History vs. Poetry

“The true difference is that one relates what has happened, the other what may happen. Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular. By the universal I mean how a person of a certain type on occasion speak or act, according to the law of probability or necessity” (35).

Here Aristotle begins to define the difference between history and poetry. He makes some clear distinctions straightaway. First off, history, “relates what has happened” as opposed to poetry which discusses “what may happen” (35). History addresses that of the particular, it is way of cataloguing our past. Poetry, to Aristotle, then is, “more philosophical and a higher thing” (35). Poetry therefore is meant to be “universal” (35) it is supposed to be something that everyone can relate to.

Poetry is an everyman’s medium, a way to access the hearts of millions. It holds in it themes that apply to audiences of every race, creed, background. Poetry speaks of universal emotions, those things most base (not necessarily base in a negative way…) that everyone holds in there heart. I think that a good example would be looking at words that can be found in every language, words that are universal such as “love” or “hate”. Every culture has a definition of what these mean, those affections which are almost instinctual to us. On the other hand, there are not always translations of for e.g., an event which is specific either historically or culturally relevant to a country. From personal experience I can say that most of my friends have no idea about certain polish historical events, those have simply been irrelevant to their growing up in the US. The same goes for any traditions that I might bring to our apartment, nobody knows that on Smingus Dyngus, the Monday after Easter, you are supposed to splash buckets of water on each other! But all of my roommates recognize what I am doing when I end a phone call to my mom saying “kocham cie!” (I love you!). These emotions are universal, things that transcend any of our cultural or background differences.

How does Aristotle’s difference between history and poetry relate to Shakespeare? Of course it would be difficult to argue that the playwright wrote his plays to stand in as historical narratives of the time. However, many of the plays do have some basis and background story, or at least allusions, to the ruling monarch in England at that time period. (For example subtle references to James I in The Tempest, as well as Queen Elizabeth in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.) So as Aristotle points out even though these plays may be historically relevant to the Renaissance period, and even though their conventions are those of a different time they still speak to contemporary audiences. The setting may be outdated to our modern times but the emotions of love and betrayal, ambition and jealousy transcend time and pervade our every day lives. This, is exactly why Shakespeare is so relatable, even in his most “historical plays” such as Richard III though the plot may focus on the succession of leaders the real story lies in the motives and emotions of characters that stand the test of time.

*The source I used was Aristotle’s Theory of Poetry and Fine Art with critical notes and translated by S. H. Butcher.

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