Gladiator- After the First Viewing and Beyond

Following our first viewing of Gladiator, use the points below to make notes about key aspects of the film. Initially, you should make only brief notes about moments in the film that you will look more in-depth at in order to develop a response to these questions. Then, when we watch the film again, you should develop your responses further by collecting evidence and ideas from the text. Following this, you should sit down and organize all your information and ensure you have developed enough detail to use these notes during your close viewing assessment.

Each section is broken down according to Aristotle’s theory about tragedy. They are ordered so the elements he considers to be of the utmost importance are first and the ones he believed as necessary but not as vital are last.

The Plot

“The Unity of a Plot does not consist, as some suppose, in its having one man as its subject. An infinity of things befall that one man, some of which it is impossible to reduce to unity; and in like manner there are many actions of one man which cannot be made to form one action. . . . The truth is that, just as in the other imitative arts one imitation is always of one thing, so in poetry the story, as an imitation of action, must represent one action, a complete whole, with its several incidents so closely connected that the transposal or withdrawal of any one of them will disjoin and dislocate the whole. For that which makes no perceptible difference by its presence or absence is no real part of the whole.”- Aristotle, ‘Poetics’

Aristotle believed that the plot was the single most important element in a tragedy. The above extract from Poetics essentially says that the tragedy can have a multitude of characters and events but the key is that each event must unite to create a single storyline.

Consider the plot of Gladiator and respond to the following question:

Do you believe that the plot of the film adheres to Aristotle’s rule? Justify your response with evidence from the text. 


You may be familiar with the plot diagram below. It depicts the “ideal” pattern a plot in a tragedy would follow.

The climax is not always the ‘height of the tension and action’ but rather it is the point in the text where things begin to change for the protagonist. In a tragedy, it is when things seem to begin to work out for the hero again. The ‘final moment of suspense’ is an important element to note. Often, this is a final moment in the text where things actually seem like they might work out for the hero and they might avoid their fate. Both the climax and the ‘final moment of suspense’ have a key role in creating a cathartic experience for the viewer. Despite everything we know about tragedy, we still have this deeply rooted urge to see the hero overcome their fate and live to tell another story. These two elements feed this urge and make us believe that it will happen. Then, our hopes are crushed and, as in all tragedy’s, our hero’s fate brings about catharsis, made even more potent by the aforementioned climax and ‘final moment of suspense’.

Note down the climax and the ‘final moment of suspense’ in Gladiator. 


The Characters

The Tragic Hero: Maximus displays the traits of a tragic hero. Consider the moments where he shows his:

  • Hamartia
  • Peripeteia
  • Anagnorisis
  • Hubris
  • Nemesis

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I believe that our class experienced catharsis in a much stronger way with Maximus than we did with Lear.

Write up your thoughts on why this was and some of the methods the director (Ridley Scott) used to achieve this feeling.

Someone mentioned in class on Friday that they felt Commodus (the young emperor) is like a ‘tragic villain’. I am interested to know where you think this concept as it was not coined by Aristotle but has become an accepted figure in literature who “is a character, usually an antagonist that does not truly intend to be a villain. They are perhaps misled or not entirely in control of their feelings and/or actions or pursuing morally ambiguous logic. This archetype originates as an antithesis to the more classic tragic hero of Aristotelian tragedy which continued into use as a basis for Shakespearean plays. In modern comic books and graphic novels, the character is sometimes referred to as a sympathetic villain.” (World Reference Forum)

When we think about our villains in King Lear (Edmund, Goneril, Regan), what similarities can you draw between them and Commodus? What are their motives? Any particular actions or language that they do/say that are similar?


The Thoughts (Ideas)

“Today I saw a slave become more powerful than the emperor of Rome.”

The following ideas are presented to us in Gladiator. Consider how Ridley Scott develops these ideas (how does he ensure we know they are present in the text).

The Destruction of the Natural Order

The Power of the Gods


The Melody and Spectacle

“Win the crowd and you’ll win your freedom.”

In a film, just like in a play, you have to accept that we take in a lot of information about the ideas, characters and plot through what we see and hear. Aristotle believed that the melody (soundscape) and spectacle (visual features) were the least important elements of a tragedy. He did accept that without them, the other elements such as plot and character, would not have as much impact or be nearly as interesting. While you will write about things such as music, camera shots and props as you take notes on the above areas, it is important to note that there are a couple of very strong symbols in this film that were also presented in King Lear. 

Reflect on the meaning and importance of the following things presented to use through the melody and spectacle of Gladiator: 

The storm

– Animals

– Names and Nobody


Posted by Renee Plunkett

Teacher of English at Mount Aspiring College, Wanaka, New Zealand.

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