Read the PDF attached “A Concise Introduction to Mimesis” and after you have read the PDF write a reflection response (a full complete paragraph or two – of at least 250 words) to the following:
Think of a movie or play/theatre production that you really like and discuss how Mimesis is important making the film or play/theatre production work. How does the idea of imitation make the realness of the story more impactful?
In your answer address specific examples from your choice of film/play.
Try to avoid general interest comments but instead, try to speak to something very specific in the article that meant something to you.
Your reflection response should be at least 250 words. If the response is less than 250 words, points will be deducted for it being an incomplete response.
Mimesis is a crucial concept in the study of art and literature because it
concerns what many people view as the fundamental relationship
between art and the world: the idea that art holds, or should hold,
“a mirror up to nature” – whether the inner world or the outer – or
else creates a fictional world analogous to the real one.
The concept is, however, deceptively difficult. One reason is that
the word, from ancient Greek, has no satisfactory translation into
modern languages. It is usually translated as ‘imitation’, but some
scholars prefer ‘representation’ or sometimes ‘expression’, and
the word encompasses copying, impersonation, emulation, and
mimicry as well. Many scholars today prefer to use the word ‘mimesis’
itself rather than try for an approximate translation. Always, however,
it involves some sense of similarity. Because of the concept’s
broad scope and numerous implications, it is also used in
philosophy, physiology, anthropology, feminist theory, and other
fields outside the arts, bringing further complications and
alternatives in the term’s meaning.
Another source of difficulty is that art can ‘imitate’ or ‘represent’
so many different things, such as objects, behaviour, social
conditions, social identities, characters’ thoughts and feelings,
the author’s thoughts and feelings, previous writers, and so on.
Likewise, there are numerous aspects of the things that one can
portray. For example, a painting might attempt to depict someone’s
physical appearance as accurately as possible, their significance
in society, the artist’s personal reaction, and so forth. Historically,
views on what objects and aspects mimetic art should portray have
changed, but the older views may continue even as new ones arise.
A Concise Introduction to:
Last update: 06/02/2019
There are also differing views on whether mimesis is something people
consciously produce, an artistic process, a perception or response to
the art, or the result of a common nature that two objects share. Two
important – but not always explicit – controversies concern the
relationship between mimesis and truth,however defined, and
whether the effects of mimesis on its audience are harmful or
The ancient Greek philosopher Plato (c.427-c.347 BCE) was the first to
define art as fundamentally mimetic. The connection he created between
mimesis and art has dominated aesthetic theory to the present day. His
book The Republic (381 BC) had the greatest effect on aesthetics, and
contains some specific attacks on theatre. Having defined art as mimetic,
Plato criticised art – and especially theatre – on two major counts. The
first involved the relationship between mimesis and truth. For Plato, true
reality consisted of abstract forms, such as the general form or shape of a
bed. A carpenter can make a particular embodiment of this abstract form
by building a physical bed one can actually sleep in. But its particularity
puts it one remove from the true reality: the form. A painter, Plato
continues, creates merely an appearance of a physical bed, a mimesis:
the painting is at another remove from the truth. Likewise, an actor
playing a king is at two removes from the true nature of a king – and
similarly, two removes even from knowledge of it. Mimesis, then, is a
triviality that distracts us from truth.
Plato’s second line of criticism concerns the effects that mimesis has on
its audience. When an actor portrays someone grieving, the audience
responds mimetically by grieving itself. Thus, the spectators are dragged
away from the behaviour which is best for the soul – in this example, stoic
reserve in public spaces. Generalising this point, art and especially
theatre feed the poorest, least rational part of the soul of the audience,
fostering an evil that enjoys watching shameful or immoral actions.
Because of these deleterious results, Plato argues, a city intending to
form the best people would ban artists and playwrights from its midst.
In other works, Plato assessed mimesis with more intricacy and
sometimes appreciation, and there are points of ambivalence,
contradiction, conjecture, and even satire in The Republic itself.
Nevertheless, the fundamental claims in The Republic have been
debated and often assumed ever since: that art, particularly theatre, is
mimetic; that mimesis should be understood in relation to truth and reality
as in some manner ‘true’ or ‘false’; and that the mimesis has a profound
(perhaps mimetic) influence on its audience, with possible psychological,
ethical and political consequences.
Plato’s student Aristotle (384-322 BCE) viewed mimesis quite differently
from his mentor. In The Poetics (c. 335 BCE), much of which is about
Greek tragedy, Aristotle agreed that art is mimetic, has a connection with
truth and reality, and can provoke strong audience response. But far from
being harmful, mimesis is a natural human activity that is both necessary
for learning and pleasurable.
The mimetic nature of drama shapes plot and character construction,
Aristotle maintained. The imitation of the actions of noble people led to
serious plays (tragedy), while the low-born carry out more lowly and
ridiculous activities, leading to comedy. However, plays do not present
things that happened (which would be history): instead, their mimesis
concerns things that can happen, if they follow a necessary or probable
chain of events. He took a broad view of dramatic logic, encompassing
chance occurrences that feel necessary or suitable (such as poetic
justice, in which, say, a murderer is killed when a statue of his victim falls
on him). Plausibility is foremost to him: it is better to have events that are
impossible but plausible than possible but implausible. Likewise,
characters should act in a manner that is necessary or plausible for a
person of that type. The best plots evoke fear and pity for the characters
– emotions that might not be enjoyable in ordinary circumstances, but are
part of the pleasure we take in dramatic mimesis and, far from harmful,
are generally beneficial.
