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(Aristotle – Poetics, Brenda Laurel – Computers as Theatre, Shakespeare -Hamlet)

Human beings like to imitate. Imitation begins with the imitation of nature. Human beings also like to learn; to understand the outside world. These are the two motivations of poetry according to Aristotle. Poetry covers different modes of imitation, like tragedy, comedy, epic poetry, etc, which are also classified by their means, their objects, and their manners. The mean addresses the language, rhythm, and harmony; the objects are the character and thought of the imitation; and the manner is how imitation is represented. Some of the arts like flute playing only cover one of these features, whereas tragedy or comedy covers all three. Drama is the imitation of an action that has got wholeness; a unity with its six qualitative elements in itself: plot, character, thought, diction (language), melody, and spectacle (enactment). There are also quantitative elements of drama, which consists of prologue, episode, exode, and chorus.

In Aristotle’s argument in explaining the qualitative elements in drama, the most important element is the plot. A plot is a combination of incidents having a beginning, middle, and an end, which should not be either too short or too long. It should have a magnitude and a unity in itself. The unity of plot means unity of action: a play can cover several incidents, but these incidents all work toward one whole action. The characters come second for Aristotle. The thought comes in third, which refers to what the characters can express in their specific circumstances. The fourth element is the language of the personages, which is the expression of their thoughts in words. As for the two remaining elements, the melody is the pattern of the words, whereas the spectacle consists of what the audience sees on the stage.

According to Brenda Laurel, Aristotle’s Poetics is powerful in its robustness of classifying drama and in its disciplined way of designing and debugging activities. She makes a design inquiry by choosing dramatic theory as a path to approach human computer activity and its design experience. Laurel’s argument begins by giving a picture of the interface design as a determinate situation. She classifies two emerging themes: direct manipulation (Shneiderman) and direct engagement (Norman). Both themes put emphasis on action and the activity as a whole, which refers back to another medium that has the same emphasis: drama. In this way, Laurel unfolds drama with Poetics.

Having given the ground for the argument by explaining and comparing theatre and human computer interactivity, Laurel further suggests design principles for human computer activity based on Aristotle’s six elements. Similar to Aristotle, she insists on the priority of designing actions rather than specific objects, environments, or characters. Designing action should consider the possibilities, probabilities, and necessities that are borrowed from the dramatic theory. Playwrights construct the series of incidents beginning with possibilities; reduce them to probabilities, and finally reaching the closure with the necessities, which points out the climax of the play. In design context, designers can design the probabilities and possibilities, and they can foresee the necessities emerging from those possibilities. But unlike drama, in a design activity there are more than one necessity; so the climax.

Brenda Laurel brings another methodology from dramatic theory to iterate design activity: the anatomy of drama. She suggests a two axes (complication and time) chart to analyze the development of the play. According to the contemporary analysis, there is the “exposition”, where the plot and characters are introduced, the “inciting incident” where the central action of the play is constructed, the “rising action” where the action and the characters develop, the “crisis” where the probability of action is heightened, the “climax” where the action turns to be a necessity, and the “falling actions” and “dénouement” where everything returns to normal conditions. Laurel also applies the same analysis to a calculation activity in which she sees a dramatic quality, where Hamlet draws interest as one of the most dramatic pieces of all times. I try to analyze Hamlet based on Laurel’s anatomy. (Fig 1.0)

Hamlet, prince of Denmark, is quite a tragedy as a play in the Aristotelian sense. As Aristotle puts in Poetics, the good man (Hamlet) continues to be good, whereas the bad man continues to be bad till the end of the play. His definition of tragedy includes a sense of pity and fear in itself, which we find intertwined successfully with the dead king and his unfortunate son, who in the end loses everything but his virtue. A plot that consists of incidents can be enriched by ‘discovery’ and ‘peripety’. Aristotle defined ‘discovery’ as the change from ignorance to knowledge, and ‘peripety’ as the change of a condition to its opposite. Hamlet’s discovery of his father’s murder is the key discovery in the play, from which Shakespeare constructed his whole action.

Aristotle insists on the definition of tragedy as an imitation of action and life, but not the persons. He states that a tragedy can be without character but can never be without action, since the character is only the agent for the sake of action. A good example of Aristotle’s understanding is the character Hamlet, who plays several (persona) characters for action: prince of Denmark, son of the queen, son of an unfortunate dead king, lover of Ophelia, a mad prince, and a reliable friend of Horatio. This is what Ervin Goffman puts on the table in ‘Presentation of Self in Everyday life’. He says that we consist of our personas in our daily lives, and we adjust them according to the different situations we experience. Here among Hamlet’s personas, the most powerful one is the ‘son of an unfortunate king’. The whole play is driven by this persona in which later on he iterates the ‘mad prince’ persona out of. From beginning to end, the unfortunate son persona represents another interpretation of character: character as a virtue; making choices with his own will for the sake of good.

Hamlet’s choice of love is a wicked one. The persona shift from the prince to the mad man was the first choice of action that affected his love, and his conversation with Ophelia was the second one. Hamlet decides to ignore Ophelia due to his action in ‘taking revenge for my father’. Horatio stands in an interesting point here, who Hamlet, with a naïve approach, chooses instead of Ophelia. In this sense, Hamlet chooses ‘friendship’ over ‘Eros’ to help his main action. His preference refers back to Aristotle’s perfect friendship definition in Ethics. This means of mutuality of the relations suggests equality in the play rather than a superiority-inferiority relation. The last highlight from Shakespeare is the sharp acceleration he gives to the play with his “play in the play”. Hamlet’s plan to understand the truth expresses Shakespeare’s insights on drama; he suggested the players to suit the action to the word and the word to action. This again rephrases what Aristotle meant by drama’s definition.

To sum up, Aristotle categorizes drama by its qualitative and quantitative elements. He repeatedly emphasizes the definition of tragedy as an imitation of action. His second emphasis is the importance of the plot, and so the incidents. A perfect play is a complex of incidents that form a unity in itself. The supportive elements to plot are the character, thought, language, melody and enactment. We find reverberation of Poetics in two different interpretations: one is a design inquiry by Brenda Laurel, and the other a play by Shakespeare. Brenda Laurel’s interpretation perceives Poetics as a framework for her inquiry, whereas Shakespeare’s approach is more likely an application of Poetics. Brenda Laurel’s ‘Computers as Theatre’ analyses the dramatic theory as Poetics suggested, finds peculiarities and similarities with human computer activity, and then develops design principles based on these peculiarities. The main find is the designing for action, which is a unity. We see a similar holistic approach in Shakespeare, where Hamlet, from beginning to end, makes the act of ‘taking revenge of his father’s murder’, and all the incidents shape around this motivation. We read a fabulous play-in-the-play episode. It is like Shakespeare’s backyard that gives his insights on drama and in the mean time increases the tension in the play. Shakespeare creates a complex character work in Hamlet, which amalgamates character, action, and love.