Peripeteia

oedipus rex

Peripeteia [per-uh-pi-tee-uh] is a reversal of circumstances, or turning point. The term is primarily used with reference to works of literature. The English form of peripeteia is peripety. Peripety is a sudden reversal dependent on intellect and logic. 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’…’

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’ (‘discovery’), a distinction derived from Aristotle’s work. Aristotle considered anagnorisis, leading to peripeteia, the mark of a superior tragedy. One such play is ‘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. That plot is 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.

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