The importance of plausibility in Aristotle’s argument shows that his
concept of mimesis was markedly unlike Plato’s. Plato viewed mimesis as
a relationship between an artwork and external reality, and so it could be
judged true or false. Aristotle, in contrast, saw mimesis as the
representation of an imagined world that should be internally coherent
and lifelike, imitating the way we understand things.
In ancient Rome, another sense of mimesis came to the forefront:
emulation. The Greek dramatists were understood as having tapped
important elements of human nature, so they were a source of inspiration
and a model which the Romans pursued by writing similar plays. As later
Romans slowly extended their role models to earlier Roman authors, and
medieval and Renaissance writers looked toward antiquity, a tradition
emerged. At the same time, among some authors there arose a sense of
rivalry with their forebears and a desire to improve upon the past, and
with it, to improve human nature itself. One can see mimesis as literary
emulation in the works of the ancient Roman playwrights Plautus,
Terence and Seneca, who looked back to the Greeks.
After the fall of the Rome Empire (476 CE), there was virtually no theatre
(and relatively little literary writing) in Europe for centuries. The concept of
artistic mimesis was largely unknown. However, a religious sense of
mimesis arose within Christianity, adopting on one hand the idea of the
‘imitation of Christ’, and on the other the concept that the world was full
of meanings revealed by similar appearances, symbolic connections, and
supposed ‘sympathies’ or common natures among things, events and/or
texts. When theatre re-emerged in the 14th century, this form of mimesis
was particularly evident in Biblical drama. On the continent, the plays
focused only on the end of Jesus’s life, so came closest to mimesis as the
‘imitation of Christ’. In England, where episodes were selected from the
entire Bible, scenes often incorporated religiously based similarities or
symbolism. For instance, in York play cycle, Noah’s ark symbolised the
Catholic Church, and the killing of Abel could prefigure the killing of
Jesus. Another York play provides an example of objects acting in
‘sympathy’, when banners bow before Jesus despite the efforts of the
men holding them. However, much medieval theatre utilised non-mimetic
types of representation.
The Renaissance was a transitional period for mimetic theory. Religious
mimesis faded. In contrast, the tradition of emulating Roman writing,
which never completely disappeared, resurged. However, drama’s
mimetic content began a shift toward representing larger social or public
matters, often touching on current affairs, as suggested by the rise of
history plays, tragedies attentive to power structures or following court
intrigues, farces about merchants and professionals (especially lawyers
and doctors), and the genre of ‘city comedies’ (see, for example, the entry
on Ben Jonson (1572-1637). Social stratification was a general keynote.
Yet simultaneously, an important new interest in individuality and self-
representation emerged. Allegorical characters were traded for (or
became submerged within) more complex, psychologically driven figures
like Hamlet and Rosalind, or replaced by social stereotypes such as fops.
The idea that “all the world’s a stage”, which had an ancient pedigree,
took on a new life as the social world came on stage.
The Renaissance also saw an intense re-ignition of anti-theatrical feeling.
Although the objections were often couched in religious terms, the basic
criticism was the same as Plato’s: acting was inherently false and
unnatural, and people were likely to imitate what they saw on stage.
Therefore, theatre was a corrupting influence.
During the same period came a major change in dramatic theory.
Aristotle’s Poetics was almost unknown in the West until the mid 15th
century, when printing made it available. By the late 16th century,
European scholars’ desire to emulate the classics led them to transform
Aristotle’s largely descriptive and inductive account of Greek tragedy into
a set of dogmatic rules prescribing how drama must meet tragedy’s
mimetic requirements, injecting provisions that had little or no basis in the
Poetics . Aristotle’s view that mimesis involved necessity or
probability was made the lynchpin of an argument purporting that
an audience member could observe only a single activity during a
single time in a single place (the ‘unities’ of action, time, and place).
Some playwrights sought to obey these rules, while others shrugged
them off (and in England, few writers even knew of the rules). But in
France during the 17th century, the unities became official doctrine,
backed by the king himself. The academicians thereby turned dramatic
mimesis into a matter of following the neoclassical rules at least as much
as portraying an action. It wasn’t unusual for playwrights to push the rules
to the limit, and some also took advantage of them by focusing tragedies
on a character’s acute psychological and emotional crisis. Given France’s
political and cultural power, within a few decades the rules regarding
playwriting spread throughout Europe, and continued to influence it for
Romanticism, which arose in the late 1700s, regarded artistic geniuses
and heroic figures as unique spirits motivated by inspiration, authenticity
and originality springing from nature itself. People should seek to return
to a state of nature, and break free from the shackles of society and
rationalism. Natural genius resided in the inner mind – it was inborn, not
taught. Artistically, originality was the absolute adversary of mimesis as
imitation (a narrow interpretation that has stayed with us). The individual
stood in opposition to all such conventions and traditions.
