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The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations

The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations is a descriptive list which was created by Georges Polti to categorize every dramatic situation that might occur in a story or performance. To do this Polti analyzed classical Greek texts, plus classical and contemporaneous French works. He also analyzed a handful of non-French authors. In his introduction, Polti claims to be continuing the work of Carlo Gozzi, who also identified 36 situations.

“Gozzi maintained that there can be but thirty-six tragic situations. Schiller took great pains to find more, but he was unable to find even so many as Gozzi.”

This list was published in a book of the same name, which contains extended explanations and examples. The original French-language book was written in the 19th century. An English translation was published in 1916 and continues to be reprinted to this day.

The list is popularized as an aid for writers, but it is also used by dramatists, storytellers and many others. Other similar lists have since been made.

Each situation is stated, then followed by the necessary elements for each situation and a brief description.

  • a persecutor; a ; a power in authority, whose decision is doubtful.
  • The suppliant appeals to the power in authority for deliverance from the persecutor.
  • an unfortunate; a threatener; a rescuer
  • The unfortunate has caused a conflict, and the threatener is to carry out justice, but the rescuer saves the unfortunate. Example: Ifigenia in Tauride
  • a criminal; an avenger
  • The criminal commits a crime that will not see justice, so the avenger seeks justice by punishing the criminal. Example: The Count of Monte Cristo
  • Guilty Kinsman; an Avenging Kinsman; remembrance of the Victim, a relative of both.
  • Two entities, the Guilty and the Avenging Kinsmen, are put into conflict over wrongdoing to the Victim, who is allied to both. Example: Hamlet
  • punishment; a fugitive
  • the fugitive flees punishment for a misunderstood conflict. Example: Les Misérables
  • a vanquished power; a victorious enemy or a messenger
  • The vanquished power falls from their place after being defeated by the victorious enemy or being informed of such a defeat by the messenger. Example: Agamemnon (play)
  • an unfortunate; a master or a misfortune
  • The unfortunate suffers from misfortune and/or at the hands of the master. Example: Job (biblical figure)
  • a tyrant; a conspirator
  • The tyrant, a cruel power, is plotted against by the conspirator. Example: Julius Caesar (play)
  • a bold leader; an object; an adversary
  • The bold leader takes the object from the adversary by overpowering the adversary. Example: Queste del Saint Graal
  • an abductor; the abducted; a guardian
  • The abductor takes the abducted from the guardian. Example: Helen of Troy
  • a problem; an interrogator; a seeker
  • The interrogator poses a problem to the seeker and gives a seeker better ability to reach the seeker's goals. Example: Oedipus and the Sphinx
  • (a Solicitor & an adversary who is refusing) or (an arbitrator & opposing parties)
  • The solicitor is at odds with the adversary who refuses to give the solicitor an object in the possession of the adversary, or an arbitrator decides who gets the object desired by opposing parties (the solicitor and the adversary). Example: Apple of Discord
  • a Kinsman; a Hated or a reciprocally-hating Kinsman
  • The Malevolent Kinsman and the Hated or a second Malevolent Kinsman conspire together. Example: As You Like It
  • the Preferred Kinsman; the Kinsman; the Object of Rivalry
  • The Object of Rivalry chooses the Preferred Kinsman over the Rejected Kinsman. Example: Wuthering Heights
  • a Madman; a Victim
  • The Madman goes insane and wrongs the Victim.
  • the Imprudent; a Victim or an Object Lost
  • The Imprudent, by neglect or ignorance, loses the Object Lost or wrongs the Victim.
  • a Lover; a Beloved; a
  • The Lover and the Beloved have unknowningly broken a taboo through their romantic relationship, and the Revealer reveals this to them Example: Oedipus, Jocasta and the messenger from Corinth.
  • the Slayer; an Unrecognized Victim
  • The Slayer kills the Unrecognized Victim. Example: Oedipus and Laius
  • a Hero; an Ideal; a Creditor or a Person/Thing sacrificed
  • The Hero sacrifices the Person or Thing for their Ideal, which is then taken by the Creditor.
  • a Hero; a Kinsman; a Creditor or a Person/Thing sacrificed
  • The Hero sacrifices a Person or Thing for their Kinsman, which is then taken by the Creditor.
  • a Lover; an Object of fatal Passion; the Person/Thing sacrificed
  • A Lover sacrifices a Person or Thing for the Object of their Passion, which is then lost forever.
  • a Hero; a Beloved Victim; the Necessity for the Sacrifice
  • The Hero wrongs the Beloved Victim because of the Necessity for their Sacrifice.
  • a Superior Rival; an Rival; the Object of Rivalry
  • A Superior Rival bests an Inferior Rival and wins the Object of Rivalry.
  • two Adulterers; a Deceived Spouse
  • Two Adulterers conspire against the Deceived Spouse.
  • a Lover; the Beloved
  • A Lover and the Beloved break a taboo by initiating a romantic relationship Example: Sigmund and his sister in The Valkyrie
  • a Discoverer; the Guilty One
  • The Discoverer discovers the wrongdoing committed by the Guilty One.
  • two Lovers; an Obstacle
  • Two Lovers face an Obstacle together. Example: Romeo and Juliet
  • a Lover; the Beloved Enemy; the Hater
  • The allied Lover and Hater have diametrically opposed attitudes towards the Beloved Enemy.
  • an Ambitious Person; a Thing Coveted; an Adversary
  • The Ambitious Person seeks the Thing Coveted and is opposed by the Adversary. Example: Macbeth
  • a Mortal; an Immortal
  • The Mortal and the Immortal enter a conflict.
  • a Jealous One; an Object of whose Possession He is Jealous; a Supposed Accomplice; a Cause or an Author of the Mistake
  • The Jealous One falls victim to the Cause or the Author of the Mistake and becomes jealous of the Object and becomes conflicted with the Supposed Accomplice.
  • a Mistaken One; a Victim of the Mistake; a Cause or Author of the Mistake; the Guilty One
  • The Mistaken One falls victim to the Cause or the Author of the Mistake and passes judgment against the Victim of the Mistake when it should be passed against the Guilty One instead.
  • a Culprit; a Victim or the Sin; an Interrogator
  • The Culprit wrongs the Victim or commits the Sin, and is at odds with the Interrogator who seeks to understand the situation.
  • a ; the One Found
  • The Seeker finds the One Found.
  • a Kinsman ; a Kinsman Spectator; an Executioner
  • The killing of the Kinsman Slain by the Executioner is witnessed by the Kinsman


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