclysm. After his initial victory and being named the thane of Cawdor by the prophesies of the witches, Macbeth falls prey to the greed of power and calls upon himself innumerable destruction. He orders the killings of his companion, Banquo and his son Fleance fearing that the second prophesy by the witches will come true and Banquo's heirs will seize the throne. Banquo is murdered but his son escapes (twist in the tale), thus sealing his own fate through the treacheries that he committed.
Shakespeare - Hamlet
Shakespeare - Hamlet
★ In Hamlet, peripeteia is present throughout the play and lies in the fact that Hamlet is already a tortured tragic hero who knows his outcome will be death. He is filled with feelings of remorse and revenge towards his father's murder, and the death of his mother further intensifies his sufferings. He is portrayed frequently debating between death and the miseries of life and his frugal existence amidst them.
Hercules freeing Prometheus
Hercules freeing Prometheus
Prometheus Bound written by Aeschylus around 415 B.C. is another classic ancient Greek tragedy. Prometheus, the Titan God is punished by Zeus for bringing fire to mankind out of compassion. The reversal of events occur when Prometheus the God suffers punishment for his noble act, even though being deemed as the creator of mankind by myths and legends. His punishment catalysts his fall.
Aeschylus bust
Tragedy portrays the ruin of a noble protagonist, usually through combinations of haughtiness, destiny, and the will of the gods. Peripeteia induces these elements and brings about a cruel twist of fate that fills such tragic tales with the essence of condolence, fear, and catharsis.