The playwrights rejected the Neoclassical rules, with their ostensibly
Aristotelian origins. Pursuing ideals or a spiritual nature beyond the
everyday world, Romanticism revived a Platonic concept of reality, and it
similarly opposed mimesis. At the same time, Romantic art remained
mimetic insofar as it sought to express or represent an imagined world
driven by the necessities and probabilities originating in the hero’s spirit.
The mid-1800s saw the blossoming of aesthetic realism in the modern
sense of lifelike appearance, occasionally encompassing portraits of the
social world (especially at first), but soon emphasising an individual’s
psychology and inner circumstances. Although realisms had appeared
earlier – in fact some sort of realism often seems implicit in mimesis –
generally they involved the representation of religious or social types,
each character must appear unique, even as they bear markers (such as
clothing) that indicate social position. The use of seemingly trivial details
is commonplace in modern realism (their use was infrequent until then),
but the lynchpin is individual personhood. In a sense, modern mimesis
combines the Platonic demand for accurate reflections of reality with
Aristotle’s self-contained artistic worlds driven by plausibility, both of
which are founded on the concept that mimesis must affirm or belie a
Modern realism transformed theatre and drama in numerous ways.
Several dramatic genres developed, such as social realism, naturalism
and psychological realism. Sets became three dimensional boxes with a
‘fourth wall’, actual doors, and real (often functioning) props. Actor
training methods devised by Konstantin Stanislavsky (1863-1938) and
others aimed to make the actor think in terms of the character’s personal
circumstances and goals.
Certain apparently non-realistic types of theatre operate from the same
assumption that the goal of mimesis is the individual psyche.
Expressionism, for example, sought to stage the protagonist’s extreme
emotional and psychic state. The stage design in memory plays and
similar dramas often suggests locations (for instance, through just a few
items of furniture) rather than depicts them. Both forms of theatre, despite
non-realistic staging, are within the ambit of psychological mimesis.
Following Plato, there has been a tendency to think all art and especially
theatre is fundamentally mimetic. Likewise, there has been a tendency to
believe that an important factor in evaluating art should be its character of
being in some way a true (or false) reflection of reality, or (per Aristotle) a
plausible or implausible fictional world. However, these assumptions are
generally based on an overly selective consideration of theatre history. In
classical Asian performance traditions, for instance, mimetic truth was
considered far less crucial. Even within the West, there have been several
periods when mimesis lost its importance.
One of the lengthiest such periods is the Middle Ages, when art’s primary
consideration was its religious and didactic value. Mimesis, such as the
‘imitation of Christ’, served those ends. Another type of drama in the
Middle Ages was even less mimetic: morality plays. These plays were
structured by allegory, where the emphasis is on symbolism rather than
similarity. The symbolic nature of the characters was declared bluntly by
names such as Everyman, Good Deeds, Pride, and Mercy. The allegorical
plot represented these characters’ moral and spiritual interrelationship in
a symbolic manner, rather than through an imitation of human actions.
Occasionally, mimesis has also been explicitly rejected. As noted above,
Romanticism opposed mimesis as a constraint on human nature.
Aestheticism, a movement of the late 19th and early 20th century, saw
beauty as foremost – evaluating art in terms of its relation to truth and
reality was unimportant, even pernicious. Throughout the 20th century,
theatre theorists and practitioners, including Antonin Artaud (1896-1948),
Vsevolod Meyerhold (1874-1940), and Jerzy Grotowski (1933-1999)
have either objected to mimesis or had little place for it (Bertolt Brecht
(1898-1956) was more ambivalent). Certain types of performance art
refuse mimesis as well, emphasising the real body and aiming to avoid
any hint of fictionality.
Scholars have also pointed out that mimetic ‘probability’ is culturally-
specific and bears ideological content. What one culture calls plausible
behaviour can be odd or incomprehensible to another. It can also be a
constraint on the less powerful within a society (often women and ethnic
minorities). In that case, they argue, one may be able to challenge cultural
norms by using parody, itself a mimetic form.
Historically, there has been far more discussion of mimesis in drama than
in performance. But theatrical performance – western or not – has often
had major non-mimetic elements. The Chorus in ancient Greek theatre
represents symbolically, not mimetically. If a character addresses the
audience directly (say, to make a local reference), or when in
Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot (1953), a character runs to
bathroom – not to a fictional bathroom, but the theatre’s real one – the
fictional world is ruptured in a non-mimetic fashion. Although some
scholars have argued that music (or at least some music) is a mimetic
representation of emotions, it might still be objected that the
replacement of speech with song in musicals stretches the notion of
plausibility rather far. Many other examples can be provided to
suggest that mimesis may have limited value for understanding
performance. However, mimesis is a supple concept, and there is no
reason one concept should cover every aspect or possibility of art.
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Halliwell, S. (2002). The Aesthetics of Mimesis: Ancient Texts and Modern
Problems. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
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Newworldencyclopedia.org. (2017). Mimesis – New World Encyclopedia.
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Potolsky, M. (2006). Mimesis. New York: Routledge.